Everybody knows that perfect is the enemy of good, but it’s one of those tenets that’s easy to say and hard to live by. When you’re working on a creative project, there’s almost always something you wanted to do better, or some little detail that didn’t quite live up to your standards. That can be tough to accept.
This is why thoughtful project scoping and timeboxing is so important: if you don’t have a structured process and an end date for your work, you’ll be more likely to wander out into the perfectionist weeds. The farther out you get, the more time you’ve spent—mostly for diminishing returns.
At Basecamp, we protect ourselves against these problems by carefully scoping our projects and scheduling them in 6-week increments. This forces us to keep a regular cadence of shipping new things. Along the way, we have to make tough calls, and give up on always being perfect.
But even with that system in place, there’s still another tricky aspect of perfectionism: what perfect means for one project doesn’t necessarily apply in the same way to another. You have to redefine your standards every time.
I’ve been a designer for nearly twenty years now (😮), with the last seven years spent happily at Basecamp. I enjoy my work and I care about it a lot.
Since I’ve been doing this for a long time, occasionally people ask me to predict next year’s big trends, or reflect on some industry controversy that’s been brewing.
That’s when I have to sheepishly admit: I pay almost no attention to what’s going on in the design industry. I don’t hang out on Dribbble or Product Hunt. I don’t read Hacker News. I don’t go to design conferences or Creative Mornings. I don’t look at inspiration sites or read designer blogs or tweets. I’m also not out there networking, hustling to make connections, hard-selling my personal brand, or fighting to stay on top of the game.
Right now I’m exploring designs for a new product idea. R&D work like this depends on having good mental and emotional energy. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t.
When you’re energetic and motivated, great things happen spontaneously, in unpredictable bursts of inspiration.
But when you’re tired, distracted, or in the weeds on something, it’s usually better to stop working. Just admit (temporary) defeat and give yourself a chance to regroup. Do something else that’s less taxing, or call it quits and start again later.
I always find this difficult to do, because the working world tells us that full-time employees should put in 8+ consecutive hours no matter what. So what if you’re frustrated, burned out, or not making much progress? Too bad, gotta punch the clock! Back to the grind! Grind it out!
The problem is, grinding it out is counterproductive for creative work, because creativity doesn’t happen on a linear time scale. Forcing it usually makes things worse. If you drain your human gas tank all the way to empty, you’ll get even more burned out. And then your bad mood and low energy spills over to another workday, prolonging the creative drought.
Don’t do that! Walk away instead, and leave it for your future, better self to look at with fresh eyes.
Then start thinking about productivity in terms of quality time instead of clock time. You might end up making the same progress with only 20 energetic hours that you would have made in 60 tired hours.
Once you get in the habit of that, you can optimize your schedule around your own energy and enthusiasm. I’m usually at my creative peak in the mid-morning and lose steam after lunch, so I shuffle my work accordingly. I do exploratory freeform stuff in the morning, and I save routine tasks (like implementing something I already know how to do) for the afternoon. I also have a rather short attention span, so I take tiny breaks a lot.
Your schedule might be the opposite. But whatever it is, give yourself the freedom to go with the flow, or shut off the flow altogether. Some days suck and you have to cut your losses. Other times you just need to walk away for 20 minutes to get a flash of inspiration.
The key is to be self-aware and completely flexible about time. Dump the clock. You’ll be much happier and more effective, and your work will still get done in the end.
There’s a term we use in software design called the happy path. It describes a best-case scenario, in which customers use a product exactly as intended, without bumping into any edge cases or uncommon problems. This includes the interface you see when you sign up, setup steps you have to complete, and so on.
For software designers, a happy path is also an extremely powerful psychological tool that allows us to control people’s behavior and direct them to do whatever we want.
If that sounds surprising—and slightly terrifying—think about how many times you’ve blown past a lengthy software license agreement and clicked the Agree button without looking.
Were you thinking deeply about what you were doing?
Probably not. And you’re not alone! Research shows that humans have a natural aversion to decision making. As Smashing Magazine describes it, people simply don’t like to make choices unless they have to:
Making an explicit decision requires effort, after all. Time, thought and consideration are often required to determine the best choice. It turns out that people are remarkably sensitive (and averse) to the amount of effort that making a choice demands.
