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Designing the Designer: An interview with Jesse James Garrett

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. Today’s guest developed the Elements of User Experience diagram in 2000. He subsequently developed the idea into an excellent and influential book, The Elements of User Experience. He coined the term Ajax and developed the Visual Vocabulary, a notation system for documenting user experience design. He is co-founder of Adaptive Path.

Jesse James Garrett, welcome back to the User Experience podcast.

Jesse James Garrett

Thank you. It’s good to be back.

Gerry

Do you know when you were last here?

Gerry

Do you know when you were last here?

Jesse

It’s been a long time. I want to say it’s close to 10 years. I’m not sure.

Gerry

It’s more. 2006, towards the end of 2006, so there you go.

Jesse

More than 10 years.

Gerry

Yeah, so it’s quite a while.

You were keynote speaker at UX Hong Kong in February 2017, where the title of your talk was “Designing the Designer.” Tell me first, what inspired that topic?

Jesse

Well, you know, I’m at an interesting sort of place of reflection in my career at this point. We sold Adaptive Path to Capital One, which is one of the major banks in the United States, in 2014, and in that time of transition I’ve been looking back on all of the work we did as an independent consultancy as well as the work that we’re doing now as a consultancy inside Capital One, and really thinking about the people that I’ve worked with and what I feel has made them successful and the things that I’ve learned from them. And I really wanted to do something with this talk to reflect on the things that I have gained from working alongside the many talented people who’ve been part of Adaptive Path over the last 15 years, things that I learned that I might not have been able to get from a book or a talk or an online seminar or a certification course, about what it really means to be a designer and what the work asks of us above and beyond simply knowledge of best practices and the best methods for doing this.

Gerry

You started off your talk by… you used the term “adjacent possible” which I wasn’t familiar with. I’ve been reading up a little since then and as far as I can gather it goes back to Stuart Kauffman in talking about biological organisms. What did you mean by the “adjacent possible” and how it relates to designers?

Jesse

This is a concept that I first came across in the work of Steven Johnson. He wrote a book called Where Good Idea Come From, which is about creativity and innovation, and he puts forward this notion of the adjacent possible. The idea behind the adjacent possible is that wherever you are in an unfolding process, a process of change, that there are certain possibilities that are just once step removed from where you are. These are the things, the places where you could possibly go from where you are right now. In the context of evolutionary biology it explains the small variations in plants and animals that lead to the diversity of species that we have on our planet. In the context of creative processes, the adjacent possible represents the ways in which our creative solution could evolve from the point where we stand now, where we currently understand it. And the goal of any creative professional really is to maximise your access to the adjacent possible, to be able to have at your disposal, to be able to see the broadest range of possible creative evolutions from the solution that you currently are working with.

And so a lot of my ideas about what it takes to do great design work are really fundamentally about how do we make sure that we are seeing the broadest and deepest possible range of opportunities, possible range of possibilities for evolving our creative solutions.

Gerry

And I guess even at a very mechanistic level, something like Bill Buxton’s concept of sketching and sketching multiple alternates even for a low-level UI design element is an expression of that, perhaps.

Jesse

Yeah, I think that’s true. I think that if you look at, especially generative design activities, where we are really trying to come up with a range of different possible solutions, that process is always about experimentation and iteration. That process is always about kind of pushing at the edges of what we think might be possible given the constraints of the problem as we understand it.

Gerry

You also said, and you kind of alluded to this, I think, a little earlier on, but you said the school of design that one ascribes to is less significant than the day-to-day choices, or less important than the day-to-day choices.

Jesse

Yeah. I think that especially for people are earlier in their careers, there, people tend to get really focused on the philosophical, and get really focused on doing design quote unquote “the right way.”

But as I said, design is a dynamic process, and it is a process of exploration and if we are doing it well, we are venturing beyond the boundaries of what we already understand. And we are moving into territory that maybe is not adequately addressed by current philosophical thinking or dogma about how design ought to be done. And so I think that the best designers that I’ve worked with are the ones who recognise and embrace that uncertainty and don’t try to fit every design problem into the standard size and shape box that represents a perfect input to some perfect design process.

