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5 Questions

Making things people want, Not making people want things with Phillip Hunter

April 30, 2013          

Episode Summary

In this episode of the Digital Life , we explore the topic “Making things people want, Not making people want things” — inspired by a blog post by Phillip Hunter, a designer for Microsoft, who joins us for Five Questions. Are people today looking for “a way to reconnect with their values: to ground how they can, will, and should live in the world,” as John Maeda suggests, in a recent article? Or, as Phillip postulates, is this really not such a new thing after all? Have people have always been looking for this manifestation of values? In this podcast episode, we discuss design for values and investigate whether or not there is indeed a new shift toward this way of thinking.

Hi. I’m Dirk, and this is the Human Factor.

This week, we’re talking about making things people want, not making people want things and frankly, that’s a premise I’m going to call bullshit on. It’s perhaps surprising that I would say that because it’s something I’ve been talking about for almost 15 years now; the notion that, even forgetting where the trends are, the most powerful way to connect with people is making things that they want and engaging with them more authentically and more deeply.

The reason that I call bullshit on this premise, in terms of some bigger cultural change is that, even though there have been small movements in that direction, and they are small movements, they seem like more than that, but there have been small movements in that direction. The operating paradigm still remains. The fact is that companies are incentivized to blast us with as much as they can to get us to buy their stuff.

At the end of the day, playing the authenticity card, while that will create opportunities for some companies, while that will be a successful strategy for some, it doesn’t work for all companies. You can’t have every company in a category taking that approach. Nor can you have every different product type or every different market category take that approach. it’s just not appropriate.

There is an article I wrote about 8 years ago or 9 years ago now, talking about connecting with people emotionally, in terms of the context of empathic design. My point was while we should strive to make those deeper connections as much as we can, the reality is not everything that is in our environments and in our lives can be imbued with this deeper meaning, this deeper value. I think an example I used was maybe a vacuum cleaner or something of that nature.

It’s like, at some point, it’s too much. At some point, you just need a tool to get something done and it doesn’t need to have all this other stuff around it. The bigger point is that, let’s assume for a second that there is a product category and that all of the different companies are trying to play the authenticity card, trying to play the ‘let’s give them what they want’ card and connect with them deeply. it just isn’t going to work for everyone. It’s going to work for a couple who do it better and do it right and the other people are going to lose and so, what does that leave them?

It leaves them the good old tried and true, I’m going to be cynical here, “Let’s trick people into buying this thing that they don’t really want, don’t really need, but we as a company need to make the money. We’re in business for profits, so we’re going to make them want it.” That’s just the reality. That’s not going to change any time soon and the fact is the notion of connecting with consumers more authentically, more deeply, that’s nothing new. That’s been happening through the whole of capitalism.

The difference now is that it’s rising to a cultural level, where people are realizing it and talking about it, but at the end of the day, for a particular market, to a large degree, it’s a zero-sum game and they have to get their market share. They have to get their money and their profits. They’re not in business to do good. They’re not in business to make people happy and satisfy people. They’re in business to make money. Most people are going to be ineffective in authentically connecting and deeply connecting in creating things that are truly wanted and truly needed, and what does that leave them to do? It leaves them to burn money. It leaves them to try and convince us that we should buy and want things that are really completely unnecessary and continue their mission, which is about profits. Their mission has nothing to do with us.

While in some specific cases, in a number of industries, yes, that’s a good way to win and succeed in this system, the fact is that the system remains. As long as we have this capitalist approach where individuals and companies are incentivized to pursue profits as the end and the good, regardless of the impact it has on individuals or the greater system, this is going to remain a sideshow.

While it’s nice and feel-good and pat-on-the-back to talk about making things that people want, it’s just not consistent with reality. At some point, it may be, but let’s be sanguine about things here. Let’s not get all wrapped up in that idealism. Even though it’s an idealism I’ve espoused for a long time, reaching it is a systemic thing. It’s not something that we’re going to do in this sort of bottom-up way. At least not in a short period of time. It’s a long way away.

Sorry to be the wet blanket on whatever conversations people are having on this show. The things that are being celebrated here are things that are meaningful to me, but we’ve got to be realistic. No degree of these small moves are going to really change the ecosystem and the ecosystem remains. You’re incentivized by getting people to buy anything, and as long as that’s the case then companies are going to spend a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of effort getting people to buy things they don’t really want and they don’t really need.

We’ve got to deal with that or change the system and I don’t see many people besides myself and a very few others who are interested in that. Keep enjoying being marketed to and someday, perhaps, we’ll have a better reality.

For this episode, I’m Dirk Knemeyer and I’ll see you next time.

Hey, everybody and welcome to Five Questions this week. I’m honored to have Phillip Hunter as a guest this week to Five Questions. Phillip, say hello.