And therein lies the trouble.
If you pay close attention, you’ll notice something else about software happy paths. Like a tell in a poker game, they subtly reveal a company’s underlying motives.
Since designers know you’ll probably avoid making difficult decisions, they take advantage of your passivity and coax you into doing anything they want.
For example, if you’ve ever installed the Facebook Messenger app, you were likely encouraged to continuously upload all of your phone’s contacts to the service. This is framed as a way to help you text people quickly.
Look at that screen for a moment. There’s no opt out button! You can only choose OK or Learn More.
And who wants to Learn More when they’re signing up for a chat app? Almost nobody.
I’m guessing at least 80% of Facebook’s users just tap OK and move along immediately. There’s even a little animated arrow encouraging you to tap OK, in case you momentarily considered doing something else.
But let’s say you’re among the 20% that happens to pick the Learn More button. You’ll get a cutesy second screen:
This screen finally has an opt-out button, in plain text, buried underneath some repetitive copywriting that vaguely implies you’re wrong for questioning any of this.
Tapping that OK button is a trivially small decision. It takes just one minuscule tap of your finger. It’s done in less than a second.
But the impact is quite large indeed! You’re implicitly agreeing to send Facebook little bits of info about everyone you know. Now imagine the network effects when you multiply that by the millions or billions of users who also tapped OK in the blink of an eye.
This little happy path is feeding a massive data beast, which probably has details about almost everyone on Earth. And Facebook had ample space — two separate screens! — in which to mention anything about this.
So why didn’t they?
Because endless growth and data collection is the foundation of their business, and that necessitates doing gross invasive things to their users.
They need you to feed the beast, and they certainly don’t want you to think about it. So they use cartoon animals and sneaky happy paths to make sure you stay blissfully ignorant.
Now, of course happy path design also happens at companies that don’t have any nefarious hidden intentions.
When you sign up for Basecamp, we don’t trick you, coax you, or collect any more information than we need to get your account working properly.
However, we’re also a for-profit software company, and business performance is one of our considerations when we design our interfaces. When you sign up for Basecamp, we encourage you to take actions that give you the best chance of having success, and (hopefully) becoming a paying customer.
The difference is, our approach is fully above board. If you have success with Basecamp, your life gets a little easier, and we earn a new paying customer. We promise to support you and protect your data. You pay us for that. Cool for everybody.
Using software is inherently a handshake agreement between you and the service provider. It’s not unlike paying for a physical service.
The problem is, many of the dominant software makers are abusing your handshake in increasingly dastardly ways. They treat their customers like sitting ducks — just a bunch of dumb animals waiting to be harvested. And when growth slows, they resort to deceptive and creepy tactics to keep the trend lines pointing skyward.
So what can we do, as consumers?
First, keep your eye out for sneaky manipulation, especially when you’re first signing up for a service. If you’re asked to share personal information or forced to commit to something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably being used.
Second, slow down and thoroughly consider the choices you’re making. You’ll end up discovering weird, surprising things about services that you thought were harmless.
Third, be wary of any “free” software platforms. Sure, you’re not giving those companies any money directly. Instead, you’re giving them something else they’ll use to get money — your attention, your time, your personal information—all things that are arguably more valuable than money.
And finally, pay for software! When you pay real money to software creators, you’re supporting them, and they’ll support you in return.
More and more independent software makers are standing up and defending users against data misuse and manipulation. Recently, Feedbin significantly altered their tech to protect their users from being tracked by the likes of Facebook or Twitter. That’s a great example, and there are many others like it.
Vote with your wallet, and support the people who really do have your back.
At Basecamp, we write a lot—from announcements to pitches, and everything in between.
Quite often, we’re presenting something that has a Before and After, like a mockup or interface design that’s been revised. Until now, this was always kind of frustrating. Basecamp only supported full-width images, so it could be difficult to quickly compare two images at once.
Today we’ve added support for side-by-side image galleries inside written posts!
