On listening, learning, and guessing at what will grow

There is no way to issue a job order for a specific subtype of a good with multiple subtypes. If you have a mandate to make piccolos, the best you can do is to order instruments and hope for the best.

Three things happened to me within a couple of minutes on a recent Saturday morning:

  1. I was reading Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design, a fascinating look at design and solutions that focuses much more on the “why” of creation rather than the “how”.
  2. My boyfriend read me the above quote from the wiki for Dwarf Fortress, a largely text-based game with a system more expansive than any other video game I’ve ever encountered.
  3. I checked in on my Pocket Frogs game to see if my efforts last night to breed my incredibly time-consuming Level 15 frog had been successful.

For weeks, I have also had a friend-of-a-friend’s written voice rattling around in my head. Lindsay Markel is a phenomenal writer, and you owe it to yourself to keep her in your thoughts because she occasionally writes things like this:

In Rick’s prize-winning backyard with river rocks strung up with copper wire and daisy heads drifting in a glass bowl, I say the closer I get to thirty, the less I want to pretend that I know anything I don’t. I confess: when I bought the pair of decorative sweet potato vines and planted them at the edge of my garden, I thought I’d be harvesting armfuls of sweet potatoes by fall. He laughs with his cigarette, shakes his head, says a hundred times that I grew up on a farm, hon; don’t I know these things?

I just dig holes in the ground and see what happens, I tell him. Guess at what will grow.

My favorite part of the design process – whether it’s mine or someone else’s – is the “guessing at what will grow” stage. It’s the part of the process that allows a product to sink or swim. At it’s best, it’s the Twitter phenomenon – plant a seed, create a basic structure, watch it grow. The other side of the coin is the Apple Maps debacle – create a product, put it in your users’ hands, and find out immediately that you have a massive problem. They skipped a couple of important steps.

The top quote in this post is from the Dwarf Fortress wiki. Lawson has been playing it for weeks and it hasn’t seemed to get old yet. My understanding of the basic structure is this: It’s a time management game, sort of. In traditional time management games, you have a set amount of time and a certain number of things that have to be produced. As you progress, the timeline gets longer, but the objects become more complex and you need to create more of them. Usually, by the end, you have to go through a three step process, give or take, often of the “gather raw materials”, “create thing from raw materials”, “create second thing from combination of first thing”. In Dwarf Fortress, what you don’t know is that there are forty variations on the thing you could be creating, and you’ll certainly only find out that you made the wrong one after you’ve invested all your resources in creating it.

Bear with me while I tell you about Pocket Frogs. You begin the game with a small number of frogs. Your objectives, handed to you in various ways and with various rewards, are to breed specific types of frogs. Frogs have three characteristics: color, secondary color and pattern. Breed frogs, fulfill objectives, gain experience. Experience gets you to new levels, new levels give you new frogs. You’re literally guessing at what will grow, but basic genetics limit you to eight options when you breed two frogs together. If the two frogs you’re breeding share any one of the three characteristics, then, your options are reduced to four. Simple middle school biology. A mandate for piccolos, so you order instruments. It would be infuriating as a desktop game, of course, because it takes literal real-world time for these things to happen. As a mobile game, it’s perfect. Wake up in the morning, check on my frogs, maybe do something with them, let frogs do frog stuff for the rest of the day, check on frogs before bed.

I’ve been reading, writing and thinking about the user experience a lot lately. I’ve got two ongoing UX/UI projects that I’d really like to share with you soon, and they’re both utilitarian daily-use products. It’s been a little overwhelming to think about all of the use cases, to imagine how everyone but myself might use them. Since they’re both personal projects and not for paying clients, it’s easy to sit back and scribble page after page of all of the what-ifs, but after weeks (and months, in one of the two cases) of considering every option, I’m thinking about taking a step back.

The thing that I have to constantly remind myself about design is that the more I read, the more I write, the more I learn, the better of a designer I’m going to be. The job doesn’t end at 5:00. It’s one of the first things I can remember realizing about design school – you take one typography class and you start to see terrible type everywhere. You walk through supermarkets complaining about kerning. You start to see systems everywhere. It’s what makes you hear a quote about a computer game and link it to your book, your mobile game, your friend-of-a-friend’s anecdote. Everything is in play.

A designer’s brain often craves order and reason. It makes our jobs easier if everything fits into tiny little compartments. The easy problems require us to solve for X. The harder problems don’t even bother to define their variables. So we create schedules – we decide on a launch date and we work our way backwards. We can solve this part in eight days, this part in ten, this one only gets four unless we can manage to take one away from the ten. We set budgets that are often arbitrary and we let those dictate the entire process. We shy away from what might be the best idea because it would mean we can’t release our product one week later and time is money.

