Short book review: Atomic Habits

I recently finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. For me, it served as a good collection of many “productivity” tactics I’ve read over many years.

Sadly, the mere act of reading this book won’t magically solve your problems. The book is only a recipe. And reading is only step 0 on your journey to build better habits.

This isn’t one of those books that give you a ton of benefit only by reading them. In other words, it didn’t completely transform my thinking. Maybe it will for you, though.

Don’t get me wrong—I did enjoy the book and I certainly learned new things from it. But I’ll only be able to say whether or not this book is great after I’ve tried following its recipe. And it seems like a good recipe indeed.

Interestingly, I enjoyed that last few chapters that focused on self-knowledge more than the actual tactics about building habits, so make sure to stick around until the end of the book. Or if you get bored and decide to abandon the book, try jumping forward to chapters 18 & 19 and see if there’s something you like in there.

Here’s the takeaway for you, dear reader: if you care about self-improvement at all, you should probably read this book and try to follow its recipe. Maybe it’ll be a transformational book for you, or maybe it won’t be. But it’s a short, easy read and it’ll be time well-spent.

If you don’t like reading, I can also recommend the audiobook version of this book, which is how I ‘read’ the book. It’s read by the author himself, which isn’t always a good thing—lots of authors just aren’t good narrators—but James Clear did a good job of reading his own book.

Skills vs meta-skills

For the longest time, I’ve wondered why education systems don’t focus on teaching essential skills like good interpersonal communication, logic, the art of presenting, persuasion, developing continuous self-awareness, knowing how to receive any type of feedback and knowing how to give good feedback, effective reading, …

The answer—I just realized—is very simple. What I had thought of as skills are actually better described as meta skills.

What’s the difference?

A skill is something you can get paid to practice: sales, marketing, programming, photography, etc.

On the other hand, no one will pay you to be self-aware or to know how to be good at receiving/giving feedback.

The reason we’re not taught meta skills is because it’s hard to put a direct dollar value on them.

So they teach us the stuff (skills) that companies want to hire us for. But not the stuff (meta skills) that will make us successful at literally any job we end up taking.

If you, like me, haven’t been taught these skills in school—it’s not too late. Start now. You’ve gotten this far without them. Which is great—in a way. Because once you have them, there will be no stopping you!

Happy learning.

Looking for design inspiration somewhere else

I always enjoy browsing the web in search of new design inspiration, but after browsing Dribbble, Instagram, Uplabs, etc. it’s hard not to feel that all designs look very same-y. And it’s only natural, it’s hard not to unconsciously follow trends. When you see design patterns everywhere as they become popular, they seep into your thought process without you even noticing.

Also, it’s not realistic to expect radical, new designs to be coming out all the time. For one, it’s hard to think of something completely new, and for another, you might not want to do that in the first place because when you trade the familiar for the new, you also trade previous knowledge for some learning curve. Using familiar design patterns reduces the burden on new users to learn how your product works since they’ve probably used something like it before and they can just focus on doing what they need, instead of puzzling over your innovative design.

But you can find ample design innovation in the details. You’d be surprised how often little details are behind people sticking with one product over another. One way I love finding design inspiration is from adjacent fields. For example, in the quote below, Jared Sinclair suggests borrowing an aspect from game onboarding design.

In Friday App Design Review – eHarmony, Jared Sinclair writes [emphasis mine]:

There are ten screens to choose from in the basement menu, and each screen has its own subcategories and sections. It’s difficult to figure out which, if any, is the main screen of the app.

Again, a solution could be to take a cue from video game design. Character abilities are rarely available all at once. They are unlocked as the gamer progresses through an in-game tutorial. New abilities are announced with little moments of fanfare, creating a sense of accomplishment and expertise.

That’s a great example of finding inspiration in an adjacent field. By the way, borrowing from game design in this case shouldn’t be confused with gamification. This is strictly onboarding design, not a gaming mechanic with trophies and such.

What’s the lesson here? Keep your radar on even when you’re not looking at design content. That’s where you’ll find the best kinds of inspiration. Happy designing & hunting. ❤︎

Chris Do on working while in college

In today’s entrepreneurship craze, studying is seen like the lame/lazy thing to do. You’re encouraged to drop out and start your own thing. So you’d think that Chris Do would go with the trend and advocate that designers do the same and skip school or focus on working while in school to get a headstart and prepare for the real world.