This is a subtle but substantial change: galleries support and enhance your writing by making it more fluid, expressive, and precise. They’re great for sharing screenshots, comparisons, mockups, sketches, photos, and so on.
Here’s how it works.
Creating a Gallery
In any rich text field in Basecamp 3, you can make a gallery of images by uploading multiple images at the same time. You can do that in the file-browser dialog, or by dragging and dropping files into Basecamp directly.
When you do that, Basecamp will automatically group the images together in a nice arrangement. There are a few different layouts based on the number of images you’ve posted together.
If you upload two images at once, they’ll be oriented side by side.
If you upload three images at once, they’ll be shown 3-up in a row.
If you upload four images at once, you get a 2×2 grid.
And then finally, if you upload 5 or more images, they’ll be arranged in 3-up-sized rows.
You can also make a gallery by uploading images one by one. Just upload one image, then immediately upload another. Basecamp will notice that the images are directly adjacent and bundle them for you.
Adjusting a Gallery
If you don’t want the gallery layout, you can split it up by putting your cursor between images and hitting return. That will break up the gallery at that spot and resize things accordingly.
If you prefer a different arrangement (for example, maybe the second image should be first) you can drag and drop them to reorder.
You can also drag and drop images outside of galleries into galleries, and vice-versa.
It all works like you’d expect images in a text editor to work!
New toolbar for images
Clicking on attachments in Basecamp’s text editor has changed a bit. You’ll now see a balloon at the top that shows the file name, size, and the trash button. (Formerly this was just a trash button.)
A more prominent caption field
Did you know you can write custom captions for any image you upload in Basecamp? If you didn’t, you’re not alone! This feature used to be rather hidden, but we coaxed it out of its hiding place.
Now just click on any image in the editor and you’ll see the Add a caption… field at the bottom. Click on that to type any caption you like.
Popup menus on gallery images
Every image in a gallery has a small ••• menu adjacent to the caption. Click that and you’ll see a popup with the original file name and file size, plus links to download the image, or view it at full size.
Galleries work everywhere right now, in our mobile apps and on the desktop. We hope this update helps you create richer posts, and makes writing in Basecamp a little more enjoyable. Let us know how you like it!
New to Basecamp? Head on over to basecamp.com and see what it’s all about.
We gave up on Likes and invented a totally new form of tiny communication.
If there’s one thing you can’t avoid on the Internet, it’s Likes. They’re in nearly every software platform where people post photos or write text messages.
Sometimes Likes are called Faves, Hearts, Reactions, Claps, or something else, but the basic idea is the same: they’re a small, quick way to express your feelings about something, usually accompanied by a count of other people who had that same feeling.
Until today, we had exactly this sort of feature in Basecamp 3. We called it Applause. If you liked a post, you’d clap for it. Everyone who clapped was shown in a row.
This was fine, of course—it worked just like all the other Likes.
But a couple months ago, we started thinking more deeply about this pattern, and we noticed it has a lot of insidious problems.
Likes are vague, especially in a professional setting. Let’s say your boss liked someone else’s post, and not yours. You might start questioning what happened. Was she just busy and not paying full attention to everything? Or did she do that intentionally? What does it all mean!? There’s no way to know, because there’s not enough information — just a bunch of digital grunting.
Likes are obligatory. How many times have you felt obligated to SMASH THE LIKE BUTTON because you didn’t want to seem like a jerk, or because everyone else was liking something? There’s a subtle peer pressure and herd mentality hiding behind those thumbs up.
Likes are vanity metrics. Whenever you post something to a social network, do you obsessively check to see how it was received? That’s because those little Like counts are a drug for your brain: you get a dopamine rush by observing your own mini-popularity contest. It’s a psychological trick to keep you coming back for more.
Likes are thoughtless. Has there ever been a more mindless form of communication than merely tapping a button? Liking something requires almost no effort or consideration whatsoever. Here’s what you’re really saying: “Thank you for spending your precious time posting this. In return, I have clicked a button. It took me less than one second. Bye.”
Likes are canned. In most apps you have to pick from a predefined set of acceptable symbols (or in Basecamp’s case, just clapping.) That’s not great for addressing the infinite range of nuanced human emotions, and it’s also totally impersonal. Why should some software company decide which 3 emotions you’re allowed to have?
