Posted in Learnings
Today is my last day. My last day as an Interaction Design intern at IDEO, San Francisco. It’s been great. No school course could have taught me what I learned interning at IDEO for half a year. It’s been pretty magical to work at the place that has had such an impact on my job as an Interaction Designer.
Instead of writing ten articles I tried to condense my experiences into one. Instead of writing about Invision, Sketch and all the tools that I learned to use, I want to share my insights. Tools come and go but I will keep these insights forever.
This is a story about culture, creative confidence, post-it notes and about trying to stay curious.
Photo from my first day.. time flies!
Creative confidence. You might have heard of it. It is a term coined by IDEO’s founder David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley. During my internship, I found what creative confidence means to me. I found it in a place I didn’t quite expect.
In a period of 6 months, I participated in lots of creative sessions. I joined brainstorms, I sketched scenarios and I made prototypes on a daily basis. Even though I felt creatively confident, I was always concerned about my actual output. I always looked at the number of ideas I generated and I doubted the quality of my sketches.
The more sessions I joined, the more creative I started to feel. Not because I generated more ideas. Not because my scenarios became clearer. Not even because I became a better sketcher. I felt more creative from the moment I stopped caring about the actual end result.
I started to feel truly creative when I completely stopped caring about the result of my creative process.
Why? Because I started to trust the creative process. I started to trust it perhaps even more than I trusted myself. I realized that if I give myself in, if I dive into the creative process, if I apply the rules of creativity, I will get the desired results. And if results don’t come right away, they will certainly come next time.
I realized that creativity is not just about me. It is much bigger than me.Even more than being confident in my own creativity, I become confident in creativity as a problem-solving tool.
I realized that — to me — underlying creative confidence is confidence in the creative process. This process is confusing, full of uncertainty and hard to quantify so feeling uncomfortable in these circumstances is natural. However, I got more comfortable in fully giving myself in.
I realized that underlying creative confidence is a confidence in the creative process.
I actually think that main reason that creative insecurity exists is because we often measure creativity based on the person’s end result. We count the number of ideas. We judge a finished movie. We criticize the quality of a painting. By doing so, we put pressure on the process. This is the enemy of creative confidence. I experienced it myself.
Courtesy of IDEO / Nicolas Zurcher
For more than a month I was part of a design team in which we designed a tool for teachers. We faced many design problems and we did our best to solve all of them.
One day a bunch of teachers visited the office to give feedback on our prototypes. This short session turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
First, because I realized that I had made many bad design decisions. Users were confused. Initially, I didn’t understand why. I have been designing for a couple of years now. I should be knowing my stuff. And I thought I did. I knew interaction patterns. I knew about information architecture. I knew what colors work well together.
Was all of my knowledge useless? No, but I realized that the more I know, the more I need to challenge this. It’s easy to fall into the trap of just tapping into past experiences. It’s easy to expect something will work just because it worked in the past. It’s easy to just do what a book tells you. It’s easy to just rely on intuition. Every design problem is unique. Intuition can be the illusion of knowing. Trying to be stupid is a skill.
Intuition can be the illusion of knowing. Trying to be stupid is a skill.
This insight made me appreciate IDEO’s prototyping culture more. Without the prototype, I wouldn’t have been able to question what I thought I knew. I wouldn’t have been able to gain valuable user feedback. I realized that the problem of overthinking is that the more you think, the more you think you are right. Something that starts as an educated guess can very easily turn into an assumption.
I realized that the more you think, the more you think you are right. Prototypes challenge this.
Besides making many bad design decisions, the user session made me realize that I had focused on irrelevant design elements. I had spent days worrying about whether to use a fixed or an infinite scroll bar. During the session it turned out that the user didn’t care about this detail. The user cared about other things.
I am not saying that we should stop caring about design, just because our users don’t necessarily recognize the value. I think we should be more obsessed with our user than we are with pixels, typography or scrolling behaviors.
As designers, we should be obsessed with our user, not with pixels, typography or scrolling behaviors.
It made me realize what empathy means to me. It is not just about understanding the user, but it is about starting to value the same things as the user. It is about developing an intrinsic understanding that can inform design decisions.
Traditionally, the role of designer and user are separated. I started to believe there is a value in combining them more and more. I asked myself: “If that user would have my design skills, would he end up with the same product?” If not, I am probably doing something wrong.
Courtesy of IDEO / Nicolas Zurcher
My biggest fear as a designer is to become irrelevant over time. I worry about a new generation that interacts fundamentally differently with future products. I worry about not being able to understand them.
To illustrate this, I felt old when I tried to use Snapchat for the first time. It confused me. I used to make fun of my dad for reading instructions before using a product. However, now I was doing the same. Now I was looking for Snapchat instructions online.
Fortunately, IDEO has developed a research methodology to understand people. I realized that by observing and interviewing users I can overcome the generation gap. I can stay relevant through research.
Before my internship, I had done many group projects. After each project, I could always pinpoint where my ideas impacted the final outcome. I always cared about my role within a team.
