What playing online poker for a living taught me about design.
It’s funny looking back.. Even though I played online poker for roughly 6 years, it feels like a blur. I was one of those terrible students that instead of going to class, I’d make some money in my dorm room (occasionally I’d bring my laptop and play during lectures). Sorry Mom.. But apparently it paid off. Poker helped pay my way through school, bought me a car, and gave me the opportunity to explore Asia for year.
While those times are gone, I’m now beginning to realize how poker led me to design (specifically User Experience Design). I have no doubt that there are others out there who followed a similar path. Poker and design incorporate a fantastic balance of three things fundamental to both — psychology, prediction, and optimization. Both fell in my lap, and a general curiosity to understand them better have placed me where I am now. So, here’s a few things I’ve learned by partaking in both:
1. Intuition will only get you so far.
One of the biggest tells of weakness in a poker player is when they state the the reason they made a call, or raised you, was cause they ‘just knew’. Now, given that there’s only three decisions in poker (call, raise, fold), one of them is most likely the correct play that that feeling of ‘knowing’ led this player to. But there’s a fine line of making decisions from your gut versus making informed decisions from knowledge you’ve acquired. Truthfully, most decisions are a combination of the two, but it’s all too easy to rely strongly on what you feel without asking yourself why that feeling is there.
I’ve noticed with design there are similar tendencies. I’ll hear myself or other designers give their reasoning for why an action was placed somewhere without context. Again, there’s a middle-road that seems like a healthy balance of intuition and observed behavior. Intuition is great. Intuition that’s validated is even better.
2. For learning, nothing beats doing.
When I first found poker, I would absorb every little thing I could on it. I watched all the TV shows. I read all the books. I subscribed to content online pros would release of their screen captured sessions. But often I found after playing a few hours, I would learn more about the game then any book, show, or class could show me.
Design has followed a similar trend for myself. Nothing beats doing. So stop reading this. Go design. No, really….
3. Assume nothing. Build on that.
One of the most common questions I’d get after mentioning I play online poker for a living was, ‘So if you’re on a computer, how do get a read on their poker face?’. A fair question, although reads come in all sorts of different ways. But one of the benefits to having less information from seeing them was your mind could form fewer assumptions. Assumptions of who they were, how they acted, or what type of player they were. I noticed when I would play live, I would make assumptions on the type of player was based on how they spoke, or what they wore… Sometimes this worked, but often it backfired.
With each project I design, this idea becomes increasingly hard. The more you practice something, often the more you believe that you’re right. So instead, try starting from nothing. Watch, observe, interact. And then, a belief can begin to form.
4. Every decision has context.
One of my favorite things about poker was how absurdly simple the game was (one could be taught the rules in 2 minutes), yet due to the factor of human psychology it could be absurdly complex. At any point in the game, you only had three possible decisions. Raise, Call, or Fold. But there was never truly a ‘right’ decision without the context of what information came before it.
Similar to design, each decision should have context. And if it doesn’t, go find it. Why is this the right decision given who will use this? Why is this the right decision given how I want someone to interact with this? It’s all too easy to go into auto-pilot and say, ‘this is how it is because it’s what’s expected’. Poker and Design are no different in this. Questioning what’s expected can often be the shortest path to learning, and ultimately, how an edge is gained.
5. The Ego sucks.
In poker there’s something called a ‘hero-call’. This is essentially making a huge call right before the cards will be shown. This guarantees you get some credit for how sexy your call was (everyone at the table will see it). The ego will find all sorts of ways to convince yourself this this is the correct call. ‘He took longer to act then normal..’, ‘She sipped on her water longer then normal..’
I see these moments come up in design as well. You’ve got this great idea that could lead you to glory (at least some strange illusion of glory), so you find ways to convince yourself and those around you that this is the best design solution, even though it may run against the grain of what an obvious solution may be… When there’s enough resistance towards a particular solution and I see myself grasping to use it, I try to be aware of what part of that holding is the ego, and what is in the best interest of the user.
6. Don’t overthink it.
In poker there’s this structure of thought that you climb as you progress in skill level. Each step you climb is the level of thought your component is thinking on.
A quick introduction to ‘levels’ in poker:
Lvl 1. What do I have?
Lvl 2. What does my opponent have?
Lvl 3. What does my opponent think I have?
Lvl 4. What do I think my opponent thinks I have?
Ideally, you are thinking exactly one level ahead of your opponent, but it’s all too often that you will find yourself playing against a complete beginner that’s thinking on level 1 (what do I have?), but you overthink it telling yourself that they are raising you because you showed weakness (level 3: what do they think I have?). So you decide to re-raise them since you showed so much weakness, but in reality, they weren’t even thinking about what you had (level 1)…
Design is no different, except you aren’t trying to outsmart the person, you’re trying to be on their level of thinking. Yet it’s all too easy to dilute a simple solution with complexity. So ask yourself, ‘Am I overthinking this?’. If you get the sense that you might, take a step back and re-evaluate the purpose of what you’re doing, and the objectives you have for the end result. The simplest solution is often the best one. Unless you’re designing a puzzle. Then go ahead. Design the hardest most irritating solution possible..
7. Much of improvement lies between the margins.
One of the things I’ve realized over time with both poker and design is the subtly of each. I’m beginning to think that becoming skilled in something is simply the increased sensitivity to how things behave. Think of a painter: One would say that from the start, a novice painter could ‘see’ the light and color of a subject. But truly, there are subtleties in how that painter observes light and color that will only be revealed with time and experience.
So where are these margins? How does one look inside them? That’s the unfortunate thing. They often can’t be expressed. In the same way, a painter would point to the shade of a tree, and say, ‘look at the shift of hues from the edge of the shadow into the light.’ But you look and don’t notice this nuance. The only way I’ve learned to uncover these areas is to through practice, and trial and error.
8. Keep track of the story you’re writing.
Stories are incredibly useful (yea yea, I know this is every Ted talk ever). Not only are they captivating, but they allow us to consolidate information in ways that we can access and use. After playing thousands of hands with specific individuals, I realized the importance of this ability to consolidate information about each player (kinda like a persona). With each hand, a small part of the narrative about yourself is being written that each person will carry with them about how you play.
In design, the stories don’t change as drastically from moment to moment, but there is a general conversation that you’re having with the people that use your product. Understand that conversation. Keep track of how it changes over time. It’s at the core of the experience.
Hopefully there’s some information in here that’s of use. I’d love to hear what others have learned about design through other hobbies/professions. Feel free to comment and tell me! Or if you wanna nerd out about poker, that’s cool too (I no longer play, but I’m happy to talk strategy).