Now, it’s not all bad. There are some good things about Likes too:
Sharing support for others is wonderful. We want to encourage that, of course!
It’s nice to respond to something without making a fuss. You might not have much to say, but you still want to let someone know you appreciated their ideas. Notifying a bunch of other people on a thread merely to say “good job!” is overkill.
It’s helpful to know that people saw your posts. When you see that 10 people liked your post, you’ll know they received it and thought about it (at least a little.)
With all of these ideas in mind, we went back to the drawing board and came up with a fresh new approach that’s never been done before. We’re calling it Boosts, and it’s way better than all of those crummy digital grunts.
Here’s how you boost something in Basecamp.
In various places in Basecamp, you’ll see a new rocket icon:
Click that, and it’ll morph into a small text field.
You’ll notice there are no predetermined options or smiley face buttons to choose from. That’s on purpose. You have to make it up yourself!
Add some emoji or write a tiny text note, up to 16 charactersmax. Then click the green check mark to save your boost (or the red X to cancel.)
You can add more than one boost if you want, and they’ll collect into a little bundle like so:
Your boosts won’t notify anyone other than the original poster. So if you’re on a comment thread with 10 other people and you boost Dave, only Dave will get a notification about it. This is in contrast to comments, which send a notification to everyone on the thread. So if you just want to say “Great job!” or “I agree” or “👍”, but you don’t want to bug everyone with a notification, boosts are best!
If you messed up making a boost, click on it and a trash icon will appear. Click the trash to delete it. (If you’re an admin, you can delete anyone’s boosts in the same way.)
After a lot of people have boosted someone, you’ll see a sweet block of small supportive comments, where everyone’s message is totally unique! There are no vanity counts or anything like that.
Here’s how it looked when I announced that we’d be launching Boosts:
Other times, boosts work like a silly mini-conversation.
When you’ve received some boosts, you’ll get notified about them every 3 hours as long as there’s something new to report—otherwise Basecamp won’t notify you.
Why every 3 hours? We think it’s the perfect amount of time: infrequent enough that you won’t be bombarded about little responses, but frequent enough that you won’t miss anything for too long.
When you click on that notification, you’ll see all your boosts, ordered by date:
You can also unsubscribe from the boosts notifications, if you prefer. Just hit the button in the top-right corner of the page above.
What happened to applause?
Applause is no more (it’s been replaced by Boosts.) But old posts that had applause will still show it—those claps have simply been turned into boosts instead.
So that’s Boosts — we hope you like them! (Pun intended)
We’ve been using boosts for over a month, and we’ve found them to be a much richer form of communication than our primitive old applause system. They’re far more contextual, freeform, and creative: perfect for posting short, thoughtful responses.
After a few days, you’ll notice you won’t feel obligated to boost something unless you genuinely have something to say. Boosts are far less susceptible to vague interpretations, since every little boost is unique to the conversation at hand. And with no buttons to smash, there’s no more mindless button smashing!
Give boosts a try and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you on Twitter or in the comments on this post.
New to Basecamp and want to see what it’s all about? Sign up for a 30 day free trial over yonder.
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…and it just keeps going like that, into an overenthusiastic pit of armchair psychology and semi-authoritative pseudoscience.
As the gurus tell it, A/B testing is like Vegas slots: plunk some crap into a machine, score a handful of 🍒🍒🍒s, and voilà, Easy Bake Revenue!
With a pitch like that, who could resist? It sounds so simple. If you don’t do it, you’re obviously a fool who’s leaving money on the table.
Welp, I have a couple of hard truths for ya:
It’s not as easy as it sounds, and those big gains aren’t such a sure thing.
Setting out to dramatically boost some arbitrary metric (signups, conversions, revenue, whatever) is exactly the wrong way to approach a design problem.
How do I know this?
I spent most of last year testing dozens of conversion-related design ideas in Basecamp, and I found that the JACKED UP PERFORMANCE aspect is the least interesting part of the process, by far.
