D. Keith Robinson

D. Keith Robinson is a product designer at Heroku, an app-delivery platform located in San Francisco, California. He spends most of his day designing, writing and coding features for Heroku, and his evenings are spent hacking on side projects like The Mason Jar, writing, reading or relaxing. On weekends he can be found indulging his more dangerous side (you may have wondered what the "D" stands for) running around the beautiful California coast or indulging in as much travel as he can handle.

Keith can be followed on twitter @dkr or get more of him at his personal site dkeithrobinson.com.

Published Thoughts

Drinking & Drawing

Hello, my name is Keith and I like to do drawing.

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of helping to facilitate a design thinking exercise based on Stanford d.school's Wallet Exercise. It was a blast! And a fun and relatively easy way to introduce people to design thinking and the process of developing a product through design.

Most of our participants did not come from a design background, and it was really awesome to see them jump in and start generating ideas and prototypes. They took to the exercise very well for the most part and had a lot of fun doing so.

The one place where people tended to struggle? Sketching and drawing their ideas.

Many people just couldn't seem to put anything on the page, and many who did put pen to paper, did so in the form of text, primarily lists. It was interesting. They were very open to almost every other exercise we threw at them: interviewing, physical prototyping with crafty materials, brainstorming, etc. But when it came to sketching and drawing many of them came up blank. Pardon the pun.

I've seen this before. Even some experienced designers I know have an aversion to drawing and sketching, especially when others can see it. I used to have a similar problem with whiteboarding - I can't draw straight lines for some reason. What is it about drawing that makes people stare at a blank page and hang their head as if heavy rain is pouring down on them.

(An aside: why do people hang their head in the rain? It doesn't seem to serve any purpose, actually hurts your neck and has the potential of water down the back. Seems like the worst reaction to rain. Head up people!)

My guess is that, for many, like myself, drawing and other "less serious" skills were put to the side as they went through school. When we're little, most everyone draws and is encouraged to do so, but as we get older, we're taught and encouraged to express ourselves in other ways. Which isn't all bad, I suppose. What is bad is that sketching and drawing are probably one of the best, fastest ways to explore and express ideas, especially in a group context.

For some reason many people think they have to "be good" to draw and that's simply not true at all. Sketching an idea requires very little actual skill, in fact, I think most people would be better served to draw what they are thinking than to try and write it out.

So where does this fear of drawing come from? A lack of confidence probably. For many adults drawing is simply no longer in their comfort zone.

The upside to it being a confidence problem is that there's a very simple solution: PRACTICE. Practice in public, practice alone, practice, practice, practice. Doodle, sketch and draw as much as you are able - you might never get "good" but you'll get comfortable and that's all you need to get something interesting on to that blank page in front of you.

I like to think of drawing the same way I do karaoke. Anyone can do it. You don't have to be good to have fun and be entertaining. It's better when you're putting effort into it. Everyone gets better (and more comfortable) with practice. And it's easier, if not always better, when you've been drinking.

So, yeah, let's get drunk and draw. :)

Your 15 Meter Circle

I often walk to get my head straight. I walk when I’m stressed, or discouraged, or overwhelmed. It helps.

A few months ago I was having a particularly trying day. It was just one of those days. Even walking wasn’t helping. I was moving briskly, but with no particular purpose, eyes on my feet, when I saw the words “Ask Questions” scrawled into the pavement. It got me thinking about things and suddenly I felt better, and this little cue began to lead me down a mental path that made me feel a whole lot better.

Since then, when I walk, I try and pay attention to the world around me, not the whole world, just those things within 10-15 meters of my current position. Sometimes these things make me smile, or laugh. Sometimes they get me to think, or trigger an idea. And sometimes they just fade away, into the past and the background, taking a little bit of weight with them, freeing up my mind and lightening my mood.

So, when the world feels too big or overwhelming, talk a walk and pay attention to those things within your moving 15 meter circle. Look at the people, the nature, look up and down and all over. 10 minutes in the circle brings amazing perspective.

Take The Stairs

Almost every day I'm faced with a choice as I exit the MUNI to head into the office. Do I take the stairs or the escalator? It's funny to me that I even think about it, as I always take the stairs, but I do. I think about it most days, and I really think about it on days where I'm a bit tired.

It's not a long staircase. It's not especially steep. Yet, as I watch most people file on to the escalator I often wonder to myself why they don't take the stairs. Do they know something I don't? The stairs are faster, they're more fun and less hassle. In fact, at least for me, I can't really see much benefit at all in taking the escalator. So why do so many, the vast majority coming out of the tunnels, choose it?

Is it because it's perceived as easier? Are their legs tired? Do they like being close to so many other people?

A better question is why do I ever ask myself this question in the first place? What is it about this choice that makes me stop for a second every single time? I honestly don't know the answer.

These thoughts usually drift away about halfway up and I realize how glad I was to have made the "harder" choice. I feel the same way when I park further away from my destination and walk in. Or go up the hill as opposed to around it to start my runs. Or having that difficult conversation as opposed to avoiding it. Or staying that extra half an hour in the office to wrap up some detail work.

