Thinking with your hands

UX is less about technique and more about teamwork. Getting everyone to agree on a common goal is where the real magic lives. But too often UX designers inadvertently sabotage that teamwork. Not intentionally, it’s just that, as a group, we UX designers have strong opinions that sometimes rub our teammates the wrong way.

It’s understandable to a point. We swim in a sea of uncertainty, navigating multiple conflicting requirements, style guides and engineering constraints. In order to navigate this complexity, we develop rules of thumb and shortcuts that form a gut instinct that evolves as we get experience. There’s no magic here, Thinking Fast and Slow documented this problem solving approach: we need our gut to get the job done quickly.

The problem is that UX designers, especially ones with some experience, can become overly instinctive, listening to their gut a bit too much and making unwise snap decisions:

  • A new project looks ‘boring’
  • A new technology is ‘immature’
  • A new feature is ‘silly’

I see this when I mentor intermediate designers, they feel “experience” means having a strong negative opinion on high level product issues.

There’s a name for this!

This quick rush to judgement has a name: Chesterton’s Fence. It was apparently John F. Kennedy’s favorite quote:

Let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate is erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

G. K. Chesterton

I certainly have been guilty of this! I see something my gut tells me is wrong and I want to jump in, express my disdain and drop the mic. It’s the ultimate power play – I *know* what to do. 

How do we avoid this? Chesterton’s solution “go away and think” is unfortunately rather vague. It’s more effective to back up a bit.  Instead of listening to your gut, you should instead try thinking with your hands.

Thinking with your hands

Thinking with your hands is about ignoring your gut, at least at first. It’s about pausing and unpacking your initial instincts. We all know UX requires research and exploratory prototyping: we pride ourselves on never accepting a problem at face value. Why can’t we apply our craft to ourselves? (OK, this is a little meta, hang in there) Isn’t it odd that it rarely occurs to designers that our precious UX process could apply to US? 

You must be vigilant in how you receive and judge new design challenges. Spend a little time with the issue, don’t think with your head, sketch with your hands. This is especially true when you’re sure the issue is wrong! Get a feeling for how wrong it is. Articulate the wrongness. Become an expert in how wrong it is. More often than not, you’ll see a much more nuanced picture. “It’s not that wrong, most of it is actually OK, it’s just this little thing over here.” That type of framing is a much more mature way of discussing the issue. Thinking with your hands is a way of getting out of your head, pausing your hyperactive gut, and doing what you do best: tease out the deeper, hidden problem.

I see this all the time…

Not long ago, there was a time crunch on a project and I was asked to help on a settings page for a bigger project. This was a fairly trivial corner of the product. I initially thought “Boring! It’s just a template! A waste of time!” But instead of listening to my gut, I thought with my hands. I quickly make a rough sketch of the flow, played with the problem and discovered it was far more challenging than I first thought. There were deep technology constraints and unseen business impacts. I was intrigued. This WAS interesting!

Now, to be fair, the immediate solution was still just a basic settings page. My gut wasn’t completely wrong. But my gut also didn’t see the full picture. Sketching and exploring revealed a deeper problem. The team leader agreed and while we couldn’t address my insight immediately, it was put on the product roadmap for the next release. By thinking with my fingers, I had found a hidden, bigger problem that improved the product.

Physician, heal thyself

Thinking with your hands is about pausing every time you come across Chesterton’s Fence. Take the time to step outside of your gut instinct and use your sketching mindset to unpack it. This will often reveal a more nuanced and interesting problem. We know this approach works when designing a product. It’s time we did the same thing to ourselves.