Working Backwards from Magic

I have wanted to write about working backwards from magic for quite a while now, partially from a place of laying claim to the idea as some smart minds are taking note of the idea, but I didn’t want to rush out a half-baked take on a concept that I truly believe has the power to change the world.

My ego temporarily entertained the idea of writing a book about the concept, however, even though I believe that working backwards from magic is an extremely powerful approach to creative problem-solving, it would be disingenuous to package a relatively simple idea with 200+ pages of padding to make a quick buck in the self-help/productivity niche. The concept really doesn’t need that much unpacking, it’s almost laughably simple and it has the capacity (at least in my experience) to make conventional approaches to problem-solving look ridiculously convoluted by comparison.

I feel that as an industry (and I’d perhaps extend this towards society as a whole) that we are sleepwalking into a level of comfort where big, bold, radical thinking has made way for safe, tried and tested systems and processes that produce reliably similar results and more of what the world already has. The industry seems as though it is short on new ideas and bravery, and big on conventional thinking and mass-producing more of the same. It’s tilting towards anti-progress. Working backwards from magic is the pushback against this mode of thinking.

What is Working Backwards from Magic?

Put simply: working backwards from magic is an approach to creative problems by using the suspension of belief and any limiting factors to unlock new value.

It is a tool that can be turned towards design and development problems, product ideas and/or improvements, essentially anything that would benefit from thinking from new directions and perspectives. It’s an incredibly simple process to describe and, in my opinion, easier to apply than the prescribed templates of conventional creative processes and approaches.

Step 1: Identify the Problem

In order to know where we’re going, we need to understand the problem we’re trying to solve. How deeply you understand it doesn’t necessarily matter, this is more about having something to aim at rather than nothing.

Step 2: Remove all limitations

Leave conventional thinking at the door. It’s of no use to us in this process. Removes all limitations from the problem, all assumptions, all technical restrictions, all preconceived notions and concepts, get all of that out of the way and start from this point because by default, you’re making something new and therefore more valuable. What you won’t want to do is see how others are solving the problem - this gets you back into conventional thinking and solving problems with existing solutions.

Let’s look at the problem Uber were faced with. It didn’t require any deeper definition other than “how do we get people from A to B?”

If Uber looked at what everyone else was doing (reasoning by analogy/conventional thinking using preexisting ideas) they would just have a shinier interface on top of a regular taxi firm website offering a contact form and/or a phone number to call a taxi.

Instead, Uber decided to work backwards from magic and started from impossible. How could you get someone from A to B if this worked like magic? “Teleportation!” Obviously that’s not doable, yet at least, so if not teleportation then what? You would have a personal driver to take you from A to B. You wouldn’t need to be somewhere in particular, this service would know where you are, and you would know how long it would be until your driver gets here - etc etc, and so Uber is born.

By moving all of the limitations out of the way (current understanding of how taxis work, technical limitations, society’s expectations of what a taxi does), Uber was able to create something new and of significantly greater value than the existing solutions to the problem.

The world is full of secrets like this left to discover. We’re lucky we are in software because most of the hardware secrets have been discovered. The web is just getting started and there are millions of life-changing ideas in waiting.

Step 3: Introduce Reality and Meet Magic in the Middle

As we’ve just discussed in the Uber example, it’s not enough to start from magic and leave it at that. There is a need to get real which involves remaining disciplined about keeping conventional thinking at arm’s length.

Working backwards from magic requires you to start from impossible and slowly introduce just enough reality until your solution is as close to magic as possible.

Before Apple took over the world, the old saying was “nobody gets fired for choosing IBM”. Risk-averse people and conformists get left for dust in the long run.

Conventional Thinking vs Working Backwards From Magic

My intention isn’t to encourage a complete rejection of conventional thinking altogether. Tried and tested solutions have their time and place, but at a time where design is self-commoditising in software I can’t help but feel that the industry is declaring “mission complete” and systemising too soon.

Conventional thinking in digital design adopts the generic process of discovery through to completion by passing through all the usual stops along the way: user stories, competitive analysis, personas, wireframes and so on. Such processes are rapidly becoming checklists, or worse - ass-covering exercises so that the designer can blame the process if their work doesn’t quite return on the investment.

  Conventional Thinking Working Backwards from Magic
Starting Point Find existing examples Start from impossible
Process Pre-planned, detailed Whatever it requires
Solutions Already exist, may be remixes/combinations of existing solutions Typically new, unlikely to exist
Worldview No secrets left to find The world is full of secrets left to be discovered

The issue with conventional thinking is that it often involves an abundance of rules and processes that rarely produce the insanely valuable outcomes. The possibility space is artificially limited from the start. Ideas that create companies like Uber are left for other daring adventurers and the conventional thinker can only watch from the sidelines and wait for ideas to become mainstream before integrating them.

Working backwards from magic starts from a completely different and grander possibility space. It begins with the simple question: “if this worked like magic, what would that look like?”

“It’ll never work”

For this approach to work, it needs to live in a culture that is open to risk, making mistakes, and learning from failure quickly. We are taught from an early age that mistakes are bad and that learning to repeat answers from books is how to progress in life - in essence: do what everybody else is doing, DON’T think different. I can’t help but think that this leads to the type of ass-covering through a plethora of rules, conventions and processes that have become the norm in creative work.

I have found that, in my experience, working backwards from magic democratises design more than existing approaches which seem to revel in the authority of a UX leader type bringing the timid, naive client and others through the dangerous world of design. In contrast, asking a client “if this worked like magic, what would that look like?” brings them to the table without the need to jump through hoops, or worry about saying the right technical terms or have concerns about whether something can or can’t be achieved.

I have also started to become comfortable with the idea that “it’ll never work” is a good indication that I’m on the right track towards creating new value. “It’ll never work” simply means that it doesn’t exist (yet) and you’re firmly in working backwards from magic territory. Your possibility space is infinitely bigger.

Intentional and Emergent Design Systems II

I believe Robin Rendle’s Systems, Mistakes, and the Sea was a catalyst for several enjoyable articles on design systems since the beginning of the year. Notably Jeremy Keith’s Web standards, dictionaries, and design systems, Frank Chimero’s Gardening vs Architecture, a subsequent, deeper dive in Jeremy’s Architects, gardeners, and design systems, and Dave Rupert’s The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it.

What follows is a contribution to this discussion. I’m still unpacking it but it feels timely to push some thoughts out into the open whether they’re ready or not.

I believe that we are collectively tapping into something important within the design system discourse. Something felt, but difficult to uncover and put into words. However, it is gaining shape with some common themes around the role of humans and machines, order and chaos, industry and liberty.

I’m going to dive deeper into the conversation through the framing I believe helps me most by elaborating on Intentional and Emergent Design Systems.