Gerry

It’s great when you see a designer, you know, bring in something from a totally different field and say, Hey I came across this in, you know, urban planning or I came across this in queue management or something and say maybe we can apply it here.

Jesse

Yeah, well I think that that openness to possibilities that are outside the immediate problem domain is really significant

I have said to people for years that I thought that one of the strengths that Adaptive Path had as a consultancy was that we didn’t specialise. We didn’t specialise in a particular industry, we didn’t specialise in particular methods, we didn’t specialise in terms of team roles. All of it was always about maintaining that flexibility that comes with having your toolkit exposed to a wide range of different kinds of problems. So you can evolve that toolkit and make it more robust as you go. And a big part of that is drawing on these kind of out there off the wall influences.

You know, I once did a project that was a customer information data entry and maintenance system. It was about as dry as it could be. And I based some of the key design elements of the system on a couple of children’s toys that I’d seen. And that brought a different character and a different flavour to it that if the client had hired someone who was a specialist in customer data entry systems, they wouldn’t have gotten.

Gerry

It seems to me that clients are becoming more open as well to the concept of being multi-disciplinary. I think several years ago when you’d go to pitch for a job or go to talk to somebody about a piece of work, they’d say Well, what do you know about the telecommunications industry or What do you know about, you know, banking, or whatever it happened to be. Whereas now people are more accepting that you can some in to something I guess that is, well, maybe an adjacent possible.

Jesse

Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean I think that there has been such a premium placed on innovation, especially in the last 10 years with the rise of smartphones and mobile technology more generally, there has been an emphasis on innovation as a source of competitive advantage. And if you keep doing the same things as everyone in your industry has always done, by definition you’re not chasing innovation. So I think organisations are recognising that they have to think more broadly and they have to think more creatively about where those solutions come from.

Gerry

It’s really cliché to say that something, that some research informs the design, but you said in your talk in Hong Kong, “Research informs the designer, not the design.” Can you tell us about that?

Jesse

Well, I think that for a lot of designers there’s this strong desire to, just to be right, to be proven right, and we often turn to research to support and validate our design approaches. And that’s perfectly appropriate. The problem becomes when we look to the research to really strictly point by point dictate elements of the design. We’re sort of opting out as designers, we’re saying, “My perspective, my point of view, actually doesn’t matter” and that we have science to tell us exactly how the design needs to be developed and the designer’s role then becomes simply as executor of the design recommendations that that come out of the research work.

The think is that, appealing as this is as a construct, it is just that, it is a construct. It’s not the way that… I was going to say it’s not the way that good work gets done but honestly I think it’s not the way that any design work actually gets done. There is a degree of creativity and interpretation and extrapolation from research data that falls between research analysis and development of the design that is where the designer and the history and experiences and sensitivities of that person make their influence known in the design.

And so I think that for a lot of people, the challenge is to let go of the facts and figures and trust in their own creativity and their own sense of human needs and psychology in order to be successful.

Gerry

I guess related to that, something else that you said in that presentation which I wrote down… you said “We can explain by rationality what we did, but we didn’t arrive at the [solution] rationally.”

Jesse

Yeah, I think that’s really true. I think that we’ll often will jump ahead through creative insight toward a solution that was not obvious, and then kind of work backward from that and figure out a way of explaining that and a way of defending that that makes sense. But you don’t build your way up toward design by assembling an airtight argument for it.

Gerry

Although there are people who’d argue that, you know, you should be documenting as you go, every little design decisions and how you reached it and what your rationale was. Do you think that’s just not doable?

Jesse

Well, it’s hard!

It’s hard because there are nuances and subtleties that come about when different design elements some together, where you might have… you might have individual pieces of a design that, each of which is super focused and optimised for a particular need or set of needs that a user might have, but then when you take all of those pieces and you assemble them into a whole, the whole doesn’t hold it together.

And that kind of gestalt that arises out of the design work is a very difficult thing to document in very specific and concrete ways.

Gerry

You quoted Peter Merholz and it was a phrase that really took my fancy. You said he talks about “strong opinions, weakly held.” Can you tell us about that?

