May 7, 2017 6 Pieces of Advice I Wish Someone Told Me About Topcoder Design
Is it only me or do you ever picture your future self coming back to lecture your about things you’ve learned and should have known to help you with something in your present? I’m sure I’m not the only one alone with my craziness here, so please say yes so I don’t have to go that often to the psychiatrist! Having introspective thoughts is something quite natural in human beings, however they don’t help us that much in the present the day (they do help in other ways though). Personally, I think it’s more helpful to spread the word and try to use that learned experience to help other persons. At the end of the day, everything you live is knowledge which is worth to share; so here my 6 cents of the day on 6 things you could learn from my rocky experience as a Studio (AKA Topcoder Design) competitor.
1. BECOME A REQUIREMENTS ANALYST
I regret my initial approach to problem solving when I was a rookie. I jumped right into doing sketches when I started reading the requirements, which is not entirely wrong, however I jumped in too quickly. I didn’t let the requirements rest in my mind to be fully understood. I think understanding requirements are the first step to opening pandora’s box in design solutions. You know what they say, understanding the problem is half the solution. I wouldn’t think to jump into any graphic conclusions for a problem without being very thorough and understanding requirements. Some good practice you could do to help understand requirements is to apply analysis techniques around the workflow and users involved (business requirements).
- Define business goals. It would probably be in the requirements specifications but ask yourself, how does this application help the final user? Why does he need it?
- Define user priorities. What features are the most valuable? Why? If you don’t know the answer or you are unlucky enough to have mahestro as copilot, then ask in the forums.
- Create user stories for your own understanding. This defines what the users do in the process and helps you seeing the big picture of it. Keep in mind, a good user story should be composed of a series of interactions, each one of them must have at least the base structure User > Input > Action > Output (expectation). For instance: Monica [user] enters her username [input], then she click the button [action] the application displays a list of her favorite music [output]. You define this across the whole domain of features and you won’t miss many details of what flow you could possibly follow to deliver a good solution.
2. DEDICATE TIME TO LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERYDAY
Creating solutions for Studio requires having an interesting set of skills that we are not born with, you learn them by studying and practicing. Such skills could be creating great quality icons, mastering layouts, applying proper responsive design patterns, and so on. There is a big world out there and we need to study it!
I wish I could have been more disciplined with this. By the time I joined Topcoder I was in university, I had a complicated time table and obligations. I was very motivated but couldn’t find too much time other than the nights when I was very tired so I couldn’t absorb knowledge in a very optimal way. Then I started something so simple, the gateway to productivity and optimisation! Here the mighty secret for you:
Wake up two hours early than usual.
That’s it, simple. For me it was 5:00am, I dedicated two hours of time to doing tutorials online and reading. I think one of the key factors for it to work is the peaceful moment of the morning (dark) since you are ahead of “distractions timezone” which is when most of the people is awake sending you emails, messages, etc, the regular “working timezone”.
Funny thing, I recently saw a nice TED talk about how waking up at 4:30am could change your life. Some people are more extreme than me, admirable.
3. RECYCLE YOUR ARTWORK
I really wish I was told this one! Luis from the future, why? Why didn’t you tell me? … It’s too late to complain, not late to fix it though. I used to create different types of icons for competitions. In those times I didn’t win any placement I said to myself, what the heck should I do with these files and resources now? Are they useless? No! There is something good you can do with them.
- Grab all these resources from the challenge you didn’t win and put them organised in your favorite vector format (Ai, Ps, Sketch).
- Group them by category (if you want).
- Create an unique, recognizable name per each icon for the layer (e.g. home, settings, add, remove, pencil).
- In the layer filter panel, just type for the icon you’re looking for.
This can be also applied to any type of resources you frequently use, those you think you could possibly re-use in the future. This will allow you to gain a considerably good amount of time when competing in challenges, and possibly letting you complete more challenges.
