Design Does Not Mean Sitting in a Room

With Q&A, however, Microsoft “started with just a pure design view,” Netz said. That meant the design team sat in a room for weeks and thought about how to make the user experience as simple and addictive as possible. They worked around the clock and on weekends, he said, with the understanding they’d move on only when “everybody in the room feels that what we have is just going to be awesome.”

If you can believe it, this was published under an article talking about a supposedly new “design-first” strategy at Microsoft. Now, I suspect and hope this is just a mistranslation/interpretation by the journalist here, and that those folks at MS don’t think that “design-first” means sitting in a room for weeks and thinking about awesomeness. But it’s a common enough misconception, I thought I had to comment on it. 🙂 

For example, I remember attending UX Week 2009, and one of the speakers was the lead designer from the then-new Palm WebOS. I couldn’t believe my ears as I sat there in a UX/Design conference and heard a keynote speaker saying that his approach to designing a new OS for a business-user-oriented mobile phone was to stay in a room and reimagine what desktops and calendars were.  (I am probably not remembering exactly, but that was the gist.) The fella clearly thought he had stumbled onto something amazing, and I guess I was ignorant enough of who he was to not be overawed by that. Well, we know how that story ended..

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to bash on Microsoft nor WebOS. But we gotta get away from this notion that the way to do great Design is to lock yourself in a room and dream about awesomeness. You may as well just put some sketches up on a whiteboard, number them, and roll some polyhedral dice to select the best, most “awesome” design. 

In fact, hiding in a room should really be considered a Design antipattern. It implies a few bad things:

  • Isolation from Ideas – good designers regularly seek out inspiration all over the place. They become rabid consumers of others’ designs and design ideas. By isolating yourself, you block out those avenues of inspiration.
  • Echo Chamber/Focus Group Effect – you will very quickly suffer the echo chamber effect, that is, you will soon start coalescing in your viewpoints and ideas, which serves both to further isolate and falsely confirm awesomeness. 
  • Loss of Perspective – the more you are “in” the details of a design project, the more you lose the perspective of those who are “out” of it. Concepts that used to be not-so-familiar or obvious become more familiar and, ergo, more “obvious.” 
  • Isolation from Real Users – this is a key element for ongoing awesomeness and serves to counteract most of the  problems above. Without ongoing design evaluation with users (or at least user-like substances), you can think your designs are as awesome as sliced bread, and it won’t matter a bit. Until the rubber meets the road, it’s all just wishful thinking. 

I think I can safely say that sitting in a room and demanding awesomeness has very little to do with great Design. If what Microsoft (and WebOS) came up with was awesome, it would be because the people involved probably had some talent, solid Design experience, some luck, and a relatively good understanding of the target audience and the possible solutions. And more likely than not, they involved actual users in design evaluations sooner rather than later in their process. 

Looking at more of what the author said, you see some indications of that. Those involved were clearly some sort of subject matter experts and have had a good bit of prior experience with the target audience. He says they consulted experts in solution domains to understand solution possibilities, which likely served to expose them to all sorts of new design ideas. No doubt it took more time than six weeks, and it seems unlikely they were just sitting in the room that whole time. 

It seems safe to assume they were employing some Design professionals and/or at least that they did a fair bit of evaluation with users before sharing it with a journalist. And he does highlight one important element–holding off on technology selection/specification until the Design vision was in place. 

It’s early to say if this particular solution will be successful, and success in the market depends on more than just good product design. Certainly, following a good Design-first approach will help. Demanding Design awesomeness is important, especially in the details of the execution on the Design vision. Waiting on technology selection is important. But there’s a lot more to great Design than just that, and certainly more than just sitting in a room and working hard on it.

A Brief Rant on Forks

You know, I’ve been thinking lately, and something’s really been bugging me.  It’s this:

I hate forks!

I don’t know who thought this would be a good idea. Presumably, at some point, someone said, “hey, this is the future!” And man, all these people just piled on and blindly followed. Geesh!

