Posts About Progressive Design
Posts About Progressive Design
Designers, it's time to elevate our game or get off the pot. Yes, I'm telling designers to step up. Because I'm not seeing it happen. What I see now are scared designers afraid to make decisions on behalf of their organizations. Creators and craftsmen struggling to tell other people what works best, and it's putting their own future along with their organization's in jeopardy.
Everyone wants the benefits that come along with authority and influence, but most don't want what inevitably follows: the responsibility of decision making. Making decisions all day requires tremendous amounts of mental energy. Sometimes it's not fun and it can be scary. These feelings, combined with impostor syndrome, put doubt into the heads of designers about whether they have authority to even make a decision. The ease of passing a decision on to someone else has kept many designers in perpetual limbo. They're kinda getting things done, but kinda not, kinda being useful but kinda not. And while for the time being most people aren't noticing, they soon will.
Friends, we can't stay here. We need to design or get off the pot. Making good design decisions is a fundamental building block required to influence our teams and guide them through creative decisions that can benefit our organizations. Machine learning and AI are already making inroads in our industry and will replace a lot of the design we're doing today. What will help us achieve the impact that we desire and keep us valuable to organizations is making good decisions, making them quickly and executing them. It's key to both our survival and growth. And it's not just limited to the design leaders among us. Leading by design can be learned and doesn't require a title or management position.
Making design decisions by doing
In my recent post I discussed the problems of thinking too much in our design work. Taking action is far more important to getting good initial results. Do, then think. Which brings us to the topic today- if we’re not spending time thinking, then how do we get started doing? Designers need to get good at reading situations and making decisions. Waiting for our teams to inspire action isn’t going to work anymore. It’s our job to help our organizations see the possibilities of design through clear, decisive actions.
Design covers all facets of business: strategic, tactical and operational. Designers that are most effective must know how to make decisions in each realm. And whether designers want to lead or not, faster decision making makes everyone on the team better. It’s crucial to solving the complexities of connected products and services. You don’t need to be a manager to make decisions.
...But making decisions is for managers
New designers get anxiety when I tell them they will make a great design leader. You can see the fear in their eyes, “Do I want to manage people?” And then they start processing, “Do I want to tell people what to do? Can I do this?” I tell them to slow down and not to get ahead of themselves- my compliments usually stem from a great design decision I see them make. They don’t realize it, but making a solid decision is the first step in leadership. It builds confidence and inspires action. Managing people may happen, but you’d be surprised how far a designer can grow in an organization simply by making good design decisions.
Design Deciding like a Boss
Making creative decisions can be hard, and very different from your typical business decision. We use patterns in design because rigid formulas quickly expire when we’re challenged with complex and chaotic problems. There’s just too much change happening in technology. So how do we do this? We use different methods of thinking to accomplish phases of our work. Here are a few:
- Abductive reasoning- many design decisions are informed guesses that tie disparate pieces of data and knowledge together.
- Effectual reasoning- emergent ideas require creating undefined outcomes from a set of means. Goals are many, and the results are all meant to be positive.
- Divergent thinking- exploring the many possibilities of a concept enables the best ideas to emerge. Creating space for ideas to emerge is important for growth.
- Creative collaboration- design work often requires shared ownership of an idea to truly flourish in a business.
The variability in our methods can create problems and more complexity. Anyone that’s worked in a design process understands that it can be a frustrating experience when the team isn’t working well together or decisions have stalled. Designers can avoid these problems if they are aware of the issues. So why is making design decisions harder than other business decisions?
- Designers are wrong most of the time, which puts us in peculiar situations with our teammates who may not empathize or understand iteration. But it’s required for emergent ideas to happen.
- Collaboration can be a trap and teammates who don’t participate can isolate quickly. Problems emerge when designers are forced to make most of the creative decisions.
- Solving problems in a way that allows new ideas to emerge is extremely agitating to critical thinkers who seek clarity and want to execute.
- Teams with limited design literacy fail to see how design can influence better outcomes through strategic, tactical and operational facets of the organization.
- Continuous creative decision making is exhausting and taxing; often causing project fatigue in team members who aren’t used to expressing their ideas.
All of these reasons can put a halt to design progress. Designers need a quick first step to inspire action. An effective first step can be the difference between a successful outcome and disappointing result. The faster we can reconcile our thinking and actions, the more effective we will be in our design collaborations.
Start with a dribble, pass or shot
When you see an amazing athlete perform, it’s incredible to watch them make quick decisions. I’m a Warriors basketball fan (It doesn’t hurt that the Warriors also use Foundation!). I’ve become enamored by the energizing and spectacular play of Steph Curry. His play seems effortless as he helps his team win. Check out some of Steph’s magical moments:
So what can we learn from these super athletes? These amazing plays don’t happen randomly- they happen through the practice of a ton of small actions. Steph is a quiet force that leads through his actions and inspiring play. He’s not directing the play- that’s the coach's role. He’s encouraging his teammates to make better decisions through his own play. He makes his team stronger with quick, improvised decisions that start with either a dribble, pass, or shot.
Steph’s game performance starts by practicing his decision making. It looks like he’s doing and thinking at the same time, when in fact, he’s made the time between thoughts and actions so small, you can no longer see the difference. His performance feels like it’s on autopilot. His decisions are quick and effective.
Designers can get better at making decisions faster too. While it’s not quite shooting or dribbling, at it’s core, we’re also making decisions by doing and thinking to help our team and organization win. Practicing to produce successful results builds confidence and makes it easier to self-evaluate our performances.
Making a Quick Design Decision
Over a decade ago we developed a system at ZURB called Progressive Design to help us make better design decisions. Making good design decisions is something that can be learned, but it requires practice, repetition and a conscious effort. A quick first step can be the difference between a stalled project and a momentum building action. We practice decisions in three facets of design- strategic, tactical and operational.
Similar to a dribble, pass or shot, designers have a way to assess a situation and start making quick design decisions. By identifying the mental space, Lift, Leap or Land, we can choose the right design methods for effectively moving a project forward. In each space we must ask a couple questions that help us take action.
Frame the challenge with LIFT
Strategic, or important, projects require a strong lift to frame the design challenge. In this mental space, we’re not using design to solve a problem- instead, we’re creating a space for problems to emerge so that we can inspire incredible design thinking in our team. Design decisions are based on good questions to get our team seeing a problem from many different perspectives. We do this through needfinding, observation and problem definition.
It’s important to note that not all design challenges require creating lift because a problem may already be well defined. However, in each design project it’s still important to ask the right type of questions.
How come? We can find potential needs that may not be met by a current solution. We can ask, how come this is the case? By observing and reviewing users, trends and available insights, we can create a challenge that helps us learn.
What if? By suggesting different ways to look at a problem, we avoid narrowing the problem too quickly or solving the wrong problem. A current solution shouldn’t limit our thinking, instead, it should inspire us to ask, “what if we considered a new possibility?”
Assess the potential with LEAP
Creating an emerging product or service requires making big leaps. Technological advances and psychological factors, however, create uncertainty and increase the complexity of our design challenges. We can use design to assess the potential of an idea or concept to insure we’re solving the right problem. Complicated and complex problems require finding patterns and removing unknowns.
Designers can help their organizations overcome the doubt that emerges from this rapid change through iteration. This can feel very much like trial and error, and we do this through ideation and prototyping.
How about? Suggesting ideas can be an anxiety filled activity, but the right methods will inspire a team to think big. We use sketching as an efficient way to explore ideas and visualize workflows that work within specific opportunities.
Why not? We can evaluate interface ideas in prototypes and validate if our design assumptions and interaction design were good. Prototypes help us understand why our initial thoughts may or may not have been good ideas so that we can adjust in new directions.
Finalize the Choices with Land
Many great design decisions happen when we focus on execution. Teams build confidence through realizing an idea and finalizing choices. Production is an important part of design and it’s best served landing on agreed upon ideas. We do this by establishing best practices through testing and forming patterns in our frameworks and style guides.
Design is very good at solving production oriented problems. In fact, it’s the space design has played a larger role in over the past hundred years.
Which one? With the design structure agreed upon, we work with teams to create flexible, scalable designs that can inspire completion.
Why’s that? No decision is perfect. We breakdown the problem by looking at qualitative and quantitative data to arrive at some insights we can build opportunities from.
Designing with a System
Designers need to influence business decisions through quick design decision making. Creative environments are not always conducive to building confidence, so quick design decisions can inspire action and get everyone moving forward. Having the right system in place, just like a style guide, can encourage designers to step up and own these decisions. Knowing what design decision to make starts with understanding the right mental space to ask questions.
At ZURB we use Progressive Design to simplify our design decision matrix. A consistent, reliable approach helps us build momentum in projects by setting us up to use the right design methods. Choosing between Lift, Leap or Land questions is the determining factor in the success of our projects. We’re excited about the progress we’ve made in our approach and would love to hear how you make decisions. Designers, it’s time to own our decisions!