4. SUBMIT MULTIPLE IDEAS
As a creative person you must encounter many times with the fabulous indecision dilemma. Will this color be too wild? Will the client would like my layout X or Y? We happen to have many choices while creating something unique. We can then choose to play it safe, to be bold or to be an alien with a super freak idea! I have to confess that I was always tempted to play it safe just for the fact of giving me more opportunities to have a nice placement on a challenge.
There was a moment when I realized that there was submission limit for challenges, after six months, true story, what an idiot – Luis from the future would say. If I have many ideas why not deliver them all if I have the time? I tried a couple of times and the results were fantastic, even for the creation process. Once you finish a concept version 2, you feel your version 1 is useless, and this process goes on forever. So basically, the fact of going through a finalized version and redoing it gives your more insight and more options to apply.
Being practical, I liked to deliver two options, a “safe” one and an “out of the box” one. It wasn’t too much work. Considering that for the second version you have a clear understanding of the requirements, you have assets (icons, photos, components) and new ideas. I think it’s worth giving it a try. One time I placed 1st, 2nd and 3rd in a challenge.
5. PREPARE FOR LOSING STREAKS
We have to be honest and admit that not everything is unicorns, rainbows and candies in a hard competitive environment. Facing a bad week could be tough. Facing a bad month with zero wins could be even harder for sure. It’s not easy to overcome that situation but we have to try, keeping in mind that this can happen and it’s NORMAL, even for the most veteran designers.
Not everything is a loss though. What Luis from the future should have told me when I couldn’t even win a checkpoint is:
- Disconnect from the competitive environment for some time. One or two weeks away help you refresh and make you miss the feeling of wanting to compete. When you feel you want to compete again, it means you’re ready.
- Do fun things, other than learning and competing. Maybe sports, watch movies, play video games, go out with friends.
- Learn from the experience. Remember anything you do in life becomes experience, no matter if you can’t see that as a leverage in a sad moment, but it’s experience that you will use in the future. How about reusing the icons? That’s a good example of our “experience”.
6. EMBRACE OPPORTUNITIES
Competing at Topcoder in a regular basis provides a lot of advantages, learning technical skills, keeping your professional knowledge up to date, and mastering technologies. However, there is one particular topic I want to get here and it’s the TCO (Topcoder Open). Something that I would have told to myself is to embrace this golden opportunity with more optimism in my first year as a member. I qualified at the last minute but I wasn’t document-friendly to travel, I needed time, which I would have had if I embraced it with more enthusiasm from the beginning. Now I regret missing that TCO07, one of the best ever according to the TCO Dancing Queen.
Why do I tell you this? Besides of the many other reasons I have exposed in other articles, there is one that goes to the top, the amount of opportunities you find at a Topcoder Open are priceless. Job opportunities, career expansion, connections, valuable friendship, travelling… Should I continue? Just take a look to the most recent GE acquisition, they are lucky to have Cendhika in their team now. He says it quite well, thanks to TCO, I’m not making up anything, although that’s one of my favorite hobbies.
But hey, how do we recognize opportunities at Topcoder? Good question my young padawan. I’d say anything that represents a challenge for you or curiosity take it as an opportunity. So, let’s take it down to what matters; if you see something in Topcoder offering the following, you reply yes and jump in:
- Would you like to compete in a “unrewarded” fun design challenge? Answer: Yes! You will learn something for sure, or will have an opportunity to receive a different type of review and integrate with the community.
- Would you like to join challenge X that uses brand new technology Y in the market? Answer: Yes! You have the chance to be one of the first members to learn how to use certain technologies, giving you advantages in an early conception stage.
- Would you like to compete in TCO eligible challenge? Answer: Yes! No need to explain, I guess 🙂
- Would you like to test some drugs? Answer: Ye… Wait a second, unless it’s going to be useful to save humanity from a global catastrophe, then maybe, but in a normal scenario of course not.
There are two fun challenges running right now for Design Month! Learn more about the Topcoder process, have some fun, and earn prizes too!