Today I kicked off my pairing tour with my mentor Erica. It was her first day being back on with the AXUS project, which is a travel app that 8th Light built from scratch (as opposed to working on a legacy project of code written by someone else). I quickly realized that although I understood the basics of the service that AXUS provides, there is a lot that I don’t know about the travel industry. The ecosystem of travel agents, tour operators and the people who hire them for their vacations is pretty foreign to me, and about half way though the day I paused to read some articles about how these industries work, as well as look up some unfamiliar terms and acronyms.

Erica has started working on the AXUS project again in order to work with their designer to revamp their website and implement it once the design is finalized. We spent the morning getting up to speed with what their designer has already made, thinking through potential changes and asking the software crafters on the project for clarification around how the business works. I also helped Erica with a terminal error she kept getting while trying to run the project by researching certain pieces of it and looking up commands.

We also spent a while troubleshooting a font issue with Kevin, another design apprentice who also started on this project today. The designated fallback text wasn’t working, meaning that when the typeface AXUS purchased for their website couldn’t load (which could happen for all sorts of reasons, including things we can’t control about the user’s computer), the typeface that the user saw was the computer’s fallback, not the one that had designated by the designers in the past. Fallback typefaces are important - we can’t always control a user’s computer or internet connection, and things can go wrong with purchased fonts, so we choose a fallback typeface from the small number that come already installed in every computer. While there aren’t many choices, we can choose the one that is closest to the actual typeface, which in this case was a sans-serif. Unfortunately, it was rendering a serif font, meaning it looked very different from what we wanted. Erica and I identified some syntax errors, and a few hours later Kevin had found that a certain font weight was being applied with the wildcard selector, which was throwing other declarations off. While we didn’t fix the problem completely, we did figure out all the constraints and choose the best solution given the situation.

After solving the typeface issue, we spent some time on a call with the AXUS leadership team learning about their goals for the website redesign and getting up to speed with what had changed with AXUS since the last one was made. The service has evolved a lot from the original problem it solved, and the design team has the exciting project of redoing the website to reflect all the cool new things they offer. Erica and Kevin (and me, for just one more day) will be working with their designer. I really enjoyed studying how Erica went about communicating with her, and was reminded of something Mike Monteiro wrote in Design is a Job: basically, this is a common situation and it’s important for designers to not have egos about their work or feel threatened when working with outside designers. We all have our own style and preferred way of doing things, but ultimately, design is stronger when done collaboratively, and watching Erica quickly begin to build a good relationship with the AXUS designer gave me a good model for how to do the same in the future.

Outside of the website redesign, the 8th Light team will be working on the UX and implementation of a new feature that will make the workflow of travel agents much simpler and quicker. I had to talk through a specific example of how this feature would be used before I fully understood it, and was reminded how vital it is to be open about not knowing things. I won’t be of any use when the three of us sketch out our ideas tomorrow if I don’t know the point of this new feature and how it exists within the current app and user workflow.

While being familiar with a product or service can help a designer, there are also benefits to being completely new to something. I don’t have any preconceived notions about how things should work or expectations for behavior within the existing app, meaning I’m able to bring a different perspective that someone who already knows everything there is to know about this service. Design (and development as well) are nothing if not humbling, as we are constantly being reminded of how much we don’t know. Just like with my apprenticeship in general, I’m striving to maintain a growth mindset with this work: accepting that I don’t know something simply because I haven’t learned it yet, not because of some flaw. More than that, I’m trying to actively remind myself of the benefits that not knowing everything there is to know has when designing, and to stay confident that I still have plenty to offer.

Overall, it was a day chockfull of learning. I got to take part in some behind-the-scenes conversation with the leaders at AXUS, study Erica’s approach to working with outside designers, and learn a little about the travel agency and a lot about how fonts work in certain scenarios. I’m excited to dive into the somewhat complicated feature design tomorrow and to keep learning from all the talented people on this team.

Main takeaways:

  • Ask questions and be honest when you don’t know something.
  • Pairing is more than just designing or writing code together - a good pair also does things like research errors and look up commands.
  • Collaborative design > designing in a bubble