Designers are trained to see things differently, to build up sensitivities that allow us to look critically at the world. This skill comes with a liability though, as every daily experience turns into an opportunity for critique. My friends and co-workers can attest to my nearly daily rants about something that could be improved. But design criticism goes beyond simple complaint, moving from what’s wrong to how it can be improved. Design is inherently optimistic, it is a belief that something can be done better.
“The best way to complain is to make things.”
— James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem
If you find yourself suffering through the same bad experience every day, and can clearly imagine a preferred design, then it might be time to turn your rant into a side project. This is complaining by making things. It’s always more effective to show than tell, and it feels good when you scratch your own itch.
One of my itches began when I was working for an extended period in the IDEO Mumbai office. I love NPR, and back home in Chicago I would tune into my local public radio station every day. In India, however, I had to rely on the NPR iPhone app. My routine was to listen while eating dinner, but the interaction flow of the app was a continual source of frustration.
The app provided two options to hear the news:
Option 1: The Choose / Listen Loop
One option was to select an audio story from the list, play that story, then return to the app when it finished and pick a different one. This seems straight-forward, but with an average story length of 4 minutes it required too much interaction, especially with my hands covered in rice and dal.
Option 2: Forced Playlist Customization
Alternatively, I could go back and forth ahead of time, making decisions about which stories I wanted to hear, avoiding non-audio stories, and eventually building up a playlist. Not only was this approach cumbersome, but it forced me into a level of customization that I didn’t want. I love NPR because it keeps me up-to-date on all kinds of topics. I didn’t want to manually select stories, I wanted to hear them all.
With a traditional radio you just turn it on and listen, but NPR didn’t support that in their app. The simple experience of an automatic playlist haunted me. As soon as I got back from India I started working on creating News Now, an iPhone app that utilizes the NPR API to automatically play the latest news.
News Now is purposefully small and focused, with little or no interaction required. It automatically creates a playlist of the most recent NPR audio stories, beginning with the hourly news, and begins playing as soon as you open the app. You can drag the playback bar to jump to a particular point in the story, or press and hold to share, but mostly you just launch and listen. It doesn’t try to do everything that the full NPR app does, it just solves my specific critique.
I had designed iPhone apps before, but I had never coded my own. Making News Now was a great way to learn something new without the pressure of clients and deadlines. Although it may sound strange, I would encourage you not to collaborate on small side projects like this. Remember, you’re scratching your own itch. An environment where you control the scope and schedule is the perfect opportunity to push yourself to learn something new.
As designers we often get excited about big ideas, but there’s also value in refining the micro-interactions that we experience everyday. Pick something you love, that you know could be a little better, and chip away at it. Personal projects like these are a great way to turn your critique into a creation and learn something new along the way.