When we think of autodidacts, our minds frequently race to the arts: people who discovered an aptitude for painting or music despite their lack of formal training. We often separate the innate impulse to create things from those who teach themselves practical tasks. We glorify the teens who put together their own computers or who tweak lines of code to run new software on out-of-date operating systems. This is a mistake, I think.
Since I didn't have a technical co-founder, I had to teach myself skills both creative and pragmatic, most importantly product-design. My platform now processes process $20 billion in transactions, and one of the things that creating it taught me was that most inventions strive to balance art with science. Here are the 4 things that helped me learn product design.
Balance art and science
My first education in what it would take to build JOOR came from selling product offline. As an apparel buyer you are constantly looking at your business and trying to understand why something sold or it didn't. What caused her to checkout? Was it the way the product fit, was it the color, was it the fabrication? Selling is equal parts art and science, and at a core-level, product design is no different.
The art is about offering the user something different in the experience -- something unexpected, something that was easier than they expected, something novel, or even something magical. However you also have to A/B test, you have to study the numbers, and you have to make metrics your friend. As a fashion buyer I knew that the success of my platform would involve balancing these two forces.
Think about what kind of thinker you are
Everyone learns things in a different way, and for me I'm a visual learner. I used Post-Its to get through AP Biology, and I also used them to create my first story-boards. There's something visceral about writing by hand and moving concepts around visually. I've long since been introduced to more sophisticated products like Omnigraffle and Visio, which are what we use today when we're designing new products. If you're going to teach yourself something, think about what kind of thinker you are first before you get caught up in shiny new tools.
Meet designers who have different approaches
It also goes without saying that learning starts by reading a lot. I started with the basics: websites and design blogs such as Ideo, Fast Company Design, studying the winners of the Webby's and, interviews with Steve Jobs. Even if you plan on outsourcing your product design you should be doing this, it's crucial to have shared vocabulary. Once you start to get confidence, seek out experts. Interview and meet with as many different designers as you can, especially ones with radical approaches or ideas that you don't quite understand at first. Then go home and research what they said and see how it pans out in the real world. The more you do this, the more you'll start to develop your own ethos for designing products.
Question "what everyone else is doing"
All the best products focus on the user's critical path, in our case it's getting the buyer to checkout. And to do that we had to make some unconventional decisions. One of the biggest head-scratchers (at least as far as conventional wisdom at the time was concerned) was our decision to build a native app as opposed to building one in HTML5, which was all the rage at the time. Most designers I'd met by that point thought it was crazy, but I knew from practical experience that buyers are offline for most of the day, hitting the trade-shows or getting stuck in long appointments. This turned out to be the right decision, our membership has tripled every year since launch due to the stability of our app.
When you're reading, researching, and reaching out to tons of people collecting information, it's easy to forget how to listen to your own gut. A lot of what goes into building good products is having good taste, something that's a part of you and something that you already have. Building apps and websites can be intimidating, but only because of the obscure vocabulary and high-premium placed on these professions.
By balancing creativity and metrics, empowering yourself with the right terminology, and measuring the advice of others with your gut-instincts, you can create products that solve pain points for your customers. Wireframes only get easier, but a passion for creating things that help people never goes away. If anything, it grows.