Rachel Wendte on How to Boost Learning Through Finding Your “Design Foil”

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Recently, 8th Light University had the pleasure of hosting UX designer Rachel Wendte. She taught both designers and developers alike how to boost learning through finding your foil.

The concept of a “character foil” comes from literature. In fiction, a “foil” is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight a certain quality of that character. Rachel reminded us that a foil is not necessarily the same as an antagonist. For example, one character who is forgiving, loving, and trusting might have these traits enhanced through interactions with a foil who is wary and suspicious of the world around them.

When it comes to being a designer, finding your foil means finding someone who has a developed skill set where you’re looking to improve. The ideal foil is someone who also wants to learn something from you. Someone who is strong is UX research and wants to improve their illustrations might work on a project with someone who is a strong visual designer and wants to get better at using research to inform their decisions.

At an organization like 8th Light, where employees cover a wide range of skills and interests, finding these types of matches is often a lot easier than it is to find the perfect foil out in the world. Thankfully, Rachel had great advice on how to ask someone to help you improve in your desired area of growth: The SOS method.

This is a structure Rachel created for herself when reaching out to friends, acquaintances, or even complete strangers to ask for help through email:

Specific: Be specific about what you want help with. Instead of writing “I want to be a better UX writer,” say: “I want to write more thorough case studies.” Making a big, broad statement about what you’re trying to improve in can make the requestee worry that if they agree, they’re going to be expected to sink a lot of time into helping you. Choose something specific that’s manageable for someone to help you with in their free time.

Optional: Make it clear you’re not expecting them to drop everything and help you immediately. People are busy. The person you’re writing may not be able to help you right now, but may have more free time later.

Short: Finally, keep it short! This goes back to people being busy.

In addition to the SOS method, Rachel advises giving a timeframe to meet or discuss the area you’re looking for help with. Don’t leave it too open ended. Saying “whenever you’re free” is harder to respond to than “at some point in the next two weeks.” Giving a specific time frame lets the person determine whether or not they truly have the time to allocate to you, and gets you closer to actually scheduling some time together.

Here’s an example of what the SOS method looks like:

Hi Anna,

I found your portfolio after seeing you speak at UX Camp, and I’m impressed with how you handled your case study about improving the UX of the Hopper app. Writing case studies is something I’m trying to get better at - especially when it comes to writing case studies that are thorough but still to the point. I’d love your guidance. Right now, I’m working on a case study about my work redoing the website of a suburban Parks and Rec Department. Would you have time to talk about it at some point over the next two weeks?

Best,

Eva

Rachel also gave some quality advice on how to help someone improve a skill set after agreeing to help them. It can be daunting to figure out how to help someone get better at, for example, making a good deck of slides, but Rachel outlined two methods for helping people make it a lot more manageable.

Method 1:

Step 1: Give the learner (person you’re helping) a small, specific project and a deadline by which to get it done. For example, creating a small deck to present your work.

Step 2: With the learner, do that same task yourself, narrating your process out loud as they watch. They should take notes and ask questions.

Step 3: Have the learner do the task a second time, but give them half the time to do it.

Method 2:

With the learner, walk through a project or piece of a project that you’re proud of that relates to the area in which they want to grow. Take them through the process of building it, and point out anything that stood out about your process.

Finally, Rachel provided some ways to find a design foil. Starting with your company, if you work with other designers, is always a good idea. If that’s not possible, reach out to any designer friends or colleagues for help, and include a request that they connect you with someone they know who might be able to help you. Asking for help on LinkedIn, Twitter, and in design Slack channels also often yields a friendly designer who’s happy to share their knowledge.

In the rapidly changing world of design, staying connected to the greater design community is a great way to learn and grow. 8th Light's team of custom software designers are always looking for opportunities to connect with fellow designers and developers. Be sure to join us at one of our MeetUps or tech events to foster creativity and get inspired!

Eva PenzeyMoog, Designer

Eva PenzeyMoog is a Lead Designer at 8th Light Chicago, where she specializes in UX. She believes in thoughtful design and strives to reduce harm in the world through centering the safety of people using digital products.

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