Recapping Intentional and Emergent Design Systems

It helps to read the original, short article first, but as a brief summary:

Intentional design systems are the typical approach to building design systems: design system first → design/build solutions from the system, i.e intentionally designing a system regardless of the solution.

Emergent design systems start from solutions and work backwards to find emerging, reusable patterns for the system.

The Reach & Scope of Design Systems

As far as I am aware, there is no collective understanding of the desirable reach of a design system. The intentional camp believes that everything must come from the system. By default, the system permeates the entire product.

In an intentional design system, there is no room for chaos. Only order. If something doesn’t fit the system it doesn’t belong in the system. If something cannot be born out of the system, it will not belong in the system. Intentional systems are authoritarian by nature.

Their liberal counterpart, the emergent design system, begins with creativity and chaos deriving patterns for the system later. Decisions start from user outcomes (the sum of all parts) and work backwards to find reusable parts. It’s hard to quantify the reach of emergent systems. It may cover a small amount of the product, and it may cover a lot of the product. It’s not all-encompassing. There is likely a correlation between the number of unique user problems encountered and the overall coverage of the system.

The scope of an intentional design system is large by default and requires some degree of conjectural bloat (code for scenarios that have yet to occur). When components are front-loaded into the process you get wastage as a byproduct. Guesswork and assumptions are part of the product’s DNA. I don’t blame anyone in thinking that this approach is the sensible direction. We’ve been conditioned to believe the next new thing should come first in the chain of events, whether it’s mobile-first, content first, users first - when it comes to building products in design and code, you can be forgiven for adopting a design system first approach.

Although not a like-for-like comparison, it’s interesting to see that the same voices who would bemoan libraries such as jQuery and Bootstrap - two libraries full to the brim of conjectural bloat - haven’t noticed the hypocrisy in advocating for design system first approaches before building up to more complex components. The same voices who evangelise for accessibility damning jQuery for adverse effects on performance and page weight are happy to tax users for a speculative design system1.

In contrast, emergent design systems require only accepting evidence-based patterns and components into its system. It flips everything on its head asking the parts to prove themselves to be replicable and have sufficient utility. They need the gardeners Frank Chimero alluded to.

A useful lens for drawing that difficult line around the scope and reach of a design system might be around the value of tasks the UI components will provide to users. Low-value tasks (the type that provides limited utility such as a terms and conditions page) are perfect for design systems to do the heavy lifting - if not all of the lifting. High-value tasks (such as a search box on an e-commerce product) should require more human attention and deservedly so. Think of a pilot flying a plane full of passengers - the most critical (and therefore high-value) parts of a flight are: taxiing, takeoff, and landing. Autopilot can take care of the rest. You want your pilot at his or her sharpest for those key moments. Your design system is no different.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy of Design Systems

An intentional design system assumes that your design work is done. You can maintain it, of course, but making changes to the system becomes a bureaucratic process.

We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it.

Dave Rupert — The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it

I remember coming up against design bureaucracy during my time working as part of a large scale product team. We were faced with many new user problems in need of solutions. The team were hellbent on shaping the solution to the problem out of the prebuilt pieces of the design system. Reasoning by analogy. The method of thinking rarely leads to new solutions for new problems. First-principles reasoning was deemed too expensive.

I was met with arguments like “That means we’re going to have to create a new rule for this component, we’ll have to get internal sign-off, the developers will have to invest extra effort, it’ll need to go through testing, do you seriously want to go through all those steps?”

It was clear that we had been designed into a corner by our design system or at least our organisation’s ideology. What if our initial assumptions were wrong? What if we didn’t have the pieces to address these new problems?

I noticed a pattern. If a problem could be easily solved, low-effort, low value, or if it had already been solved - defer to the system. Watch out for when the system pushes back. If the design system pushes back, it’s time for human intervention and invention.

Individuals commit the sunk cost fallacy when they continue a behaviour or endeavour as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort) (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). The same is true for design systems that grow in scope beyond a team’s ability to become dynamic to the system and its user’s needs. Decisions are deferred to the system by default, and anything that requires the system to change is met with often insurmountable objections because of the time, money, and/or effort to change the system.

Useful questions to ask when the system pushes back:

  • Do we need to amend the system?
  • Is it a unique case that should sit outside the system?
  • Is it likely to reoccur in different variations?
  • Is it something that should be governed by a design system?
  • Does the system bake in more assumptions than a different approach? (Occam’s Razor is a good guide for software decisions)
  • Does building the best thing involve building it out of the things we’ve already built? Or does it require building something new?

You can tell what type of design system you’re working with if it biases solutions towards pre-existing components or if the system gives you the freedom to invent.

Leaving Room for Creativity

The majority of systems I hear people advocate for appear to subscribe to intentional design systems. Because of this, one of my overriding fears is that design systems are designing designers out of the picture. For years we’ve pushed against the idea of design as a commodity, yet here we are commoditising design down to atomic levels.

“Sometimes you load up a show on Netflix or a song on Spotify and you can feel the algorithm in it.”

Frank Chimero — Gardening vs Architecture

I used to poke fun at the websites of the early 2010s claiming to be “handcrafted”. Now I’m thinking they were on to something. Perhaps “handcrafted” was the wrong adjective, but I think they were trying to describe something else. Something made through more effort, deliberateness, craft, and creativity. These experiences placed more of an emphasis on the importance of aesthetics, they spoke to human ideals such as affordance, familiarity, and metaphor. Flat design lends itself towards low-effort commoditisation and malleability in a design system - perhaps leading to the ideology of “everything that can be systemised, will be systemised”.

There is a certain coldness in the algorithms. You can feel the algorithm in a rigid design system that spans every corner of a product. You don’t want a design system that feels “automated” - well, you might but your users certainly don’t. Your users would rather a product designed with care (dare I say, “handcrafted?”).

The benchmark must surely be what resonates with users - and if that is an amalgamation of predefined components and rules that must work because the system says so, then fine, so be it. I firmly believe that it makes much more sense to start from resonance and work backwards treating users first and systems second.

If I could give an artificial intelligence the keys to fully automating modern design, I’d point it towards an intentional design system. An emergent approach leaves room for mystery, chaos, intuition, creativity and expression - the unpredictable, unique, innately human elements.

Do design systems limit creativity? The answer rests on what type of system you subscribe to.

The worst incarnation of a design system designs designers out of the picture. If I were building an AI tool to displace designers, I’d point them towards an all-encompassing, intentional design system. I fear that we’re blindly running towards automation and we’re giving the algorithms the template our jobs. It’s not hard to imagine a world where No Code technology complements No Design. By contrast, the best incarnation of a design system leaves room for creativity, invention, the human elements.

