Make More Mistakes

From a TED Talk featuring Margaret Heffernan:

So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part they don’t. And that isn’t because they do not want to, it’s really because they can’t. And they can’t because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.

We do bring children up to imagine that there is a right answer, and that intelligence is about knowing that right answer, and therefore if you get a wrong answer, you’re stupid. So what we do is we teach people not even so much to have a passion for the right answer, but have great talent for second-guessing what everybody wants the answer to be. So you see this in the workplace a lot, which is if I ask a question of a team of people, a very large proportion of them, instead of really thinking about the problem, will think, what is the boss want the answer to be?

Well that’s incredibly uncreative, and it shuts down the possibility for superior answers. So I think, you know, I think our fear of mistakes hugely impedes our creativity.

There shouldn’t be a concept of wrongness in Ux–it only matters how your users feel about your product. That might feel wrong to your developers or wrong to the CEO, but so long as it works and delights the customer, it can’t really be considered a mistake.

Yet the fear of failure certainly bites us in Ux. I see this most often in a lack of iteration. We fall in love with certain design elements. We fear the criticism of showing off bad ideas. We play it safe. We endlessly polish our first take and ignore the possibility of a different approach.

In my many years of making many mistakes, I’ve found these to be good rules to live by:

Know your goals

Nothing derails an idea faster than a lack of direction. Design towards what you’re trying accomplish with a feature or design and the off-the-wall ideas instantly become less intimidating. They may be odd, but they meet the need.

Sketch first

Back away from Axure. Put aside the fancy pens and heavy-weighted paper. Grab some cheap printer stock (I prefer ledger sized), a thick Sharpie and start sketching. Be fast and brutal. If an idea starts veering from your goal, slide over to a blank part of the paper and start over. Don’t scribble out ideas or throw sheets away–you’re not making a sitcom. Every idea has the potential to inspire something new. Keep them around.

Stop worrying about “undo”

As you move from your sketches to prototype, new issues will crop up. As you refine, make copies. Old ideas can suddenly take on new life and seeing the progression from start to finish is a great way to understand and explain the evolution of your concept.

Toss your favorite part

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was from my good friend and college mentor Greg Frederick (I’m sorry for butchering this quote):

If you find yourself stuck when writing a paper, throw away your favorite part.

You’ve created this thing–whether a widget or sentence–that you’re so proud of, but it turns out it’s holding you back. It doesn’t fit. Pride is the only thing holding you to it. Throw it away and you’l find new avenues open to you.

Learn to give good feedback

Design feedback is incredibly difficult. It’s subjective. It feels mean. Mike gives great advice in his post Giving Better Design Feedback, but in my mind it comes down to two things: Understand what the design is trying to accomplish and be direct.

Knowing how to give feedback teaches you how to accept feedback, helps teach your teammates how to provide good feedback and breaks down some of the mental barriers in providing negative feedback.

Make mistakes ok

This is a fantastic idea from Margaret Heffernan:

I mean, I’ve sometimes worked with companies and suggested, you know, that they have an award for the best mistake.

Recognize the value of failing and find ways to make mistakes (and learning from them) part of your culture.

The more ok making mistakes becomes, the more creativity will flourish.

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