10 Things UX Designers can Learn from Hamilton the Musical

As I was listening to the Hamilton soundtrack with my kids on a drive from Franklin, TN to Carriere, MS some things jumped out at me that seem like great takeaways and lessons learned for new UX designers. Even if they are fictional vs. historical, they still apply.

Family photo outside of Hamilton the Musical theater

1. Before he was a great leader and commander, Washington led his troops into a slaughter.

George failed in one of the worst kinds of ways. Greatness and success isn’t magic, and rarely happens overnight. You often have to fail many times and learn from that to become successful.

As Angela Duckworth says, you have to have grit.

You won’t solve the client’s problem right away. You won’t immediately have the perfect design idea. Great user experiences are achieved through research, iteration, prototyping, trying, testing, retesting, and learning. Some call it failing and it’s often referred to as “fail fast”, but I call it learning. When viewed through the lens of time, a single failure can turn into a long-term success.

2. Talk less, smile (and listen) more.

You will almost always learn more when you listen, vs when you talk. When a client or interviewee is talking, don’t just wait for your turn to talk. Actively listen to what they are saying. Their motivation and drive will become evident if you pay attention to not just what they are asking for, but why they are asking for it.  Karen Bachmann has a great talk on listening where she shares tips on how to improve your listening skills.

For a client:

  • Do they care deeply about the technology, the customer/prospect, or the product/service they want to offer?
  • Do they just care about impressing their manager or peers?

For an interviewee/customer:

  • Do they care about your company or your product/service?
  • Do they just want to get a task done, and really don’t care about the product at all?

All these motivations will tell you how to deliver successful artifacts, insights, and results to them.

3. Decide what your ultimate goals are.

Do you want to win the current battle? Or do you want to win the war? When you spend all your time and energy arguing every little detail in your design or research plan,  you might become annoying to the requestor. Later down the line when something big pops up, they might be less likely to listen to your argument, or worse, not come to you at all. Success on a grand scale requires different strategies, mindsets and levels of effort.

I have conceded small parts of a project knowing that a big decision was coming up that I wanted to save my energy for. Rounded corners or instruction copy are small concessions if you know you want to argue for a usability test or a site intercept to get some in-context feedback.

4. Say what you believe.

Politely, though. Aaron Burr asks Hamilton why he always says what he believes. He recommends not letting “them” know what he’s against and what he’s for. I strongly disagree. The world needs less politicians, less facades, and more transparency and honesty. If you feel strongly about an idea or a design, or feel that a request is inherently deceptive, stand up for what you believe in your heart of hearts. You may lose a client or two, but the ones you work with will be worth working with.

5. Rarely will everyone agree.

Living in society without tearing each other down takes patience, compromise, listening, and understanding. Burr, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Washington didn’t agree in every conflict and situation, and a work project is no different. I’ve never once worked on a software or service project where everyone agreed on everything at every step. Executives, managers, designers, researchers, writers, developers, testers, project managers, product owners, etc.; they all have different motivations, vantage points, knowledge, and, yes, opinions and feelings. It’s very hard to get everyone to agree. Good facilitation and compromise can keep a project moving in a positive direction. As a UX researcher, you must put on their hats and wear their shoes (metaphorically), and learn the art of mediation and facilitating camaraderie.

6. Never be satisfied.

Everything can always be better. As soon as you are satisfied with something, you will stop trying to learn about it and improve it. A design is never “done”. A process can always be better, even if just a little bit. Some things may not be worth the effort to improve, but that is the exception to the rule. Always look for ways to improve things around you—small improvements add up over time. One example would be a really old system that would cost more to bandaid and fix, than to just redesign and rebuild.

Talk to more people about how you can help make their job or their product better. Talk (and listen) to customers and prospects to understand how their life and interaction with your products and services can be improved.

7. Evolution vs revolution.

With digital product design, usually evolution is a good way to change, so as not to overwhelm the user. The same thing applies to company culture. People handle small bits of change much better than large changes. Foot in the door, not door in face. In the psychology of compliance, the “foot in the door” technique assumes agreeing to a small request increases the likelihood of agreeing to a second, larger request.

Redesigning an entire online banking website may be fun for you the designer, but it will probably cause users a lot of pain if done in one go. Come up with a plan to change it over time into what will be the best product for the users. Start with maybe increasing font sizes, swapping out some menu items, or adding a few features to the transaction history. This method also allows you to learn along the way and apply those learnings to future iterations.

If you really think revolution (large-scale change of a system) is necessary, know that it’s not going to be easy and it’s probably gonna get a bit bloody (hopefully metaphorically). Make sure you really want it and think it’s worth fighting for.

8. Be careful who you confide in.

Be careful about what you say to colleagues in a work environment, especially a large corporation. You do not have to be friends with everyone you work with. Burr and Hamilton were friends first, then work colleagues. They shared personal thoughts and feelings, and it ended up allowing for conflict later when they found themselves competing in politics.

Not to say be disingenuous, but just don’t bare your entire heart and soul to every person you encounter in the business world. Be selective about the types of personal thoughts and feelings you share.

9. The world is wide enough for your views and others’ views.

It often feels like there is only enough space for your views or others’ views, but that’s just not true. You can compromise, occupy different spaces, and focus on different efforts. If you’re gonna UX and preach empathy, this is an important point to understand. Your clients and managers might be right about some things while you might be right about others. It’s very rare that things are black and white. There is a lot of gray and a lot of colors between the ends of the spectrum.

10. Time takes and it takes and it takes.

The longer you do this, the more worn down you usually feel. It feels like the battle never ends, and because of #6 (Never be Satisfied) it really doesn’t. You have to find a way to stay mentally healthy, and not let the corporate grind or ridiculous client requests chip away large parts of your soul.

UX pros often pour way more into their products, services, and companies than they get back. Not that we’re in it for glory, but if you don’t take care of yourself it’s gonna be hard to keep going—and the world needs you!

Schedule downtime. Exercise. Sleep. Think about nutrition and relaxation. Use meditation or therapy. Heck just play some Switch or bang on a drum set between meetings. Your body, mind, soul, family, and future clients will be happy you did.


Hamilton the Musical Playbill

There are probably many more lessons to be gleaned from Hamilton, but these jumped out at me as being useful to both new and seasoned UX designers, researchers, and managers, and even people requesting work from UX folks.

There are a million things you haven’t done. Now go do one, armed with this knowledge and renewed vigor. 🙂

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