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
A few years ago, a piece I wrote about design thinking totally exploded. It was pretty surprising because it wasn't one of those 'Unlock the power of design in your company' posts, it was all about how confusing and meaningless 'design thinking' has become. Near blasphemy for a design leader (and former employee of IDEO) like myself to say, right? It's not that I don't believe in the methods espoused by design thinking... it's that much of what people focus on is the 'thinking.' My issue is that designers spend too much time thinking about problems and enthusiastically proclaim they are using design thinking as if that has somehow done something. Folks, most thinking is waste of time and doesn't produce better results.
In fact, most designers overvalue their thinking time and spend too much of it on hypothetical issues instead of actively solving the problems that matter most. I'm guilty of this too. It's fun to talk about how we'd solve problems with no real world constraints, or what we'd change in industries we don't fully understand or grasp. This type of thought can seem beneficial and constructive, but it's actually tangential. It diverts us from the exercises that actually will get us closer to solutions, from actually designing. The beauty of design is that you can quickly mock up ideas and get new insights from your team or customer. It takes very little time to get as much value as you're going to get out of thinking through the projects- the bulk of the insights come from actively working in the problem.
Do, then think
'Don't think.' I say it all the time in the office. What I'm really saying is, 'make the thinking smaller, then execute.' It's not that they shouldn't be learning about what they're building or making, but the lessons become more valuable after the work gets done. Thinking is costly time. Better to get a wrong answer and learn from it.
Working in this way can feel scary and unnatural but science has proven that quick decisions are often our best. In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell explores this at length:
We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.' ' Malcom Gladwell, Blink
Ironically, the longest lasting benefits often come from the wrong decisions. Wrong answers aren't something to be feared and avoided because they help us get faster at adjusting our thinking through doing. They expose new parts of the problem and help us create better answers. So we need to push through as many ideas as possible, right or wrong, with our teams and help them see the value of thinking less and doing more. In other words, you can't steer a ship that's not moving.
There is another benefit to promoting action over inaction- when we don't do this, sitting and thinking can be confused with laziness, procrastination and idleness. Given the importance of design in businesses, we must understand that the perception of our work is equally important to the output- it's hard to move teams forward if they don't believe in our work. Like I shared in my previous post, my job doesn't really require me to have any right answers, instead, I must have ways to get to the right answer.
Play like you practice
Early on in a designer's growth, we practice the basics of design to improve our literacy. Our goals may be to strengthen our creativity, master our tools, or even just learn how properly complete something. As we advance in our skills though, we need to modify both how we practice and what we practice.
Up until recently, it was accepted that merely engaging in an activity for 10,000 hours made you an expert, but recent studies have debunked this. We now know that not all practice makes perfect. To truly improve, we need to engage in what's called deliberate practice. This is specific and sustained effort focused on improving in something we don't do well.
Most designers don't practice being able to make quick decisions and execute them, and are content with the same basic practice they did at the start of their careers. This can work well for a time, but as they advance in their career and begin working in collaborative environments, the cracks start to show. Some of the bad habits we try to help designers unlearn here at ZURB are:
- Unfocused thinking. Being able to think freely and not have your solutions colored by how things are or what has come before is special skill great designers should cultivate, but that thinking is most impactful when it incorporates the real world considerations we need to work with including our audience, resources, time, etc.
- Lack of time management. We have the freedom to decide when and how much time we can devote to side projects and hobbies, but we rarely have that authority when it comes to our work in an organization. Great designers train themselves to use time efficiently and productively.
- Creative output without purpose. It's perfectly fine to create art or work on personal projects with no specific function or purpose. It is, however, important for designers to realize that the critical thinkers in their organizations want and expect a reason for any and all of their choices, creative or not. Understanding how to generate work that furthers a shared story or vision and be able to adequately explain how that work advances those goals is vital skill.
So how does one practice doing better design? The design methods are endless, but an example of a technique we use at ZURB is holding new designers accountable to 45 sketches/ideas in 3 hours when they first start. Most fail at this task, but within a few tries almost all are able to make amazing progress. They begin to move ideas forward and learn that they need to keep their pen moving, get the worst ideas out.
Collaborative environments require a work style that enables ideas to be shared quickly- thinking too much can get in the way of collaborating effectively. The problem is that most new designers want to take their time and show their best work. The harsh timebox makes them feel like they're being set up to fail. What they later realize, is that true collaboration is working through incomplete ideas together in order to get to the best ones quicker, not working in isolation to feed their ego's desire for a perfect big reveal. Design is messy.
Incremental thinking through Progressive Design
So how do we learn to think faster, for the intent of moving our teams forward? We must break problems into smaller chunks that are easier to get feedback on and get others on our team invested to create momentum. Iteration builds momentum. At ZURB, we use Progressive Design. It's a design system built around the concept of a design feedback loop that has teams creating, showing work, sharing reactions, and shaping that work in small, manageable cycles that drive work forward, fast.
If we sit idle trying to be creative, or focus too much on getting the right answers we start to slow down. Slowing down decision making gets in the way of building momentum with a team. Designers need to build confidence with their teams through solid decision making and visible progress. The more we get good at creative decision making, the easier it is to get our teams moving forward. Lead by design!
In my next post I'll share how some of the best athletes in the world improve their reaction time and how designers can use these tactics to make decisions faster.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
Wooooosh. That was the sound of a 68 MPH fast ball as it sailed over the middle of the plate, past my bat, and straight into the catcher's mitt. It was my first plate appearance in a regional Little League game and I had just struck out. With a lump in my throat, I began my walk back to the dugout, thirty seconds that felt like an eternity. My ego was bruised and I had let my team down.
As the game went on though, I realized I wasn't alone. I watched as each of my buddies faced similar fates. Our whole team went down swinging... everyone except Brian Goosey that is. In the last inning, he connected, sending the ball straight into stands for a home run and giving us a 1-0 game win keeping our hopes alive to reach the Little League World Series. It only took one swing to erase the goose egg that stood on the scoreboard. One swing to win the game.
Striking out is just part of the process
We learn the sting of failure early in life. You'd think it would get easier as we grow older and more accustomed to it, but it actually gets worse as our imaginations get even better at coming up with horrific (and grossly exaggerated) consequences of failure. This fear, however irrational, can be paralyzing. As adults we begin trying to minimize failure by any means necessary, carefully over analyzing every decision and always choosing the safest paths. The truth is, that this behavior is far scarier than anything failure could cause. It doesn't make us any safer or any more successful. In fact, it actually ensures that we won't achieve the potentially game changing results that only taking risks can achieve.
Failure is an integral part of design. Design requires making mistakes and working through a lot of wrong answers, often very publicly. It can be painfully revealing. It requires a vulnerability that many of our coworkers misunderstand, but it's one reason designers are better at using empathy as a way to create better product and service outcomes. On a daily basis, we're missing the mark in hundreds of small, incremental decisions that help our organizations get better results.
Companies know they need design, but they don't understand that mistake-making is one of its base elements, a key ingredient to its magic. So in a misguided effort to reduce what they see as risk, they institute rigid processes and other constraints. But the collateral damage is devastating. In addition to risk, they also reduce the growth and passion of their creative thinkers and the momentum of their business.
Playing it safe is natural
But the blame can't entirely be placed on companies and the critical thinking executives in them. Designers themselves, once they hit the big leagues of an executive role or title, often begin feeling that fear and vulnerability of "striking out." They start playing it safe, make a few bunts here and there, but nothing too wild. Nothing that runs the risk of spectacular failure... or spectacular success either.
Risk avoidance is a natural instinct, a defense mechanism built into us by our ancestors over millennia. In our collaborative environments, it's called collective avoidance motivation. So to reprogram our brains to ignore that, to actually embrace it, is no easy task. We not only have to adjust our approach, we need to facilitate a culture that supports more home run hitting. Critical thinkers will need to embrace more divergent thinking. Leaders will need to deal with failing and move on. Workers will need to figure out how to get over the discomfort of wrong answers.
We don't have to look far for inspiring examples of people embracing different approaches. I captured this recently in my thinking differently Apple post, but my favorite example is looking at how Babe Ruth changed baseball forever by focusing on home runs.
Swinging the bat to impress a new generation
By the year 1923, Babe Ruth had redefined how baseball was played by setting the record for most home runs in a season with a power bat and a personality. What most people don't know is that he also set the record for most for most strikeouts for any player in Major League Baseball. Over his storied career he struck out 1,330 times, but overcame his failures to hit 714 home runs. He was a dynamic player that captured people's attention with his style of play.
