Crab fighting rings: lessons from a scientist turned designer

3 design lessons from experimental marine biology

Caitlin Brisson
Gusto Design
Published in
7 min readOct 25, 2018


It’s 1 AM. You’re stuck thigh deep in salt marsh mud. The tide’s coming in. Your coworker comes to your rescue with a plastic pipe and slowly drags you out. You’re safe but you’re also head-to-toe, face included, covered in mud. If you’ve ever driven by a salt marsh, you know this isn’t like a face mask. Marsh mud smells strongly of rotten eggs, a product of sulfur dioxide. Yum. Why are we imagining this? This happened to me many times. A run of the mill night in the field catching crabs for experiments.

Once upon a time.

My path to design was windy — I spent most of my life heads down in science and math to become a marine biologist. I discovered design after leaving academics and transitioned via Designation. Now, I’m a product designer at Gusto. We’re on a mission create a world where work empowers a better life (and we’re hiring!).

I’m going to share a few lessons I learned as an experimental marine biologist that help me be a better designer and how they can help you too. Why? The average person changes jobs 10–15x during their career. This job evolution is particularly relevant to those in tech. The more we expand our view of ourselves and the world around us, the more prepared we’ll be to face change.

So, Science.

(Left) How people imagine science. It’s how textbooks read. Clean, precise, methodical (Right) My lab. We were messy, iterative, and scrappy — all things that helped us be prolific.

In the two years I worked in marine biology, I co-published 6 scientific articles. I also spent hours building mesh cages and super gluing fishing line to crabs. The way I learned to approach science is integral to the lessons I want to share with you.

Our lab studied coastal ecosystems, in particular, a set of salt marshes on Cape Cod that had died off due to overfishing. Without predators, a small herbivore, the purple marsh crab became over abundant — allowing them to eat all the grass.

The funny thing was, we started to see some of our marshes recover. We found the purple marsh crab burrows allowed the invasive European green crab to move in. We knew the green crab was a predator of the purple marsh crab but we wanted to see how they interacted. Aka let’s create a crab fighting ring. If we found the purple marsh crabs behavior changed by being near the green crabs, it would show that by both eating and scaring them, this invasive species was helping our marshes recover.

1. Embrace uncertainty

You have no idea what to do and that’s ok.

The morning of the mud incident, my professor sent us to the Cape to test our crab hypothesis. He told us,

“Don’t come home until you figure it out.”

What a declaration. We could’ve delayed our trip or panicked about our lack of a plan. Instead, we loaded up our truck with all the materials we could think of and headed to the Cape.

Upon arrival, we jumped into exploring. We put the crabs together to see if we could measure their interactions. Our biggest challenge was creating something that mimicked the natural environment. This would allow us to see normal purple marsh crab behavior and compare it to when others were around.

While exploring, we observed the purple marsh crabs were always in search of a burrow for safety. So, we decided to focus on timing how long it took the crab to flee our fighting ring. So in case you were worried, there was no real fighting, only fleeing.

In design, when you embrace uncertainty:

  1. You become resilient to the unknown, empowering you to dive into new projects with confidence. You’re also ready to focus on problem-finding.
  2. You’re able to bring a fresh perspective to problem-solving that allows you to push your ideas further and wider. You have no bias to a particular success path that’s worked before.
  3. You rapidly learn and grow, key in ever-evolving fields like design.

The more you push yourself to try new things, the more your thought will diversify as well as the ideas you bring to the table. It also helps you develop a resilience to change, imperative in our field of work. Say yes and have the confidence you’ll figure it out along the way.

We failed and laughed often.

2. Expect to fail

Optimize your resources so you can iterate quickly.

We maintained a curious attitude when our ideas failed because we failed a lot. Failure was built into our lab’s culture. We always tried multiple approaches to every question — so some were bound to fail. What especially helped us was how we chose to fail.

Over the course of the three days we were on Cape Cod, we optimized our resources to minimize the impact of our failure through three avenues. We (1) used low-cost materials so that we could easily explore and abandon ideas. We (2) allowed no more than 2 hours per exploration, allowing us to run several trials per day. Lastly, we (3) would do a quick test and check with each exploration so we could analyze if the setup was working.

In design, when you expect to fail:

  1. You become unattached to your design explorations, helping you become comfortable at testing or getting feedback earlier in your process. You’re able to separate yourself from your work, something we all struggle with as creatives.
  2. You’re able to explore your ideas more efficiently and your iteration speed and time to a solution will improve. Fail at small sample sizes and a within short time frames.
  3. You begin to see failure as a time to expand your perspective.

Get yourself out there and change your perspective on failure — every failure you’ve experienced has contributed to who you are today. Imagine how boring life would be if everything was always right or as expected.

An example of a healthy vs. die-off marsh on Cape Cod.

3. Embed your research

Expand your idea of what research can be.

Every time our experimental setup failed and we faced another hurdle, we focused on why. Why was it failing? We didn’t have the benefit of talking to our users, so we relied on two things: our own past experiences and the research from other subject matter experts.

In science and design, research usually comes at the beginning — but we wove research into our entire process. We used two approaches during this trip: depth and breadth. For depth, we dug back into the literature and looked at other salt marsh papers or papers about the specific species in question. We also thought about other systems to broaden our perspectives. What methods could we find in deserts or kelp forests? How could we apply these ideas to what we were trying to test?

In design, when you embed your research:

  1. You strengthen your design decisions and your ability to communicate them. You develop a grounded why for your how.
  2. Digging into the ‘why’ becomes easier when you hit roadblocks. You unearth more insights and move faster — especially when you can’t talk to your users.
  3. Your mindset and approach expand, research can be so many things beyond user testing. This allows you to use far-reaching domains as inspiration.

The more you can integrate research into your process the more you’ll expand your view of a problem and all the ways you could approach it.

Success at last.

In the end, our solution ended up mimicking an idea we read about in a coral reef paper. We examined small crabs and big crabs to test size, multiple crabs to test biomass, crab-infused water for scent, crabs hidden behind a transparent container to test vision, and a slew of non-predatory crabs to look at flight behavior to a non-threat. These were critical in helping us determine the purple marsh crab was in fact, scared of green crabs.

All of that emotion, hard work, and failure resulted in my first scientific publication — how neat is that? The experiment from this story was one piece of the puzzle, which included many types of research approaches. Above all, our paper was an exciting illustration of the potential for invasive species to have a positive impact on an ecosystem!

I want to leave you with two challenges. There was serious design-process and thinking in our process — where else can you find unexpected design in your life or your experiences? Can you find it at the gym or in your kitchen? How can you use them to help you solve problems?

As a career switcher, I’ve spent time reflecting on my experiences to think about how to integrate my full-self into my career in design. This post is a written application of my presentation, “Crab Fighting Rings: an Intersection of Science and Design” from the 2018 Midwest UX. If you’re interested in learning more, the video will be here soon.