How to Learn New ThingsĀ Fast

By Marcus Jones

I drew this

One thing that I think most people forget is that we are all bad at things until we get good at them — regardless of our age, what we’re learning, or our IQ level.

Let’s use an example:

^ This is a baby after 10 months of being alive on this planet.

^ This is a baby after 16 months of being alive on this planet.

As you can see, this baby learned one of the most important skills of being a human: walking upright. No structured education or walking lessons involved — the baby just tried walking when crawling became too big of an inconvenience. Then, he just kept walking until he didn’t fall over.

This is an obvious example, but when it comes to learning new things as adults, we tend to apply far different logic. We spend too much time trying to perfect the process of learning than we do actually learning things. We wait for the right tools, resources, or expert assistance before even trying something.

The popular term is “analysis paralysis.”

We often make excuses for why we can’t learn something, why we’re better off not trying, or why the marginal cost of learning X will not justify a return of Y.

I’m not saying you should try to learn everything in the world. I just think it’s really easy to get busy with life and put learning X on the back burner.

I drew this chart to try and explain the different stages of learning something new, at least as I see it based on my experience learning UX/UI design.

(UX = User Experience | UI = User Interface)

a Marcus Jones original chart — trademark copyright and patent pending

A few years ago, I had no formal education in design whatsoever, and barely knew what tools designers even used. However, I knew I loved working with others to build cool software products. I always had ideas for the way products should look, feel and be used but had no real way of visually explaining my ideas. I knew this would be necessary to learn, but like many others I wasn’t sure where to start.

Let’s take a closer look at each stage.

This point represents the first point of action, which is when you have legitimately made a commitment to learn something.

For me, this was deciding to download the free trial of Adobe XD, which was still in beta at the time (simply meaning it had far less features than it does now). There were other programs — such as sketch and proto.io — that I had researched, but never committed to. This was my first action of legitimate commitment to learn UX/UI design.

(Adobe XD = Adobe Experience Design, a mobile/web prototyping tool)

I started playing with the basic features and watching tutorials, thinking,

“how hard can this really be?”

I wanted to design a simple app that worked like an old school pager. The only reason I wanted to was because I told the idea to my roommate at the time which he argued would be completely useless. The only way for me to win my case was to build the damn thing.

Here’s a short gif where you can see the on-boarding process for that pager app. Luckily, I was able to finish the whole app before my 7 day free trial expired.

I still think this is a really good idea, by the way…

I’m not trying to convince you that this is great work — but, after taking the time to just sit in my room and build something, I was feeling A LOT more confident in my “newfound skills”. Even though it had only been a week, it felt amazing to have finally started. It was nowhere near perfect, but just like the baby who took his first steps, I was moving in the right direction.

My roommate even admitted that “something like that might work” — this made me realize how powerful UI design could be for me.

I started to think,

“I’m actually not too bad at this.”

Once I started, I was hooked. For me, learning UX/UI design doesn’t feel like learning — it’s just something I find fun, enjoyable, and easy to do in my free time.

I was able to learn a good amount from articles and tutorials, but when it came to actually working in Adobe XD, there were several new features and workflow improvements I was finding. Clearly, I still had much to learn.

After about a month of learning and comparing my work to what was out there, I immediately realized—

“There are a ton of people who are way better at this than I am.”

Three months passed, and I started to get a real sense of what I had gotten myself into. Not everything was fun, and getting better takes more time than I thought. I found myself practicing and improving on things I had already learned, instead of learning new things.

I would imagine this is when most people decide to stop or slow down. It’s hard to really learn something new if you don’t have a reason or ability to practice consistently. It also gets easy to prioritize other obligations (such as work or school) if you are doing it on the side.

I was spending less and less time designing and was losing steam. The only way I could stay accountable was by actively finding other people to work with and learn from in order to expand my capabilities. It forced me to take on projects start to finish, ask others for help, and learn the entire process first hand.

Since there were now others who had a vested interest in me learning UX/UI design, I had no choice but to get better.

Fast forward a full year and I have in fact gotten far better at design. I went from complete beginner to having my own workflow for taking projects from concept to high fidelity mockups.

me

I’ve since put a pause on the side projects, to focus all my attention on building an app from start to finish with my friend Danny who studied computer science. This forced me to learn more about product management as well; working with engineers showed me how to ship development ready designs, instead of designs that just looked nice to me.

None of that happened overnight, however; the first time I started working with Danny, I just sent him a screen recording of my designs off of my phone. He would have to text or call me whenever he couldn’t see something clearly or if he needed a specific hex code or icon. Whether you work in product management or not, you can probably tell thats not the best way to do it.

We still don’t have a perfect process, but what we do now is much better.

I have no idea what that’s like…

This post isn’t just about how I started learning design. I wrote it to convince you that it’s a lot easier than it seems to learn whatever it is you want to learn — as long as you stay consistent.

The hardest part, however, isn’t consistency…

It’s convincing yourself to take the first step (pun intended).

Hopefully this post inspires you to learn something you’ve always wanted to.

PLUG ALERT: If you’re interested in what I’m building now, check out beammit.com and download the Beammit app once its on the app store in March.