What I learned on my one day as a shaved ice maker

One of the very first “jobs” I was ever paid for lasted a single day, but what I learned from it about product design has stuck with me ever since.

As an early teen, I spent one autumn Saturday at a festival in Manassas, Virginia making shaved ice. It was one of those ideal Fall days; crisp in the morning, warm sun in the afternoon with a cool breeze. Add to that the smells of a festival — funnel cakes, corn dogs, cotton candy, and so on.

The man I was working for was making the cotton candy. He ran his own insurance business out of his house, but set up a booth selling shaved ice and cotton candy on the weekends at local events.

My job was simple: scoop some shaved ice into a disposable cone, ask the customer which of 2 dozen flavors they wanted, then poor the syrup on the ice.

By far, the most requested flavor was strawberry. But I left with just as much strawberry syrup as I arrived with. There was nothing wrong with the syrup — it definitely tasted like strawberry (I had to check). The only problem was: it was green.

“What flavor?”


I wouldn’t have the clear jug of strawberry two inches into the air before the rebuttal:

“No, I said strawberry please!”

“Don’t worry — this is strawberry.”

“But it’s green?”

“Yes. It’s green. But it’s the strawberry flavor, I promise!”

“…do you have watermelon?”

“You got it.”

When I picked up home brewing a few years ago, one of the first things I was surprised to learn from the fantastic “Mastering Homebrew” was that when building recipes, you have to intentionally match the color to the flavor. That is, you craft the recipe so that a maltier beer would come out darker. You would want to make sure a lighter-tasting beer would be lighter in color. This helps the drinker know what tastes to interpret. The beer’s color is something you intentionally craft with the recipe. Of course, I’ve brewed my share of surprisingly dark wheat ales, which everyone interprets as maltier than is possible given the absence of malts. Mosher, the author of the book, cites studies in which white wine died red would trick expert tasters into describing red wines.

Of course, this guideline has not stopped craft and home brewers from coming out with mind-bending beers like the Black IPA.

What I learned on my one day as a shaved ice maker, and later as a home brewer, was that flavor is much more than just taste; it involves appearance (and aroma), too. In fact, since appearance is our strongest sense, it dominates our perception. It is the most effective avenue to manipulate the interpretation of something.

Humans are pretty finicky; we perceive everything with our minds, which are these infinitely complex things susceptible to many fascinating phenomena. And to be completely honest, this is why I love product design so much. It requires really understanding how the human mind works; how people perceive the data I need to show them, how they interact with that data within their minds, and ultimately, how I can display their data and design opportunities for interaction with it that most closely match the way they think. When I can achieve that, my software is an instant hit.

As product designers, we have to understand some of the psychological phenomena underpinning the interaction people will have with our products in order to design them to be most effective. And by doing so, we can create world-class, deeply intuitive and engaging products.

What the attendees at the fair in Manassas taught me is this: form is function.

This is a draft of the intro to the book I’m working on right now, which I’ve finally settled on a title for: Form is Function.

It’s about using the psychology of optimal experience (or “Flow”) to design software that users will love.

Today, I am opening up pre-sales of a limited edition “Final Draft” that’ll go to print when the book is done, but before it’s widely available. There’s only going to be 100 available, so order yours before they’re gone!

In the book, I will share with you what cognitive science teaches us about the well-researched psychology of optimal experience and other psychological phenomena that serve as the underpinnings to designing truly great, intuitive, and empathetic software.

I’ll explore — at length — a set of 10 rules you can use to create products that help your users achieve optimal experience, known as being “in flow”. With each rule, I’ll share examples and case studies, exercises and thought starters, all so you can design world-class software, whether you’re just starting to explore product design, or you’re ten versions deep into a product you need to perfect.

At Mindsense, we’ve long believed that, when leveraged thoughtfully, form is function. This book is a strong testament to that belief, by breaking down case studies of industry-leading examples, including our own. I’ll share with you the principles, rooted in psychology, that helped us design far better products of our own. So much better that they landed in the #1 spot in the entire Mac App Store in over 50 countries, as well as in the elusive 1K club on Product Hunt.

I will walk you through the well-researched psychological phenomenons that product designers should understand and take advantage of to create world-class, deeply intuitive and engaging products, and how to apply them to your own product designs through case studies, examples, exercises, and thought starters.

Most of all, I hope this book helps support a deeply fulfilling hobby or career of yours.

Click here to pre-order Form is Function today




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Alexander Obenauer

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