More thoughts by Leisa Reichelt
I like working with start ups because they are brave. Sometimes too brave, of course, but unlike most big companies they are likely to have a vision for how the world might be different when their project is in that world, and everyone on the team knows and shares that vision.
There comes a time in almost every company's existence when people start to care more about their career than they do the product they're working on or the customers they're serving. This is when the fear seems to kick in.
Don't be one of those companies and try not to work for them.
They are vision vacuums. In this vacuum you are better off making no decision than making the wrong one. That's no way to be creative.
I expect people think it's a compliment when they say 'I don't' know how you find the time ...'. Personally, I find it a little irritating. We all have the same amount of time, and we all choose what we do with that time.
If you don't understand how people find time to do all the things they do then chances are you're not being very thoughtful about the way you spend your time. What you do, what you don't do - that's your choice.
There is no good choice or bad choice, but there are different levels of thoughtfulness.
There are lots of ways to spend your time badly. You can be incredibly busy and still spending your time badly. Everybody, except the bored, wants more time.
What do you want your life to be? That's how you need to spend your time.
Your time is the most precious resource you have. Use it thoughtfully, productively and creatively.
Do you ever get the feeling that, as a profession, we're not really getting much better? Designers aren't designing better. Researchers aren't researching better. Developers... well, it's not really for me to say.
I think it's because our best and brightest stop making and start managing too soon. Those with the most talent and ambition are plucked out of practice just when their work is starting to get excited and they become line managers of the less talented and less ambitious.
That's pretty broken, right?
How do we keep young designers designing, young researchers researching, young developers writing code.
How do we recognize and reward their great work without promoting them into a role where they stop doing what they're awesome at and become managers instead.
How do we make it as prestigious to be one of the best designers in the company as we do to give people line reports and fancy job titles?
How do we stop promoting people away from excellence to their level of incompetence? How do we encourage apprenticeship rather than line management? How do we encourage people to take their careers more slowly?
Let's redesign incentive and reward and make being an awesome designer (or researcher or developer) something with an exciting career path, something to really aspire to.
I've been noticing the way the space I'm working in affects the way I work. I've always known it made a difference but until recently I've thought it was a sign of my ability, my professionalism, to make the best of whatever space I find myself in. Lately, I've given up that vanity. Fact is, the walls do make a difference.
I need the walls to externalise and visualise data and my response to it in a way that is impossible on a computer screen - no matter how many monitors I have. I need walls to allow me to interact with that information in a more haphazard way. I need walls so that my team can talk to each other without feeling like they're disturbing those around them. I need walls so I can get quiet time to think and read and make sense without having to wear my headphones. Music is great, but quiet is different.
I wish more of us worked in designed spaces. Spaces with variety - with openness for sharing and more enclosed spaces for thinking. Spaces for individuals to make their own, for teams and projects to own, for walls to externalise our knowledge and share our ideas (and ideals).
Less with the pool tables, more with the thoughtful workspace design.
When I was younger, my mother always told me ‘don’t worry what other people think’. I always thought that was pretty good advice but lately I’ve decided it was pretty flawed.
What other people think does matter, sometimes it’s really important. Blinkering yourself to that can cut off your ability to empathise and to respond appropriately.
Now I’m a mother, the message I want to send might be something about finding the value in the things you do that makes you different and really embracing it. Understand yourself better, and understand others as much as you can.
Do you know, specifically, the kind of work you want to be doing? The kind of people you want to be working with? The kind of customers you want to be looking after?
I’m amazed how many people reach out to me when they’re looking for work but, when I ask them, what kind of work are you looking for, I get a blank stare.
Sure, sometimes you might need to take work you’d rather not be doing, but you should always know clearly what you want (even if this changes from time to time).
Same thing goes for my clients. They are often so busy trying to make a sale, or raise some money, they’ve lost their vision. They’ve forgotten the real reason their organisation exists.
Once you have a clear view of what you want to be doing, two things happen:
- You see opportunities more quickly and clearly and can pursue them with more focus.
- Other people find opportunities for you and create connections for you because they know you’re the person who does that thing.
It’s harder than it sounds, making that decision and communicating it, but it’s well worth the effort.
One of my favourite books is a tiny slender volume called ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ by James Webb Young. The book is actually targeted towards people in advertising, but has a lot of relevance for anyone who is involved in creative problem solving.
I think it’s a particularly good summertime read for anyone who is looking for a good excuse to get out of the office and enjoy some good weather or the good things that people tend to do when the weather is fine.
In the book the author tells us that ideas are made up of a combination of old elements—usually an element which is specific to our problem area and another idea which is general.
We’re usually pretty good at gathering specific ideas as we sit glued to Twitter, reading each other’s blogs, our ears finely attuned to the industry echo chamber.
What we’re often not so good at is the ideas that are more general. But this is what summer is great for. General ideas come from the rest of life. From being out and in that life, engaging with it, being interested in it, exploring things that have absolutely no relevance to our work or the problem space we’re exploring.
The author says:
Every good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested—from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow, no browsing, no milk.
Make it your mission this summer (and beyond) to get out into the world and to browse widely and interestedly in things that you’ve never paid attention to before. That have nothing to do with the internet, with your profession. Fill your mind with diverse experiences and engage with them fully.
