How Being a Musician Made Me a Better Product Designer

design dev Jun 08, 2021

I still remember vividly how my first music class started: I was a 15-year-old girl whose sole experience until that moment constituted a couple of informal classes taught by a friend. With that meager background, I stepped into a room with guys taller and older than I was who had already been doing this for a long time. It felt like I didn't belong. After that day my fingers suffered countless times, and I ran into investments of all kinds I didn't know I had to make—but the results were worth it, and I discovered a new language that would forever change my life. Little did I know that it would impact my career many years down the road.

It took years of my career and an introspective moment to realize that being a musician in the first place taught me how to be a better Product Designer. I realize now that these two passions are connected in more ways than I thought possible.

Still with me? Let's make these worlds collide.

A Team Is Like a Band

Have you met show-off musicians? I certainly have, and during the first steps I took as a guitar player, it seemed to me that showing off was the only way for me to succeed . . . even though this was an attitude I didn't agree with at all.

In my first couple of classes, it was common to see people showing off their skills, but since I didn't have any musical skills to brag about, I sat down and listened, trying to learn from everyone in that room. Many classes and months later, I briefly joined a band, and that's when it started to click for me: in order for us to sound good as a band, I needed to listen to my bandmates and integrate my sound with theirs. Instead of trying to stand out, we had to be attentive to the key, our tempo and everything that was happening around us. Sound familiar?

Years later I joined a development team for the very first time, and it seemed oddly familiar to me: everyone had different skills, and some of them enjoyed showing off. But at the end of the day, in order to deliver, we had to work together as a team. Guess why? Because we needed each other to complement our own skills. From time to time I could have the spotlight with my designs, and it felt nice—similar to a solo—but at the end of the day, I had to learn to speak the language of my teammates to properly collaborate and become a high-performance team.

For the design and development teamwork in particular, I always like to reference what Dan Mall and Brad Frost call "The Hot Potato Process", to achieve a quick and iterative agile collaboration. Like any amazing band you enjoy, there's no room for egos if you want to succeed.

Welcome Feedback

For two years, Saturday morning was a highlight of my week because I was constantly learning a lot, and the key ingredient to all this learning was feedback. Every new scale, every new technique and every new song required feedback from my teacher and my classmates to improve my skills. Otherwise, I would get a bad grade during my next evaluation, but most importantly, I wouldn't grow . . . at least not at the pace I was aiming for.

When I started design classes at the university, I didn't know my work would be critiqued every week. It was uncomfortable at first to hear my classmates (with little to no design experience) voice their opinions on my designs. But I had to accept that dreaded moment and hope that whoever critiqued my work wouldn't be rude. As soon as I realized that my peers could help me identify areas of opportunity, I embraced it and requested objective feedback to keep learning.

This translated almost to a tee in my career. As a Product Designer, I receive design critiques, I often request a second pair of eyes to solve a tough problem and I participate in design reviews with clients and stakeholders. Your work will and should receive feedback to prevent tunnel vision. As long as you understand that feedback isn't personal and constructive criticism is valuable for the product, you'll grow and help others grow too.

Feedback in itself requires effective communication, which is something that has already been explored by several authors specifically for design:

Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth. -—Doc Rivers

Practice, Practice, Practice

There's no shortcut when it comes to design or music: you have to practice what you have learned to polish your skills.

Many would argue that some people are born with talent. I've received that comment countless times referring to my illustrations, but I always emphasize that what they are seeing now is the result of years of practice and anyone could learn to do it. Most of the time I get a laugh followed by a "that's impossible, my drawing skills are as good as a five-year-old’s." But if I showed you what my initial drawings looked like, you wouldn't be laughing . . . at least, not at yourself.

I wasn't joking about the power of practice: This is 8 years of level up, from 2012 to 2020

Practice in music looks like endless nights of repetitive exercises, developing muscle memory and calluses on your fingers. It would be easy to just give up at the first sign of getting tired or not being able to play the song you're dying to learn. If music were easy to master, then anyone could be a musician, and the same principle applies to Product Design.

Whenever someone asks me how to get started on design, regardless of the field, I'm honest with them: I tell them upfront that it may take years before they're truly proud of their work. But I always follow up with the encouragement that by practicing as often as possible, they'll get to the results they expect sooner. With that being said, it’s not only the act of practicing that matters but being intentional about the what and the why of your practice.