Hi, there.

Phillip and I have known each other on Twitter for a while now, and finally met face to face in Toronto this winter, and had a good chance to catch up at Cocktail Bar, I think that’s what it was, in Toronto which is this amazing little hole in the wall; they make craft cocktails if that’s a thing.

We had some great discussions around design as craft because of that, and because of the environment there, and designers needing to understand soft skills and value-based pricing, and a lot of other things that were really interesting, that I think lead into a lot of the discussion that we want to have today.

Before we get into that, Phillip, can you tell the audience a little bit about yourself and what you’re doing?

Sure, I’ve been designing for about 15 years. I work at Microsoft now, where I design basically community and curriculum for the UX Disciplines. I’m a design practitioner but now I’m focused at a higher level on what the design practitioners at Microsoft need to continue doing their job well in the future.

Before that, I spent a long time in the speech recognition space with several different companies, and I ended up working for the “Tell me” portion of Microsoft. That’s how I began my career here.

A long time ago in the ‘90s, I got in the speech recognition applications and did design for them, as well as for the desktop tools for building them and evaluating them and I did that at a couple different companies, one in Texas and one in New York.

These days, I’m really focused on where both the design practice is going and where Microsoft is going product wise and trying to help designers get ready to tackle the ever-growing and ever-increasing new challenges.

Nice. I brought you onto the Digital Life, because I recently read a blog post that you wrote. I’m going to try to get the title right. It’s “Marking the Shift, Making Things People Want, Not Making People Want Things.”

I thought it was really great in terms of opening up a lot of conversations, that I wanted to pursue in a little more depth here. Why don’t we just get right into it with the first question. I want to start with the title, “Marking the Shift, Making Things People Want, Not Making People Want Things.” In your mind, what is the shift about and why does it matter to designers and non-designers alike?

The simple way to look at the shift is … and this is the title that I was trying to … what I was trying to convey with the title is the idea that I’m a little bit of an observer. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m a full member of the avant garde who is pushing on this particular shifts, although I certainly care about it. I felt like I … I read these three articles and all of a sudden, you know how it goes, so the thing started popping up and crystallizing for me. I felt like tying those three things together was a way to highlight this bigger movement that I saw.

One of the articles that I was also tied to, I got to see Bruce Nussbaum speak and then chat with him afterwards for a little while. He spoke here at the Microsoft Campus, and so that conversation also was part of the things that were rolling around in my head about this.

The idea of the shift is that design started as … in many ways as a service or even as an engineering need, and this is going way back. Over a time, we have begun moving from designing what someone else told us to – whether that was a product developer or an engineer or an executive. Somewhere over the past 30 to 40 years, we begun to understand that we had to do some other things to make design happen well. So we had to take into account human form and we had to take into account human limitations, and so we began to pull in physiology and psychology, and things like that. We were making things better, the things we design better for the people, but we weren’t yet at the points of really saying, “Are we designing what this person needs or even wants?”

That’s the shift I think we’re into now as we have had our eyes open to the fact that there’s an opportunity to not take product ideas that are invented by a bunch of smart people in a room, removed from society and make them better, but rather to go out into the world and say, “What does the world need, what does the world want and how can we start to design things based on that foundation.” Good ideas of course come into play and good engineering comes into play and all these things that we’ve learned over time are still part of the equation, but the way we’re starting is going to become different. It’s tapped into a number of things around what does it really mean to need or want something, how do people indicate to us that they need or want something, and ultimately how they are fulfilled, or that need or want is fulfilled by what we are designing.

It’s that sort of shift, and what I think .. there’s a number of things that are driving that. It’s not just self-awareness on the part of designers but maybe it’s economic realities that are helping us understand this differently. Just yesterday in the news, a headline popped up and said, “Americans are buying more store brands, or still buying more store brands.” Here we are, seven, eight years into an economic downturn, and we think we’re coming back out of it. But we’re holding on to these ideas that, “Gosh, we don’t always need to buy the brand name just because we think the brand name means something more, when we know in reality that a generic name is going to do it for us, and we can spend less money there and maybe more money somewhere else on something we value a little bit more,” so it becomes less about status and more about sufficing.

As designers, we want to reflect these things back into society. That’s really where our role is, is to understand what is being expressed there when people make those sorts of choices or when they would like to make those sorts of choices and how can we fulfill that.

Non-designers is … it’s a little bit of an ambiguous term for me; it could mean everybody else in the world, or it could mean engineers. The idea is that … I think either way you think of it, we as designers are also keenly aware these days, more so over the past 10 years than ever before, keenly aware of our role in the product world as Evangelists for these sorts of ideas. We’ve talked before about … not you and I, but the trade itself has talked before about them; our medium.