In the previous two decades Ty Cobb stood on baseball's highest pedestal with a completely different approach. His lifetime batting average is still the highest of all time and he's credited with 90 MLB records. In 1923 however, baseball was looking for something different and Ruth represented the change in how baseball would be played. Getting singles was no longer what people wanted- they wanted to see the ball hit over the fence. "Cobb represents the mauve decades in baseball," said The Sporting News. "Ruth represents the hot cha-cha, and hey nonny, nonny period."
"Every strike brings me closer to the next home run," Babe Ruth once pined.
After enduring several years of seeing his fame and notoriety usurped by Ruth, Cobb decided that he was going to show that swinging for the fences was no challenge for a top hitter. On May 5, 1925, he began a two-game hitting spree better than any even Ruth had unleashed. Sitting in the Tiger dugout, he told a reporter that, for the first time in his career, he was going to swing for the fences. That day, he went 6 for 6, with two singles, a double and three home runs. The 16 total bases set a new AL record. The next day he had three more hits, two of which were home runs. Cobb wanted to show that he could hit home runs when he wanted, but simply chose not to do so. At the end of the series, the 38-year-old veteran superstar had gone 12 for 19 with 29 total bases and then went happily back to his usual bunting and hitting-and-running. For his part, Ruth's attitude was that "I could have had a lifetime .600 average, but I would have had to hit them singles. The people were paying to see me hit home runs." Even so, when asked in 1930 by Grantland Rice to name the best hitter he'd ever seen, Cobb answered, "You can't beat the Babe. Ruth is one of the few who can take a terrific swing and still meet the ball solidly. His timing is perfect. [No one has] the combined power and eye of Ruth." - Wikipedia
You've got it all wrong
"That's wrong. It's not the right answer." - said yesterday, and every day before that.
As a designer, we're used to hearing how our informed opinions are wrong. We frequently use abductive reasoning to arrive at solutions. We're used to helping our team figure out what does but also doesn't work. It can be discouraging, but as a designer I know my role isn't to dart to an answer, but rather, get my team seeking the best answers through iteration and collaboration. That means I must be willing to share wrong answers. In fact, my job doesn't really require me to have any right answers, instead, I must have ways to get to the right answer. As such, my job is to fail continuously to be able to hit home runs!
I've grown to accept that others may not understand this, even if I spend time explaining this to coworkers. I've been doing it for over two decades. Here's the deal though, if designers are going to play a role in helping their companies become more design centric, we need to figure out how to make these ideas stick. Otherwise we're just creating frustration, flatlining our career growth and stalling people's faith in design. Afterall, Babe had a .341 lifetime batting average, which meant he missed two thirds of the time!
Nobody hit a home run watching the ball
I've had my share of blank stares and arguments from my corporate coworkers, but it doesn't deter me from trying to create meaningful dialog about the challenges of using design to create better business outcomes. It can be tiring work and sometimes agonizing.
Designers need to persevere through the frustrations created by our methods and techniques to find better ways to effectively collaborate with our corporate, critical thinking partners. We need to have courage to stick with it to find harmony in our work styles. Perhaps I'm a little crazy, but as a designer, I find this an amazing opportunity to redefine our relationships in our organizations.
The game has forever changed. The demands placed on designers are absolutely staggering and the pace of technological advancement is mind-blowing. We simply can't afford to play it safe. The cost of inaction is too great, too risky. We have to swing, and swing hard if we want to win. And this means getting everybody okay with a few strikes, including ourselves. Because when we finally do connect, when we get it right and land that home run, any memories of our past strikeouts disappear into the deafening roar of the crowd. Swing for the fences.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
It's election time folks, which explains why we've been bombarded with all sorts of polls from both sides of the political aisle. They all claim to be fair and bias-free yet they all seem wildly contradictory. Is it really that hard to get the real, honest answers or is it inevitable that some amount of bias will color the data?
As designers, we work to fight against our own thoughts and opinions and eagerly seek those of our users. Having a process for collecting feedback regularly certainly helps, but nothing beats good ol' fashion user testing. The faster and more regularly we can get honest and uncolored feedback from our users, the faster we can get to the right solutions and ultimately better the best design.
To help us get feedback and validate our design decisions, we've spent years building tools like Verify and Notable Tests that make it easy to get our work in front of lots of people, and analyze their feelings on it. Big companies like Disney, Google, HP, Salesforce and eBay dug'em too. But this election season has made us take a deeper look at how we look at polls, the 'facts' they elicit, and what we could do to minimize bias is our user testing.
For example, when a friend or family member sends you the results of a poll, how often do you ask them how the data was collected before forming an opinion on it yourself? That matters. Alot. The New York Times recently reported of a man from Illinois who was allegedly (and unknowingly) being given 30 times the weight of an average respondent due to his being a member of a small demographic, and the only one in the demographic to respond. This caused a presidential poll to completely flip flop based on the individual's change in preference from one candidate to the other.
In that case the data was made available by the organization running the poll, and the bias was not intentional. However, intentional or not, bias is hard to account for, and the 'who' and the 'how' of what we ask when conducting tests is often more important than the answers. And, while this is certainly true in context of the elections, you may want to take a moment to ponder how this affects the evaluation of your design work as well.
What makes polling scientific?
When we're trying to validate design decisions, there are a number of factors we need to consider: the work itself, sample size, demographics, variables, etc' But how often do we really stop and think about all the bits and pieces that make polling 'scientific'? According to Gallup, 'A scientific, non-biased public opinion poll is a type of survey or inquiry designed to measure the public's views regarding a particular topic or series of topics. Trained interviewers ask questions of people chosen at random from the population being measured.'
Sounds fair but wait...
'A scientific, non-biased public opinion poll'. Let's stop there, aren't opinions by nature expressions of bias? I'm confused, but let's table that thought for now. The next interesting bit is, 'Trained interviewers ask questions of people chosen at random from the population being measured.' Seems like another oxymoron: 'people chosen at random from the population being measured'. How can a population that you specifically chose to measure be truly random? What's the deal here man!?
The Framing Effect
Everyone of us has some sort of bias, and due to the nature of bias, we are very likely unaware of it. Cognitive Bias is just as important to understand when it comes to polling, or validating designs, because we take our bias with us to the polls. For me, I grew up an angsty punk rocker who thought the man was trying to keep him down. When I read the first sentence about polls from Gallup, my bias caused me to react prematurely and misconstrue the evidence in front of me (i.e I affected an assumption that the wording seemed exclusionary). This in turn caused me to relay the information to you in a way that transferred some of my bias to you (that or you called my bullshit right off; +1 for you).
The phenomenon described above is similar to what is known as the 'Framing Effect'. Essentially this means that depending on how the information is presented, regardless of its content, people draw different conclusions. It's scarily easy for this bias to be manipulated. Some pollers have been accused of asking leading questions. This brings us to the true subject of this article, and our hypothesis: The way you ask a question, affects the answers you get.
Robin Williams vs Adam Sandler
Now, take that small little example and think about how this kind of bias, intentional or otherwise, affects the way we create, distribute, and measure the results of tests. Here's a silly nonpartisan example of a poll/test in the simplest form, 'Adam Sandler or Robin Williams?'. What's your answer? Stash that, what's the question? Well, as they say in college, 'the preponderance of evidence suggests'' that the poller is asking, 'Which do you prefer, Adam Sandler, or Robin Williams?'.
Let's take this silly example to the nth degree and send the Williams v. Sandler test to 150 randomly selected users. The answers come in, 63% say they prefer Robin Williams, 37% prefer Adam Sandler. Looks like Adam is the clear loser here (you were right Adam, they're all gonna laugh at you).
Suppose though, for a second, that you had instead asked the question, 'Whose movies do you like best, Adam Sandler, or Robin Williams?'. One might assume the distribution would be somewhat similar, but why? Couldn't the original question have been misconstrued to mean something entirely different? Like who is hotter, Adam Sandler, or Robin Williams? We sent the same test with the new verbiage to 200 users, and the results were surprisingly similar.
The Mere Exposure Effect
In the example of Williams v. Sandler, it appears that there is enough context in popular culture to understand the simpler question to be the same as the more complex without the added context. Because of this, we'll likely see little deviation between the two sets of tests. This is also an indication of prior bias, though not in the way we normally think of it. This is called the 'mere exposure effect', where people tend to express a liking for something purely because of their familiarity to it. Several of our test respondents literally said, 'I am more familiar' as an explanation of their choice.
At first we might think that's okay in this test, because we didn't ask who IS better, we asked who do you prefer. But in the first test we provided no such context, other than the mechanics of the test itself, A or B. Left without additional context perhaps people default to 'mere exposure bias' and choose what they know.
We're not sure we've really proven anything just yet. The hypothesis we went into these two rounds of tests with was that context matters. Instead, we found that in the case of Williams v. Sandler it didn't matter how you phrased the question. Though if we had intended to ask who has the better kung-fu we could expect the results of the first test would have been completely erroneous.