But it all comes down to this: don’t do half-assed work. If you’re gonna go to college, go to college and give it your all. Maybe some people are better off skipping college and that’s fine too. Pick one. Don’t spread yourself too thin trying to do too many things at the same time. Chances are you’ll only do them all mediocrely and be great at none of them.

→ Watch the video on YouTube

Sweating the details in design

Businesses prioritize what they can measure. Because what you can measure, you can improve. But not everything can be measured easily. If you only focus on what you measure, you miss out on the small stuff. The stuff that doesn’t make sense from an ROI perspective. But it just makes your product a joy to use.

Jared Sinclair writes in his post Friday App Design Review – Code Review, an Inbox for GitHub Pull Requests:

I like that when I tap the segmented control at the top, the master list animates in the direction of the selected tab. It creates a strong spatial memory, an important component of a comfortable app.

Jared Sinclair is an experienced designer and so he was able to explain why that little detail is worth having and how it makes the experience of using the product better. Few people can articulate their thoughts about a design with such clarity, but people will still pick up on those details. They might not be able to say why they like a product so much, but they know that it’s polished, that it was made with care. People can always tell when something was made with love and care, and it always results in a positive experience. No matter what you do, whether you work in design or not, put care into your work and you’ll be happier for it. You’ll be proud of what you made, and your customers will appreciate and respect it, maybe even love it.

Jared Sinclair’s design review of AnyList from 2014 is still worth your time

Design trends move quickly, so you might think that an app review from 2014 would be irrelevant today. But good design principles are timeless and you can still learn from old content if it’s good. iOS designer Jared Sinclair has a great series of design reviews from a few years ago that I find myself going back and rereading them every once in a while to get into a critical design mindset.

From 2014, Jared Sinclair, Friday App Design Review – AnyList, Shared Grocery Lists:

Implied borders are accomplished through the visual rhythm of multiple elements, identical in size and proportion, spaced at regular intervals. Elements of different sizes or shapes, or with an irregular arrangement, result in fuzzy implied borders. In an iOS app, fuzzy borders should be avoided, especially when arranging tappable elements.

The lesson above is a good, practical lesson that’s still valid today and you can apply it in your everyday design. It’s not some vague nonsense about color theory or grids that you come across all the time on Medium and Twitter.

Another snipped I liked:

This stock look doesn’t do AnyList any favors. As a subscription service, AnyList aspires to build a long-term relationship with its customers. Just like a dating relationship, this story will begin with visual attraction.

Not only does Jared talk about the importance of aesthetics but he also approaches design from a business mindset, and using aesthetics as a differentiator and value-add, not for self-indulgence or designer ego.

Make sure to read the full review.

Alan Cooper on the ROI of UX

Alan Cooper writes in What’s the ROI of UX [emphasis mine]:

Return on investment is a manager’s term. Understanding it, tracking it, and increasing it are a manager’s job, not the practitioner’s. The designer’s job is to design, to make the product effective and desirable. It’s the manager’s job to make sure that money is made from its being desired. And yet, managers continue to ask the practitioners about ROI. When they ask, they aren’t seeking enlightenment. They are expressing their doubts. They are voicing their skepticism. They are building a case against the discipline.

And the practitioners take the bait every time.

Alan Cooper is a household name in the UX space, but I disagree with him that it’s not a designer’s job to think with a business mindset. The way I see it, a designer does their best work when they align the priorities of the business with those of the customers, and they can only do that if they think with a business mindset.

User-centered design should be a means, not an end. The end is building a sustainable business. What good is a great design if the company can’t sustain itself, has to shut down, and asks its customers to find alternatives? That’s the worst possible outcome for customers. The way you build a sustainable business is by aligning the business and the customer and building a longterm between the two. That’s where user-centered design comes in. You can’t get customers to keep coming back if you go with bad tactics for short term gain. Instead, you solve their problems and show them you care about them, hence user-centered design. But design should flow the business and what it does best, not the other way around.

Hiten Shah on what NOT to do after a product launch

silly illustration of Hiten Shah

Hiten Shah looks nothing like that. No, this wasn’t drawn by a 5-year-old, sadly.