And my argument is exactly that - we should safeguard the human elements of the design process. There will always be a need for human intervention, the kind of which requires a human eye to correct for optical alignment when the machines produce rounding errors, or perhaps it is our all too human flaws that produce the rounding errors, either way, the goal should be to prioritise people over rules, algorithms, and automation. Ultimately you want to design systems that liberate creative teams rather than systems that constrain creative teams.

Jeremy Keith recently added colour to the idea of intentional and emergent design systems drawing ideological comparisons with language prescriptivists and language descriptivists.

Language prescriptivists attempt to define rules about what’s right or right or wrong in a language. Rules like “never end a sentence with a preposition.” Prescriptivists are generally fighting a losing battle and spend most of their time bemoaning the decline of their language because people aren’t following the rules.

Language descriptivists work the exact opposite way. They see their job as documenting existing language usage instead of defining it. Lexicographers—like Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary—receive complaints from angry prescriptivists when dictionaries document usage like “literally” meaning “figuratively”.

Jeremy Keith - Web standards, dictionaries, and design systems

When I first read the article, I quietly took issue with where Jeremy’s interpretation landed. The reasoning up until the ending resonated, but I believed his conclusion put intentional design systems on the side of beauty at odds with the emergent design systems - accurate but not beautiful.

I think we can learn from the worlds of web standards and dictionaries here. A prescriptive approach might give you a beautiful design system, but if it doesn’t reflect the actual product, it’s fiction. A descriptive approach might give a design system with imperfections and annoying flaws, but at least it will be accurate.

I think it’s more important for a design system to be accurate than beautiful.

Jeremy Keith - Web standards, dictionaries, and design systems

How can front-loaded design systems result in more beautiful products than design systems that begin with the end in mind and work backwards?

Then I realised the flaw in my thinking. Jeremy was describing the design system itself, not the fruits of the system. (The irony of my flawed thinking further highlights my own biases towards the emergent end of the spectrum!)

I feel that one further elaboration is required: an intentional design system can create beautiful design systems, an emergent design system can be created from beautiful products.

  1. I’ve been told that a speculative design system makes the point that I’m trying to make with “intentional” design systems much clearer. I really don’t care what label anyone wants to use as I mentioned in the previous article, I’m not trying to make this a “thing”. I seek no such fame. All I want to do is outline there are two competing approaches here which people aren’t talking about. 

Intentional and Emergent Design Systems

There are two competing approaches in designing design systems. I’m going to call these approaches intentional design systems and emergent design systems to create a clear distinction between both.

An intentional design system

This seems to be the default methodology in design circles. The flavour and framework may vary, but the approach generally consists of: design system first → design/build solutions.

I have a few concerns with this way of working with design systems. Front-loading design and/or build with the pieces you believe you’ll eventually need to arrive at a solution creates a limited set of outcomes. Any attempt to create more pieces in anticipation of generating a greater number of outcomes results in conjectural bloat – a cost offset to the user paid for in unnecessary data and time.

Assuming the pieces will arrange themselves into answers means that you begin by painting yourself into a corner with something yet to prove its worth. This variety of design systems thinking usually finds its authors and gatekeepers consulting with the system over answers rather than thinking from first principles. Intentional design system advocates focus primarily on the what and how rather than the why.

An emergent design system

Then there is the opposing approach, the unashamedly cart before horse way of looking at design systems.

This approach is much closer to the user needs end of the scale by beginning with creative solutions before deriving patterns and systems (i.e the system emerges from real, coded scenarios).

Emergent design systems are typically more liberal and agnostic to predefined ideas and pieces. The rules are written as the game is played, not before, which opens up more creative possibilities. The rules committed to code have been proven in the wild and earned their place in the system.

The fundamental difference between the two competing methods is the point at which design decisions become codified as part of a design system. This may seem like a minor point to get stuck on but it touches on an old CSS problem: it’s hard to remove CSS after the fact because it isn’t clear where certain style rules are used or perhaps never used. Front-loading a design system with granular, variable-like CSS rules is as good as saying those rules are immovable and any attempt to move them will have unintended consequences up the design system chain from granular to fully formed components and patterns.

Waiting for systems to emerge, through a continuous process of building and deconstructing, goes some way towards remedying the assumptions of the alternative technique.

Idea Friction

Noun The time between idea cogitation in the mind to manifestation in a sharable form.

One of the biggest challenges in any creative endeavour is manifesting ideas as close to the speed they form in the mind as possible. Ideas tend to have a half-life in that the longer we hold on to them without expressing or capturing them, the more fragmented they become from the original concept.

In general, the faster you can express and capture ideas, the more they stay true and intact. Therefore, verbalising your ideas is the fastest route to expressing and capturing them. It’s the current benchmark.

Writing down ideas, whether by pen or by typing, increases idea friction but enjoys the retrieval benefit of finding them again at a later point in time. Sketching, drawing or visualising through design tools has a much greater rate of idea friction but enjoys the benefit of higher fidelity than other methods.

Idea friction is especially true of any collaborative endeavour where you have an exchange of ideas. If the ideas are being discussed verbally you need to bank your idea, wait your turn, listen and understand ideas from other parties, contribute, notice how it affects your idea, then communicate.

It is therefore desirable where possible to reduce idea friction by shortening the time between idea conception internally and manifestation externally so ideas can be captured and acted upon.

Experience Gaps

I hold a special place in my heart for Pearl Jam’s Yield album, released in 1998. It’s a remarkable album, easily overlooked. At first glance, the cover is pretty forgettable and not unlike something you would find scrolling through Unsplash, searching for the word ‘road’. Yet I’ve heard fellow fans gushing about how the yield sign in the middle of a road that has no junction to yield to and no traffic to give way to is actually a message saying to just yield to experience and let go.

I don’t buy it. Nor did I buy the black and white photos in the booklet taken by the bassist, Jeff Ament. They were dull and uninspiring. Nevertheless, they were my access to the lyrics and the personnel involved with each song, the instruments they played, the sound engineers and producers. These details matter when you obsess about music.

Over a series of listens with headphones on, the album booklet spread out on the floor in front of me, as I often did in the late ’90s before the days of streaming music, I started to notice some unusual things with this once trivial booklet. It started when I was listening to the song ‘Given to Fly’. I took notice of the accompanying photo as it looked like a photo of a statue gazing towards the sky, spreading its wings. The strange thing was that this was the only photo in the booklet that clearly depicted the track, whereas the rest of them didn’t. I flipped through the booklet towards one of my favourite tracks, ‘Faithfull’. I was met with a photo of a concrete building viewed from the ground. Did the building represent something? It wasn’t a church or somewhere you would practice your faith. As I contemplated the meaning behind the image, I noticed that one of the windows near the top was clearly shaped like a triangle, not a rectangle like the others.