Setting a Different Context
Let's look at an example where the context is not so obvious; let's do a test with two different website layouts. In this example, we sent out two tests with similar premise as the previous set. Our goal with these tests was to see which layout our users preferred for our new homepage redesign. In one test we asked the testees (giggle), 'Select the variation you prefer'.
In the other, we set up the question by starting with an introductory message, 'ZURB is a product design company that is known for their front-end web framework (Foundation) and their 20 years of experience designing websites and applications for clients like Netflix, Samsung, BAE, and Pixar'. Next, the testees (still giggling) were given this prompt: 'Of the two designs, which do you think better communicates who ZURB is and what they do?'.
The results above appear to support the hypothesis! If we dig more, and look at these results based on demographics, we could extract even more nuance. For example, in all versions of the tests we covered, filtering could change the outcome, pushing the result from predominantly A to predominantly B or vice versa. For example in both, respondents aged 25-34 preferred variation B.
We don't know for certain why some demographic groups found one variation more interesting than the other. Nor can we really say at this moment if the results could be considered 'statistically relevant', as we have not yet discussed what makes a result so. But clearly there are a lot more nuances to both conducting a user test and sifting through the data than many designers realize.
Frequentist Inference and Statistical Relevance
In our previous iterations of our testing application, we ended up erring on the side of what is known as Frequentist Inference when it came to measuring the results of our tests. In terms we can grock, Frequentist Inference states that all experiments of statistical probability and the observations made therein are independently relevant. So when we run an experiment, and get back an answer that 80% chose A, we considered the result to be statistically relevant; one could begin to make decisions based off that sole result. This allows pollers to sidestep the controversial subject of 'statistical relevance' and prop up a number in isolation that really has so significance at all in context.
In our own work, we later found that Frequentist Inference (while accepted) is an incomplete way to look at test results when it comes to design. As we demonstrated in the test examples above, the context of a test can be simple or complex; some things are more ubiquitous than others (like knowledge of celebrities), and others required a lot more context to even understand properly what was being asked (like design layouts).
Frequentist Inference ignores concepts like prior probability, posterior probability, and other factors that help to address the aforementioned unknown and unknowable context of any set of variables. This epiphany led us down the path of P-Values, Bayesian Statistics, inference, updating, and the even bigger question of induction vs. deduction. This epiphany gave us a temporary high, as we were delighted to be reminded that greater minds than ours have attempted to tackle this problem and failed. Where we would prefer to differ from our predecessors is when we fail, we'd prefer to fail fast (as opposed to waiting 100 years as the scientific community has done with P-Values for statistical relevance).
Okay, But Why Does This Matter So Much?
We've run you through the gauntlet here. Why do we care so damn much about tests, questions, and the answers they inspire? Why did we just unload on you a variety of hard-to-pronounce three syllable words like Bayesian and Frequentist?
Well, throughout our five years of developing testing apps, we've run thousands of our own tests, and have facilitated many more for our users. Never content to rest on our laurels, we have a burning desire to improve on our formula, and learn from the experiences our users have shared with us. Some of those experiences relayed have demonstrated that we've not yet properly accounted for the bias we described in the content above.
So, when embarking on this new version of our application, we wanted to take a critical look at our past experience with Verify and Notable Tests. Both were successful and did what they were planned to do well, but we know there is more we can accomplish. For starters, we never really addressed the problem of asking better questions. We've also learned that better questions, in absence of the right audience (which, as you'll recall from the Gallup definition, is important), isn't enough to help shape better answers. Put simply, this testing stuff is hard, and we want to make it as easy and accurate as possible.
Bringing Your Bias Into Our Learning
We're actively using our testing application to build our testing application. As meta as that seems, its working, and helping us get back to one of core principles, designing in the open. In fact, throughout the course of writing this article, and running the tests contained within, we stumbled upon more insights that will help us better shape the product.
We'd like you to help us build a better app too- by using it. To that end, we'd like to extend an invitation for you to join us in an early private release coming Nov. 15th. If you're interested in participating, sign-up below and one of our advocates will contact you in the upcoming weeks.
So, whether you're in a red state, or a blue state, for Hillary or Trump, put your bias behind you. Because regardless of your beliefs, all of you are welcome in the Purple State. And since it's election day, maybe you can run some exit polls of your own. And who knows, next time, maybe you'll be able to predict the outcome before it happens!
A recent article by Dan Saffer has shed light on a huge shift in the curriculum design schools are teaching. In many design programs around the world, there is less focus being placed on pixelpushing and more emphasis on strategy and 'big system changes'. After a decade of trying to get designers to think beyond their craft and onto the bigger organizational problems that will truly propel design forward, these ideas are finally making their way into design education' and this is horrible.
Now anyone who's kept up with our thinking over the last two years may be doing a bit of a double take at that last sentence right. We've been exhorting design leaders to stretch themselves, to go beyond just being masters of their craft and start embracing organizational challenges and take ownership of business outcomes. These are the type of design leaders that will advance our industry and bring about real impact, the ones that take on these problems and run with them. But you need to learn how to walk before you can run. The most effective design leaders are the ones that understand the fundamentals of good design, and the best way to learn design is to understand how things are actually constructed. Given the complexities of interactions today, having this comprehension is absolutely vital.
Yes, Craft Matters
Today, pixelpushing has become a dirty word, perhaps because of its association with production. We've poked fun at the Dribbblification of Design, the obsession that many designers have of creating shiny new things that don't actually work or solve problems. We've always felt that while design can be beautiful, design and art are two different things, and we've warned about the shrinking shelf life of the artifacts of design.
In the near future, algorithms and robots might solve the design production complexities of today in the near future, things like creating layouts, interpreting content and presenting relevant content. However, pixelpushing is very much alive, and contrary to some of our writing, we still believe in the near term that it will remain an important aspect of digital product design. The pixel itself may not be relevant, but the concept of pixelpushing as craft is still very relevant. It's in our blood at ZURB- we specifically call this out in our manifesto:
Craft matters- Teams need to be composed of more doers than sayers or planners or documenters. We want people who have great ideas, but also take pride in getting their hands dirty and building something to inspire their teammates and customers. For a designer, craft means knowing when to pick up a pen and how to use it to represent a complex idea in an interface. It's also imagining a person's flow through a series of actions. Craft means caring about every detail that matters to give it purpose- every word, line of code, or pixel- and possessing the skills to do so at a high level.
What is a Pixel?
In pragmatic terms, the pixel is smallest addressable element in design. The word "pixel" was first published in 1965 by Frederic C. Billingsley, to describe the picture elements of video images from space probes to the Moon and Mars. The concept of a picture element, however, dates to the earliest days of television to describe the combination of pix, for picture, and element. It wasn't until the seventies that IBM formally started to use it to describe the technical reference documents for their PCs.
In the early 2000s the concept of a pixel was suddenly thrust into our common zeitgeist as digital cameras pushed their superiority by the number of megapixels they produced. It was a confusing ordeal to purchase a digital camera because manufacturers had convinced us that more pixels was better. However, anyone with some design skills understood that the number of pixels may have created more resolution, but that rasterized images depended on a lot more factors to create a crisp, compelling image.
Megapixels soon fell out of vogue as people began to understand that the number of pixels had less impact on the picture quality than the perceived clarity of how those pixels were presented. Pixels, however, still embody the fundamental building block of sound design.
The Craft of Pixelpushing
In my post last week, I warned of letting beauty get in the way of design. But this isn't to say that understanding how to use pixels isn't important. On the contrary, the craft of design is a critical part of being a great designer and serves as a way to learn the fundamental of good design. I know this through personal experience.
I can remember spending hours in front of my Apple IIGS in middle school, learning how to manipulate images pixel by pixel. It taught me a great deal about presenting design and the power that a computer could provide in capturing a vision. Learning was slow and based on the lessons my photography teacher had taught me (lighting, composition, depth, etc). Resources to learn how to make images were not readily available in the eighties, as the internet was still just starting to take shape. I'm sure those early days of learning my trade had a big impact on how I expect designers at ZURB to learn.
Designers at ZURB learn to work across the entire design spectrum, from product decision making, to coded style guides. Having this perspective in the design process helps us anticipate and see problems from many different perspectives. Understanding how to use pixels gives us insights into the medium we use to produce good design. We've written a lot about the need for designers to spend more time influencing business decisions, and yet effective persuasion requires understanding how to use pixels to present compelling ideas.
Pixelpushing isn't just about crafting production ready design, it's also about understanding how to develop compelling ideas with attention to details to inspire a team within a design process.
The Beauty of the Pixel
Through my college education in the nineties and into my first job, I focused a great deal on the production of ideas, learning to use tools to make creative elements tell a story. Like many designers of my time, I'd spend hours at the computer deconstructing and copying my favorite pixel artists. Something as simple as a donut icon was magical- the subtle shifts in pixels could convince my eye that these icons had depth. I was amazed by the creativity of these pixel pushers.
