More thoughts by Daniel Burka
No one is all that bright when it comes to product design.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a lot of smart people at small startups — a bevy of PhDs, a horde of successful entrepreneurs, a gaggle of elite designers. Together, we spent many hours debating how users would react to new ideas, product improvements, and design changes. As often as not, we were pretty far off-base.
At one startup in particular, we spent an inordinate amount of time discussing which of several paths was the ideal one to pursue. We whiteboarded, we whittled down feature sets, we discussed potential pitfalls, and we endlessly, passionately argued over possible outcomes. After two or three weeks of this mind-numbing debate, we finally tried one of the ideas and invested a few weeks engineering and fine tuning. Then, a month after we conceived the idea, we’d run a user study, multivariate test, or just go for it and release the idea into the wild. Sometimes things worked out great and sometimes we fell on our faces.
It eventually became clear that none of the preamble had much impact on whether our release was successful. When we were coming up with ideas, we generally knew that among three options ‘A’ was likely a terrible idea, ‘B’ was pretty good, and ‘C’ was decent too. Instead of rat-holing on which of ‘B’ or ‘C’ was superior we should have just picked ‘B’ by default, prototyped it, and validated it. If ‘B’ failed, fine, move onto ‘C.’ We could have easily built and tested two options in the time we took just to choose a direction.
This advice might sound trite and ‘fail fast’ is starting to become doctrine among product designers. But, remain vigilent. At times we all sucumb to feeling very clever sitting around with our peers pondering optimal outcomes. The next time you’re caught in a room full of smart people doing something dumb (like trying to anticipate what your users will do), tune them out, flip open your laptop, and start prototyping.
A product designer looks at a reasonably complex problem. A family living in San Francisco wants to visit their grandmother in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is about 400 miles away, there are some high hills along the route, and traffic is quite unpredictable at several choke points.
The product designer anticipates all of the variables, maps them out, and comes up with the ideal solution. I know! We’ll build an F35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The F35 is the most technologically advanced aircraft to date. It can take off from the family’s driveway using vertical thrust and land just outside grandma’s in LA on a short stretch of road. It can traverse the distance in twenty-five minutes with the afterburners on full. It has the most advanced navigational system, so the family can’t get lost en route. And, I know it’s a little harder to fly, but we’ll put extra fuel tanks under the wings — if the mom changes her mind and chooses to go to Ecuador, the family could do that too.
Even if the product designer is able to get a great F35 built on time and on schedule, unfortunately it’s going to take two years to teach mom and dad to get the plane to Los Angeles in twenty-five minutes. No matter how hard the interface designer designs or a user researcher researches, the inherent complexity can only be relatively reduced.
The obvious alternative is to build a station wagon. It’s a reliable, tried-and-true vehicle. Many station wagons have traversed from SF to LA quite successfully. Plus, there’s certainly room to improve upon the station wagon and build a wonderful variation. A few years ago Lamborghini even manufactured a station wagon with an impressive V12 engine that could cut an hour off the commute (provided the family could afford the speeding tickets). It would be a great accomplishment to build the world's best station wagon.
But! A truly inspired product designer will make a teleporter. With no training whatsoever, the family steps through a portal and appears on grandma’s stoop moments later.
Recently, I was working on a project with the wonderful team at Blue Bottle Coffee. One member of their crew was talking about their (notably wonderful) in-café experience and likened it to a swimming swan: a swan presents a self-controlled elegant appearance above the surface even as her flippers are paddling like mad underwater propelling her forward.
I love how directly applicable the swan metaphor is to product development. Great product designers and engineers go to great lengths to make their products appear effortless. It’s truly incredible that my wife is nonplussed that a Google search with only the four letters “ZAZI” will give her directions, opening times, and a reliable rating of a restaurant a mile away… even though she mistyped its name… in 300ms… across the entire corpus of the internet! No big deal. It just took hundreds (thousands?) of engineers a decade to make this miraculous achievement possible. This is the quintessential swan. All of that effort underwater to make something appear eminently easy.
Look for ways in your own products to do the extra legwork on the design and engineering front to give people that effortless experience.
* Note that this swan metaphor isn’t a new concept. In fact, I feel like I might be the last person on earth to hear it, especially since it seems so obvious after little explanation. For instance, Danny Meyer, a well-known New York restaurateur behind Shake Shack, invokes it in his book Setting the Table.
** The swan metaphor has also been used to describe the negative behavior of masking one’s panic—see the Stanford Duck Syndrome. This is also very useful in the designer’s workplace, but probably another topic entirely.
Nine years ago, I sent a tentatively worded email to Doug Bowman asking if he’d meet up for a coffee when I visited San Francisco for work. At the time, Doug had just launched the new Hotwired site, which was the most incredible, amazing, mind-blowing achievement in web standards at the time. No way did I think that Doug would agree to get coffee with a handful of nobodies from Eastern Canada.
And then he responded. And said yes! And even knew some of the work we’d done (or was generous enough to look us up on the way to the café). And he didn’t talk down to us. And he treated us like COLLEAGUES, not like disciples. And he was just a human.
I’m not exaggerating when I describe this as a seminal moment in my design career. The fact that Doug Bowman treated me like I belonged in the same league allowed me to believe that maybe I really did play in the same league. What a wonderful boost of confidence!
I learned two things that day:
- Go out of your way to make time for people and treat them as your peers – it can make a huge difference.
- Doug Bowman is a thoughtful, kind person. Thanks again Doug.
Three pieces of advice that have stuck with me for many years.
“Do good work and everything else will follow.”
Tom Hughes c. 2001
When I was barely out of my teens, I luckily got to know Tom. He’s someone who has done everything... co-founded Idealab, ex-Apple, ex-Lotus, ex-Polaroid etc. etc. He can talk about doing projects with Andy Warhol! The advice he gave us that stuck was that doing good work was the spine on which everything else could be built. A little trite-sounding maybe, but it’s worked out ok so far.
“Politely decline once, then take an offered gift.”
Raymond Burka c. 1997
My grandfather (who we called Opa) was kind and generous. Once, during a visit in my high school years, he offered ten dollars each to my brother and I as we headed out the door to the movie theater.
Opa: “Here boys, let me pay for the movie.”
My brother: “No, no, we don’t need it, thank-you so much.”
Opa: “No, really, let me pay for the movie.”
My brother: “It’s ok Opa, we really don’t need it.”
Opa: “Politely decline once, then take an offered gift.”
“Design something like you mean it.” [heavily paraphrased]
David Carson at FITC conference Toronto in 2005.
I’ve been to a zillion conference presentations over the past eight years and twenty seconds of David’s talk has still stuck with me. He showed a photograph of two garage doors in an alley. One had a professionally designed No Parking sign bolted to it — big P in a circle with a slash through it and a perfectly typeset warning that ‘violators will be prosecuted.’ The neighboring garage had NO PARKING hastily scrawled across it in blood-colored spray paint. In a pinch, I’d definitely avoid the axe-murdering psycho door.
Here are the dates of Daniel Burka's future thoughts
- Wednesday, 26 June
- Saturday, 20 July
- Tuesday, 20 August
- Friday, 20 September
- Sunday, 20 October
- Wednesday, 20 November
- Friday, 20 December