This is a story about designing my life, but it’s also an instruction manual on how anyone can use principles of experience design to uncover their passions and create an environment where they get to spend more time focusing on the people and things that are important to them.
I graduated from UNLV with a degree in metal sculpture. Realizing I had to make some sort of living, I started exploring web design, which at the time was a pretty exciting new realm. I taught myself Photoshop and learned to code using BBEdit while working part time as an assistant production manager for a small film and video shop in the San Francisco Bay area. That job actually presented my first career experience in following my heart, rather than doing the thing that seemed economically sensible. I could stay on and grow the role of an office manager, but there was no real need for a designer. I loved the people I worked with and I really liked the work, but my passion for web design had me hooked, and I had to follow that path. It was a path that grew like wild-fire. After a few years in the Bay Area and the onset of the dot.com economic downturn, I found myself back at UNLV. I worked my day job as UNLV’s senior web designer, taught on the side, and took on freelance work designing and building websites. Everything I did fed my hunger to learn more and become a better web designer.
As my career was taking off, my mom unexpectedly passed away. My mom, sister and I were as close as a mom and her two daughters could be. And I was never more grateful my career path had led me closer to home. At that time, I believe my work was what helped me keep moving.
I didn’t have kids then, and work was my salvation. Work was something I loved and could pour my focus and emotion into. In time I left UNLV, joined an interactive and animation shop called eatdrink, and after a couple years I became a partner there. Another economic downturn closed eatdrink, after which I joined Zappos, where I was able to play a big part in the overhaul of the look of their website then lead the front on their first mobile apps.
Two kids and a divorce later, my heart was ready to go back to a smaller scale environment. I left Zappos in 2011 to start my own consulting agency, work from home, and really just see if I could make a go of that. In an interesting twist of fate, I was recruited by app development firm, Black Pixel, who offered a full time, remote gig. It was perfect!
Over the 10 years that followed my mom’s passing, I became much, much closer with my dad. My dad had owned his own company before retirement and was always a cheerleader for what he believed was my infinite capability to do amazing things. When I lost him last April, it completely shook my world. Suddenly, work wasn’t something I could bury myself in to ease the sadness. Work I normally felt pretty good about somehow felt hollow. Instead of the salvation it had been for me in previous moments of pain, this time it felt more like a highlighter had been cast upon time, reminding me how short and precious it is.
While I eventually got my head back into the work space, everything had changed for me. By November, I was fast approaching burnout. I saw it coming, I communicated it, but like you do, I kept going. By January the burnout had pretty well set in. There were other factors involved—not only the loss of my dad, but also a few close co-workers moving on to new ventures and quite a few other layers of things stacked upon each other. I’d built my entire career up over time, layer upon layer over fifteen years to be where I was, and now suddenly none of it felt fulfilling. This was the first time ever in my life that the feeling of not loving what I do overwhelmed me enough that I started to imagine what else I might be good enough at in order to completely change directions and still be able to provide for my family. THAT was scary.
When some conversations about hiring a PR firm had come up at work, I thought, “I can do so much of this!” I got excited about the potential career pivot and immediately volunteered to shift my focus. The not-so-awesome side was that this shift was rejected, which was neither what I wanted to hear nor, more importantly, what I needed to hear. Although the no-go was due to a lot of factors the company was dealing with at the time and not an intentional slight, I now felt demotivated on top of the burnout. On the positive side, I had a list of career-shifting ideas I was fully excited about exploring. Now I had to figure out what could I do to make this happen with the skills I had, and a new direction that sounded appealing, despite it not being a fit for my current position.
As I started to prioritize my life in order of importance over what might be next, I realized that my fate was in my own hands. I didn’t need someone to say, “Yes, you are allowed to do this.” I just needed to help myself figure out how to get there. I decided to be patient and allow myself some time—not just jump out of a perfectly good airplane without thoughtful consideration. I figured, if I approached my life with the amount of care I invest into other people’s products, I just might be able to design my life into exactly what I want it to be.
Taking that angle, I plotted out a journey of designing my life starting with a four-phase cycle, similar to how I might approach a product design project. I am an experience designer after all… and what is life if not an experience?
Phase One: Discovery
In the project discovery phase, we immerse ourselves into the client’s project. We learn about the brand, the business objectives, the goals and the customers or “users” who are anticipated to use it. We established focal points, clarify objectives, design principles, identify roadblocks and align with bigger picture goals.
I spent a good deal of January thinking, making a list and evaluating the things most important to me in life, prioritizing those over “what’s next.” The outcome of that thinking became a list of personal Life-Design Principles.
My Life-Design Principles:
- Be the best mom I can be.
- Be the best girlfriend I can be.
- Become a better human being.