Jesse

Sure. Well this is something that was a little bit of a hard idea for me to get my head around when Peter first introduced the idea to me a long, long time ago when we were working together at Adaptive Path. Because I always felt that if you really strongly believe in something then that automatically translated into a willingness to defend that idea and strengthen that idea and hold onto that idea. And Peter’s approach was something really different from that, where at any point in the design process, he would have an opinion, he would have a point of view about where the design needed to go. But that was always subject to change, and he was willing to evolve or throw out ideas that he had been advocating for when it no longer felt that they fit the design, either because there was different kind of research insights or whether there were new business considerations, or whether again we just put the whole design together and somehow the thing didn’t really gel.

So I think it’s that willingness to let go of ideas, is as important as the ability to generate them.

Gerry

Yeah, it can be very powerful too, to walk away from an opinion. Not just from the point of progressing the design but I think for, you know, opening the team up to an understanding that yes, it is okay to argue strongly for something but to have that willingness to step away as well.

Jesse

Well, I think that it… what it entails is a certain degree of humility, right? To be able to say, this answer that I have right now is my best guess, and it is not absolute undeniable truth.

Gerry

I guess very much associated with that, you spoke, one of the elements if you like or characteristics of a good designer was this concept of being flexible as opposed to being brittle, and you talked about brittleness versus flexibility.

Jesse

Yeah, well the flexibility thing is… Again, it’s about keeping ourselves able to handle new challenges and take on new kinds of problems and if you have a very rigid and rigorous and formal methodology, that methodology is going to contain within it some implicit assumptions about the kind of problem that you’re solving, the parameters of the problem that your solving, the nature of the problem that you’re solving, and the nature of an ideal solution.

And all of those assumptions become so deeply ingrained in our methods that we don’t even really recognise them never mind question them. And so what ideally we should be doing as creative professionals is resisting that impulse to adhere strictly to some defined method because it has been proven to be a successful way of doing design for some problems and trying to turn every problem into a problem that can be resolved through that method.

Gerry

Tell me something, are you using the term “creative professional” deliberately as an alternate to “designer.” I noticed you use it a couple of times.

Jesse

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I certainly am mostly talking about the work that designers do, but designers don’t work in isolation, and they are frequently collaborating with other talented creative people who bring other things to the table, whether those are content strategists or whether those are brand people, or whether those are technical people, there’s a tremendous amount of creativity required to do technical work that I think a lot of designers don’t appreciate.

So, yeah. To my mind it is about design but it is more about how do we use creativity in the service of meeting human needs, which is what human-centred design is all about.

Gerry

You also said that designers should have a capacity for discomfort.

Jesse

Yeah, well that’s I think one of the biggest things because design if you’re doing it well is going to take you to uncomfortable places. It’s going to take you to places where there are things that nobody has tried. It’s going to take you to places where the problems are not very well defined, or the users are not very well understood. And what all that requires is if we’re going to see those things through and actually bring new innovative creative solutions into reality, we have to be okay with that sort of journey through the darkness, the journey through that uncertainty to arrive at that solution. And what that requires is a certain degree of emotional resilience to be able to be with that discomfort.

Gerry

You also said that good designers should be open to impractical, impossible, science fiction, absurd, things like that. I’m always a bit surprised when I meet designers or UX people who don’t read or watch sci-fi.

Jesse

Well you know science fiction has been such an inspiration to our field for so many years, and there are so many technical and user experience innovations that you can see modelled on the things that have been imagined in science fiction media.

But I think that, the point that I’m trying to make is a broader point about not closing yourself off to possibilities, to go ahead and to be able to say out loud the weird improbable unlike thing, because maybe that thing is impossible but maybe there is something like it that you could do. But if you take the impossible option off the table, you’re never going to get there.

Gerry

Yeah, that can be a hard message at times to get across to clients, when you say well let’s constrict the design at this point, let’s go for the ideal solution and then, you know, then let the constraints and the realities modify it accordingly. And they often have a tendency to say, well let’s not even explore things that we feel now are impossible.