The most interesting part is how it can change your thinking. Testing is a ticket to ride. It energizes your adventurous spirit, introduces you to uncharted territory, and lands you in cool places you never expected to go.
Here’s what I learned, and why I’ve come to love doing experimental design.
Testing turns your designs into trash.
After running tests for a while, you’ll find yourself throwing away mountains of design work for just a handful of meaningful improvements.
Do that enough, and you’ll notice something: Maybe design isn’t such a special endeavor after all!
The truth is…a lot of design is ephemeral, malleable, disposable…garbage.
Anything you make today merely represents one moment in time. Maybe it’s your best idea now, but it’s not necessarily the best idea you’ll have in another two days or two months.
Testing makes this painfully obvious on a shorter time scale. You’ll soon become less emotionally invested in your precious creations, and more focused on the problems you care about.
Testing strengthens your gusto.
I don’t know about you, but it took me years to build up the confidence to make hard design decisions. I still struggle with it sometimes.
You have to succeed and fail a lot. You have to take criticism a lot. And you have to trust your gut and keep at it, day after day.
Experimentation is a great way to build that muscle. It’s an opportunity to try things you aren’t completely sure about, and gives you a sweet little safety net for failures.
Testing makes you thoughtful.
It can be tempting to do experiments like the lottery: throw a bunch of random shit at the wall and then declare victory when one thing performed best by random chance.
You might get lucky a few times that way, but it’s a terrible long-term approach. Without some overarching vision, you’ll be left with a gnarly mess of test results born from guesses, and no clear plan for what to do next.
The better way, of course, is to start with good ideas! Do some research, come up with educated hypotheses and concepts you believe in, then build and test them to verify your thinking instead of defining it.
Testing destroys perfectionism.
It’s so freeing to ship a bare-bones version of an idea because it’s “just a test” that you’ll either improve or throw away when it’s done.
If you thought that same design had to stick around permanently, you’d probably never launch it with a lot of known flaws or incomplete parts. You’d want to fix up every last detail and make everything perfect first.
Amazingly, those rough, imperfect tests often outperform the supposedly perfected version you already had in place. When you see that, you’ll realize your outsized attention to detail might not matter as much as you thought.
A license for imperfection is an extremely useful defense against Fussy Designer disease. We should all be vaccinated early and often.
Testing builds empathy.
This sounds counterintuitive: running an experiment is mostly a pragmatic and statistical kind of thing. How is that related to empathy?
It’s related because you’re forced to learn what happens when real human people interact with your work. Your choices all have directly measurable effects, so you can’t hide behind bullshitty designerspeak or vague justifications when the data shows you’re just flat wrong.
When you do that, the business boosts you want will happen as a natural side effect of continually tuning your product to serve your customers’ real-life situations. Making things clearer or more efficient for your customers always pays off.
Testing helps you make space.
One tough challenge in UI design is making physical space for new things you want to do. There’s only so much room on a screen!
You might have ideas that require injecting steps into an existing UI flow, adding more screens, revising a visual hierarchy, or rearranging certain navigational elements.
Doing stuff like that is a gamble. You might be confident that your new version is better in some way, but are you sure your improvements are worth the extra steps or added complexity?
Testing lets you dip your toes in the water. You can run a short experiment and see if you’re busting your business before committing to a direction.
Testing tells the truth.
The truth is weird. Sometimes common sense wins out. Sometimes a wild idea succeeds. Sometimes a version you hated performs the best. Sometimes your favorite design turns out to be a total stinker.
Where else in the design world can you get opinion-free feedback like this? There are no Art Directors or Product Managers or App Store reviewers telling you what they think is right. It’s real human naturetelling you what’s right!
It’s a fascinating, powerful, bizarre reality.
Do you use testing as part of your design process, and NOT just for improving some Haha Business metrics? I’d love to hear about that. Drop me a comment below or holler on Twitter.
Last month, we shared a sneak peek at some major design improvements we’ve been cooking up for Basecamp 3. Today’s the day — you’ll see those changes in your Basecamp account right now!
There are countless little tweaks and improvements throughout the entire app, but here’s quick recap of the most important new stuff.