Pearl Jam's 1998 album, Yield

I flipped the album closed to reveal the boring cover shot of the triangular yield sign. Was this a clue of some sort? I pored over the other shots in the booklet. The next track, ‘No Way’, had a photo of birds perched on telephone wires with a backdrop of clouds. Again, uninspiring at first glance, but there it was again, hiding in plain sight – an unnaturally shaped cloud in the shape of a triangle! I searched online for ‘Pearl Jam yield signs in booklet’ and didn’t get any useful results. I kept looking and found hidden yield signs in every photo of the book, some more obvious than others; some might even have been my imagination seeing something that wasn’t there.

The band deny all knowledge of hidden signs in the album artwork. Someone was playing a game. And I loved the thrill of the chase. World-renowned computer adventure game designer Brian Moriarty calls attributing personal meaning to sequences of things ‘constellation’, as in the verb to constellate, just as ancient civilizations would have looked up at the stars and grouped them into patterns, drawing connections between points and giving them meaning.

In today’s digitally transformed music industry with streaming on demand, Yield feels one-dimensional. There is no companion booklet to tell me who wrote the words and music for each song; I don’t know what the lyrics are or the visual representation of the lyrics from the artist; I don’t know how the album artwork feels to touch; I don’t know the personnel involved; I can’t see any of the hidden yield signs within the booklet; I can’t see the album in relation to the rest of my collection; and I can’t talk my friends through my collection.

Drew Austin notes in his article ‘Cold Discovery’ for Real Life magazine that physical record collections are tools for people to ‘publically signal their identities’ and

[…] covers are part of a whole regime of organizing information and space that is now in danger of disappearing. While the design of libraries and bookstores prioritizes the coherent visual display of book covers and spines so that people can navigate collections and find the singular physical objects the covers signify, the endlessly rewritable surface of the screen dispenses with that arrangement.

In some sense, record collections were regarded as an extension of ourselves.

Digital streaming favours speed over the old process, which was accidentally meditative in that it was slow and it coerced you into being present in the experience. Perhaps digital is also hampered by the limitations of the screen eliminating the other senses that played supporting roles in this experience, such as touch and smell. As a result, streaming music feels shallow, a little like 360° panoramic photos of a landmark. It looks great for a moment, the novelty of the technology excites you for a moment, but you’re not really there.

New adventures in Wi-Fi

I try not to be a back-in-my-day kind of guy. I’m actually quite optimistic that digital lowers the barrier for creators to make meaningful experiences, and we are yet to see the full array of possibilities in front of us. Brendan Dawes has been exploring such possibilities. His Plastic Player project is a wooden box with purpose-built slots along the top to house a series of slides containing album art, similar to how vinyl is displayed in a record store, and a space to place your chosen card.

Dropping a slide in place triggers a sequence of events beginning with the internal Arduino Yun with an NFC (near-field communication) shield read the NFC sticker on the back of the slide. Once the tag is identified over Wi-Fi, the Pi MusicBox API plays the selected album from Spotify through the connected speakers. To me, Brendan’s Plastic Player is the perfect example of analogue and digital music experiences coexisting in balance and harmony with each other. Other senses are brought back into play – the speed of digital (as a bug, not a feature) is eliminated by the time it takes you to leaf through the collection of slides, select one, and play. It’s not easy to skip tracks, browse, and add thousands to your collection by design. It’s thoughtfully paced; it leaves room for meaning. Decisions are slower and more deliberate.

A photo of Brendan's contraption

Brendan Dawes' Plastic Player project

Brendan’s creation makes a screen look like a limitation rather than an optimal interface in this more considered approach to digital music. It’s easy to imagine how we could take the idea further – you could trade the physical slides with your friends and family; you would be able to gift them, as they’re a tangible analogue interface to a digital medium; you could even imagine music clubs sending you random slides each month with the kind of excitement and anticipation experienced when opening Panini football stickers. Best of all, the slides themselves could enable the yield triangles to exist and set up opportunities for another person to constellate and find personal meaning in an analogue space. All of these offshoots let the listener spend time with the complete work of the artist rather than skipping through it or past it. This thought experiment makes room beyond the screen for new ideas.

If we don’t look beyond the screen, we get the benefit of instantaneous delivery but we are left with experience gaps: Areas of potential where digital transformation left behind the meaning and soul of something. I haven’t come here with ready-made tips or techniques for plugging these experience gaps, and if I did I’m not sure I’d want to give them to you either. I’d rather see what you come up with, reasoning from first principles rather than by analogy, through creative invention rather than imitation.

Originally published in New Adventures Paper 2019

Unpacking Design Problems

The best puzzles are the ones that demand more of you. When the answer appears obvious, but you second guess yourself. When you know there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Nob Yoshigahara’s infamous number tree puzzle is certainly one of my personal favourites for just these reasons. It gives you a set of information and asks, What do you make of this?

Nob Yoshigahara's infamous number tree puzzle

Puzzles are a great tool for strengthening mental muscles that can help unpack design problems. They push you to adopt a different mindset and perspective, challenge assumptions, study intently, and look closely. Like a puzzle, difficult design problems evoke that same moment of epiphany when you peel back the layers to find hidden truths.

But design challenges are not quite as easy as puzzles, which have the answers hidden in plain sight. With puzzles, all the pieces are available to you: You just need to put it together. With design problems, you need to find the pieces first, then put everything together.

This can be daunting, but there are methods, tactics, and techniques you can reach for to help facilitate these discoveries.

First principles

Although used heavily in the field of physics, Aristotle’s method of reasoning known as “first principles” originated as a means for organic reasoning (as opposed to looking at analogies, which are often riddled with errors).

When applied to design problems, you start with an observation, such as a requirement in a project brief. Then you ask why until you arrive at the most basic understanding of the truth of the problem. This provides a solid foundation to build upon.

First principles force you to look at the problem without using other people’s preconceived ideas and attempts on how to solve it. When you use this approach, you automatically generate new value. It’s certainly cognitively more intense, but in my experience it produces more original and valuable results.

What happens if you arrive at the same conclusion others have already reached? Is this method a waste of time?

Mike Bithell, an independent game developer, sums this up nicely:

“Oftentimes, when trying to reinvent the wheel, you end up with a wheel. But there is a nice moment of ‘huh, I guess that’s why people just use wheels’… that process of justifying the standard is satisfying, if massively wasteful. Still. Cool wheel.”

For a good example of first principles in action, try this Wikipedia experiment. Click on the first non-parenthesized link in any random article and follow the chain. It will lead you down a path toward the most basic understanding of any concept. Strangely, approximately 80% of articles deconstructed in this manner bring you back to the Wikipedia article about philosophy.


Question everything

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” –Voltaire

A design problem is only as difficult as the questions you ask of it.