And don’t try to turn these new experiences into solutions or creative ideas on the fly. Let them settle. When describing the ‘mental digestive process’ James Webb Young also confirms that time not thinking about the problem is essential. He advises that we ‘drop the entire subject and put the idea out of your mind as completely as possible’, to ‘turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.’
Almost always the best solutions to complicated problems come to us when we’re away from our desk. Sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the shower, sometimes midway through a run.
We need to be more disciplined about giving problems a proper diet of new and diverse experience, and then giving them space to roll over in our mind, to find new combinations and for interesting ideas to emerge.
We need to be more disciplined about giving ourselves a break.
So, get started this summer—step away from your desk, go out and indulge in the rest of life and know that, as you do it, you’re also making yourself better at your work. And enjoy yourself while you let your unconscious mind do its thing.
(With apologies to Southern Hemisphere readers and those in the UK assuming the weather will have turned bad again by the time this is published)
It must be borne in mind that the object being worked on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people individually or en masse. If the point of contact between the product and people becomes a point of friction, then the designer has failed. If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more desirous of purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.
—Henry Dreyfuss, Harvard Business Review, November 1950
Those are exciting times, and we’re tackling new and different challenges. Yet Dreyfuss wrote this homage to user experience 62 years ago.
We have a heritage of great designers trying to make great user experiences in the face of rapidly changing technology. User Experience may be a new(ish) term, but Human Factors is a well-established profession. Apple may be our current commercial successful design-focused poster company but Dreyfuss demonstrated for decades that good design was commercially rewarding.
Our technology and buzzwords might be new but the challenges we face are, at least, decades old.
Let’s seek out this legacy and draw inspiration from it more deeply. Let’s learn from history rather than endlessly learn things anew. Let’s stop thinking we’re so clever for thinking thoughts that others have thought decades before us and knuckle down the real challenge of creating environments where good design can thrive. A challenge that hasn’t, and probably won’t soon, go away.
Themes that keep recurring in projects, books and conferences:
- If you never question the brief you’ll probably never identify the real problem to solve.
- If your design solution doesn’t also reshape the organisation, it probably won’t stick.
- If you stop experimenting, you might as well pack up your toys and head home.
Why prototyping beats wireframing.
- You’re making, not documenting. You can feel the thing you’re making.
- You’ve got a thing you can start testing, in all kinds of ways, almost immediately. Prototyping is more like experimenting than describing your grand design.
- It doesn’t have to look good to be effective. It’s easier to keep it rough which helps people give better feedback early on.
- You start out with the barest structure of an idea and gradually build in the detail as you play with and test out the thing you have made.
- You’re learning useful things (like how to better translate your ideas into code).
- Stakeholders and clients get excited about prototypes in a way they never do about wireframes.
- Prototypes are concrete where wireframes are abstract.
- Prototypes create the impression of real progress—of something actually happening—in a way that wire framing never does.
- Prototyping is addictive—you have to pull yourself away from it (rather than forcing yourself to stay in your chair and finish annotating your wireframes).
- Prototyping encourages cross-disciplinary teams from the earliest stages of design. You get to work with smart people who can make your work better.
- If you’re on a project where you feel like you have to wireframe extensively, there’s probably a better way to be doing that project.
Less wireframing, more prototyping.
When I see someone advocating their way as the one right way, here’s the framework I use for critique.
The first lens:
Does your one right way emphasises a skill that you are particularly strong in? Do I need to be clever and experienced in the same way that you are in order for your methodology to work for me?
It’s very easy to advocate that everyone do things the way that you do, after all, it works for you, right?
Graphic designers are appalled by projects that aren’t led by people with the appropriate level of ‘taste’, developers are appalled by designers who don’t write CSS. Yet, all different approaches seem to work for different people.
I’m glad you’ve got a method that works for you but if your particular talent and experience are a prerequisite for making it work, I’m going to be cautious about recommending your approach to the rest of the world.
The second lens:
Does your one right way allow everyone in your team* to contribute to their full ability and feel as though they are a worthy and valued member of the team?
If you are the only person in the team who gets to do the really fun, interesting work and everyone else is busy documenting, or colouring in, or coding up your amazing work, you’re advocating waste of the worst kind — waste of talent and passion.
If your methodology isn’t multidisciplinary early on — early enough for people other than you to be really involved in making really interesting and important decisions, you’re not getting the best from your team. (Also, no, a meeting to show them your wireframes and ask for feedback doesn’t count).
The way we choose to work has a huge impact on the kind of work we turn out. Take some time to think about the alternatives, to be brave and (if you need to) fight for a better way.
* Sadly, not everyone has a team to work with. Working with a great team is the best way to get better at what you do, and lots of other things you didn’t do before. Don’t let yourself be team-less for too long.
Don’t give up.
Don’t let yourself be convinced that this is just the way it has to be.
Don’t stop asking questions.
Do ask for what you need to do the job well.
Do trust your instincts and your experience.
Pay attention to red flags.
Work with people who care.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Remember that confidence and competence are not always related.
Always be learning.
Ask dumb questions.
Be able to explain what you’re doing to a five year old.
Make sure you know why you’re doing it.
Your life is a design project.
There are many possible solutions.
Don’t just accept the default settings,
be creative, imagine alternatives.
Don’t give up.