Is it behavior, it pixels or what … digital information, bits and bytes. I think one of our media is channeling, it’s being able to make connections happen that people want to happen or people need to happen. We have to help people understand why that’s needed, and so non-designers have a role there of completing the circuit and understanding why that circuit is important or why in a certain way to complete it is important.

Yes. I think that’s right. It’s a lot to cover just with the first question. There’s a lot of things that I’d love to talk with you about. I think when you touched on at the end there something that I’ve been seeing for a while which is designers facilitator, right? All of these things are sort of the medium of the designer, the pixel of the behavior, technology, psychology, culture and all these other things, and we have to understand all of those. I think more and more, we’re seeing … and maybe this is just at the senior level … the designer is moving into that product owner role or the designer is facilitating a lot of cross-silo conversations which I think is something that we’ve been doing for a long time.

I do want to make one point. I think that when you say, “Making things people want,” I think this is something … I understand what you’re saying and what you’re getting at. I think it’s a turn of phrase that I’ve typically tried to avoid and I typically use … reflecting back and I think I use the term “resonate” more than what people want. There’s an intentionality there with saying what people want that I think we need to be a little careful about it, because it’s not always just giving people … And I don’t think this is what you intended, but it’s not always just about giving people what they want and what they desire and sort of meeting their aspirations and their desires, but it’s understanding what’s really going to resonate with people on a personal level, which they may or may not have been aware of – on a personal level, and then on a societal or cultural level.

Yes, I complete agree with that. I’ll admit that the title is a bit facile. It’s a nice turn of a phrase, and it focuses the arguments on the juxtaposition or the turning. But wants is a difficult thing, because it can be so short-term, it can be so emotion-based and a lot of us know that, especially those of us who engage in any sort of self-analysis. We know that our wants can betray us, and this is not about how designers can turn our economy into a vending machine economy where everything is available all the time instantly. My working thesis there is that almost every want is actually an expression of something much deeper, and that’s not always true, but often. Even if you look at where people have consumed to excess, many times and have studied just enough psychology to be dangerous in college.

Many times these signs of excess are compensating for something, and I don’t mean to make an easy joke there. I really mean that we all come from some sort of broken background, we all come from places where something didn’t go right, and often we’re using our present to try to recover from that or to make up for it in some way. Sometimes we do that in very healthy ways, and sometimes we do it in unhealthy ways.

I think what you said is really the key. It’s like, “How do we find the meaning? How do we help people find the meaning, and how do we help them uncover what’s really happening at a deeper level?” We have a name for this. We call it “Unarticulated needs.” Sometimes we know the people are acting in sort of subconscious ways and I know we’re going to talk about Don Norman here in a minute. He talks a little bit about a pattern in many of his writings, and the ideas that we don’t always understand the choices we make, and of course there’s a whole industry that’s growing up around that and the Heath brothers are currently … and Dan Ariely are sort of the rising stars or the stars thereof, helping us understand why we make the choices we make. Of course the implication is that we don’t understand, and I think that’s right. Many of us make choices that we look back at later. We’re like, “What was that?” It could be a bad purchase or a bad relationship, it doesn’t have to be … I guess there’s a whole spectrum there.

Our role as designers can also be not just about finding unarticulated needs, but then helping turn those into conscious choices that people make. If they’re going to choose something that is perhaps less than beneficial to themselves or the world around them, they should be doing it at least consciously, right? You can’t talk about the problem until you acknowledge that you had a problem.

There’s a role for us there. On the other hand, we are not the guardians of the good. We don’t have some sort of moral dispensation that says that we have all the right answers, so we have to be really careful of this; we have to be really careful.

No. I think you’re right. I think a lot of what you’re saying makes a lot of sense and I think that idea of designer as maker and designer as creator, and we have a lot of power in that. We aren’t, like you say, we aren’t the keepers of that, but we do need to respect that gift that we’re given by being able to create things and put it out into the world that people will consume. Designers need to be cognizant of that. If in our designs we can help people better understand themselves so they can make more informed decisions, to me that’s at the core of what we should be doing and helping people understand themselves and understand the world around them. That really gets into the next question that I want to explore in a little more detail, is around this idea of what people want and the underlying value systems that those express. You make a point about a recent John Maeda article in your blog post, in which he states and quote here, “What people are looking for now is a way to reconnect with their values, to ground how they can, will and should live in the world.”

He says that this is a new thing, and you point out that this really isn’t a new thing, and I really agree with that. I was struck particularly by the language that he used at the end there, “Can, will and should live in the world.” I was reminded of a Harry Crews quote about storytelling that I’ve used in a couple presentations recently, where he talks about, “Stories are everything and everything are stories. Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was letting themselves know how they believed the world worked the right way and the way that was not so right.”