- Spend every possible breath with people I love, doing things I love.
- Create more space in my life.
- Write more. Write a LOT more.
- Contribute something positive to the world.
- If it seems scary, go for it.
At every crossroad of choice I make in life moving forward, I should be able to refer back to this list and ask myself, “Does this align with my design principles?”
I also identified my fears. I think fears are real and valid. Pretty much every fear I could identify that might be an inhibitor in designing my life revolved around financial security. I’m a fairly responsible saver, but I established that in order to follow my heart this time, it was going to require a leap of faith. To jump into an unknown without the security of a “job.” I am not a super wealthy person by any means. I have kids and a mortgage and all the bills and expenses that come with those things. Saving more and spending as little as possible became a big focus. I saved as much as I could in order to buy for myself the gift of time. Once I reached a place where I knew I would be OK, I gave myself a timeline and committed to it. I left my full time job in order to spend more time shaping my life and career around those design principles, and figuring out the rest along the way. With that, I kicked-off my life design project.
Phase Two: Design
Designers bring meaning, emotion and purpose to products. Then they edit and refine things down to the most basic version. They plot out the emotion, attitude and presence that a product must have in order to connect with their end user.
For my goal of designing my life, I elaborated on what each of the design principles mean to me personally. Then, I thought a lot about the skills I have built professionally that can help me support those priorities. I plotted out a 30-day sprint, complete with a daily schedule that I designed to help me over-reach on some of the things currently lacking, like fitness and dedicated writing time, more time with my kids and clearing my home of excess. I also responsibly addressed the rest of life’s demands. Time management is pretty key and it’s a constant work-in-progress.
A lot of design involves research and development. I identified aspirational role models that inspire me to become better in a broad range of ways. For me, these role models are Eleanor Roosevelt, Wonder Woman and Joan Jett. I completely acknowledge that these are lofty ideals, but the qualities that I admire about these ladies give me something to work incredibly hard toward. It doesn’t matter that one of them isn’t real. Something really amazing about them all is that they are independent, free thinking women!
Another piece of my design phase was to create a blog that I had to commit to sharing publicly. It was a terrifying thing for me to do but something I felt would create some sense of accountability and documentation of my journey and provide a huge amount of personal development.
Phase Three: Develop
Development for a tech project is typically the code. I often use the home-building analogy to explain what I do. I make the blueprints and frame the house, I work with designers who plan the interior space and developers who make everything work, like the electricity, plumbing, and any other “smart things” my home might need to do.
In designing my life, development is about engaging my own emotions: Empathy. Kindness. Developing as a human being. Continually cross-referencing daily decisions and todos back to those original design principles and asking if they’re aligned. When they’re not aligned, the task is to figure out how to either align it or get it out of my life. I’ve realized how much “stuff” I’ve accumulated over the 11 years I’ve lived in my home. Having this much stuff that doesn’t actually contribute to functional need or simplification is ill-aligned with my design principles. I’ve set aside 30 minutes every day for this 30 day sprint, dedicated to clearing. At the end of the 30 day sprint, I’ll see where I’m at and where I need to shift, and I’ll keep moving forward. Development in the design of life is practice. Putting all the plans and thinking into motion.
Phase Four: Iterate
In the User Experience realm, we throw a product into the market, we watch, succeed or fail quickly, learn and we try again. Like a product, iteration is key. In life, re-evaluation needs to happen. We change with age. Our circumstances change, our priorities change, we learn, live, love succeed and fail. We need to shift with the changes and not beat ourselves up if things don’t go according to plan all the time. Do the thing that is scary, even if it’s not perfect. This phase sends us right back to the start, and it never stops, but I find this exhilarating because it is all mine to determine.
I am learning constantly and readjusting. Every 30 days I have an appointment marked in my calendar to assess the previous 30 days, check my design principles, adjust my design plan and continue forward. Letting go of how things once were has been one of my biggest struggles. By assessing my design principles every six months or so, I can make sure the design strategy I apply is in check. Maybe the process will change over time but this is where it’s at now.
Loss of loved ones has definitely jarred me enough to really analyze my approach to life. The outcome of this approach has been crazy and magical, as I have applied the philosophy of design to my life with focus, passion and intent. The things that have unfolded have been beyond better than I could have planned for. I’ve taken on work I did not expect to have, opportunities aligned with my career-pivot have been popping up one after the other. I have an endless road of improvement and goal reaching ahead of me but I do not believe the outcome so far is by accident, I believe this is by design.
Jaimee Newberry is a mom, writer and speaker. She is also an independent Experience Design consultant + coach. Her work covers everything from helping Fortune 100 companies, agencies, and startups with the growth and development of their internal design teams, to helping companies plot out their web, mobile application and physical environment strategy and design.