In my experience the harder choice is usually the best choice, and, if you take the time to think about it, it's not actually harder, only perceived to be that way. Especially when you take a broader, longer view.

So, ask yourself the question, think about it a bit, and then take the stairs. I bet you'll be glad you did.

Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki 

Last year, while learning and practicing meditation, I was introduced to Shoshin (初心), a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “Beginner’s Mind”. A co-worker had suggested reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and, while it’s a bit hard to get through at a times, I found it inspiring. It’s changed the way I look at many things and I’ve found it a very positive influence.

A great—and probably the first—example was with my work. I’d recently started a new gig, at Heroku. I was looking for a challenging learning experience, but wasn’t expecting it to be as difficult as it was. I was having trouble fitting in; a classic fish out of water situation. I think of myself as a seasoned pro and as such I came in assuming I’d fit right in. That wasn’t happening. It was not so much that I was doing poorly, I wasn’t, it was more that my high expectations were causing friction and a bit of frustration. At first I didn’t realize it was a problem I could (and should) solve, but once I did, I began to slow down and pull it apart.

Things immediately started to get better, I guess that intention to work through it helped, but the real break-through came when I started reading Suzuki’s book. Right from the start I made a few connections between the practice of Beginner’s Mind and day-to-day life, and thought that it might help me with the problems I was having at work.

At its core Beginner’s Mind is pretty straightforward. It simply means adopting an open mind; looking at the world with eagerness, and lack of preconceptions, even when approaching something you’re already experienced with. Essentially, approach things as a beginner. 

So I decided to give it a shot. Every morning on my way to work, I thought about how I would attack the day as a beginner would. I set aside preconceived notions of how things should be done and asked a ton of questions. I spent a lot of time in the un-comfort zone. I went out of my way to have difficult conversations, I worked on holding back my initial reactions to think more, I practiced listening, etc. I tried to understand what made people and teams go, I became interested in the different ways people approached work, and actually started to get excited when things were new and different. Even if at first they seemed odd or awkward to me. Learning has always been fun for me, and, in a way, Beginner’s Mind allowed (enabled? encouraged?) me to have that fun all the time.

Very quickly this problem became less of a problem and more of an opportunity. Letting go of all that I was supposed to know and shifting my expectations to prioritize learning over some concept of hard-and-fast-and-amazingly-expert results, allowed me to make mistakes, and, most importantly, to not worry about it. I was a beginner! And there was a lot to learn so long as I was open.

Borrowing from Suzuki, think about it this way: Experts may have the best answers, but beginners have the best questions. Experts may have very little to learn, beginners have everything to learn.

And it wasn’t just me fitting in. Stress went down, which was great, but in addition, problem-solving, creativity and overall team velocity (and harmony) started to creep up. I think it was a big positive to everyone involved.

So, you might be wondering about the specific changes I made to my mindset and routine, and how you can start practicing Beginner’s Mind. While it’s probably harder than it might look at first, it’s similar in a lot of ways to meditation itself in that it’s really just a matter of practice. Here are a few ideas to get you going.

Start by asking questions, and be alright with the idea that you might not know something you’re “supposed to know.” Often, when you come into a new situation, you’re shy about asking questions. You don’t want to seem like you’re in the dark, especially when you think you’re expected to know something. So you don’t ask those questions, for fear of seeming stupid or out of the loop. Make a point to ask questions when you need to, and even those you don’t, you won’t regret it.

Be open-minded. Check your initial reactions. We often react to something new and different with skepticism or defensiveness. We “know better” or think we do. I’ve found that if I take some time to think things through, before offering up a reaction, I will sometimes find my initial reaction to be misguided. I like to think of this as training and testing my intuition with a side of building up my empathy. Even if that initial reaction proves to be correct, there is probably something worth learning in there.

Be ok with making mistakes, and change your definition of success. If you start with a goal of learning something as opposed to some other, more concrete measure of success, suddenly it’s much easier to take risks. So, don’t lower expectations, adjust your definition of success and treat learning as a valid success criteria. 

Be open to diversity in thinking. Go out of your way to think differently. Diversity in thinking, with others or even when within your own mind, can lead to great insights. The best teams are diverse, why not apply that to your own thinking? I’m not an expert on kanji, but “shin” can also mean “heart” or “spirit”, in addition to “mind” — that’s interesting to me because I feel there are many kinds of intelligence. A very quick example; think about how you describe your opinions. Some people say “I think” some people say “I feel” — I don’t see either as better or worse, we all have different ways of looking at life and expressing our thoughts. Recognizing that, and taking care to be curious and open about it, is, to me anyway, the at the heart (or shin) of Shoshin.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Shoshin is all about practice, both in the sense that Beginner’s Mind is something that requires work and practice, but also in the meta-sense that practice is required to get better at anything. Working practice into anything you do, regardless of your level or expertise, is a great way to also work on your beginner’s mind.