I'm two decades into my design career and still appreciate a beautiful crafted object. I can only assume most designers still share this appreciation for pixels. And if there isn't a public acknowledgement, I'd argue most design leaders secretly admire the energy and wild abandonment new designers have to just create beautiful things.
Leading with Pixels
Here's the thing about design that makes it so exciting and frustrating for design leaders: it's both a craft and a way to think about building a business. It's an art and a science. A passion for beautiful visuals inspires many to become designers in the first place, but they are soon forced to deal with the parts of the business that can be less fulfilling with the wrong mindset, the people problems, the business problems, etc. Any designer that has made their way up the corporate ladder understands the frustration of this tension. Staying relevant requires balancing so many skills.
A designer that leans too far in either direction only hinders their impact, and the impact of design in their organization. Focusing solely on pixelpushing and not embracing business outcomes results in beautiful artifacts with ever shrinking value, while tackling organizational, system and people problems before having a solid understanding of how things are actually built limits our ability to solve any of these problems.
The impactful designer is the one that learns to balance these struggles. They have a healthy respect and mastery of the craft, but what makes them truly a force to be reckoned with, is that they know how to drive impact with that work through their ability to rally people and organizations around ideas.
For them, pixels are not the culmination of their work. With their fleeting importance and truncated lifespans, viewing them as such actually lessens their value. It cheapens them. No, the impactful design leader views them for what they truly are: tools to inspire, to shape thinking, to transform organizations, to change things. Mighty indeed.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
Design is having its renaissance moment. The recent rise in design awareness over the last decade has been exciting and much of this is driven by online products and services becoming more mainstream. People are under it's spell, captivated by its charms. But while demand is strong, we also have to sort through all the problems that come with any new movement. This takes time.
Over the past couple years I've written a lot about the struggles design needs to overcome in spite of all this new found attention. The recent rise of design has designers very much in the hot seat, not in a seat at the business table. In my conversations with design and business leaders there's a general underlying problem brewing as designers continue to strut their way into the business problems without a clue of how to truly shape their organizations. Many designers with fancy new titles are finding themselves floundering. They've spent their entire lives mastering their craft only to find themselves ill-equipped for the problems design leaders are actually being asked to solve. Those hard earned design skills do little to help them meet the people and business demands their new roles expect of them.
In true Silicon Valley style, we're throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall hoping we can find a quick way to get the most out of our design efforts. And who could fault us? It's just how we do things here. I wouldn't want it any other way. Here's the issue though- most designers and observers are focusing on the wrong issues, seduced by beautiful yet shallow design.
Beauty Is Only Skin Deep
As I was reading through my email this morning, I happened on a nice interview from Tobias van Schneider with Stefan Sagmeister. 'Stefan Sagmeister says we'll look back on today's idea of design like we look at racism or slavery, like we can't quite believe we did it.' Oh really? So here I am thinking that I should be harder on my designer roots, thinking that as a group, we should embrace our opportunities much more than we do. Slavery? Ok. That's a strong argument, one that had me rethinking my own position around our design struggles in the Valley.
Smitten and love drunk, Sagmeister threw out a jab at a huge swath of the design world, 'The crap that's happening now online or in tech that's concentrated on functioning is exactly still the same idea as the Soviet building factories. It's that same mindset ' 'let's make it work'' but that's not human, that's not who were are.' As I read and reflected what I believe Stefan was trying to express, I realized his understanding of the challenges facing designers are more complex than putting an album cover on a highly complex piece of software (and yes, we've worked in the music industry).
The demands being placed on designers in the world of tech is unprecedented. Creating something that makes a splash for a moment is one thing. Try creating a design with sustained impact for an always on product that is being used, customized, and edited by tens of millions of people around the world at any given second. A teenager can plan a creative and extravagant date night, but do they understand how to maintain a happy and rewarding marriage for decades? Probably not.
Today's software requires some of the most complicated collaborations that we've faced as workers in the last century. That's not to say there aren't silly or pointless apps, but lumping everything into a 'make it work' mentality is very short-sided. In my two decades of leading design, I've had the opportunity to work on predictive technologies, software that protects people, supply chain management that gets supplies to the world, and cancer and genetic testing applications. To say that bringing 'functionality to a complex problem' isn't human is so...wrong. I hope he never touches a life preserving application.
'It's about choosing to be thoughtful about your design,' he Stefan stated. This is where I understood his perspective to be quite limited. Your design. This is the problem with our current situation- the designer's ego overwhelming the build of software, for the sake of being thoughtful. This IS the problem. We need to move past the idea of the black turtleneck designer by instead focusing on influencing design outcomes through collaboration. We need design leadership that embraces new ideas and leans into the stereotypes that Sagmeister propagates. Jackson Pollock might have been thoughtful, but creating a piece of provocative art, and solving the management of gene therapies are two different things.
'Nothing Is Beautiful From Every Point of View'
Some designers may have an issue with that quote from the Roman poet Horace, but I find it to be incredibly authentic, inspiring even. How so? Well, let's be honest here. Design is messy. People are messy. But that's okay. There will always be work to iterate on, to refine. That's what makes design is so damn interesting.
Like Stefan Sagmeister, I too believe there is more opportunity for design to grow. But it isn't going to happen by suggesting designers focus on beauty. That's infatuation and naivety. Real design means embracing everything that goes along with it, warts and all.
And yes, beauty is important when we consider the result of design work, but designers need to focus more on influencing their teams to create substantial impact and less time on pixel polishing. It's hard work and it's dirty but it builds the foundation for real and lasting change. Doing the dishes for a month straight trumps buying a bouquet of roses, trust me.
In the near term, the ineffectiveness of our new 'design leaders' is masked by the great need for designer and design leader talent. For the time being, designers will continue to just skip around from opportunity to opportunity looking for a happy grazing spot at an organization that allows them to focus on shallow details, just as Sagmeister suggests. Design leaders have been surfing that wave, but with what might be considered a distorted, individualistic motive. I'm not sure solving this problem is about being more thoughtful, but rather bringing more depth and rigor to the design discipline so that organizations understand what changes are needed. Design leaders aren't pushing the discipline or giving enough back to warrant their authority.
Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder
I've had the privilege to interview some of the top design leadership talent to learn more about how they see design in their organizations. The ways in which companies are tackling these issues is quite varied. Many seem limiting. Some are bizarre. Granted, we've worked in an industrialized, get things done mentality for over a century, so changing into a model of inspiring knowledge workers to make creative breakthroughs is relatively new. It's going to be a process of moving to a divergent thinking and abductive reasoning mindset, but it's going to be required for organizations to effectively use design.
After two decades of leading design decisions and grooming some of the Valley's best design talent, there are some obvious issues and patterns I see that have emerged. The lack of solid design leadership remains a core concern, but just as importantly, the general lack of support in corporate environments that encourage creative risk taking and enable designers to influence outcomes. It's a stalemate. Until something changes, we're going to dig ourselves into deeper levels of pain. If organizations want to solve wicked problems, they no longer have a choice in how they groom leaders, especially designers. The old way was to teach leaders to delegate, to propagate a more efficient production engine. The new way will be to help them colead and this is where design can play a significant role. But this isn't about being more thoughtful, it's figuring out how we support design in our organizations.
The scales are going to eventually shift and we're going to have to address the issues that hold us all back. I believe we still have many more levels of hell to overcome before things improve for organizations as it relates to design. Surprise tactics will no longer work, and designers are still faced with defending methods that seem sometimes outrageous. The struggle exists on all sides as business leaders struggle to understand how their design thinking shapes their business.
Breaking the Spell
Focusing on bringing beauty to design is good, but it's not the solution to moving teams forward. Organizations are not going to figure out these design problems unless design leaders starting looking beyond the skin deep problems and onto the real challenges facing our industry. It's a frightful thought for many, given that times are good for a designer. But the boat needs to be rocked and the spell needs to be broken. Only by taking more ownership of their work can designers collectively lead their organizations. We need the guts to inspire our teams to create amazing products and services.
While I've talked a lot about the challenges and growing pains our industry is facing, I'm extremely optimistic about the future and my passion for design is at an all time high. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: It's never been a better time to be a designer. We're solving some of the most interesting, complex and morally challenging design problems the world has ever experienced. I'm in love.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
It was 1997 and Steve Jobs was in the beginning of plotting a resurrection of Apple. 'We're back' was the advertising campaign that would kick it all off. Only Steve realized that the Apple board's approval of this campaign would be a complete disaster. They weren't back. It wouldn't be for another year that the iMac revolution would kick off the most amazing hit parade of products that were ever produced.
Steve pushed and prodded to change the ad that eventually gave way to one of the most iconic ad campaigns ever created- 'The Crazy Ones'. It was a beautiful tribute to those that dared to change the world, to Think Different. Apple would be 'back', only he didn't have to say it, he could show it. It wasn't a directive, it was a challenge for the company. The ad created a stage for the company to surprise and delight its fans. There was no mention of products and it made no direct reference to Steve's return. From the board's perspective, it was a critical thinker's nightmare- how the hell was this solving a problem?