Good questions don’t necessarily lead to definitive answers, but rather further questions. The amount of additional questions tends to correlate with the value hidden within the problem. If a question is easily snuffed out and the conversation cut short, it might not be as provocative as you originally suspected.

Some good starting points for exploratory questioning are:

  • Why is this a problem?
  • What makes you believe this is true?
  • What is your biggest challenge?
  • Who does this well?
  • What question did I not ask that would be valuable to know?

Feel free to use why liberally. Why is like a jackhammer for drilling through a problem’s layers. Why is flexible enough to get to the basic fundamentals (see: first principles), but can also be used to dig deeper into the problem you’re facing.

Sometimes, the best follow-up question is no question at all. A tactical silence can encourage your client to fill in the gap and reveal additional knowledge that might have otherwise been overlooked.

Collaborative understanding

Your strength as a product designer is determined by your ability to provide valuable solutions that address your client’s business goals and objectives. This can only be achieved if you deeply understand the original problem.

I find it beneficial to collaborate intensely with the client to define the problem(s) you’re going to address. Don’t take the version defined in the brief as the be all, end all. Explore it completely, break it down to first principles, build it back up, and communicate the problem back to the client.

This demonstrates your understanding of your client’s problems, your ability to grapple with problems, and your client’s understanding of their own problems. It creates a good starting point, and it’s the perfect time to demonstrate exactly how you’re going to test assumptions and measure success.

“A design lives and dies by its designer’s understanding of the problem. Understand the problem.” –Jared Erondu

A few more back-pocket methods

There are always more ways to test your solutions.

For example, Occam’s Razor is a mental model that suggests that the simplest solution—the path of least resistance—tends to be the right one. Although it isn’t always indicative of the truth, it’s a good technique to help avoid assumptions and analogies.

It’s also worth implementing techniques that help remove biases and ensure objectivity. One of my particular favourites is “steelmanning,” or building the strongest possible counter-argument to your solution. Adopting both for- and against-mindsets as you pursue a solution is hugely valuable; it not only produces a better solution, but arms you with a defence against the alternative.

The path to delivering value in product design isn’t through shiny user interfaces. Like a good puzzle, it lies in your ability to approach the problem from an inquisitive perspective, assemble the pieces of information you need, explore fundamentals and truths, and build back up to the definitive solution.

No one said it would be easy.

Design Laws in Nature

Living in Ireland I have become accustomed to rain as our weather system’s default setting. Umbrellas are dispensable in the Moore family as wind and rain have proved too worthy an opponent for many a shelter device across varying price brackets. When Managing Director of Their Capital, Eric Weinstein, spoke to Tim Ferris about the lack of innovation in umbrella design, hinting that the answer might be in Origami or perhaps nature, my interest piqued and sent me down a rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole confirmed my suspicions that we borrow from nature all the time, particularly in physical product design. The borrowing is often conscious, and sometimes we arrive at the same conclusions for problems that nature has been resolving over vast periods of time. Initially, I took Eric’s challenge on as a thought experiment, and like any good thought experiment, I got lost down an avenue leading to ideas beyond the original scope - even completely separate to the original problem. Distractions like this excite me. I enjoy seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes particularly when the journey is peppered with little epiphanies along the way - a process I call “mining for truths” much to the groans of anyone around me when I verbalise this process.

Evolution: nature’s R&D department

“You could look at nature as being a catalogue of products all of which have benefitted from a 3.8 billion year research and development period”1.

Michael Pawlyn, Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture

Nature’s creations are rooted in purpose. Look around your natural environment and you’ll observe that everything that exists for a specific reason, purpose or function for the benefit of something else within the broader system, and quite likely that entity is good at the thing it is supposed to do. Now look around at human creation on the other hand. You don’t need to look any further than architecture to find that in the vast majority of cases - particularly in inner cities filled with office blocks, the environment crafted by human hands go beyond purpose towards posturing and signalling power and money. Expensive materials serve the purpose of looking expensive compared to nature’s purpose-driven habitats. You might be thinking, “So what?”, “What’s the point in worrying about it?” I’m just observing the fact that nature out-designs us as it has figured out its “why” and is pursuing iterations upon its user-tested design.

Let’s look at a very basic example. Nature might look at a honey bee as its persona (nature needs personas to divide audiences as job stories would provide the same outcome for rabbits and other animals outside of scope. I’m half-joking). The bee’s motivations are to make honey, but it’s a secondary goal beyond its nectar and pollen collecting duties. It has a penchant for bright colours. The plants know this too. Their motivations are to reproduce and they require the honey bee to transfer pollen and spread. So nature designs brightly coloured plants full of delicious nectar with pollen that sticks to the honey bee’s limbs (there is some sort of cookie/tracker metaphor here) and pollination occurs when coming into contact with another plant. Mutual survival goals are met through an evolutionary purpose-driven design process.

Taking into consideration the fact that nature designs with ridiculously long-term goals in mind that benefit the greater whole with system-wide collaborative design decisions, it’s probably worth asking the same of our approach to digital projects.


The act of borrowing ideas from nature has been recently dubbed “biomimicry”. According to biomimicry.org2:

Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.

Examples of biomimicry in mechanics include the Shinkansen Bullet Train, the world’s fastest train at 200 miles per hour. If the Shinkansen Bullet Train was built in the form of traditional trains, it would have created thunderclaps when exiting tunnels due to the sheer speed of the machine. To counteract this unfortunate side-effect, the engineers looked towards the beak of a kingfisher.

“This shape has enabled the new 500-series to reduce air pressure by 30% and electricity use by 15%, even though speeds have increased by 10% over the former series. Another benefit has been confirmed through a favourable reputation among customers that these trains give a comfortable ride. This is due to the fact that changes in pressure when the trains enter tunnels are smaller.” (Kobayashi: 2005)

A peacock

NASA has several biomimicry projects in development including bio-inspired exercise equipment helping astronauts maintain fitness during spaceflight, solar propulsion mechanisms and glider technology inspired by a seagull’s wingspan that saves on the need for continuous thrust and fuel costs.

Beyond physical features, certain characteristics of digital systems can be found in nature. The internet bears striking similarities with fungal bio-systems in regards to how they pass information and exchange nutrients3. It isn’t clear whether the nature of the web was a result of learning from nature itself, or a case of humans and nature reaching the same conclusion, or a complete coincidence, but noteworthy nonetheless that there are potentially many metaphors we can call upon from 3.8 billion years of evolution.

What can we learn from it in digital product design?

Here’s the kicker: digital design virtually rules out all physical aspects of lessons from nature. The adaptability of our screens in being able to display images, text, art, film, games - that open range of uses is its downfall when looking for like clues in nature. Where does nature project images onto a surface as a means of guiding a subject? We could point towards the fact that birds can visualise elements of the earth’s magnetic fields to aid migration flight paths, or that bats and dolphins make use of sonar to sense the environment around them as wayfinding techniques, but that’s not going to be any useful model for a human in any sort of meaningful way.