Approaching situations, old and new, personal and professional, with a beginner’s mind is a great way to live. Practicing being open, unassuming, excited and curious allows you see things, even things you know well, in a whole new light, revealing a world of possibility. Shoshin has many other additional benefits as well: curiosity, empathy, positivity, vulnerability, etc. It’s a way of approaching life that offers up limitless possibilities.  

Oh, and it’s easier than meditation. :)

Criticism: we're all in this together.

Criticism is hard. It’s one of the most difficult parts of work—hell, life too—regardless of what you do. And yet, it’s absolutely essential, and learning how to give and receive feedback is a key skill anyone can, and very much should, learn.

In my career as a designer I’ve encountered all sorts of feedback mechanisms, and have many thoughts on how best to give and receive feedback. To really dive into that is more than I want to do right now. Our time is valuable, so I figured I highlight my strongest belief regarding criticism:

For criticism to be of any value, it has to be the responsibility of all parties involved.

Giving

When giving feedback you are as much responsible for the outcome of that feedback as the person receiving it. You should be engaged, and if you’re not, just offering an un-asked for opinion with no outcome or motivation in mind, you probably shouldn’t be sharing. Brene Brown has this awesome quote in her article, Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count:

“If you’re not in the arena, also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in getting your feedback.”

This is great, and a good point, but not the whole story. Constructive criticism is always worth listening to, but it needs to have a point and come from an active and engaged place. If you’re “in the cheap seats, not putting yourself on the line” as she puts it, the feedback is a distraction at best. Sadly, this is how a lot of criticism is given.

You want to have a say? Get in the arena and put yourself on the line. Explain yourself, be willing and able to answer questions about your feedback. Be willing to actually help out a bit. Have an intent and purpose behind your critique. This is how real, helpful feedback is done.

Receiving

You may be wondering what sorts of responsibility you’d need to embrace on the receiving end. First and most important: you must be willing to take that feedback, especially if you ask for it. Feedback is a gift and an opportunity. If you ask for critique and expect a blessing, which happens way to often, you’re bound to be disappointed and, frankly, you’re also being kind of an asshole. There is nothing wrong with wanting approval, but it is the the worst when you ask for feedback, get it, and then get upset because it doesn’t meet up with your expectations.

Critique is not about approval, its about making things better.

So, start by being open to feedback. Embrace the inherent vulnerability that comes along with it and realize that while it might hurt a bit, the goal is to make whatever you’re doing better. When receiving criticism, especially when it’s disengaged or unwanted, it’s easy to get defensive (fight) or withdraw (flight), but it’s best to try and not do either.

Again, feedback is a gift. Be grateful for it. Even feedback you don’t ask for. You’ll get feedback you don’t like, sure, and some that’s cruel. Handle it with grace, and do your best to receive it with an open mind. 

When you get criticism that you don’t understand or agree with, ask questions. Try to get to the root of things. Don’t ignore or push your critics away. Try to pull them in. Cajole them into engaging with you to get to what they really think. 

If that doesn’t work, feel free to take what you want and let the rest go. If it doesn't seem actionable or helpful, it might not be. And that's fine. Take what you can use and let the rest be.

Critique is hard. It requires a lot of practice and is a skill you’ll never really master. Having said that, it’s best when expressed with intent, with a positive outcome in mind, and as an open dialog.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it. I’m @dkr on Twitter.

At the beginning of last year I started a new job that would require me to do more coding and programming than I had done in a really long time. I was scared and nervous. I knew I could do it, I’ve taken many projects over the years where I had to learn something completely new, but at the same time, I’m so self-critical at times that I was worried I’d have a rough go of it.

Luckily I work with kind and talented folks who were willing to help. They introduced me to the world of pairing (I’ve generalized this from pair programming, something I’d done in the past, but never in a formal way), and it’s changed the way I work and the way I think about work. At first I was terrified; I’ve never had a problem showing my work before it’s done, but sitting there with someone and having them watch you work, that’s a different beast all together.

Pairing, the way I understand and practice it anyway, is a fairly specific way of working where two people collaborate in real-time over the work. I suppose it could be any type of work, but I generally like to think of it as more involved than say a white-boarding session, for example. It my recent experiences this means writing code or working in Photoshop with one person “driving” and the other chiming in as needed.

The sessions are generally short and focused on a single problem. This keeps them from being inefficient, and, in my experience, it’s very productive, often more so than solo work.

When working solo, you don’t have that quick, real-time feedback loop you get with pairing, and that loop is double-bonus-good if you’re working with someone who you’d need to gather feedback from at a later point anyway.

Pairing is also a great, amazing, superb way to initiate knowledge transfer, and that transfer works all ways.

It doesn’t matter your skill level. It might be tempting to think the benefits apply more to inexperienced folks, but I've found that it works regardless. An experienced veteran can benefit pairing with a young’un, or someone who doesn’t even have the same skill set.  That second pair of eyes just helps and diversity of thought is aways an asset to problem-solving.

The benefits of a pairing session, as you might expect, diminish over time or when high-level thinking is needed. We all need “slack” in our schedule and working alone also has great benefit. For me a bit of regular pairing, with very specific goals and problems in mind, put into my work schedule is perfect.

Give it a try, I bet you’ll love it.