When we're just starting, we may be so excited that we end up practicing and learning every bit of information that crosses our path. But as we get better at multiple aspects of our craft, it’s recommended to start focusing on the disciplines we enjoy the most, which helps us to become a well-rounded, T-shaped designer.

Learning to Play by Ear

If you have practiced music in the past, you'll sympathize with me that learning to play by ear is anything but easy—especially when everyone around you seems to do it flawlessly, and you feel like you need to level up your game.

When I was just getting started, I dreaded the moments during class when I had to identify the bass inside the songs because I simply couldn't find it. Finding Waldo seemed like a piece of cake compared to that. It took me a while to learn that I had to focus and mentally "separate" the instruments in the songs to find the elusive sound of bass, but I finally did. Separating the sounds of each instrument helped me to overcome the challenge of taking full songs for which there wasn't any sheet music on the internet (now, I bet there is) and learning to play them completely by ear.

Having a problem-solving mindset is not that different. At the beginning of our careers, we rush to provide a solution right after the client has spoken during a kick-off meeting. We take each new piece of information as a clear path to producing a solution as soon as possible, sometimes even during the meeting itself. Been there, done that.

But what if we switch our approach, and instead of rushing to find the solution, we focus on listening carefully to ask the right questions? Methods like asking the four Ws and the five whys help us frame the real problem before jumping to conclusions that more often than not won't be informed enough.Take inspiration from the Double Diamond method: aim to design the right thing first and then design the thing right. Otherwise, we could end up wasting time and effort on making the elevator faster instead of making the wait feel shorter.

If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution. -- Albert Einstein

Embrace the Uncertainty and Learn to Improvise

If there was one thing that made me even more nervous than identifying the bass, it was improvisation. How is one ever prepared to hear the unknown spontaneous sounds of the band, find the perfect timing and play something that has never been heard before but by some miracle is perfect for the unwritten song?

I didn't exactly take a class on improv, and every time someone on the stage improvised, it seemed as if they had it all figured out. But what if I told you that's not the case—that they have no idea at the beginning of the song when they will take the spotlight and what the solo is going to sound like? Let's switch to Product Design, and I'll share my own experience with uncertainty.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every new project will be different from any other you have done in the past—not only the project but also the client, the team and the solution. There's no one-size-fits-all, and the only way for you to succeed in such ambiguity is to improvise, adapt and overcome. Regardless of the lack of predictability, these are three guidelines I have used in the past that can help you navigate unknown waters:

  1. Use past experiences to inform your decisions about methods, processes and solutions, making each new project with shared circumstances easier to solve than the previous one.
  2. Develop your creative intuition every day with references from real products, using them as inspiration the next time you need them, even if the industry or the platform is different from the one you're working with.
  3. Leveraging Vlad Georgescu's words, “Perfect is the enemy of something that actually ships,” don't be afraid of testing something that isn't perfect. Everything that you put in front of the users will provide you with valuable feedback to iterate and improve.

To dive a little bit further into the topic of ambiguity, Julie Zhuo recently shared a fantastic Twitter thread with practical steps to deal with uncertainty in Product Design. Her advice can help you to be intentional without getting overwhelmed.

Despite all the difficulties of the journey, a couple of years after I started learning music, all my efforts paid off, and I was able to improvise with my Strat on stage. It required the conjunction of longs periods of practice, a high amount of feedback, learning to play by ear, letting go of my fear of improvisation and most definitely blending the sound of my guitar with the rest of the band.

Music is a unique experience hard to put into words. It changed my life forever. Getting lost inside of many songs made me see everything in a new way. When I played a solo, I was never sure where it would lead me, but the end now reminds me of how it would feel during the release of the many products I've worked with: triumph.

And I wouldn't be doing the title justice if I didn't share one of my favorite movie scenes ever—one that perfectly describes the way I feel when I'm trying to solve a design problem way before it appears on a digital screen. Let's enjoy the uniqueness of the challenges ahead of us because the outcome will certainly be better than what we expect.

Laura Escobar

Passionate about stories, inspired by sci-fi and fueled with music. I solve complex time-sensitive puzzles for a living.