In that sense, stories are really this underlying manifestation of their value systems. It’s their expression of how they understand the world and what their place is in it.

I think from that, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about this idea of designing for values and those value systems, and how that might be a false shift. This isn’t something that’s necessarily brand new, this has been here all along.

Yes. First of all, let me say that it’s just so great to be able to talk about this topic and I really appreciate you guys having me on this. Secondarily, it’s really great to be talking about somebody like John Maeda and his writings, because we need to talk more about these ideas that are at the front, that are pushing the envelope. John has always been a good thinker. He’s been out of the design influencers in my life and career. He’s one of the later ones but it’s been really great to see these thoughts, and I was surprised to find myself disagreeing with this a little bit. Although what I’ll say is that, it’s not necessarily in my eyes a false shift as much as pointing at the wrong part of the shift.

I love your storytelling quote because it talks about the fact that there’s always been these ideas of identity and value passed down. This is part of being a parent, it’s part of being a leader, in society, it’s part of being an active member of society – period, whether you’re a leader or not. In storytelling, stories are one of the most powerful ways that we’ve done and in fact, I think it might be hard to say that there’s anything else that we really do it by. We all know that there’s lists made of different things – and whether it’s the ten commandments or Benjamin Franklin’s books – there’s all these lists and aphorisms and proverbs and things like that.

Where we really find ourselves resonating to use your word from earlier, is in the story where we can place our own identity in it, and when we can relate to the different things that are happening, and see the parallels to those in our lives.

The values that we see in these stories and the values that we bring into our own lives are things that we’ve always had as part of our lives. To say that we’re waking up to those now is not … I don’t think than can be accurate in any sense of the word. What can be accurate though, is the way that that realization manifests itself in our lives. I do think that there’s a shift there, and I think it’s a societal shift, not just a trade shift for us in the design industry. If you look at things like … and so I’m going to go walk backwards. If you look at things like the maker revival – so you have people learning crafts again, you have people understanding that they have access to materials and technology that weren’t as easy to come by maybe 20 years ago, and you see how people are … Young kids, older people, everybody is just all of a sudden like, “Wow, I can make this stuff.” It’s not just a hobby or anything, but they’re engaged in it and maybe even finding new ways to help make a living or express themselves.

Then further back, you just see things like shift in the type of jobs that people are getting, whether you want to look at the creative class or Richard Florida’s stuff. Or you just want to look at people saying, “Hey, I’m fed up with crunching numbers nine to five in a windowless office. I’m going to go be a ski bum, or I’m going to go be a volunteer in a charity that I really care about.” You start to see that people are thinking that the things that I think are rules are not necessarily rules. They’re part of the story that I thought I had to live in, now I’ve discovered a different story and I want to live in that story. There’s countless versions of that story, but it all comes down to, “I found that I didn’t have the resonance in this story. I found a new story that did have resonance for me. That’s where I want my values to be, and that’s the values that I want other people to see expressed in my life.”

It’s all about again the age old thing of finding out who you are, and finding out who you are and what’s important to you and living that way. Gosh, we can go back through all the stories and find that over and over again so that’s not new.

Yes, it’s a big philosophical thing and we could go back to the cocktail bar and talk till three AM about all that, but that’s sort of the net of it.

Yes, that’s right. I think you hit it on the head when you said that there’s societal changes that are happening. You just described that up front when you’re talking about some of the shifts, where we’re seven years out from the economic downturn and that people are still buying store brand products. It’s not necessarily that the people are looking to design, to fulfill their values that they didn’t do before, but I think that’s just hitting on that there are some value shifts happening in society. We as designers are seeing that because people are resonating or not resonating with products that we’re making.
I think there’s something there. I just wonder if the framing right is completely accurate or maybe … again, it’s one of these big issues that when we’re writing a 600 word article, it’s hard to encompass all of those things, and we have to use some shorthand or we have to make some assumptions.

I’ll take you back to something else that I said in the first question which is, it’s not so much people understanding that there’s this idea of values as much as it is, they’re saying, “I want things to connect more directly.” I still think that the person who buys too much or buys too big is expressing those values. But what’s happening today is that they’re realizing that maybe that’s a false expression or that’s not true to themselves, so they’re saying, “I don’t need to do that anymore. I still want to fundamentally embrace my values and express them, but I want to do it differently.”

Another thing we can look at is we’re becoming an experience economy, and this is something we’ve talking about for several years, but I think we’re still on a slow emergence of that. People are more willing to spend a couple of thousand dollars to be guided up a mountain and go parasailing and hike in the wilderness for a couple of weeks, versus a couple of thousand dollars on a purse or some other toy or something like that.

I still think that those are fundamentally expressions of similar things, but we’re making a different conscious choice with what the ultimate expression is, and that’s the shift.