In addition to that, I think we’ve been down the skeuomorphic route before in regards to the affordance of digital things where past visual cues inform the use of interface elements within new contexts. Maybe we threw the baby out with the bathwater on that one. Ditching skeuomorphism for a flatter, “purer”, native digital user interfaces seems more like a stylistic decision rather than one that is overly beneficial considering we’ve torn out a massive but hard to quantify familiarity and meaning piece between user and interface. Nature didn’t have a major role to play in such interfaces, even though I would have liked to explore how certain instincts such as fire = burn, snake = fear and prickly surfaces = stingy. Then there is a measuring exercise in seeing how effective these visual cues are over time when the suggested texture doesn’t provide the expected touch feedback as all current touchscreen glass produces the same feeling. If texture’s function in nature is to provide useful function, it certainly doesn’t have any functional application in digital products beyond visual cues.

Apart from animal instincts, natural systems and textures beyond our emulation capabilities, perhaps there are deeper truths within nature that do resonate with humans. What fundamental laws of nature act as guiding rulesets to allow design to emerge and iterate upon itself through evolutionary processes to give some sort of significance in the eyes of humans?

All of a sudden this little rabbit hole is getting a bit deep and asking challenging questions that I am certainly not qualified to definitively answer, but I do have some observations. There are two universal laws (and I’ll use the word “law” loosely here) that improve design and that evolution has deemed worthy of keeping over time.

The Pareto Principle

The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto stated in his first published paper in 1896 that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. One of the common axioms of business management is that 80% of the work comes from 20% of your clients as demonstrated by Richard Koch in his book the 80/20 Principle (an alias for the Pareto Principle). Some attribute this observation back to Biblical times, specifically Matthew 25:29 where it reads: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” This seems to align with the with the observation that the richest 20% of the world’s population controls just shy of 83% of the world’s income4.

The basic structure of a Pareto statement is that 80% of the effects originate from 20% of the causes.

It’s a useful lens to look at everyday things in your life, your work and even your design decisions. For example, 20% of project effort in building out a design system might cater for 80% of the interface decisions required. 80% of the value you deliver in a particular project might come from 20% of the product.

I’ve had conflicting thoughts as to whether to include the Pareto Principle as part of this article. It appears to be a law that transcends time, culture and government pointing it towards being categorised as a Natural Law but the majority of its examples (some of which covered below) seem to reveal more about the nature of human influence rather than Nature itself. I lean towards the notion that the Pareto Principle is an observation rather than a law of nature5, and there is a nuanced difference between Nature and what constitutes a natural law, so it would be rather clumsy to conflate the two without pointing out this discrepancy. That isn’t to say that the Pareto Principle as an observation isn’t true, it’s a consistency that seems to house a deeper truth about human nature which will at least have its uses rather than discounting it as part of the discussion.

Fibonacci and the Golden Ratio

Let’s start with the obvious one - this seemingly universal rule appears out of mathematics, the much-dubbed language of the universe.

The Fibonacci sequence was introduced in the Italian mathematician Fibonacci’s book Liber Abaci (Book of Calculation) as a means for solving a problem regarding the growth of rabbit populations based upon ideal conditions (a boy and a girl born at each birth). The sequence of numbers from the solution became known as Fibonacci numbers. As these numbers grow the ratio between two adjacent terms resolves neatly at 1.618, also known as the Golden Mean, the Golden Ratio, Phi or the Divine Proportion.

This measurement exists throughout nature, from small scales such as the arrangement of sunflower seed heads, the fractal-like spirals of seashells, to larger scales such as the breaking waves of the ocean to the dizzyingly large proportions of spiral arms of galaxies. More immediately, these measurements appear throughout the human body between joints, the proportions of the eyes, nose and mouth on the human face - these eerily omnipresent ratios permeate nature and appear to indicate some sort of universal beauty and truth that speaks to human observers.

Artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Salvador Dali have utilised this rule in their works. Da Vinci was a close personal friend of Luca Pacioli, author of Divina Proportione, a three-volume treatise on the Golden Ratio in 1509. Was this friendship the source of Da Vinci’s implementation of the rule in his paintings? Whether he did or did not utilise the Golden Ratio to paint the Mona Lisa or consciously employ it in the Last Supper is subject to much debate. The Vitruvian Man however clearly illustrates Da Vinci’s fascination and understanding of the phenomenon which appears to predate both the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, make of that what you will.

There have been experiments in digital design to utilise the Golden Ratio. This seemingly algorithmic property of nature feels like a good candidate for systematisation on mathematically-based platforms. When Tim Brown introduced his Modular Scale at Belfast’s Build Conference in 2010 I was struck by his emphasis on meaning when defining harmonious typographic scales. Here Tim presented a replicable formula (1:1.618) and adapted it for a medium beyond Greek architecture and growth patterns in plants resulting in a series of numbers that when applied produced harmonious digital typographic hierarchies and layouts.

Tim’s talk had such a profound effect on my work that I threw out my old methods of picking numbers out of the air for things like element widths, font sizes and vertical rhythms and instead explored a more meaningful set of measurements true to nature, born out of maths, the language of the universe.

Back to traditional art for a moment. One of my favourite paintings is Salvador Dali’s 1955 piece The Sacrament of the Last Supper. It is by far the lesser known of the two famous Last Supper paintings, and like Da Vinci’s, Dali unapologetically employs the Golden Ratio in the altar that dominates the centrepiece of this remarkable union of religious imagery and surrealism. Here Dali had a reproducible algorithm for beauty, harnessed from nature, communicated back through his medium, the canvas, stirring the soul through the eyes of the viewer.


Brian Moriarty is one of my heroes in the gaming industry. He is best known for adventure games such as Loom and The Dig as well as his infamous lecture “The Secret of Psalm 46” which has been adapted into a dramatic production, a graphic novel and plays a role in my favourite video game, The Witness (no spoilers here, sorry).

In another one of his lectures titled “Who Buried Paul?”, a deep dive into the Paul McCartney death hoax, he outlined human propensity for projecting meaning and significance where there is none. Moriarty points out that seemingly meaningless artefacts in Beatles album art led fans to believe that the band were trying to tell them of the death of their friend and bandmate Paul through a series of clues such as the floral arrangement on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club cover that appears to spell “Paul?”. Also, the backwards messages that seem to say “Turn me on dead man”, and “Paul is dead man, miss him, miss him”.

“Humans project meaning and significance where there is none, particularly in cases where none exists. The meanings we expect to see. The significance we WANT to see. Constellation is a form of self-recognition.”