Why, you may ask, does it bug me?  Because, heck, when we’re babies, we eat food with our HANDS. Yes, that’s right. Have you ever seen a baby or toddler eat? I mean, wow, they really dig those hands in, squeeze it through every finger, and then rub it on their face! They clearly are having a much more enjoyable experience, and obviously, because they’re babies, they’re just doing what is natural and intuitive for people.  Hands are great!

I love hands!

So what lamebrain came up with the idea of a FORK? I mean, really.  In addition to making the eating experience less tactile, all these annoying social conventions grew up around it, so now it’s like considered crude to eat with your hands.  And now we have to spend years, I mean literally years, teaching kids to not eat with their hands and instead separate themselves from the food with this tool, that, I mean, all you can do is poke and scoop (and push, okay) food around.  Have you tried eating with your hands lately? I mean, look at all the other cool stuff you can do with food using your hands!

Good grief! How could society have let this happen?!?  It’s not like forks spontaneously generated like mold. I mean, some morons came up with them and then everybody just CHOSE to accept them and use them.  Come on, people!

And don’t get me started on these:

I hate cars!

Seriously. How unnatural are those things? I mean, you’re totally separated from the road (especially in Cadillacs!). You can’t feel the gradations on the ground under your feet, the rhythmic thud, thud, thud. (Plus, it’s exercise!)  And worst of all, we have to have all these dang roads all over the place that totally cut swaths through nature, so we ride smoothly along instead of stomping through forests and glens.  I’m not even so sure about shoes–have you walked on the ground without them? It’s almost titillating!

And then there’s this lovely thing:

I hate submarines!

What kind of doofus dreamed this up? I mean, the state of sci-fi in that day was so ridiculous. Where were the dreamers?!?  I mean, have you ever swam in water? Do you love the feel of it as it tickles your skin and all those little hairs?  Just how many nerves do you think you have in your skin? What about the feeling of the resistance of water versus that of air?  It’s quite something, ain’t it?  But this dude was like, screw that, I’m gonna make this boat that can go under water, so you don’t even get to touch the water any more.  And not only that, compare how many different ways you can squirm, and roll, kick, and paddle–all those different swimming strokes that you lose out on, and what can this thing do? Just like go up and down and left and right a bit, using air bladders, propellers, and rudders?  And do you think that piloting these things is easy or natural?  Ha! Most of them you can’t even pilot on your own!


You know what, all I’m asking for is that we not pursue any technology unless it involves full sensory experiences that are completely innately intuitive. I mean, I don’t care how much value it might add, how much easier it might make things, how much it might improve our ability to do stuff or communicate better. If I can’t do it with my own whole darn body without having to learn and practice how to use it, well, forget it!


P.S. Thanks for the inspiration. For the record, I’m all for exploring tactile technologies, but really, we humans are lazy, and we usually want to achieve things in the least costly way possible. Why use a hammer, when you can use a nail gun? When was the last time you used a hammer for the sheer joy of pounding nails? Most of us use them cuz we don’t have nail guns.

If you want tactile, sure, write a letter with paper and pen. Pick up a paper book, flip through it, and read it. But don’t tell me that a Kindle or iPad is bad because it doesn’t replicate that experience–kids can carry their entire set of textbooks on these little devices instead of breaking their backs with backpacks full of books. You can browse and get new books in seconds.  The list could go on–other such examples are above.

Some technologies are worth learning because of the value they add and the way they make things easier, even while sacrificing more sensory rich and “intuitive” interactions. I happen to like flipping a page by just clicking a side button or tapping on the edge; sometimes I’d rather swipe, and that’s okay, too.  I happen to like using a touchpad for prolonged computer use–it’s simple, easy, fast, and fluid once you learn it, and a lot less trouble than constantly reaching up to do things on the screen and getting gorilla arm in the process. I’d hate to think how obnoxious it would be if I literally had to manipulate windows and tabs (or other objects that don’t truly benefit from direct manipulation) in 3D space…

When we want to have richer sensory experiences, we humans will figure out how do that–we can have both fast food and slow food. But when we’re just trying to get things done, don’t make us do things slower, “richer,” or theoretically more intuitive just for the sake of those things.