The examples we showed in the preview still stand: improved navigation, colors, and typography, better use of space on desktop screens, and more consistent placement for buttons, headers, and menus. These changes apply everywhere.
New Comments Design
Comments got a big upgrade. We wanted to give comments their own identity and charm, while reducing the metadata noise that had built up around the actual writing. They’re friendly and easier to read, too.
New Options Menus
There’s a slick new design for the ••• options menus that appear on every page. We consolidated all page options into these menus, so now there’s just one consistent home for all the actions you can take, rather than having various buttons and links scattered in several different places. Note: Edit and Bookmark have been moved in here too.
New Breadcrumbs Shortcuts
We built on the breadcrumbs navigation in a couple ways.
First, there’s a new and improved quick-jump button, so you can easily hop between any of the tools in a project. (The project’s name used to to pop up this menu, but now the name is a simple link, just like the rest.)
Second, now you can click anywhere on the white “back sheet” to go back up one level—or click it multiple times to go back multiple levels.
Unified Buttons and Themes
Buttons got a lovely facelift (they’re all round now) and they’ve been themed to match whatever custom color theme you’ve picked. We also sprinkled the theme color on a variety of other elements.
Tidier Message Composing
Posting a message in Basecamp is an important moment, and it should feel GOOD. We simplified the message categories picker, cleaned up the new-message screen, and gave you more space to breathe—and write.
Updated Design for Clientside
If you use Clientside, you’ll notice a few changes. Now there’s a big button at the top of the project to access the Clientside (this replaces the old tabs). The Clientside is now on a white sheet, and message threads are updated too.
Those are just the biggest changes. There’s a lot more than we can list here—so go forth and explore it!
We’re just getting started
We think the refreshed Basecamp 3 is more cohesive, modern, and sophisticated, but still friendly and familiar too. We hope you enjoy the changes as much as we do.
And this is only the beginning. These updates set the stage for a ton of additional improvements we’re planning to make, so keep an eye out for those coming soon. It’s gonna be a great 2018.
Ruminations on the heavy weight of software design in the 21st century.
Recently I took a monthlong sabbatical from my job as a designer at Basecamp. (Basecamp is an incredible company that gives us a paid month off every 3 years.)
When you take 30 days away from work, you have a lot of time and headspace that’s normally used up. Inevitably you start to reflect on your life.
And so, I pondered what the hell I’m doing with mine. What does it mean to be a software designer in 2018, compared to when I first began my weird career in the early 2000s?
The answer is weighing on me.
As software continues to invade our lives in surreptitious ways, the social and ethical implications are increasingly significant.
Our work is HEAVY and it’s getting heavier all the time. I think a lot of designers haven’t deeply considered this, and they don’t appreciate the real-life effects of the work they’re doing.
Here’s a little example. About 10 years ago, Twitter looked like so:
How cute was that? If you weren’t paying attention back then, Twitter was kind of a joke. It was a silly viral app where people wrote about their dog or their ham sandwich.
Today, things are a wee bit different. Twitter is now the megaphone for the leader of the free world, who uses it to broadcast his every whim. It’s also the world’s best source for real-time news, and it’s full of terrible abuse problems.
That’s a massive sea change! And it all happened in only 10 years.
Do you think the creators of that little 2007 status-sharing concept had any clue this is where they’d end up, just a decade later?
Seems like they didn’t:
People can’t decide whether Twitter is the next YouTube, or the digital equivalent of a hula hoop. To those who think it’s frivolous, Evan Williams responds: “Whoever said that things have to be useful?”
That’s not what they originally built. It grew into a Frankenstein’s monster, and now they’re not quite sure how to handle it.
I’m not picking on Twitter in particular, but its trajectory illustrates a systemic problem.
Designers and programmers are great at inventing software. We obsess over every aspect of that process: the tech we use, our methodology, the way it looks, and how it performs.
Unfortunately we’re not nearly as obsessed with what happens after that, when people integrate our products into the real world. They use our stuff and it takes on a life of its own. Then we move on to making the next thing. We’re builders, not sociologists.
This approach wasn’t a problem when apps were mostly isolated tools people used to manage spreadsheets or send emails. Small products with small impacts.