At IDEO this was different. I stopped caring about my personal contribution. Why? Because it didn’t matter. It did not matter whether I came up with an idea or my coworker did. All that mattered was that we built a good product. Together. I just felt so much trust from my coworkers, that I didn’t feel the need to prove myself. Even though I was an intern, I never felt that people were looking down on me.
Part of IDEO’s culture is that people don’t take credit, but ownership. They can defend their work when necessary, but they don’t use it as ammunition against another coworker. To me, this felt quite liberating. It felt like a true collaboration.
People at IDEO don’t take credit, but they do take ownership and responsibility.
Okay this sounds cliche, but somehow this one suddenly snapped with me. It snapped with me when I started to work more closely with my teammates. It brought me into fast moving cycles of producing and presenting wireframes. A lot of wireframes.
I realized that their constant feedback helped me in two ways. It helped me to solve some design problems, but even more importantly, it made me realize what I had to improve.
Before giving me feedback, before giving me answers to some of the design problems I was facing, they asked me questions. They asked me to clarify my design. They needed these answers before they could give me feedback. To me, this became part of the feedback itself.
My coworkers needed clarification before they could give me feedback. To me, this became part of the feedback itself.
I realized that the more I had to clarify, the more I had to improve. When a user faces my product for the first time, I won’t be there to clarify the designeither. Good design should not be explained, it should explain itself.
I started to design with this in mind. It became a way to evaluate my work. I asked myself: “What would my coworkers ask me to clarify?”
Well, that’s it. Thanks to everybody at IDEO who have made this internship possible! Special thanks to Shane Zhao for proofreading this article.
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Posted in Projects
During this week of Experience prototyping about micro-interactions I decided to design an unlock screen for the Apple Watch.
Looking at the current design, I found that having 10 buttons on such a small screen is not great. That’s why I tried to think of an an interaction that is quicker to complete and has less room for error.
I had never worked with the Apple watch before and I hoped that the small size of the screen would enable me to really focus on the micro interactions.
I did a couple of iterations where I sketched out some ideas and then tried to code these in FramerJS. But often, what I ended up coding wasn’t what I sketched. I think firstly because I lacked some coding skills, but even more so because things that I imagined on paper were unrealistic in code.
My last concept actually hit me by surprise. Because instead of having a sketch I started coding in Framer. A simple circle triggered more ideas. What if I add a colored circle? What if you could drag one circle over another?
I ended up with a prototype, were dragging the inner circle over the colored ones, creates a pattern based on the user’s order. So instead of tapping digits, you can simply unlock the watch with a unique swipe. But only when you swipe the correct code of course.
I realized that even though a circle on paper, and a circle in Framer represent the same idea they are two very different things. In Framer, a circle has an endless potential for interaction. You can drag it, tap, swipe it. You can make it grow, make shrink. It can turn into anything that you can imagine. On paper however, a circle is static. It’s done. To me, it’s not the beginning of something, but the end. That’s why it just doesn’t inspire me.
In Framer, a circle has an endless potential for interaction. You can drag it, tap, swipe it. You can make it grow, make shrink. It can turn into anything that you can imagine.
So during this week I got really excited about FramerJS. Not just as a tool to communicate, but to explore as well.As far as micro interactions go, I realized that we can’t design the feel of interaction.. if our tools don’t allow us to feel the interaction ourselves.
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Posted in Learnings
Sometimes it’s liberating to dive headfirst into a new creative discipline. That feeling of not knowing anything. It’s scary and exciting at the same time.
I just love the process of making things, reflecting and coming up with my own theories. It’s how I learn. Today is about me learning how to tell a story through film. Being a designer, I’ve realized that even though I don’t really consider myself as a filmmaker, I do love making films.
Last month I made my first short film, in ten days. We made our first short film I should say. Because even though this article is about my personal reflections, the film is by no means an individual effort. None of this film would have be possible without my awesome teammate and best friend, Trieuvy.
Anyways, we made this film for a speculative design project at Umeå Institute of Design. Traditionally designers have used videos to explain their concept, we took this opportunity to tell a story within our design fiction. We felt that some qualities of storytelling could enable us to evoke a stronger response from the viewer. I hope we succeeded.
Please watch our short film below, otherwise the rest of this article doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
These are some things I learned during making this process. These are some theories I developed.
Near the end of our film, Jesse gets faced with a dilemma. Sell the pregnancy data from his friend Mila or disappoint his buddy Liam by not being able to afford a new suit.
We see Jesse’s inner struggle, but we don’t actually see his decision. We don’t actually see whether he swipes to the left or to the right. Instead we see the consequences of his swipe in the final scene. Mila gets bombarded with baby related ads. We don’t show, but we suggest.
I realized that this seemingly simple principle separates great movies from mediocre ones. It’s something I’ve often done wrong myself, I guess because it feels counterintuitive at first. This principle explains why I don’t feel engaged in most Marvel movies, but I deeply connect to the work of Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Arrival).