Yes, and I think that’s right. You mentioned craft a couple of times, and I think that leads into the next question that I have which was brought up in your reference to the Jim Jacoby article. It’s really about this idea of craft and design and systems-thinking. I’ve seen this come up over and over again, and you’ve referenced a lot of those things already. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about your thoughts on each of those and how they relate to the shift that we’ve been talking about.

Yes. Craft is a huge topic of course. I just want to touch on a couple of things. The idea on the Jacoby article was, as we exercised our craft or as we … we need to be careful that we don’t get two hands off. In fact his point is that the more hands on you get, the more … you may be touching smaller and smaller details, but you are actually embracing things at a deeper and deeper level. That deeper level is where it starts to connect to systems-thinking and I’ll come back to that. But the idea here is that being able to exercise a craft is a necessary part of being able to fix things at a deeper and larger level. Whereas before, I think we’ve tend to bifurcate those a little bit and say, “You’re either working at a micro level or a macro level.” It’s easy to understand why we think that, because they are two different ideas that are hard to hold together in our head at the same time. We talked about it in numerous stories … big picture versus details or inside the box or outside the box. All of these are metaphors for what’s our angle, what’s our perspective and are we thinking about the right things.

The reality is that those things are very, very tightly integrated, and they affect each other. This is where systems-thinking comes in and so we have to understand that when we make a small change, we potentially are making a big change. Just because we feel it’s a small thing like changing pixel widths or changing an interaction step, that doesn’t mean it’s actually a small change. In fact, I think we’re starting to get a fairly robust set of literature that indicates that people and companies are making small changes that have really big effects. It could be just things like proximity on a webpage or it could be how easy a button is to push on a hardware device, but they can have big, big ramifications. I don’t just mean this in terms of the digital products we tend to design, but we can open up new connections for people if we become more conscious of the connections that we’re operating within.

If we want to have an impact on how people are thinking about and changing the world around them, we have to understand how the small is connected to the large. We do that by learning how to operate well in both worlds, and I think for interaction designers this is really, really, really important to get our heads around, and most of us don’t have it. Most of us aren’t thinking this way. I don’t think we necessarily should, I think it’s a time of waking up to it. I don’t think we’re behind already, although sometimes it feels like that. I just think that this is part of the shift for us; is to understand that interaction design is not just about Fitts’s law. Interaction of design is about understanding that when we make a change over here, it’s going to affect something over here, and when we make a small attitudinal change in an interaction, it may actually cause a philosophical change in these quarters. I don’t think we should over-leverage ourselves and try to find solutions everywhere, but we have to understand that there’s a connection.

Yes, I think that’s right. The point here that was really interesting to me, is this is a conversation that I have in an ongoing basis with … whether it’s junior designers, young designers that I’m working with, or If it’s clients. We’re talking about … it’s this idea of zooming in and out, between the macro and micro level. If we have a micro interaction that we’re working on and we make some change to that, we have to have previously established some sort of product identity, some sort of product vision that we all agree on. Then, as we can go through and we’re making these micro decisions, how are those decisions impacting the vision or identity of the product that we’re designing for, and going back and using those as a check. Because it might be … that interaction might be valid in and of itself, but it doesn’t hold when we look at that in relation to the entire system.


Then you end with a product that looked at, in individual segments seems to hold and seems to be valid, but when looked at as a whole and experienced over time, there are a lot of break points or pain points or things that just don’t make sense, because it just doesn’t all fit together in a systematic way.

That’s something that I think that … again, I don’t think a lot of people are thinking this way or designing this way, but it’s something that we’ve really been trying to push, when we grow junior designers and also with clients and just getting them to understand. Clients we see all the time, they want to line item things, and like, “Let’s just cut that,” not thinking about what are the implications and ramifications on that.

I think the other point that you make is that it’s not just about the product though, right? You have to be thinking about, “What are the social systems into which this product is going?” If we understand as much as we can, all of those connections and all of those in our relationships, and all of those system level connections, then we can better understand how can we change behavior or try to influence behavior into the directions that we want. Or understand how our product is going to be integrated into people’s lives, again, not just looking at these kind of vignettes, but looking at the entire life cycle.

That integration point is one thing that … it comes up in the Jacoby article. It also is mentioned, and I don’t mean this is a plug, but it was mentioned by Albert Shum, head of Windows phone here at IxDA . The theme of his talk was connecting, and Jacoby mentions this too, that we have to get away from this idea of designing for fulfillment, and move beyond that. It’s not important to fulfill things, but it’s more important to make a connection. Jacoby was talking about, “Let’s get rid of this … Let’s start to move away from this idea of disintermediation where we break everything into chunks, into you only see what you need to see.” You’re on a need to know basis about getting your own fulfillment.