But now most software is so much more than that. It listens to us. It goes everywhere we go. It tracks everything we do. It has our fingerprints. Our heart rate. Our money. Our location. Our face. It’s the primary way we communicate our thoughts and feelings to our friends and family.
It’s deeply personal and ingrained into every aspect of our lives. It commands our gaze more and more every day.
We’ve rapidly ceded an enormous amount of trust to software, under the hazy guise of forward progress and personal convenience. And since software is constantly evolving—one small point release at a time—each new breach of trust or privacy feels relatively small and easy to justify.
Oh, they’ll just have my location. Oh, they’ll just have my identity. Oh, they’ll just have an always-on microphone in the room.
It all sounds like an Orwellian dystopia when you write it out like this, but this is not fiction. It’s the real truth.
See what I mean by HEAVY? Is this what we signed up for, when we embarked on a career in tech?
15 years ago, it was a slightly different story. The Internet was a nascent and bizarre wild west, and it had an egalitarian vibe. It was exciting and aspirational — you’d get paid to make cool things in a fast-moving industry, paired with the hippie notion that design can change the world.
Well, that motto was right on the money. There’s just one part we forgot: change can have a dark side too.
If you’re a designer, ask yourself this question…
Is your work helpful or harmful?
You might have optimistically deluded yourself into believing it’s always helpful because you’re a nice person, and design is a noble-seeming endeavor, and you have good intentions.
But let’s be brutally honest for a minute.
If you’re designing sticky features that are meant to maximize the time people spend using your product instead of doing something else in their life, is that helpful?
Or are you a glorified Huckster—a puffed-up propaganda artist with a fancy job title in an open-plan office?
Whether we choose to recognize it or not, designers have both the authority and the responsibility to prevent our products from becoming needlessly invasive, addictive, dishonest, or harmful. We can continue to pretend this is someone else’s job, but it’s not. It’s our job.
We’re the first line of defense to protect people’s privacy, safety, and sanity. In many, many cases we’re failing at that right now.
If the past 20 years of tech represent the Move Fast and Break Things era, now it’s time to slow down and take stock of what’s broken.
We know we have a big responsibility on our hands, and we take it seriously.
You should too. The world needs as much care and conscience as we can muster. Defend your users against anti-patterns and shady business practices. Raise your hand and object to harmful design ideas. Call out bad stuff when you see it. Thoughtfully reflect on what you’re sending out into the world every day.
The stakes are high and they’ll keep getting higher. Grab those sociology and ethics textbooks and get to work.
If you like this post, hit the 👏 below or send me a message about your ham sandwich on Twitter.
Hey there, tech designer person. Have you noticed the increasing number of vague specializations we’ve invented for ourselves?
Here are a few I grabbed from a job board 10 minutes ago.
UX Designer UX/UI Designer UI Designer Graphic Designer (UX & UI focus) Visual Designer Digital Designer Product Designer Presentation Designer Front End Designer Web Designer
Bleh. What’s the difference between UX and UX/UI and UI? Isn’t Product also UX/UI? Isn’t a Front End a UI? What’s a Graphic Designer with UX & UI Focus? And isn’t all of this Visual/Digital design?
For an outsider, the differences are extremely subtle. I’ve been talking to a lot of industry newcomers lately, and they’re almost unanimously confused. They’re struggling to gain the right experience and make portfolios to match our foggy job definitions.
Even worse, the companies hiring seem equally puzzled. One designer told me he took a UX job at a startup, and then his new boss asked him to explain what UX is about — after he had already been hired to do it!
UX AND UI, WHY OH WHY
This must be happening because everyone can barely keep up with the demand for design work. Companies are racing to fill seats and execute hastily-defined design processes without bothering to question if it’s all necessary for their particular business.
If your company does that, you might find yourself in a game of Designer Hot Potato like this one:
Bob’s good at customer research, so he’s on UX. He’ll make some personas and get a bunch of post-it notes on the wall right away.
Then we’ll get everyone together to look at the post-its and move them around.
Then we’ll write down ideas and ask Natalie to make wireframes. She’s our UX/UI person.