This seemingly simple principle separates great movies from mediocre ones.
Marvel movies show everything what is happening. If it’s not through the visual, it’s definitely through the dialogue. Quite often, the characters literally explain the plot. This approach greatly impacts your relation to the movie. It makes you feel like a passive observer. Like you can turn off your brain.
On the other end of the spectrum are the movies that master the art of suggesting. Those movies merely suggest what is happening, but don’t actually show it. As a result you feel like you are an essential part of it. You feel like an active participant. You are engaged in the story and you become emotionally attached.
If you want a viewer to care about your story, acknowledge their role. Treat them as a participant. Trust their imagination.
I actually think that the power of leaving away applies to storytelling in general, not just for cinematography. If you want an audience to personally connect to your story, create gaps which they can fill in with their personal experiences. This will make them feel like the story relates to them.
To me, speculative design isn’t about the future. It’s about the present. The reason why we show a possible future is because it enables reflection on our present. I think a similar principle goes for the role of characters in a story. By seeing the world through the eyes of a character, we can change the perspective on ourselves. A character can hold us up a mirror.
Just like speculative design changes our perspective on our present, a character can change our perspective on ourselves.
So how would you achieve this through film making? How would you put the viewer into the shoes of a character? I think it’s empathy. I think empathy enables us to look at the world through the eyes of somebody else.
How would you then make an empathetic character? It’s about understanding why a character does certain things. In our film we empathize with Jesse because we understand the motives behind his actions. In the first scene we see Jesse in a suit store, not being able to afford the suit he dreams about. As the story continues, the pressure from his friend Liam, representing society’s perspective, to buy the suit increases.
We understand the embarrassment that comes from him having to lie to his friend that he already went suit shopping, not mentioning he didn’t actually have the money to buy one. We can all relate to the feeling not being able to live up to the high expectations of friends, family and even society as a whole.
So when Jesse unintentionally gets his hands on some highly valued data, we understand why he sells it. Empathy allows us to partially displace moral judgement. We don’t necessary approve, but we are still involved in the story.
I’ve learned that when we empathize with a character and we look at the world through their eyes, we have a fantastic opportunity to learn about ourselves.
Our film itself doesn’t aim to pass judgement on Jesse. After all, Jesse didn’t create this highly individualistic consumeristic society. He just stumbled on to it and is doing what he’s told. We want the viewer to realize that the real problem isn’t Jesse, but the society that creates a rewards a character like this. Jesse is simply fulfilling the supply, that we, society are demanding.
In our story, Jesse disappointingly stares in front of him after realizing he has far from enough money to buy the suit. During this close-up, the sound of an alarm starts playing. The sound glues the two scenes together. It implies a connection.
Visually we go from a static, closeup of Jesse’s face, to a point of view of his bedroom, rotated 90 degrees. This transition, which is simultaneously connected through audio, but disconnected through the visual, aims to represent the disconnection between Jesse’s dreams and reality.
This simple cut causes the viewer to rethink the first scene. Was it just a dream or not? To me, whether the first scene was a dream or not, is not that important, it’s the doubt of the viewer that is. The cut causes this doubt. It proposes a question.
I’ve learned that every time you cut, you create a new relation, possibly giving new meaning to what was previously shown.
Through an cut you can make an argument, you can explain, you can suggest or you can propose a question. This is known as the Kuleshov effect. Viewers don’t forget what they saw, use this to your advantage.
Our film takes place in the year 2036. When visualizing the world twenty years from now, it’s tempting to go completely crazy. It’s tempting to think of flying cars, arm implants and house farms. However, even though these wild ideas might be completely realistic twenty years from now, showing this is not necessary more effective in terms of viewer engagement.
I’ve realized that to make the viewer engaged in a future, we need touch-points to our present. We need things that haven’t changed to accept the things that did.
I think that the trick to creating a realistic future is to be very deliberate in what to change and what keep unchanged.
Think of Black Mirror. The number of futuristic products in Black Mirror is actually surprisingly low. Still you completely buy into it.
I think this principle sets apart the movie Her, which takes place in the future. To me, it feels like Theodore is a character from our present, who is put into a future world. Theodore is the touch-point to our present. He struggles with topics that we face today. He responds the first time he sets up his A.I., similar as we would do nowadays. Because of Theodore we buy into the future that the movie presents.
If you enjoyed this article, perhaps you want to follow me through my Interaction Design Master’s thesis journey, starting in January 2017. Follow this publication or subscribe here if you want to receive weekly updates and reflections. ❤
Posted in Portfolio Principles
I think that to designers your portfolio can greatly impact your career, but building one is quite challenging. I’ve personally struggled for years from which I learned a lot. To share my learnings I decided to write about this topic for the last 36 weeks. This unofficial guide summarizes 36 articles which originally appeared in my mail list. It’s not complete, it’s not perfect but it’s a start.
© 2018 Martijn van den Broeck
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