5 Things Scuba Diving taught me about UX Design

I tried my first ever dive in 2014. In 2015, I became a qualified PADI diver. Shortly after, I started training in User Experience (UX) Design which eventually lead me to a career in it.

Whilst scuba diving and UX Design may seem worlds apart, I mean, one is under the sea and the other is predominantly online, I’ve always noticed numerous parallels between them. As a UX Designer, I’ve often benefited from the skills I’ve learnt from scuba diving.

I’ve done 30 dives across 5 islands racking up over 1,286 minutes under water. These are the 5 lessons scuba diving has taught me about UX Design.

(Author note: these lessons could be applicable to any field within User Experience and Human Centred Design, but I wrote this from my perspective as a UX Designer)

Never hold your breath

“The first rule of scuba diving is that you keep breathing”

— Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI)

This is the cardinal rule in scuba diving. This comes first and foremost, before anything else you learn. In the instance that something goes wrong, continuing to breathe can save your life as it reduces pressure on your sinuses, prevents lung over-expansion and is a great reminder to keep calm and collected during moments of panic.

How on earth does this relate to UX Design, right? This first lesson has a metaphorical and literal meaning for UX Design.

Metaphorically, I’ve learnt to “never hold my breath” thinking I’ll know what a user will do with the experience I’ve designed. I can’t tell you the amount of times my colleagues and I have been wrong about what a user will do with what we’ve created, or the holes they’ll poke it in. Expect the unexpected.

Literally, it’s important to remember to breath as you work, especially when you’re

  • presenting your artefacts to a wide or senior group
  • receiving critique (which can be vicious as a designer)
  • in the process of creating or demystifying something complex

Keep breathing and let go of that pressure and tension. The more at ease you are, the clearer your work seems.

Buddy up!

Don’t dive alone. Whilst you can dive alone, it’s not recommended. You are stronger and safer in a pair or group. Before you start a dive, always know who your buddy is and stay close to them; you can help one another if something unexpected happens. You are accountable for yourselves and each other.

The UX Design translation is simple: don’t design alone.

Creating and improving user experiences is a team sport. It’s not simply about collaborating and getting your colleagues in early, it’s about creating a partnership with your UX fellows: your Content Designers or UX Writers, User Researchers, UI Designers, Service Designers and Creative Designers. There is a shared accountability for the experience you’re working on and for each other. Check in on them. Learn from them. Enjoy your experience working together.

Two colleagues enthusiastically collaborating surrounded by pens, paper and their laptops
UX Design & UX Writing pairing on some microcopy explorations

Create and use a predetermined language

“Language matters […] The goal is not simplifying. The goal is to know what you mean when you say what you say.”

Abby Covert, Information Architect and sensemaker

When underwater, you can’t rely on typical forms of communication, namely spoken conversation. So, if you want your dive buddy to look at something or need help, how do you communicate that? Divers use a predetermined list of simple, succinct hand signals that divers around the world know the meaning of, regardless of language. Each hand signal has a specific, clear definition that has been globally translated to avoid misunderstanding. This way, we’re always on the same page and know exactly what to do if a problem occurs.

Take the same approach when working with your UX buddy, squad or department.

  • Before you start any UX work or pairing, have a clear, open discussion with your buddy about what you mean when using certain words and adjust the terms and definitions you use accordingly.
  • Create or add to a ubiquitous language document with your squad so you and your developers know who or what you’re talking about all the time.
  • Start or contribute to an internal glossary of UX terminology — a design system is a great reason to create such a glossary.

None of these need to be perfect, they simply need to be mutually understood. Enabling you to adopt a shared language as a team.

Emily in the deep blue sea giving the OK sign to her buddy
Signing that I’m OK underwater

You will improve the more you practice

“Once we know that abilities are capable of such growth it becomes a basic human right to [foster, work, and] live in places that create growth”

— Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology

My biggest area of improvement in diving is my buoyancy control (being evenly balanced so you hover effortlessly through the ocean using air and energy efficiently). I find the more regularly I dive, the better my buoyancy is. If I do a batch of 6 dives within a 3 or 4 day period, my buoyancy control significantly improves by the last dive because I’ve remembered how to regulate my breathing and relied less on air from the tank filling my BCD. I also enjoy these dives more. I’m calmer and more in control.

When it comes to UX Design, know where you could improve within your skillset and take small steps to getting better. Don’t stress yourself about being perfect. Instead, absorb knowledge from those around you and embrace social learning, then put that knowledge into practice like experiential learning.

Trust me, the longer you’re out of the habit of practicing, the more attempts and time you’ll need to perform at your best. There’s no shame in that. Practice will result in progress.

Always consider your impact

With great skill, comes great responsibility.

By being blessed to explore the world that exists underwater, I as a diver, am also responsible for my individual impact on that environment. Divers are not there to disturb or negatively impact the lives or homes of the creatures living underwater. We are responsible for preserving the ocean and being aware of the impact we have.

Similarly, as a UX professional, you are responsible for the experiences you create and change. Therefore, you are responsible for the impact those experiences and your decisions have. You are responsible for creating ethical, inclusive experiences. Be the change you want to see in the world, apply that mindset to every frame, map, and usability test you create.

Final thoughts

Yep, a bonus lesson! This is something I wish I realised at the start of my diving and UX Design journeys: enjoy the ride, sometimes everything just clicks.

Try to be present as much as you can. Breathe. Take the time to look around you and absorb what a cool thing you’re doing. From time to time, everything will come together perfectly. Your breathing will be steady. You’ll be in sync with your buddy. The landscape will be serene. You’ll be at peace, relaxed, designing or diving with ease. Embrace that, because it doesn’t always happen and it can be short lived. Look for and bask in those golden moments.

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I’m Emily (she/her) a Senior UX Designer at cinch, I talk about that. Also, I’m relentless about accessibility & inclusive design.

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Emily Cheshire

Emily Cheshire

I’m Emily (she/her) a Senior UX Designer at cinch, I talk about that. Also, I’m relentless about accessibility & inclusive design.

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