March 30, 2020
Don’t Unravel The Sweater
One way to think of types of advice:
- Doing more smart stuff.
- Being less stupid.
Today, I want to share a piece of advice given to me that falls into the second category. It’s something that I think is helpful when designers are tasked with talking about, or explaining their work.
I’ve been sharing work in a semi-formal environment for roughly 10 years. I’ve found this advice useful, and since I’m only just learning about it now, I imagine I still have a very long way to go, to become a coherent presenter.
The advice is simple, and comes with a nice visual metaphor.
It is: “Don’t unravel the sweater.”
Let me explain.
Also, I’m talking about designers involved with designing interfaces, flows, software, this might not apply for industrial designers, architects, other professions.
There comes a time in the design process, at many different points, where a designer needs to show their work.
You don’t just show the final product either. You are likely presenting to an audience unfamiliar to the project, so we typically spend a decent chunk of time sharing the context, outlining the problem that we set out to solve.
Think of that as the ‘before’, and the design as the ‘after’.
A big part of the design process is in that before bit. We are rolling around in the mud, deep in the weeds, in the trenches. Depending on how dedicated, and how big your research budget is, maybe literally!
So it’s understandable for a designer to get excited about the problem space. They want to share what they know. What they’ve found. Big problems. New problems. Hidden problems. Reframing problems. Slicing problems up into many tiny little mini problems.
An umbrella, designed to shade someone from the hot New Mexican sun, now has solar panels, to power a fridge, that chills a drink…
Exciting for the presenter. Disorientating for the viewer.
This designer has made the grave mistake of tugging at some new threads.
By the end of the presentation, there’s just a pile of wool, and a designer saying here, look at this glorious mess!.
Don’t unravel the sweater. Stay on topic, explain the problem, show your solution. Leave the sweater alone.
March 4, 2020
Product launches, decoded
Tech company newsrooms are one of the best places to learn about product. Once you get past some of the marketing language, you get to hear about the key problems their users are facing, and how they have built solutions to help.
I’ve read through three recent product launches from Uber, Spotify and Twitter and extracted the key problems and features they have shipped against them. For simplicity, I’ve used a basic hypothesis / prediction model.
Of course, in reality there are far more inputs than user behavior, but it’s a fun exercise, and the problems can provide inspiration for your own side projects. For example, the fact that twitter relies on public sharing, yet sharing things publicly is inherently intimidating, is an awesome insight to riff on.
What they shipped…
Hypothesis: For a seamless pickup, we believe it’s important for riders and drivers to clearly communicate with each other. We’ve noticed that for drivers whose primary language isn’t English, and for riders who are traveling abroad, language can impact how you communicate on the app.
Prediction: If we provide a translation tool, that helps a rider or driver instantly translate a message into their preferred language, it will be easier to stay in touch as your ride is en route or arriving.
Hypothesis: We believe many users navigate Spotify with one hand. Depending on the size of your device, it can be uncomfortable to access different actions like play/download with one hand.
Prediction: If we group key actions (like play/download) in a row at the central part of the screen, it will be more comfortable to use and play music on Spotify.
Hypothesis: We believe one of the barriers to easy music navigation, is the time it takes to recognize the song/artist title. It’s tough to quickly find the song you liked in playlist with 200+ songs.
Prediction: If we include cover art in the track row, it will make it easier to navigate the app and find familiar songs.
Hypothesis: Tweeting can feel intimidating because tweets can be seen and replied to by anyone, and there’s a performative element (how many likes/retweets this will get.) We believe this anxiety holds users back from talking on twitter.
Prediction: If we let users share ‘fleets’ that disappear after 24 hours and can’t receive likes, retweets or replies, users will feel less anxious and share fleeting thoughts that they would have been unlikely to tweet.
So, next time you see a press release, don’t roll your eyes, read it closely and think about the decisions/tradeoffs behind every new feature or design iteration.
February 22, 2020
A temporary flâneur
For the last few days my bike has been in the shop getting fixed.
While I wait for her return, I’ve had to make do with my legs.
On Friday I walked from The Presidio to Hayes Valley. I trailed along Geary Boulevard for a few blocks (a man shopping for underwear on his laptop at a cafe) before cutting south past lone mountain (teenagers shouting and running off a bus), and weaving through NOPA (an old dog doesn’t want to walk down the stoop stairs). I stopped and bought a six-pack, and caught the sunset in Alamo Square park. About 40 minutes of walking all up.