Moriarty calls this phenomenon “constellation”, a human desire to see patterns and make connections between points. Looking up to the stars in the night sky, our ancestors created many images through self-recognition and seeing meaning and significance between points of light across a dark expanse. These connections appear to be stimulated where novelty exists rather than manifesting from the mundane. Look at the Beatles For Sale album cover juxtaposed with the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club artwork. One generated meaning and a multitude of interpretations in the eye of the beholder where the other just framed four guys from Liverpool ready to sing a few songs for you, the listener.

So how does constellation, or the act of constellating help us design better digital products? Firstly your product needs to serve a purpose beyond a utility, particularly if that purpose leads to meaning or reveals greater truths. Constellating is a quick means to meaning, what red herrings give rise to speculation and new interpretations? Why do some of the great films such as Donny Darko leave parts of the story untold? People fill in the gaps with personal significance which means that somewhat counterintuitively, incompleteness by design encourages constellation which creates greater personal meaning rather than pre-prescribed, one-size-fits-all meaning.


Nature is our outsourced research and development department. Observing problems solved by nature can help inform how we approach problems in digital design. Nature doesn’t like arbitrary features. It finds a way to shed unnecessary elements in advancing long-term goals over vast systems.

Biomimicry is a lens through which to learn from nature as well as build purposeful things. Beyond physical features, nature appears to hold a series of deep truths that evoke some sort of meaning in humans. The Golden Ratio, the Pareto Principle, affordance, constellation, intention - design with these tools and you are using frameworks built upon deep human and universal truths encoded into nature.

Industry Fatigue

A Tweet from Steven Hylands caught my attention and got me thinking about my outlook on the digital design landscape, or more specifically my approach to learning new things in this space.

I have spent the last year or so avoiding any sources of design news aggregators including dedicated sites, Twitter accounts and various Medium publications. It wasn’t an overly conscious decision, it just sort of happened that I fell out of the loop, realised later that I fell out of the loop and then decided it wasn’t a loop I was interested in getting back into.

My honest opinion is that I don’t feel like I’d miss any monumental leaps in our industry if I stopped checking design news or missed out on some new framework or build tool.

There are of course things worth your time and deep consideration, and there are distractions. Profound new thinking and movements within our industry - the kind that fundamentally shifts the way we work in a positive new direction are worth your time and attention. Other things are distractions. I put new industry gossip, frameworks, software and tools firmly in the distractions category. This is the sort of content that exists in the padding between big movements. It’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t break new ground and it doesn’t make or break your ability to do your job.

Here is an over-simplified timeline of the industry movements that I have witnessed:

  • Web standards (1998)
  • Web 2.0 (~2002)
  • Responsive design (2010)
  • Design Systems (~2015)
  • The Next Big Thing™ (20××) 1

These are the big fundamental leaps in how we make and how we have made things and lots of time in between them. If you have been in the industry during any of these movements, it was hard to miss any one of them. My reassuring message is that the important stuff finds you.

New tools2, software, frameworks and hot takes on design matters dominate feed aggregators and I secretly think a lot of authors consciously utilise FOMO - not in the sense that you’re missing out on something important, but the idea that you’ll fall behind in how to do your job. This is simply not true.

A side note on future design jobs

The truth is if you dedicate yourself to keeping up with these tools, or worse, dedicating yourself to specialising in them, you will be replaced by the next thing. In fact, when design becomes so formulaic that it paves the way for automation and then for artificially intelligent design unless you bring something innately human to the table, you too will be replaced.

Nothing about that concerns me though. You could spend your time trying to fight the machines (the systems, the automation, the artificial intelligence) but the reality is that it works faster than you, it works harder than you and it’s going to be cheaper than you. It’s a pointless fight. Choose instead a different battlefield - one that isn’t about low-value, replaceable design and that is about high-value problem solving for deep human needs.

Structured serendipity

I used to feel bad for not keeping up with design matters. My interests drifted towards big, broad topics that I have spent my life avoiding such as psychology, philosophy and economics. I am consuming a lot of material across each of these topics and many others in my personal time, not for any other reason other than a quest for knowledge. I’m nowhere near an expert or a beginner for that matter in any of the aforementioned topics, but what I did start to notice over time was that I was finding concepts from these completely separate fields started manifesting in my design work.

Jason Zweig, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal wrote about varying what you learn and varying where you learn it:

New associations often leap out of the air at me this way. More intriguing, others seem to form covertly and lie in wait for the opportune moment when they can click into place. I do not try to force these associations out into the open; they are like the shrinking mimosa plants that crumple if you touch them but bloom if you leave them alone.

Serendipity is a human concept that can’t/won’t be easily replicable by machines. Exploring new ground outside of our industry is fuel for serendipity, and thankfully my interests beyond acquiring new design knowledge are proving very useful in that regard.

My industry fatigue didn’t reveal itself through my work (I actually enjoy what I do a lot). It came about because I felt that there wasn’t anything new to learn within the field. Purposefully branching out into other fields has got me excited about designing with new perspectives on things and different approaches from beyond our bubble. I can’t say that I miss industry news… I actually feel like a better designer because of the choice to consciously sidestep it.

Just give me a nudge when the next big movement happens, okay?

  1. My guess is Automated Design 

  2. I reckon there is a Moore’s Law of design tools. The number of design tools probably doubles every two years. 

Mapping User Experiences to Individuals Using the Big 5 OCEAN Personality Traits

The Big Five Personality Traits, sometimes referred to as the five factor model (FFM), is a model commonly used by psychologists to describe individual personalities. The original model was constructed by Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal in 19611 but it didn’t reach mainstream academic audiences until the 1980s and early 90s.

Multiple sets of independent researchers on human personality arrived at the same conclusion in naming the five factors that generally predict and explain behaviour which indicates the factors are valid as far as we know today.

Each of the five factors (O,C,E,A,N) are scored between 1-100 according to the individual ranked against average scores after completing a series of questions (try it out for yourself).

The five factors are:

  • Openness - this trait describes someone’s appreciation for art, adventure, inventiveness, creativity, sensitivity to beauty, likely to hold unconventional beliefs - things of an abstract nature. I personally sit on the 95th percentile for openness which seems abnormally high, but most people in the design industry tend to rank quite highly in this factor
  • Conscientiousness - a sense of self-discipline, desire for achievement, tendency to defy measures impeding the route to success, orderly, attention to detail
  • Extraversion - mostly describes what kind of social animal you are, the ability to start conversations, talking to a variety of people at a party, ability to assert themselves, extraverts rather than introverts
  • Agreeableness - sensitivity towards others, empathy for the emotions of others, interested in people and the desire to make people feel at ease, giving up time for others, kind, generous, trusting, optimistic about the intentions of others
  • Neuroticism - negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, easily stressed and irritated, worrying, prone to mood swings

Every person maps differently to each of the OCEAN personality traits, and having an understanding of how others around you correlate is beneficial to your interactions with them. Not everybody is comfortable being open about the specific scores on each of the factors, particularly as some indicate socially negative traits such as anxiety and depression. Before co-founding our product design studio, each of the directors took the Big Five Personality test as a means to a) see how aligned/unaligned we were in our own individual personalities and b) as a means of empathising with each other in recognising our strengths and supporting our weaknesses. I understand that not everybody would be comfortable sharing something that is so personal to the individual, but we found this exercise has eradicated any talk of “I don’t understand [person]’s point of view” and “I don’t get where [person] coming from”.