Jesse

Yeah, and I think that’s a big part of the value that the designer brings to that larger creative collaborative process. Because, you know, I actually kind of don’t want the business owners to be embracing the craziest ideas, because they have a responsibility to their organisation and to their customers. But the designer has license to be the designated oddball in the room, who’s going to say the strange thing and advocate for the strange idea and consider possibilities that other people might rule out out of hand.

Gerry

I guess that fits in well with that whole West Coast vibe. It occurred to me, one of the things you said about good designers was that characteristic of being in love and I thought you were going to get very, you know, California on us at that point.

Jesse

It wasn’t California enough for you?

Gerry

[Laughs.] I thought it was pretty good. Do you want to tell us about that, though, what do you mean by designers being in love?

Jesse

You know, I think that anyone who does human-centred design work is someone who has really built their entire career around deeply understand and caring about other people to the extent that they’re going to put all of this work into talking to people and watching people and thinking about what they’re doing and developing models of how they think and how they feel and how they behave and then taking all that and applying that in the context of the craft of design to shape an artifact that is going to create an experience for somebody else. That is a gift, really, and I think that anybody who’s going to do that well has to come from a place of deep compassion for the people that they design things for.

Gerry

I must admit, and I know you’ve said this too in your talk, you spoke about the importance of empathy… you know, it’s funny when you hear financial institutions talking about empathy with their customers. But sometimes I wonder if empathy is overrated. Couldn’t a good sociopath design something that would be just as effective as somebody who’s empathetic?

Jesse

Well I think sociopaths are empathetic. I think that’s what makes them good at manipulating other people is that they do have a deep understanding of other people’s emotional and psychological experiences. They just don’t care if those experiences serve those people or not. And that’s why I prefer to talk about compassion rather than empathy. Empathy being the ability to feel what other people are feeling, but then compassion is the attitude that you take in response to those feelings.

Gerry

So, less empathy, more compassion.

Jesse

[Laughs.] Well I don’t want to say less empathy but I would say that empathy without compassion is empty.

Gerry

One thing you also said about good designers is that they are present within themselves.

Jesse

Yeah, and there are a couple of sort of facets to that.

Just from a purely practical point of view, to be able to know how to structure and shape how you do your work to make yourself as effective as possible, to know for example that you are most productive when you are working with one other person, or more productive when you’re working with a group of people, or more productive when you’re working by yourself, more productive when you’re working at the office, more productive when you’re working at home.

So part of it is definitely about knowing yourself in the day-to-day and knowing how to set up an environment where you can be most creative, and where you can be most effective at solving problems.

But there’s another part of it which is simply being present with yourself in order to be able to tune into your intuition because intuition is such a vital part of how we do what we do. Intuition is our unconscious mechanism for decision making. It’s that gut feeling that tells us that something is the right thing for us or something represents a direction that we want move in. And that attunement to intuition can only happen when we are open to it and listening for it. If we are overly caught up in our heads, overly caught up in analysis and proving every point, we can get cut off from it, and we can lose that gut sense that really drives, I think, the best creative work.

Gerry

You spoke about good designers cultivating themselves and participating in complementary activities. For a listener who’s maybe just beginning in the field or interested in improving themselves as a designer, what sorts of steps can they take to cultivate themselves?

Jesse

So, you know, you mentioned earlier the ability to bring in these off-the-wall examples or to draw inspiration from unconventional sources in doing design work, and that ability I think is absolutely vital. But it needs to be fed.

It needs to be fed with a range of different experiences and models to draw on. And I would say also that the more that you are out in the world among people and engaging with people, observing people, being with people, the more you can deepen your understanding of the real human experiences of others, the more you sharpen your awareness of human experience more generally.

So, it’s about culture, it’s about media, it’s about social and civic engagement. All of these things I think are possible avenues for the designer to give themselves richer soil in which to grow new creative ideas.

Gerry

So, Jesse, is there going to be a book forthcoming on designing the designer, or the elements of user experience designers or something like that?

Jesse

I don’t have any plans at the moment but the response to the talk has been very positive and who knows, we’ll see.

Gerry

Jesse James Garrett, thanks so much for talking to me today on the User Experience podcast.

Jesse

Thanks, Gerry, it’s great to be back.

Gerry GaffneyDesigning the Designer: An interview with Jesse James Garrett

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