Just ask one

I’ve been on vacation these last two weeks, letting my mind go a bit fallow. While I still browse the web and read books (I’m really enjoying Factfulness by Hans Rosling), I try hard not to do too much. Vacations are my attempt to rehydrate the mind.

In the bathroom of Hotel #4, I noticed this shower door handle.

My shower door

The concept of a “Norman Door” came to mind. The affordance of a Norman Door is at odds with its function. Here’s a classic example:

Norman door

I internally scolded the designers of this shower. Everyone knows you have a pull HANDLE on one side and a push PLATE on the other! Out of habit, I mentally prototyped how a “proper door” would work in the shower… and instantly realized I was being an idiot.

Norman doors are often commercial, which have auto-close hardware. They have a clear push behavior in one direction and an pull from the other. Shower doors are not self closing, making it necessary to pull from both directions. I had incorrectly used one door type and applied it to another.

Dangerous shortcuts
If you’ve read about “decision bias”, my failure is well known. Humans build up a series of patterns to previously solved problems and use them as shortcuts for new, similar one. This pattern matching shortcut is critical to our day-to-day functioning. You can’t rethink EVERY problem you encounter from scratch.

I cringe in typing this, fearing you’ll all find this story blindingly obvious. However, what motivates me to keep typing, if I’m honest, is that I’ve been an idiot quite often. I expect it happens to others as well.

I’ll go even further: this is one of the biggest issues in design teams today. Designs aren’t binary, either good or bad. It’s a continuum. Any design can always be improved. Design falters when we don’t look for the good in fledgeling design. These decision shortcuts are powerful and bias us to shutdown ideas before they’ve been fully explored.

Criticism is easy
A design aphorism that I’ve used throughout my career is “Criticism is easy. Creativity is hard.” I usually use this early in product explorations after the user research is done and I’m trying to find a solution. Instead of working on a single one, I’ve found it’s better to present a range. Users easily criticize issues with each one. Many of the critiques may be misplaced, but the sum total of these reactions tells you a great deal. Criticizing these straw-man designs is a stepping stone to understanding what users actually want but can’t say directly.

I want to stress that this aphorism doesn’t look down on people, it acknowledges a natural human process. Criticism comes to us easily. It’s something we must understand and embrace when working with target users.

Criticism is lazy
However, this tendency to criticize quickly can be deadly with designers and product managers. In fact, we need a corollary to this rule for them: “Criticism is lazy”. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever criticize an idea, just that you need to check your ego at the door and make sure you’re looking at it generously.

But ‘looking at it generously’ isn’t very helpful advice; it’s far too vague. What should you do? Look no further than that paragon of human and cultural insight, Justice League:

Just ask one
Just ask *one* question when you are facing something creative you don’t agree with. What happens after that? You’ll know what to do…

Now don’t be jerk and ask “Why the hell did you do that?”. Something a bit more open such as “What was your biggest challenge in coming up with this solution?” or “Who is your target audience?” Something that doesn’t have an implied answer within it. The point is to open up the conversation and learn.  Get you both exploring the problem together. The solution may still not be right, but now you’ve made an attempt to look a bit deeper. You will almost certainly see something more interesting to comment on or improve.

Of course this is the exact opposite of that pattern matching rule above! And you know what, it’s EXHAUSTING to do this all the time. I totally get that. I’m just saying, if you are in the creative field and someone comes to you with something they’ve worked really hard on, then give them 10 seconds of your time. Assume you’re being an idiot just like I was looking at the shower door. Just ask one question. You might just see something helpful.

Please remember those immortal words of Misty Knight:

I want someone next to me who questions their judgement. It’s always the ones that think they’re right that scare me.

Misty Knight
Iron Fist S02E06 16:28

@scottjenson on Twitter