We need to move towards helping people understand how they’re connected, where they’re connected, why they’re connected and how they can or can’t influence that. That idea of connection when it becomes more direct is a great place for me to see how we need to view the micro and the macro. We always have to assume there’s more connections in place than we’re aware of, and currently, we need to go looking for those to see if they matter. This gets in the whole idea of context as well, which is another topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and just helping designers understand that the way we think of context right now is way, way simplistic and way, way focused on the physical. We’ve got to get beyond that to understanding how people are really connected in the world. It’s not just we’re in a location with the device thinking about a task. It’s much, much more complex.

That’s another big component here is craft at a macro level. What does that mean? What does that look like? What shall we be teaching people about that? I think starting with junior designers and trying to open their eyes is a great place to help us learn as well, who have been around for a while.

I think that’s right. Let’s move on. The third article that you referenced is a Bruce Nussbaum’s article that he wrote recently. I found it really interesting, and I don’t want to take this maybe away from maybe the thesis or the topic of his article that I’m happy to discuss. But I was struck by agreeing with most of what he had to say in his article, but I thought it was a little bit unfortunate and I think mostly because it was almost a semantic argument. He’s saying a lot of things that I think most designers would agree with, and maybe it just comes down to sloppy language. One of the things he’s discussing is, it’s not about failure, it’s about playing. I think that most people, most designers get that, and understanding that’s their interpretation or at least … so I’ll speak for myself. When I say failure and I talk about failure, I think what we’re really talking about is that concept of playing and being allowed to play and being allowed to explore.

What struck me was then we need to be very careful about the language that we use as designers and the shorthand that we use, because once it leaves our community of practice and it goes out into business or it goes out into public sector, or it goes to junior designers that might not have been involved in some of those previous conversations. How are we making sure that we’re being cognizant of how they’re going to interpret that language, because they might not have the entire history or the story that goes up, and they’re making different interpretations.

I know that wasn’t the point of Bruce’s article, but I think that’s what struck me, as really interesting. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that point about the article and about your reference when you say that this is really about the next part of the journey for us, and what that means.

Sure. First, I completely agree with you that there’s a little bit of a false conflict being set up there that no mature designer would read Bruce’s article and disagree with any of the core text of it. I think a lot of us has struggled with this language around failure for a while. It’s like we understand that experimentation and experiments that don’t work like we expected them to or have different results than we expected them to do, that doesn’t equal failure, it equals … that’s how we learn. We all know that. Trial and error is maybe a cliché but it’s real. We do that, and we do that as children and we should do it as adults.

Reframing it as playing, I think it’s fun and it’s a healthy way to look at it, but it’s not necessarily this major philosophical shift. The point that you’re making about when we preached that gospel to the rest of the world, we have to be careful with those words, is exactly right. Even inside of Microsoft we try to be a little bit more careful to use the term experiment and for that reason and for the reason that it then focuses the conversation on the hypothesis, which is a whole other topic.

This next part of the journey, this goes back to some of the stuff that we talked about at the beginning, which is the idea of facilitation and the idea of designers as enabling the right source of conversations and raising up the conscious choices. Because these are not just changes for our customers, these are changes for us and the teams that we work with. Helping them understand that the idea of product is evolving, helping them understand that the idea of work is evolving, is part of our job as well. Primarily because we have a responsibility, because we see things a little bit earlier than other people, out of just the nature of our job. We tend to be … I don’t really want to use the term visionary because it’s more just, … we’re sort of the scouts. We’re out there exploring the new areas, we’re going to naturally see the new things first and we’re reporting back.

For a long time, I think designers have been overly-weighted and not many times because we wanted to be, but overly-weighted with this idea of being visionary and not for being visionary is a bad thing, but it over-romanticizes certain parts of our job. When we see ourselves as scouts and being explorers and then coming back into the workplace and saying, “Hey, this is what I saw.” That’s a little bit differently received than, “Hey, I’m bringing a vision to you. I’m going to bestow it upon you.”

To me, this is the next part of our journey, is how do we embrace this idea of scout and facilitator, and help understand that our language matters, and give people really useful ways that resonate with them. We need our co-workers, we need the engineers, the developers, the executives we work with. We need things to resonate for them as well. It’s not just about helping find meaning for our customers, but it’s about helping find meaning for us all who are part of the same effort.

Yes, I think that’s right. You’re touching on a couple of other topics, the designer coming from a place of humility, and not dictating but being that facilitator. It’s also this idea of these conversations that we have and this language that we use and how we write in and talk about this. That’s a design project and problem in and of itself. It’s not just about the products that we make, but it’s about every email that we send, with a colleague or with a client. Those are all design challenges that we need to be thinking about how do those choices impact the people that we work for and how do we help make their lives a little bit better.