Then she’ll hand those over to Beth, our UI designer, who’s good at turning wireframes into a high fidelity UI mockup.
Then Beth will hand that over to Steven, our Front End person, to make a prototype.
Then we’ll try it to figure out what we did wrong, and check back with Bob on the post-its again. TO THE POST-ITS!!!
This is surely good for 3M’s office supplies revenue, but as a creative process it sounds painful to me.
I’ve never had a job quite like that.
Before I joined Basecamp, I was always a lone wolf — the only designery person at a small business or government org—so I had to figure everything out myself. I had to talk to people, learn about the problems they were having, come up with ideas, create a good-looking solution, write words, and build the UI piece of the final product.
It was tough, and it took years of practice to become competent at any of it. But I loved the diversity of the work and the exciting potential for new discoveries.
Recently John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report for 2017 suggested a name for my kind of role: Computational Designer.
These computational designers exist in a hazy middle ground — not quite pure engineers, not quite pure designers — but their hybrid status is increasingly attractive to technology companies. …The most successful designers will be those who can work with intangible materials — code, words, and voice. (via WIRED)
I dig this idea, but I don’t think we even need the word “Computational.” I think the software industry has been overthinking this, and what John describes is just Design.
Design (with a capital D)
I believe Design requires a holistic grasp of problems, potential, and materials.
If you’re only focused on examining problems, you’re not empowered to dream up the proper solutions.
If you’re only dreaming up what you could do, you’re not close enough to the ground-level truth.
If you’re only working on the nitty gritty implementation, you know about the what but not a lot about the why.
A capital-D Designer is comfortable working organically across all of that, without needing to slice it up into separate little steps and responsibilities.
This is possible in the real world
That’s exactly how we work at Basecamp. We skip most of the formal process stuff, and our Designers do everything: writing, visuals, code, project management, whatever it takes.
We’re living proof that this approach works well. We support hundreds of thousands of customers, plus multiple platforms and products, with a design team of 10 people.
We pull that off specifically because we don’t assign one designer to UX, and another to UI, and another to writing, and another to code.
Think this sounds too hard? Like there’s no way you could possibly be good at all of that?
Take a step back for a second. We’re only talking about making software.
Yes it’s hard…but in the grand scheme of things it’s not THAThard.
Founded in Moscow in 1995, Art. Lebedev Studio is the only design company in the world offering product design, city and environmental design, graphic design, websites, interfaces, packaging, typeface design, custom patterns and book publishing under one roof.
Damn, that’s a lot of stuff! Projects across mediums, genres, industries, you name it. No artificial limits on anything. Inventing things using whatever materials and means necessary.
And that’s not even a new idea. Now look at master Designer Raymond Loewy, born in 1893:
Raymond Loewy (November 5, 1893 —July 14, 1986) was an industrial designer who achieved fame for the magnitude of his design efforts across a variety of industries.
Among his designs were the Shell, Exxon, TWA and BP logos, the Greyhound bus, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Lucky Strike package, Coldspot refrigerators, Studebaker cars, and the Air Force One airplane. He was involved with numerous railroad and locomotive designs. His career spanned seven decades.
So if Art Lebedev’s shop can do all that, and Raymond Loewy could do what he did, why are we so insufferably particular about boxing ourselves into tiny little specialties just to make websites and apps?
Imagine if we stopped doing that, and tossed out our process assumptions and self-defeating arguments about what should be one person’s responsibility versus someone else’s.
Maybe we could all gain that magical holistic understanding, and grow to become Computational Designers. Or even just Designers.
You can make it happen
If you like this notion, try treating your career like your most important project. Be curious and restless. Aim to be constantly learning and trying new stuff without limits. Find a company or a work environment that lets you take a shot at everything you want to do (they’re out there!)…or invent your own little niche if you can’t find that.
This may not be the easiest career path to travel. It’s almost certainly not. But I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride—especially since you’ve designed it yourself.
Hat tip to Jason Fried for turning me on to Raymond Loewy’s work. And a second hat tip to Dustin Senos’ Out of Office Hours project—such a fantastic idea that’s connected me with many wonderful young designers.
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