Pixar's Short; Geri's Game

Deliberate Practice

December 8, 2014 •  design

When Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers”, is referenced, the 10,000 hour rule (or the ten-year rule) is typically just glossed over as, “10,000 hours of practice.”[1] This is an over-simplication of the study from which it came. The study not only involved how long people worked, but what type of work they did. One of my favourite books, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”</a>, by Cal Newport takes a closer look.[2]

The study compared two groups of Chess players who had spent 10,000 hours playing. Only some of these players had become grand masters (Chess has an official ranking system) while others were left behind at an intermediate level. If we just accepted the explanation of “10,000 hours of practice makes an expert,” shouldn’t they all have become grand masters?

The difference

One group practiced with tight time limits and worked through distractions replicating the tournament atmosphere. The other group emphasized serious study; they read books, took on mentors and identified and eliminated their weaknesses. Instead of practicing in environments they would normally encounter, the second group focused their attention on what they didn’t know. It turns out this differentiation was the most dominating factor in predicting chess skill.

Anders Ericsson, recognized as one of the world’s leading researchers on expertise, coined the term “deliberate practice” to describe activity designed for the sole purpose of improvement. In one of his studies, he noted there was little scientific evidence of natural abilities to explain expert success,[3]

“Most individuals who start as active professionals… change their behaviour and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work… is a poor predicator of attained performance.”

If you show up everyday at work and do the same thing, you are not progressing. No amount of ‘hours’ or imagined natural talent is going to change this.

While I mainly shy away from looking at formal education for guidance, I think there is an important model worth mentioning. In most commonwealth countries or in Europe, you can continue past your post-graduate to obtain your master’s degree. This degree is anywhere from one to six years of formal study of a particular topic.

If you are in the design field (especially one which is UX-focused) it is a pretty big rarity to have a Masters of Arts. The knowledge acquired in a formal educational setting can seem impractical, given these programs focus on academics rather than hands-on experience.

Our Director of Design at Shopify, Verne Ho, has written about the idea of a Design Thesis, which is very similar to a thesis program you would typically be in while obtaining your Master’s degree.[4] You can think of this as another way of looking at deliberate practice. You find a track to devote yourself to (just start with something you like) and deliberately “practice” it until you have exhausted your resources.

Changing your mindset

I would be remiss if I did not address the concerns I typically hear from people about practicing at their job.

First, I want to dispel the notion that you need a lot of time. It simply is not true: compounding interest is one of the most powerful forces in the world. I learned how to speak and read Spanish in two years practicing only one hour a week. After some time, you will be surprised at how far you have progressed.

Second, as Tim Ferris likes to say: it is not that you don’t have any time, it is that you do not have any priorities. Practice is hard and not many people can be consistent. However, I have found when I make practice a priority it has paid off in ways I could have never imagined.

You do not have to be an autodidact but you can be better than you are now.

Finding a track to explore

Here are some ideas of tracks you can consider when trying to find a topic to study. There is an enormous amount of complementary skill-sets for designers and these are just some resources I found helpful when I was trying to find my own.


These tracks put an emphasis on design theory. The best products have a well-researched and opinionated design. Solid opinions come out of experience and knowledge and they help you convince people to be invested in you and your work.

Psychology and behaviour

Psychology for Designers↗︎ written by Joe Leech
This blog contains an immense amount of information about psychology in relation to Design. Joe Leech’s book acts as a good primer but I personally find his blog much more useful. His links and resources section is thorough and contains great reading material to articles and research.

Designing for Behaviour Change↗︎ written by Stephen Wendel
This book covers the strategies to help change people’s behaviour in non-evil ways. It steps you through the entire process of researching and conceptualizing an application.

Designing for Emotion↗︎ written by Aaron Walter
This is a pretty popular book and I still believe it is one of the best introductions to emotions in design. His resources section at the end also contains some great recommendations to other pioneers who are working on the link between emotions and design.

Information architecture

Information Architecture Institute↗︎ The IA Library is comprehensive list of sources including articles, books, blogs and more. I have found some links to be dead though, so it is a bit of a mixed bag.

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web↗︎ I have seen this book referenced over and over again. I have not read it myself but if a lot of people assert it’s good, the likelihood is pretty high it’s good. (Calm yourselves, contrarians.)

Nielsen Norman Group↗︎ NN/g writes research reports about a wide range of topics but they do have a 1,349-page report with 77 IA trees and 1106 navigation systems. It’s paid to read but there’s also a free 156-page report about site maps. This would be a good place to test if IA is of interest to you.

Data visualization

The Data Visualization Beginner’s Toolkit↗︎
This is just one post out of many available on fellinlovewithdata.com↗︎. But it is a useful post about where to get started if you’re more inclined to start by reading books.

Edward Tufte↗︎
It’s probably worth mentioning Edward Tufte, a professor who teaches at Yale University, who is well known for his work on information design and data visualization. He also introduced me to the most interesting statistical graphic I had ever seen.

Cartographics of Time: A History of the Timeline↗︎ by Daniel Rosenberg
I first found this book after attending a workshop taught by Edward Tufte. I was fascinated by their complex work; made at a time when wrangling the data must have been a feat in itself.

Practical Tracks

Forms and User Inputs

Web Form Design↗︎ by Luke Wroblewski Luke’s breadth of work is immense. He is a huge source of knowledge across all subjects but his book on web form design is a great guide for designing forms. If you get the chance, sit in on one of his workshops.

Motion Animation

The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation↗︎ by Frank Thomas
Yes, this is a book for another industry entirely but if you’re not starting with Disney and Pixar, you will be missing out on a source of inspiration which has kept entire generations of animators from burning out.

The Animator’s Survival Kit↗︎ by Richard Williams
For a more practical look at how to apply animation methods and principles to your motion work, this is known as the book on animation. You can also find a 16-DVD box set which accompanies the book with footage from his masterclasses and additional animation examples.

Material Design↗︎
This was Google’s style guide for their motion work guiding the design of the apps in their ecosystem. However, it’s a good resource to point out mainly because it provides a guide for how to think of motion and approach it systemically.


You must have seen this link by now, but I believe very firmly that Codeschool is one of the best educational resources out there if you’re looking to learn how to code. The mix of video, slides and interactive exercises are interesting and the courses are well-designed.

caniuse.com↗︎ and HTML5 Please↗︎
When I was first jumping into front-end development, these websites were indispensable for me. It saved me lots of time by not having to go to Stackoverflow for newbie questions and occasionally I still go back to reference them.

This list is very incomplete and I am by no means saying you would become an expert in any of these topics very quickly. Some designers have built entire careers based on just one of these topics however it might be helpful to explore a little of each topic to see what you like prior to specialization. Another thing to note: these are very obvious tracks. Complementary skill-sets for Product Designers could also include more knowledge about business, marketing and economics.

I hope this post inspires you to better yourself through practice and find a complementary skill-set which will help your career as a Designer. I believe expanding your boundaries will keep you from becoming stagnant and bored. Not only does deliberate practice help you, but hopefully your practice could inspire or educate a whole generation of young designers.

The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity.
- Amelia Earhart


Mailing List

Join the Mailing List and I’ll let you know when I publish something new. You can also use my Rss Feed or catch the most popular on Medium.