Steve's Think Different Company
The advertisement was a signal that Apple was focusing on its core strength, but it made no promises as to what that result was going to be. Steve just knew there would be an outcome that would be significantly better than the situation they were currently in based on hard work and reducing their product line. To pull this off, he needed every employee to believe that this turnaround would be great, but he had no guarantees that any of this would work. It was a huge gamble.
To punctuate the irreverence of this campaign, Apple quite literally chose to ignore grammar all together by dropping the 'ly' off the slogan, 'Think Different.' It was a bold campaign that committed Apple to a bold approach that would be the anti-IBM's 'Think' campaign. It was a marvelous concoction that shot an arrow at the plain thinking competition, planted a seed in every employee's head, and gave fans hope that something amazing was about to unfold. Yet none of it existed. The ad campaign helped him create a problem space for people to find answers, most importantly for the employees in his company.
Bringing Divergent Thinking to the Company
Steve was trying to do the unthinkable- get his large, failing company moving and thinking in divergent ways. The first place he started was to attract talent that would believe in wicked ideas. The other was to get existing employees to open up their minds to creative possibilities. In one of my previous posts I tried to debunk the idea that right brain thinkers have a magic touch or ability to come up with creative ideas. Much of what we learn about creativity can be taught, but it's difficult for most people to overcome the hurdles that have slowly been built over time.
In design, we continually open and close down problems through methods that can confuse many critical thinkers in a business. In most cases, this type of thinking can be trained, but it can be a frustrating experience. Research validates why this is so hard.
Of 1,600 children aged three to five who were tested, 98% showed they could think in divergent ways. By the time they were aged eight to 10, 32% could think divergently. When the same test was applied to 13 to 15-year-olds, only 10% could think in this way. And when the test was used with 200,000 25-year-olds, only 2% could think divergently . . . Education is driven by the idea of one answer and this idea of divergent thinking becomes stifled. Sir Ken Robinson
In our own company we've used Progressive Design to help both design thinkers and critical thinkers open themselves up to divergent thinking. It's an area I've focused on as a design leader for nearly two decades, trying to find ways to bring critical thinkers into a design thinking mindset. It's not easy, and Steve was able to pull this off without even having to address the design problem. It just was. Except, with closer scrutiny, that's not really true.
Lead by Design
As a design practitioner and leader who practices design across all facets of the organization- strategic, tactical and operational- I've come to find divergent thinking creates the biggest divide and the most frustration for workers trying understand how to work and design together in their organizations. Divergent thinking and critical thinking are both necessary to drive a creative and disruptive business agenda. If a company truly wants to be design centric in their approach, and current trends say they do, they need to understand how divergent thinking affects all their decisions, even if they are still using critical thinking to arrive at an answer. Steve understood this idea.
Which gets us to our current situation in design. Designers are still struggling to pull their companies forward. If designers want to make changes in their organizations, we're going to have to lead by design. We're going to need to have a lot of empathy for our coworkers, and we're also going to have to create structures for people to work within. There's no other way to say this other than 'it is going to be very uncomfortable for many organizations.' Building a design centric organization requires embracing the awesome critical thinking people in it, but here's the hard part, within the context of divergent thinking across the business.
Now melding thinking styles creates a real problem for designers- imagine telling a strong willed CEO or leader who is a critical thinker to work within a new framework for thinking. Try telling a leader their thirty years of work experience is super valuable, but you need it in the context of 'your' thinking reality distortion field called design. Without a healthy dose of critical thinking skills, that's going to be a struggle, if not impossible. Sure, you can point to some snazzy business article as reference, but you're going to be hard pressed to get people quickly onboard with this thinking. That conversation requires extreme vulnerability.
|How your typical Design Thinker needs a design process to go:||How your typical Critical Thinker sees a design process:|
|'Let's open up the problem so that we can figure out the right problems to solve before we try to rush to an answer.'||'Just do your thing so that I can straighten out your mess. We have a deadline and need to solve this problem'|
|Ways to look at divergent thinking:||Ways to look at critical thinking:|
Go big and wide
Build on others 'yes, and''
Combine and Integrate
Seek out the unusual
Rate by Criteria
Make sense of
Affirmative judgement: discernment
Hone in ?focus
The Genius of Steve
Steve understood that the odds of moving everyone forward with a divergent thinking approach was impossible- but he didn't need to get everyone to think this way. By the time his second stint at Apple came around in the mid nineties, the computing industry was beginning to understand that competing on features was starting to be a race to the bottom. Knowledge workers were starting to get that there were diminishing returns on the incremental speed that computing power could provide. IBM wanted us to think. Steve wanted us to think differently.
The bar was so low that Steve knew incrementally attracting more than the standard 2% of divergent thinkers would provide the necessary culture push for Apple, and all it's fans, to believe it truly could think differently. If you had a Mac, you didn't have to be part of the drab, cubicle thinking business worker. And if you looked at any of their products that continued to run off the factory belt, they all appeared to embody a different, well done finish. Asking all his employees to think differently wasn't necessary, he had them feeling like they were thinking differently. In Steve's world, he only needed his critical thinkers to be open minded to this concept and feel connected to this way thinking.
On the surface, critical thinkers in the company felt like they were a big part of the equation. Creating a culture that supported divergent thinking is what gave Steve the space to help these critical thinkers work within the sometimes chaotic world of design thinking. On the surface, critical thinking appears to be just part of the daily work grind- what makes these worlds collide and create stress is the constant opening and closing of problems. This is where a critical thinker quickly gets lost and frustrated. The culture is what helps alleviate parts of this frustration. It becomes the norm.
What Designers Need To Do Next
Recent, conventional business trends like GTD, or Getting Things Done, have been all the rage in recent years. GTD is a very process driven approach to help people blaze through task lists and priorities to create a compound effect thats leads to bigger impact. While these techniques help people create incremental gains, it's still a very critical thinking way to solve problems. So when the need for bigger thinking arises, these techniques eventually just help us pump out shit, just in greater quantities. They help us 'Think,' just the way IBM thought.
This is where divergent thinking can help us break through conventional business practices and process.
The success of the elite worker will depend upon that person's ability not to get things done, but to have breakthroughs'''to use access to knowledge and automation to deliver explosive ideas. To do that which only a human can do.David Kadavy
It's such a simple idea. At ZURB our mantra had been 'Design for People' for over a decade. On the surface it is meant to express our desire to help our customers focus on their customers, but it goes a level deeper in that we're setting up people in our business to design effectively. Our peeps must have the guts to breakout of conventional trends to design what is best for our customers.
Instead of getting stuck working from the mindset of a critical thinker, a divergent thinker needs to create an environment of support to help employees work in a creative and divergent way. Designers are uniquely positioned to help organizations, though the effort requires a strong willed and empathetic designer. It means closing gaps. This is what it truly means to lead by design.
Critical Thinkers in a Design Thinking World
People are the key to thinking differently and need to feel they have freedom to do so. Housing critical thinking within the bounds of divergent thinking plays to the strengths of both camps and ensures organizations can continue to stay innovative. Divergent thinkers are free to expand ideas and explore new frontiers unencumbered while critical thinkers are able to pull in the reigns when necessary from within, keeping focus without being unduly restrictive.
Erecting this structure in organizations can only be done by divergent thinkers, and designers have the greatest chance of doing it successfully given their ability to empathize with people. Notice I say 'chance' because their inexperience as an industry in managing people (particularly non-designers) runs the real risk of foiling their efforts. Many designers will quickly become discouraged and disillusioned by the resistance they will undoubtedly encounter and give up. But an anitfragile designer that is motivated to create lasting impact, who aspires to be more than simply a master of their craft but a master of outcomes, will have the wherewithal, passion, and long-term thinking necessary to successfully lead this transformation.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
Last week, I shared a story about an encounter I had with Steve Jobs and broke down some of the tactics of Steve the 'showman' used to dazzle us at each new Apple event. But the most interesting parts of Steve are the ones that existed between the product launches. The 'design leader' is the Steve I'm most interested in, the man that could effectively drive innovation and move his organization forward.
People often poke fun of what they saw as Steve 'the dictator.' This comic by Manu Cornet does a great job of representing the different styles of leadership practiced by the tech giants. Steve is appropriately represented by the big red dot below:
The leadership structure of today's big tech companies by Manu Cornet
But there's more to Steve's leadership, and this comic, than meets the eye. According to members of his innercircle, his approach actually gave varying levels of freedom to his team. Although this drove them crazy, this flexible scale ultimately brought out the best in both the team and the company. Essentially, Steve broke down each decision into three parts with two possible outcomes.
The Rule of Thirds
Steve's 1/3: He's 'right' and came with a strong opinion.