On Saturday, I took a shorter stroll through the Fillmore to Japantown to get a zipcar and back again to Hayes Valley. My Apple Watch was delighted with all these steps.
I would pause before saying San Francisco is walkable, because that’s very subjective. I don’t know if it’s that fun to walk around SF, but it’s doable, compared to other American cities. Although it’s hilly, the key is the density and relatively small surface area. It’s crammed in the head of a peninsula and is surrounded by water, so it can’t sprawl. I can’t see myself strolling around Dallas.
Here are a few observations, mainly comparisons to cycling, my preferred form of transport.
It’s pretty slow. Compared to cycling, or driving, it can feel a bit painful to plug in a destination into google maps and see ‘50 minutes’. In San Francisco, you can drive or ride across the entire city in under 30 minutes. Dogpatch to Marina, Richmond to the Mission etc.
It made me realize cycling is much more like driving. I’m rarely looking around much when I ride through the city, I’m usually just focused on where I’m going.
The footpath is more personal than the road. San Francisco is weirdly suburban. A lot of the city is just houses, and they are crammed together and very close to the street. So you find yourself walking past people washing their cars, cleaning out their garages, letting their dogs out to walk. I don’t notice that stuff cycling.
I notice shops and retail more. I read chalkboard signs, peer inside window displays. I saw this great nail salon that was vividly painted in primary colors. A meditation center. A new brewery. A bike shop with amazing posters from the early 2000’s. That sort of thing.
I find myself looking at the architecture. I have almost zero vocabulary to describe what I’m seeing, but my heart tells me it’s not good.
You feel more exposed walking. If it was night, I would feel less safe than on two wheels. You also just feel more visible. There’s a quiet ‘noticing’ of others passerby’s on the street, whereas on the bike you whizz by and are quite invisible, unless at the red light. In New York (sigh), this is such a vivid part of your life, and people have devoted careers documenting the people they see on the street in NYC.
Unfortunately, in San Francisco, it’s pretty mundane, and quiet – You can walk blocks in some neighborhoods without seeing anyone, but there’s always something to see.
February 9, 2020
“Is this the right place for me?”
I’m always thinking about the future.
It’s something that feels urgent for me to know.
The fact that I can’t, and never will be able to, no matter what I do today, is a constant source of anxiety and frustration.
Sometimes I force the future, in a brute force way. I can quit a job. I can break up a relationship. I can say yes to a new opportunity.
I know not everyone thinks this way, thank god, but I’m constantly worrying about ‘the future’. And that means, I’m never really present. Every decision I make is concerned with a trickle down effect.
But it’s too much pressure to worry about this stuff. Money, job growth, relationships.
Especially, the big questions like “will I live here in 4 years time” - that one is like my arch nemesis. In scope, it is gigantic. These are mountains, and have little to do with your day to day, or hour to hour.
It’s like you’re sitting in a cafe with a good friend, laughing, drinking lovely coffee, but all the while squinting out the window, into the distance, at a storm cloud very far away.
Whether that mindset sets you up for a ‘better future’ whatever that is, it totally ruins the present movement with pre-occupation. It’s actually a trade-off. But with basically no upside.
It’s important to stay focused on the present.
Another reason I find myself in this windless state, is because I’m not a strong planner. I have never made a 1 year, 5 year plan and stuck with it.
I think it’s fair to say:
- It helps to have some basic idea of where you what you want to do.
- It helps to be focus the majority of your time in the present.
The fact that these are radically different things, is what makes it hard. I’m not good at either, so my strategy is to focus on one at a time.
Here’s an example of just zeroing in on being present.
Imagine you love making bread. You love the smell. The method. The taste. The satisfaction of it coming out of the oven perfectly.
So that’s what you should focus on. At least for a while.
Yes there are still things to work on, but they should more or less be in the background.
There is not end goal to the bread. It’s just bread.
You do not need to know what your life looks like in the future in order to make bread.
January 18, 2020
Have you ever felt like a major shift in time?
We often think about holidays or certain time periods that “feel a long time ago” or “went by so quick”, but recently I’ve been noticing this happen in the present moment too.
The best way to describe it is a sense that I have lost the ability to accurately predict the time of tasks. I give myself ‘10 minutes’ to do something, and all of a sudden 15 minutes has gone by. It’s not a huge difference, but it adds up.
For me, the hourglass feels like it’s been smashed and is leaking sand out in numerous directions.
Am I becoming slower? Is everything around me speeding up? Am I more focused on tasks, so that I don’t notice it?
My number one feature request for life right now is a pause button. Let me pause everything, just for 30 minutes.