The Persona Conundrum

For me, the tools and methodologies within the field of user experience are flawed in that they do not address concerns beneath a user group level. A truly meaningful experience would speak to the individual rather than taking a one-size-fits-all blanket approach.

We are great at understanding the needs and desires of groups of people, but even personas - the UX tool designed to help empathise with specific users - always bring us back into solutions that scale up to cater for groups based on the assumed needs of a single user. Designing an experience for Sarah, a junior shop assistant who likes long walks, often leads that the majority of users become Sarah and her intended experience is their experience. Job Stories are a relatively new entry into this space where they fix the problem of personas splitting audiences, getting in the way of shared goals. Job Stories are a good means of orienting towards tasks and for that reason remain compatible with an OCEAN approach to UX where Job Stories address universal functional requirements. It leaves room for a presentational layer and certain functional elements catered for individuals.

Practical Applications

Applications could adapt their interfaces to individuals. Let’s imagine a fitness app with a audio guided run feature. Users in the upper percentiles of conscientiousness may benefit from the orderly, disciplined commands of a drill sergeant and from an app that stretches their goals slightly beyond their comfort zone pushing the user to compete at their best. For people on the other end of the conscientiousness scale, a softer approach would be necessary along with positive reinforcement to help them be the best that they can be without pushing them into territory that alienates them or makes them feel inadequate.

The same could apply for language and labels used within interfaces. Perhaps some colours appeal to certain personalities? Maybe there are images that intimidate people that inspire other sets of people?

Looking at the differences between individuals along OCEAN factors studies have shown that individuals high in agreeableness (people who give up time for others, make people feel at ease) are less likely to negotiate salary increases within their company. Perhaps we can create applications that help people move towards desired outcomes in adjusting elements in their personality that may be impeding on particular life goals.

Potential dangers and opportunities

One of the biggest challenges in pursuing this untapped area of UX is gathering the data required to determine a person’s scores along the Big Five Personality Traits. It’s not exactly ideal to have users answer a full personality test under the promise of a better user experience on the other side of this unique onboarding experience, and it’s certainly not ideal to gather this data in any way that negatively affects a user’s privacy. Maybe it’s something that happens over time where certain actions can produce a score against the OCEAN factors, or games, puzzles and quizzes may unlock this type of information. There is work to be done and design problems to figure out here.

Then there’s the question of how you store this information and what exactly you do with it. I don’t believe it is necessary to store this data on servers or let any company see a user’s scores. That is for the individual to know and for the product experience to react to it. It is potentially dangerous territory, but then again, so is everything we do:

If ethics is about the question of how to act, and designers help to shape how technologies mediate action, designing should be considered ‘ethics by other means.’ Every technological artefact that is used will mediate human actions, and every act of design, therefore, helps to constitute moral practices.

P. P. Verbeek, What Things Do 2

In other words, every design decision you make is loaded with your intent and bias. We’re already knee deep in the danger game whether you have realised this sobering fact already or not. Another one of the major challenges is engineering objectivity into this process, and whether this field is explored further or not, we should look to engineer objectivity into our work regardless.

What next?

I’m at the mystery stage of the knowledge funnel as described by Roger Martin in his 2009 book The Design of Business3. I have identified that this is an area with great potential and the next steps are to build heuristics to see if we can mine the mystery for insights with the eventual hope of turning the research into a reliable, replicable algorithm give us the capability to create and resonate with the people who use the things we make.


  2. P. P. Verbeek, What Things Do, 2009 (Page 69) 

  3. R. Martin, The Design of Business, 2009 

Managing Daily Tasks

Writing my to-do list for the day is a key part of my morning routine and essential to state setting and priming. Before I have a chance to get distracted by emails and other notifications vying for my attention I sit down with my morning coffee and write down the tasks I want to complete for the day.

I use elements from Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal to list out today’s tasks. Each task starts with a bullet point followed by a short description of the task. When completed the bullet point is crossed out so it changes from “•” to “×”. If I didn’t finish a task and I still consider it to be a valuable thing to do I move it to tomorrow’s list by replacing the bullet point with “>” indicating that the task has been deferred.

If the task is delegated or can be deleted from the list before starting, then it gets a nice, satisfying line through it. Using this system means that when reviewing my list at the end of the day I get a quick visual reference ensuring every bulleted task has been in some way and nothing slips through the net.

You can go deeper with Bullet Journalling using tools like the Ryder’s Future Log for planning goals for the month, but I found that in practice navigating between pages became more frustrating than helpful. I found the most value in the daily task management part of the system so I have no qualms about utilising only that part of the Bullet Journal methodology.

So why not software?

One of biggest advantages is where it falls short for me in managing daily tasks. Software is faster than pen and paper. It’s easy to create a new task and add it to your list, which makes it easy to fill your list with things to do without a chance to properly think through the value of each task. I have been through countless task manager and to-do list tools to find one that sticks but in the end, I have always come back to pen and paper.

Unlike a physical book, has to compete for your attention amongst other open apps, windows and browser tabs. I remember using a popular app based on the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology and thinking it was working for me as I logged numerous tasks rapidly and proceeded to get to work. However, the problem started as soon as I started working on the tasks I had just set myself. The app would be hidden under multiple windows and sometimes I would go for days before realising it was still open with old, irrelevant tasks (and some forgotten items).

Such apps allow you to set due dates and notifications, but I find they take me out of my current flow and I end up working the app rather than the app working for me. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you have to bend to fit the opinions of an app - what happens if you decide to change your to-do writing style or system? The software probably wants you to do it a certain way.

Why pen and paper?

The great thing about pen and paper is its inefficiency. It takes time to write the list, and that’s the beauty of it! Editing is clunky and it gets annoying when you have to rewrite tasks that you need to move from day to day. For that reason, it encourages taking time to write better, more realistic goals. is too forgiving in that regard, pen and paper hold you more accountable and it promotes thinking through big tasks and breaking them down into achievable subtasks that can be done today.

Using a good old fashioned notebook has the additional advantage of taking your eyes off the screen. That pause enforces a small step back and seeing the bigger picture. It’s therapeutic.