Hiten Shah sends out the best newsletter on building products I’ve come across, whether he’s giving advice about what to do, lessons from past mistakes, or recommending articles, his content is always good. Below are some snippets from his latest newsletter titled ‘The biggest mistake I used to make after launches and what I do now’.

On what to do after a product launch:

You soak it in, look around, and ask… what’s next?

Here’s where I’ve made some of my biggest mistakes. This exact moment.

My instinct is always to jump straight into building more stuff. Why not right?

He goes on:

But we resisted the tempting urge to immediately start building more features.


Because we didn’t actually know what to build.

An influx of people signing up for FYI meant there was more feedback than ever from people who hadn’t used the product before. People at companies of all sizes, in different types of roles, all with their own set of opinions.

Literally overnight, we had a new set of expectations for FYI that we didn’t know about previously.

In the past, I would have ignored this feedback and charged ahead based on previous rounds of research.

This time, with FYI, we paused.

Instead of assuming we already knew best, our next step was to learn all about what these new people thought about our product.

Sadly, I can’t link to the email for you to read the whole thing, but I highly recommend you go and subscribe to his newsletter. (I guess that’s the newsletter doing exactly what it was intended to do: get you to subscribe as the only way to read the content.)

On value-based Business Models

In a post on the Chargebee Blog, Sadhana Balaji writes:

Even though it’s inherently necessary to build your pricing on a value metric, Patrick Campbell, the CEO and co-founder of Price Intelligently, argued that picking the right value metric is crucial for a revenue model’s success.

Imagine two SaaS companies that each have 100 customers. The first charges on a per seat per month schema, but there’s little need for more than one seat for each customer. The other sells the exact same product but charges along a metric of particular usage in the app with a bare minimum per month charge. The former has an artificial ceiling on the MRR potentially gained from their customers. The latter’s MRR will grow as their customers grow and/or use the product more. I’d much rather be in company number 2.

~ Patrick Campbell

He has done a splendid job at condensing the function of a good value metric into three succinct points:

  • It should be easy for the customer to understand
  • It should align with the value the customer receives
  • It should grow with the customer’s usage

Many product designers only think about the product, neglecting the fact that so many good products fail because they didn’t have the right business model to help them succeed. The post above has great examples on value-based pricing, which might feel riskier at points, but it’s definitely the model I would hope to employ as much as possible. Read the full post on the Chargebee blog.

Remote design sprints: proven tips by seasoned sprinters at AJ&Smart

If you’re trying to learn anything about design sprints, it’s hard not to come across content by AJ&Smart. In less than 2 years of putting out content, they’ve managed to become the authority on all things design sprints, whether it’s their generous free content on YouTube and their CEO’s podcast with Sprint author Jake Knapp, or their premium offerings such training or masterclass.

What makes their content good & relevant is that it’s all based on real, on-going design sprint experience. They didn’t run a few design sprints and then pivoted to preaching & teaching. They’ve run over a hundred sprints and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping anytime soon, so I wouldn’t worry about their content becoming out-dated or out-of-touch with how the design sprint process evolves over time. All this to say that when they talk about design sprints, you’re going to want to listen.

AJ&Smart CEO Jonathan Courtney just published a long post detailing how they did remote design sprints to completely redesign Kevin Rose’s meditation app Oak. The whole post is a good read because you rarely see companies talking about their internal projects, but Kevin Rose & AJ&Smart were nice enough to share that publicly. Here are the tips about running remote design sprints:

Be extra-specific when making notes and writing the likes of the How Might We postits — these may need to be read by someone on the other side of the world when you’re not there to explain what you meant.

Double-down on alignment check-ins: there’s a lot more scope for misunderstandings and confusion in a remote Design Sprint, so it’s important to make time for extra check-ins to make sure everyone is on the same page

Extra focus on the Lightning Demos: again because there’s scope for confusion, it’s important to realllllly understand the client’s mindset and what they[re envisioning. It’s harder to do this while not in the same room so we’ll always put a lot of emphasis on them showing us what inspires them, and we’ll also do a bit of extra work on this too (like the Pinterest board)

Have the right toolbox: tools become very important when running a remote Sprint. Don’t let technology ruin your Sprint or let important stuff get lost in emails. See below for what we use when running a remote Sprint

Read the full post here.