If you read tech news or heard the rumors, this is the stereotypical representation of his leadership style. Yeah, he was probably aggressive at times and more of a dictator, but he was leading with a strong point of view. He'd make some broad statement to set a direction for his team to figure out.
His biographer, Walter Isaacson, once shared a story where Steve demanded that the boot up time for the Macintosh operating system be shortened. The engineer who was working on it, Larry Kenyon, told him it was impossible, but Steve interrupted 'If it would save a person's life, could you find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?' Sure enough, Kenyon shaved 28 seconds off the bootup time.
Your 1/3: He accepted your point of view.
Now this could be confused with acquiescing if you believed Steve was a dictator, but what he was doing was leading through the culture he had established in the Apple turnaround. He felt confident to empower his team to make decisions.
You can see it in his most memorable big reveal, arguably the 1998 release of the iMac. Less than ten months of Steve's return as interim CEO, it was a game changing product that kicked off Apple's turnaround and emboldened Steve to push harder into breaking down standards. Steve understood he could encourage behaviors that benefited the business. In his public proclamation, he makes numerous mentions of the team and the hard work they put in to make the effort work.
Coleading 1/3 : The space to fight for answers.
I'd argue this is where his true genius lived. He empowered employees to step up, manage up and secure the space to work together. He lead alongside of his team. You can see it in his some of his work sessions. His leadership style was full of creating opportunity.
This middle ground was totally up for grabs, Steve didn't even really want it. But yet he expected you to earn it and made you fight tooth and nail for it. It wasn't even a wrestling against Steve, it was a wrestling against yourself and your own demons. This middle space was a proving ground, a forge, where only the most passionate people and highest caliber ideas emerged from. True, Steve created the arena but he didn't determine the victor, you did.
You Win, Everybody Wins
And as others watched and determined there was real substance there, they would be compelled to fight with and for you. By the time that piece was won, if it was won, there was so much commitment and support that it was almost impossible for the idea to fail. It was exhausting, but it separated the wheat from the chaff and made everyone better for it.
Guy Kawasaki, a recent ZURB Soapbox guest, positioned it this way, "If you ask an employee of Apple why they put up with the challenges of working there, they will tell you: because Apple enables you to do the best work of your career."
Steve Wins, Everybody Loses
Those who came in ill-prepared or half-assed were immediately sized up by Steve, chewed up and spit out. This was not something you could fake your way through. He'd crush you and take that piece back. People who view Steve as a dictator wrongly conclude that this is what he wanted, that he wanted 2/3 of the decision making. But for Steve, this was a last resort. This is what he did when no one had the guts to move things forward themselves, so he had to jump in to ensure forward momentum. It wasn't victory for Steve, it was defeat.
The Magic of the Middle
By providing this middle ground that was up for the taking if you wanted it enough, Steve was nurturing shared leadership and ownership in his team and that lead to great things. People were compelled to connect to each other and rally around ideas, doing whatever they need to bring them to fruition because their own intrinsic motivation. It's incredibly difficult to achieve and maintain, but this is the sweet spot where teams perform their best and magic happens. You can see it in the comic:
In Steve's absence, things at Apple are looking a little different:
Without this contested middle space, there is no wrestling to bring the best ideas and people forward. The mojo is lost and everyone relentless pursues their own paths with little connection between.
But why does it work?
It forces people to own more decisions: You couldn't suggest an idea or disagree with Steve without backing it up. While he was open to other points of view, he tolerated nothing less than full commitment. Otherwise, he'd shoot them down immediately. This resulted in new ideas that were well thought out, researched, and more importantly, had somebody passionate to support them and see them to completion.
It maintains forward momentum: Often taking the role of the provocateur, he galvanized his team behind outrageous challenges and outlandish demands that got them unstuck and moving forward. When others shared different viewpoints, the ensuing struggle to defend and grow that idea pushed the team farther than they would have gone otherwise.
It compels people to perform at their best: Steve understood that intrinsic motivation is far superior to extrinsic. Through challenges, orders, or the occasional motivating speech, he stretched them and got them to perform at their full potential. It was an often painful process, but nearly all of those under him remark that they reached levels they never thought they would be able to.
There will never be another Steve Jobs, and it's a futile endeavor to try and mimic everything he did in hopes of achieving his same success. But it is possible to get your team into that same sweet spot he was able to through giving them a space to fight for their ideas. It's possible to transform your organization into an environment where innovation thrives. And it's possible to achieve, as both individuals and companies, more than we ever thought possible.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
I was mingling with a few guests at a small wedding some years ago. It was a slightly overcast day in the California mountains, but the venue had beautiful views that overlooked the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Quite stunning. The guests were arriving and casually streaming into the reception area when I happened to catch a glimpse of a pair of gray New Balance sneakers. My first thought was, 'Who wears sneakers to a wedding!?!' To top it off, this guy was wearing blue jeans, and not the slim stylish kind either. Dad jeans.
As I grabbed my own uncomfortable neckline, I became slightly annoyed that this guest had considered a jacket and coat optional. In Silicon Valley, casual is the norm, but this gentleman had taken it to another level at a wedding. And then it hit me as I stared at this gaunt man with his frameless glasses and black mock turtleneck. This was Steve Jobs.
Steve, the Design Messiah
After getting over the absurdity of his wedding outfit, I couldn't help but reflect on the pure dedication and commitment to the idea of a corporate uniform. Only this was not just a work uniform, it was a life uniform. I continued to struggle hopelessly through conversations, overwhelmed with my amazement that he remained in character at a wedding. I've heard many an artist and musician creating a stage persona, but this just seemed outrageous.
Steve was considered a design messiah by many and here he was next to me mingling with guests in his Apple uniform, the one synonymous with each of their product launch events. He represented not only excellence in design, but the excitement and delight that every new designer hoped to one day accomplish: A stunning reveal to a group of people who gushed over their design. He was our Michael Jordan, our Jack Nicklaus. Steve showed the world that design did matter. That it was important. And that it could make amazing things happen in a company.
With the advent of desktop computing and publishing in the 80's, designers had a new creative tool to express themselves. Steve made this happen. Steve was a manifestation of this expression, quite literally. He created a revolution with each new computer product he revealed. He had the public not only hanging on the edge of their seats, but an entire industry of designers following each new trend that Steve revealed. His uniform represented not only a maniacal focus for creating amazing products, but also a magical, almost larger than life, creative output that designers emulated in their own companies.
A Standard for Creativity
But why black turtlenecks and Levi's jeans? Now I'm not an expert in fashion, but given Steve's early love for typography and creative thinking, I'm guessing his affinity for design had him hanging around the corporate misfits that wore a lot of black. The black sheep of this post 'Mad Men' era were designers who set themselves apart from the stodgy, corner office thinker. Steve loved breaking down the status quo, and I'm sure these creative types represented this spurring of business as usual. A visual search for creative director still captures our affinity for black.
The mock turtle necks have their roots in one of Steve's trips to Japan in the 1980s. While touring Sony, he was surprised to see everyone wearing a uniform, a nylon jacket/vest combo designed by fashion icon Issey Miyake. Sony's chairman, Akio Morita, told Steve that the uniform helped bond the works to the each other and the company. Steve immediately fell in love with the idea and sought out Miyake to design a similar outfit for Apple employees. He came back enthused and with dozens of samples but was ultimately met with a near unanimous 'no way.' The idea for a uniformed Apple workforce died then and there, but Jobs was still passionate about adopting the idea for himself. He recruited Miyake to make hundreds of mock turtlenecks for himself as a kind of life uniform, a look that has become synonymous with the name Steve Jobs.
In Steve's distorted view of reality, I'm sure the uniforms not only represented a sense of unity and purpose, but a commitment from every employee to do their best work everyday. He understood that highly focused individuals and committed employees were required to pull off the Apple products he imagined. And I bet he saw the uniform as a way reduce the overhead of choice, enabling employees to focus on creative endeavors that made a far greater impact on the world.
Steve never took the path of least resistance. He never accepted the world 'as is.' He did everything with intentionality. No detail was too small to escape his attention. He also pushed us beyond what we thought we could do'we experienced his 'reality distortion field' firsthand. He just kept raising the bar, even when it seemed unreasonable. But we would try, and we would get three-quarters of the way there, which was always farther than we would have gotten by ourselves.- Creative Confidence
We Got It Wrong
I wasn't an Apple fanboy, but I admit I was blinded by the excitement surrounding Steve's big reveals. I don't recall ever being in our ZURB office without somebody streaming an Apple reveal over the last decade. As designers, we came to associate Steve's attire as a symbol of excitement, big reveals, screwing the man, and showing our coworkers that design was what the world needed. Steve was our shield. We could point to him. He embodied all our struggles and wants. He made magic happen in a boring, beige computer industry.