Right. That’s right.

I want to move into the final question that we have today and try to wrap things up. This came up after I think we had scheduled this recording. There’s a recent article from Don Norman, on Core 77, “Rethinking Design Thinking” where he reframes his 2010 article “Design Thinking: A Useful Myth”. What was really interesting to me about this was that … and again, it’s another example of this theme that I’ve been seeing a lot lately come up, which is this idea of framing and reframing. It’s not just about problem solving, and executing on a design, but making sure that we’re understanding what’s the right design to solve for. It’s really that problem finding or that sort of framing of the problem space.

I think that becomes more important as we circle back around to this idea of designer, as creator of what people want and what resonates with people – not just designing something and then making them want it and making it desirable. It really requires us to make sure that we’re building the right thing; building that thing that resonates.

I’m not sure if that’s something that you had thought about when you were writing and pulling these different articles together, but I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about your thoughts on that idea or concept of framing or problem finding, as it relates to what we’ve been talking about today.

Sure. First of all, how great to see someone who is so well-known and so well-respected in our community come out and say, “Hey, I don’t think I got it right the first time.” I just love that. Of course, like many other designers, The Design of Everyday Things was hugely influential in my thinking.

It’s just so nice to see someone just saying, “I wasn’t thinking about this right, and I want to say it publically.” Anyway, kudos to Don for doing that. The idea of problem finding is so big and I have yet to see anybody really address that topic thoroughly. Maybe I’m ignorant of somebody’s book or article out there that really covers it, but I’ve had multiple conversations and no one has brought anything to my attention. If you guys know of something, I’d love to hear about that. It’s something that is always in my mind. I don’t know if it was explicitly when I was writing this post, but what Don talked about certainly resonates with me. It’s an immature skill in the design world right now, and a lot of times we mistake the idea of …

Like he says, it’s really easy to arrive at a quick answer. Most of us are schooled in a number of different examples, a number of different methods and we see a design issue or opportunity, and a number of different things pop immediately into our heads. We just can’t help that. It’s just that’s the nature of who we are. Part of our skill is saying, “Well wait, I need to take a different look,” but I think where a lot of us gets stuck is, “I’m just going to be more creative about how I approach that problem.” Instead, what we need to be saying is, “Is that the right problem?” Like Don says and like you just said. Then when you re-open or open for the first time that exploration, there’s a whole new level of skill sets that become involved. We could easily talk about user research and we could talk about contextual design techniques and things like that.

The fundamental idea is continuing to ask the question until it seems irresponsible or unreasonable to do so any further. This is the beauty of simple things like the “Five Why’s” technique.

It doesn’t take a lot of sophistication in one sense, but it just takes that mental power and awareness to say, “I think we’re moving too quickly here. I think we need to ask a few different questions. I think we need to set aside what’s in front of us and reexamine the space underneath or the place that it came from.”

If I had to pick on one thing about Don’s article, I don’t really like the way he ended about the stupid questions. I think that’s perfectly valid, his point there, but he wrote it in such a way that … I don’t know. It just felt funny and I really would like to say that I don’t believe that there are stupid questions. I believe that even if you think you know the answers to questions, you should state that, you should say, “These are the things …” It’s sort of enlisting your assumptions. “These are the things that we are currently basing our decision-making on,” and if we need to go back and reinvestigate them or even if we need to say, “We just always assumed this. Maybe we should check on it. We need to do that.” It’s not a stupid question. It’s a point of validation. If we shy away from that, then we aren’t doing our full job as designers. We aren’t mapping out the space properly to understand that we are actually acting as fully capably as we can, because we’re leaving potentially valuable information on the table.

Let me stop there and say that this is always a difficult point because in one sense, the investigations could never stop, the questions could never stop. We have to know, we have to have that point of certainty of … or at least the point of which we’re willing to go ahead and take the risk of moving forward. Sometimes that’s not an easy place to find but it’s a skill in and of itself, and we could talk more about it.

Back to the original point of this question, the idea of problem finding, problem seeking problem discovery, it’s so, so important for us and we do have to explore that more deeply. I think that there is a really good talk or maybe in a book in there about that for somebody, maybe you or maybe me. (laughs) Who knows? It’s warranted. It’s needed.

I think there’s obviously a lot there in what you just said. I think it’s interesting to … the discussion of them holding the micro and macro in your head at one time and then again, there’s sort of balance point between here of seeking that understanding and trying to make sure that we’re building the right thing, but not doing it so much that it keeps us from actually making something, right? Finding that balance point between doing that research, seeking understanding and making stuff, and figuring out how can we can integrate that constantly learning. I think we start to see people in the Lean UX movement trying to articulate some of those ideas of how people can do that in terms of seek understanding, but make stuff and use those as sacrificial concepts to learn more and to test assumptions.