I worked with a client a few years back that needed their videos encoded in a very specific way that was relatively antiquated. We were re-developing their website at the same time, but most of the content (and therefore most of the budget) was devoted to video. There was an interactive component that our team was working on day and night and I was concerned that the way we were choosing to embed video in it was less than ideal. The reason? The client had paid another company to design a video player five years before, and therefore saw no reason to “reinvent the wheel”. The problem? The player was created using technology that, five years later, was completely out of date. Worse yet, the client would eventually admit that the video player itself had been a rush job, a response to a need that arose at the time and had little vision for the future. (Presumably because there wasn’t budget for it then, either.)

The solution might be as easy as communicating. Everyone, all of us, doing as much listening as we do talking. It’s hard to put a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but I think there’s value in asking why not. Is it that there isn’t enough surface area for all of the cutting boards or is it that our egos get in the way of agreeing on what we should serve? We might not be able to build a bigger kitchen, but I suspect that’s not actually the issue.

I recently had an incredibly valuable conversation with a good friend regarding our most productive professional relationships. Our stories were remarkably similar: the best products we’ve ever put out have come from situations where the key players on all sides were willing to listen to one another. Not everyone needs to be an art director or know how to animate or know how to code, but in order to be successful at any of those three things, you have to have a basic understanding of the constraints on the other side. I can open Photoshop, create an interface, bring it into After Effects and animate it – but if I don’t have a basic understanding of the steps to its actual implementation after my work is done, much of the value of that step is lost. A little education could go a long way and save everyone a lot of time and headache. I have to know some basic concepts about mobile implementation, they have to know some basic concepts about animation. Maybe there’s value in sitting down for half an hour and discussing what keyframe easing means and we’ll figure out the math together.

It’s harder than you’d think. We work hard, and we’re passionate, and it’s sometimes hard to see the higher-level problems with the work we put into the world. The economy is terrible and people are scared of admitting that they don’t know something. We argue, we stick to our guns, and sometimes we develop a destructive sort of tunnel vision that keeps us from seeing a great solution that’s just outside.

So what can we do, in a practical sense? I’d love to hear your thoughts – designers, engineers, writers, musicians, everyone – but for me, it comes down to a couple of things that I’m going to strive to be conscious of as I move into my next project:

  1. Look for inspiration outside of what’s supposed to inspire me. Read more, write more, spend at least an hour looking elsewhere before I start looking for comparative inspiration. If I’m starting on a new Android UI layout, no opening Photoshop, no picking up my cell phone, no opening my RSS reader to look through my go-to interface blogs. None of it. Surround myself with more things and try to be more conscious of what I’m seeing; allow myself to be less stressed overall and try to be open to ideas that originally seem dumb.
  2. Listen first, ask thoughtful questions second. I’m guilty of not paying enough attention sometimes; I think we all are. It’s easy to immediately let your mind run forward after hearing one interesting piece of information, but you might miss the thought that would come up after you’ve heard everything there is to hear. If something doesn’t make sense, ask for clarification. There is a chance of looking stupid for asking a simple question; there is a higher chance that the assumptions you have to make based on not really knowing the answer are going to lead you down the wrong path.
  3. The “do unto others” idea – respond to questions thoughtfully, even if the asker “should” know the answer. It only works if we’re all doing it.
  4. Allow yourself the freedom to be wrong. My senior year of college, I was thrown into a studio with a huge mix of majors – various design majors as well as various business majors, graduate and undergrad. We were all put on mixed teams with the goal of everyone bringing their individual knowledge to the table. Instead, what happened is that a ton of “stupid” ideas were generated. One group would immediately shut down the other – I am as guilty of it as anyone else in the class. We didn’t allow ourselves the freedom to be wrong. There could have been value in those “stupid” ideas, and if we had given each of them their fair share of time, we could have learned something. Instead, we all disliked one another and disliked the class. It could have been different. Should have been. If we never walk out of a meeting again asking what the hell so-and-so was thinking, we’ll all maybe be better for it. Be deliberately wrong. See what happens. It’s freeing.

It’s about relationships, it’s about listening, it’s about connecting dots that we don’t always know we should connect in the beginning. We’ll all get there. Jon Stewart’s speech in the Rally to Restore Sanity two years ago today was speaking politically, but it keeps coming back to me:

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, thirty-foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved by people who by the way I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Ah, well that’s okay, you go, then I’ll go.

And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned not hired as an analyst.

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together.

You go, then I’ll go; order instruments; guess at what will grow. Let’s try it.

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