What we didn't know is that we were creating a pressure cooker. Designer's took all the wrong ideas away from his presentations. Big reveals were marketing techniques, not methods to surprise our internal product teams. Sexy interfaces were inspirational, not things we blindly copy without consideration for users. Going against the grain was a way to inspire people, not an excuse to shun the ideas of our coworkers . Secrecy was a business technique, not a reason for us to hide and design solo in our computers. Spurring focus groups encouraged risk taking, not give us a reason to avoid learning from our customers.
Modern designers pour over every detail of Steve's life, hoping to piece together clues that they can mimic and unlock his magic with. What they fail to realize, is that Steve's focus wasn't about helping people elevate design in their organizations. The recipe for organizational transformation is not going to be found in those Apple Keynotes or in the Aaron Sorkin bio pic. Steve transformed the way we think about design in organizations, but he did little to reveal or shape how designer's were suppose to make it happen.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they've had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.- Steve Jobs
Unfortunately, that's too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
He was in no rush to pull back the curtain and show people how the Apple sausage was really made. His focus was in designing amazing products, amazing products only Apple could come up with. It was entirely in his best interests to keep people thinking design is a mystical and mysterious craft that only a blessed few understand and can harness. All of his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies are false flags that distract people from seeing the real, messy way design actually happens. He was able to keep that all tucked away out of view for years. We never saw the Jobs that was going through hundreds of revisions, going down hundreds of wrong paths, making incremental gains. We just saw the neat black turtleneck and the unveiling of the shiny new piece of magic.
Reveal No More
The most memorable big reveal was arguably the 1998 release of the iMac. It was a game changing product, and it was delivered in less than ten months of Steve's return as interim CEO. It kicked off Apple's turnaround and emboldened Steve to push harder into breaking down standards. After this his attire changed to his corporate uniform.
In a sea of sterile beige and white, Jobs revealed these colorful half orbs from out of thin air. Beyond their lickable colors, they forever shook things up in other ways. They relied solely on USB, they promised connection to the internet in only 2 steps, and it killed the floppy drive. It was the perfect, textbook example of the big reveal, and was repeated again with the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.
But the effectiveness of this technique has diminished over the last 5 years. Device specs, screenshots, and photos are leaked months before the events. Instead of catching us by surprise, we're merely given confirmation of what we already knew. Even Steve had a hard time keeping the curtain closed towards the end. Despite all of their capabilities and resources, Apple is not able to hold on to the secrecy necessary to keep the big reveal working. The era of secrecy and isolation has come to a close, killed by the internet and social media, and yes that's a good thing.
New Uniform, New Approach
There are still millions of creatives that confuse this marketing technique with the collaborative effort it takes to make real ideas happen. But now the truth can come out, the truth about product design, Apple and even Steve. The truth is that Apple has a highly iterative design process and always did. The truth is that Steve Jobs was actually an amazing collaborator, sometimes working with multiple design teams and agencies to refine a feature and work through an idea. The mysticism was just for show.
It's time for designers to embrace what really drives amazing products and innovation, connection with other people. The impactful design leader is not a lone genius that locks themselves away only to come back with magic that even they themselves don't fully understand. That's myth, storytelling. No, the impactful design leader is a facilitator. They bring people together from all parts of their organization, rally them around ideas, and extract the best thinking into small gains that lead to big wins. They are found with people, soliciting feedback from designer and non designer alike. They realize failure is both an inevitable and necessary part of the process. They understand it takes constant iteration and a volume of ideas to get to the right answers. And they don't have to wear a black turtleneck.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
You Want A Phone, But You Don't
When my son started middle school, he asked my wife and me for a phone. Since he was going to be walking to school, Lisa and I decided yes to this luxury. Our reasoning was not because he was now older or more responsible but because we wanted to be able to contact him! When I offered him one of my old Nokia handsets, which is still a great phone, he nearly lost his life. 'That's a dinosaur Dad! It's as useless as a flip phone!'
For a kid, having the ability to contact your parents is not the reason to ask for a phone. My old Nokia or StarTac handsets were cool phones in their time. Call quality was great but let's face it, predictive text? That's an alien concept to anyone whose baseline is a smartphone. Who remembers trying to text, while waiting and hoping for a 28.8 kbps internet connection handshake to happen? Hmm...do you want to go back?
Some very successful people still rock the flip phone! But let's face it, this is not a product or a fashion accessory that will come back into vogue for the masses. It's not what people want when they ask for a phone today.
Enter the Experience Era
Experiences like this get me thinking about what makes us use one product vs. another. And, how has our appreciation of innovation changed from an end user perspective?
Mobile phones are now multi-use devices. We don't say 'where's my entertainment, communication, and personal or business computing device?' What we want is a device that delivers all these needs wrapped in best experience possible. Yes, most of us have morphed into needy people. We need to be productive, efficient, entertained. We expect things to work. We expect and from a consumer perspective, demand a great experience in the process.
How Did We Get Here?
Hardware engineering and companies like Fairchild Semiconductors started off the Valley ecosystem. Mike Markkula, an angel investor and the second CEO of Apple, made his mark at Fairchild and Intel. He worked in marketing, but he had a degree in electrical engineering. Historically, product leadership in companies such as Fairchild and Intel centered around Hardware Engineers. Having engineers as the Product Managers' made sense due to the complexity of their products and the innovation they were driving. Building a chip requires a level of experience that's lost on many from a software programming perspective.
The rise of the business and then the home computer started to bring software into its own. The ascension of the Software Engineer and their leadership era began. Companies like Microsoft and Netscape began to shift the pendulum. Bill Gates may have started off as a programmer, but it was his business focus and leadership that made Microsoft.
When the internet made its way into our homes, MBA's got into the product leadership act to try to sell us more stuff. The big portals like AltaVista, Yahoo, and others introduced more aggressive digital marketing systems. Ads were everywhere! The 'business person' now drove the product definition with more and more ad units.
But then we saw the revenge of the nerds. Google was born, and data accumulation with better algorithmic search became king. With targeted ads and more efficient algorithms, the programmers returned with their analytical efficiency. Organize the data, sell more ads. Computer Science grads become the new ad men and also the Product Leads. In 2001, Larry Page tried to fire all managers with technical reports. The reason? Engineers should not be supervised by people with limited technical knowledge.
Next came a kid in a hoodie. Mark Zuckerberg was a program engineer but he also heralded in the concept of a company being a product. Facebook had learned from all the waves and companies that have come before it. Engineering was not enough. Ship product enhancements that focus on connecting people through news and experiences.
Lastly, no timeline about consumer product cannot refer Apple; the former outlier turned golden child. There's no denying that Apple makes great products. Their first foray was not a success, and it was Microsoft who rescued them with a $150m cash injection. Apple is, however, a great product design company. Their products are easy to use and reflect their focus on the user first, not as an afterthought. No product manuals needed. In many ways, Apple took engineering, design, and marketing to another level. Apple Product Leads understand the overall package and convey the experience to be created. It's a formula that worked, and many try to emulate.
Design Is the Differentiator
The world is now wired for great design and craves the speed and simplicity of a great experience. Successful products layer complexity to ensure a low cognitive load for users. People demand a great experience whether in work or personal situations. This is an evolution in the mindsets of both the manufacturer and the consumers. People such as Simon Sinek have talked about this concept and starting with why as opposed to the what or how. This evolution towards the experience also leads to a need for new types of product leaders. The question is no longer, does it work but how can the experience be better for the user.
Humans are visual creatures, remembering more about experiences and feelings, than written details. We've all heard about the importance of storytelling and bringing people on a journey. So, how has the role of the product leader evolved and where is it all going?
Who's Behind the Wheel Now?
The pace of change in the world of tech continues to speed up. People have more choices than ever before. Loyalty is fleeting! People want everything to be well designed and to reflect who they are. Apple got people to appreciate the experience created by their products. Today, apps, products, or websites need to have the best experience or people will move on. Design driven companies are outperforming the market. Just look at the success of businesses like Slack, Airbnb, and others.
If you were going to design a house, who would you want to be the lead, the builder or the architect? This brings up a lot of interesting questions from a software product creation perspective. If the product experience is now the differentiator, who should be leading the product charge? Who is most qualified to balance all the key factors required to build a product and business?
This journey leads us to a group with limited experience in leading, but loads of potential. A group that lacks the alumni network at executive levels. A group that does, however, bring new and essential skills to the table. Please welcome the Designer to the Product Leadership table. Hardware Engineers, you built and continue to build amazing objects. Software Programmers, we'll continue to need your skills to make features operational and efficient. Business person, you taught us how to be more revenue focused. But, times have changed again, and this isn't a revenge of the nerds' situation. Yes, software may eat the world but this is more introspective. Design just ate your software!
Designers, the baton is being waved in your face to become the Product Leads. You can create the businesses and the experiences people will care about.
It's up to you to take it. Are you up for it?
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