Steven Anderson had a talk at IA Summit which I just missed called “Stop doing what you’re told,” which was about this idea of reframing design problems, and goes through a lot of these framing errors if you will, which I think is good and it came up again in … I just finished reading Dan Pink’s, “To Sell is Human” I think that’s the title of it.

He goes through a section where he’s talking about framing the problem that has a really interesting article, or discussion of … some research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who’s most notably known for his book, “Flow”.

They did a study where they had artists, so art students come in and had to pick say 30 objects, had 30 objects on a table, had to pick these objects and then do a still life. That was sort of their task. They ended up looking back at how the students performed. They broke it out essentially into two groups. There was a group of students that just came in and like picked the object and did the drawing and executed it brilliantly perhaps.

There was another group of students that came in and they spent a lot more time looking at the different objects, trying to decide which objects they were going to pick. Once they pick the objects, trying to figure out how are they going to arrange the objects together, and then executed on the drawing. Those students took a little bit longer to get there. He makes the distinction right, that this had these problem solvers, the people that just come in and execute and saying, “How can we make this a good picture?’ Then the problem finders, those people that came in, tried to figure out what’s the right picture to draw that’s going to make a good drawing.

Then they did a longitudinal study and went back and saw it 10 years later and 20 years later, and I think at the 20 year point, there was almost none of those problem solvers, that quick group that were still practicing even in the art world. The majority of the people that were still involved were the problem finders, those people that took the time to figure out, “What am I really doing here?” Those that were still involved were wildly more successful than their problem solver counter parts. Which I thought was really interesting to see, not only what’s the relationship between these, but over time what’s the impact on people’s careers and how does that influence … and obviously that’s just one experiment, but I think it’s pretty telling.

Yes, that’s a fascinating study and I hadn’t heard of that, and now want to look at that book. There’s a such difference in short and long approaches between the people who say, “I see, so now I can do,” and people who say, “Do I see? I think I see, but I’m not sure, so I better make sure.” Or even just the idea of, “I want to see it from multiple perspectives,” and each of those could be potentially useful. I feel confident in what I’m seeing from this perspective but what are the ways that I can change perspective? I think art has a lot to teach us there and various sorts of … One of the arts I love the most is photography and just the idea that whether you’re taking a micro picture or a macro picture or you’re taking … changing the angle helps you change the light and helps you change what you see in the picture. These are all very, very simple concepts but they can have a profound effect, Again, you’re at this micro/macro thing and how do they connect and it’s fascinating then to correlate that to career success, career of evolution, career progression and …

That’s cool. I want to touch on the Lean UX thing really quickly. I know we’re coming up on time here, but this a tough thing for us and how do we connect these things, right, where we’re used to …? We’ve been fighting so long to have more time to prepare our designs and do the right things, and now all of a sudden we see this urgency with agile and with the lean movement and how do we can we do the same things? Is there a marriage there, is there a blend …?

I think part of it is maybe there’s a need for rethinking or a timeline. You had a really good turn of phrase there around the sacrificial things that we make. Ultimately it’s how big of a sacrifice are we willing to make, because we can go ahead and plunge into the making, but at some point we may have to acknowledge that we’ve gone down, way down the wrong path and we have to just scrap it all and go different direction. How do we do that? Does that allow us the same, or give us the same things as that deep patient inquiry where we’re making sure that we’re looking at multiple perspectives before we start making …? That’s going to be an interesting philosophy and practice question to explore over the next few years as we see Lean UX and lean methods in general get more and more used. I’m quite fascinated by where that’s going to go. (laughs)

Yes, I agree. I think that a lot of the stuff … and I think as it should be, or to some degree experimentations. It’s trying to figure a lot of the stuff out, and as the world is changing around us, adapting our methods and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t and being able to react and change when they don’t.

I agree. I’m interested to see where a lot of the stuff is going. I think with that, it’s been a real pleasure having you on and chatting with you today. How can people get a hold of you or follow you online if they want to continue this conversation?

Thanks. Yes. This is absolutely been a treat for me. I really appreciate you guys reaching out and asking for this conversation. I just really started writing seriously again a couple of months ago, and to have something resonate with someone so quickly has been a privilege for me. I appreciate that. I’m on Twitter at @designoutloud, all one word. I’m happy to have people reach out to me through the blog as well, A Permanent Frontier. If you want to get in touch with me through email, I’m at That’s Phillip with two Ls for everyone who’s tempted by the one.

Yes, and we’ll have all of the details in the show notes as well for our listeners.


Thanks again, Phillip. It’s been wonderful chatting today. I appreciate you coming on.

Thank you guys.

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