The Perfect Design Tool

One of the following statements by influential designers was made this month and the other was made five years ago. Can you guess which statement was made when?

“The web and its related disciplines have grown organically. And those of us who work here should have sophisticated, native tools to do our jobs.”
“Design tools are stuck in the stone age but we’re expected to build spaceships. Imagine the glorious things we’ll design once tools catch up.”

It’s very common for us to lament and discuss the state of our tools. I’m not here to point out that it’s wrong to do this. I certainly get caught up in it myself. Whether it’s an improvement to Sketch or InVision, or even a completely new prototyping app like Principle for Mac, I’m all over it.

The main problem with design tools — I will refer to them just as tools from here on in — is not just that they don’t match our personal/team workflow or lack in their abilities to help us create what is in our head: it’s that they are simply… well, tools.

“But we need good tools to do our jobs.” — You

I hear you. We do need good tools. The issue is that tools can only help us do certain kinds of things, which is actually limiting in the long run. Let me explain.

A Tool Is A Reflection Of The Outcome

Our opinion of better tools depends on what our end goal is. In other words: A tool is a direct reflection of it’s intended outcome; it turns intention into a specific action. Currently, that reflection (in UX Design) is something under glass. It could be a website, an app or interface for a car dashboard. Either way it’s a thing under glass.

I really like Bret Victor’s definition of a great tool:

“A tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities. That is, a tool converts what we can do into what we want to do. A great tool is designed to fit both sides.”

He goes on in the article to talk about how many visions of the future are just “pictures under glass.” Sliding our fingers across glass all day is very limiting in comparison to what our senses allow us to do and how we interact with most of the other things in our life. I can’t say it better than Bret (you really should read his article):

“Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?”

The tools that I mentioned in the intro are both highly utilized (currently the most popular) in the UX Design industry and are made specifically to design things under glass. If you want to make the best-designed-interface-solution-thingy-under-glass, then those are the tools you should have. If you want to do anything else you are mostly out of luck. Even many of the new tools for design from large companies like Adobe are focused for things under glass.

Current devices only tap into a small facet of the range of ways that humans can interact with things. And current tools only allow us to create for that limited scope of interaction. But this is what we have asked for and continue to request.

The Tooler’s Addiction

In the article Don’t Be a Tooler (that fortunately is still available via the Wayback Machine and worth a read), the author talks about how in the early phase of his design career (pre-computer), people would ask him what he did for a living and have some kind of appreciation for the craft and say something like: “You get paid to draw? I can’t even draw a stick figure!”

However at the time he was writing the article (post-computer) the same response to being a designer was something like: “That’s cool. I have a computer too. I made X…” and they talk about using some templates and their computer, etc. The point being that the tools — in this case, the computer and software — had replaced the acknowledgement of the skill and craft once associated with his ability.

I have interviewed a lot of designers and I ask them to take me through their process or how they start a project. Many answers include things like looking through WordPress templates to find which one will work for the client, or searching Dribbble and Behance to find shots that can work for their current project. Let me state that I’ve done the above, too. Many times. It’s part of learning skills and who you are as a designer.

However, there is a cycle of inbred design solutions out there that will continue to be exactly the same, until more designers break out of their addiction to their tools.

Via Zeldman

We’re always in search of ways to be more efficient. It makes it easier to quote a project or estimate your time if you can compare it to something else, and starting from scratch doesn’t make sense if you are always doing similar work. It’s true that there are similarities between problems and many people solving similar problems, but it’s rarely the exact same problem.

My colleague RJ Owen recently put it this way: “every project is an anomaly.” Every one of our projects has a unique set of concerns, people, politics, problems, and customers — that’s the reason why custom design agencies can still exist and templates can’t solve every problem. By choosing to solve the variety of customer problems with the same tools — and by proxy, the same output — we end up solving other people’s problems, rather than for our customers and their customers.

The counterarguments here are that everything is a remix of something else, and that certain patterns just work and therefore we shouldn’t deviate. I agree with some of this. But mimicking another solution is different from making one and understanding the intentions behind it. I’m not sure how many designers can say with a straight face that they understand the problem and wholeheartedly believe that the solution they came up with using their preferred tool, Dribbble or a WordPress template (yes, they are both tools), is right for the end user.

I’m sure Photoshop filters were a hit with designers when they first released them. But then every design solution soon after resulted with some kind of filter being applied. The more powerful the tool the more we become dependent on that tool to solve problems it wasn’t designed to solve.

Serve People, Not Supercomputers

In the book The Best Interface Is No Interface, Golden Krishna poses a compelling argument that our default solution — the beloved digital interface — is wrong. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Need to open your car door? There’s an app for that. Need to design a better fridge? Put an interface on it.

The Best Interface Is No Interface — Presentation

The supercomputer in our pocket doesn’t serve us, we serve it. We walk around all day with our faces stuck to these addictive interfaces. I dare you to look outside right now and tell me you don’t see someone walking around playing Pokémon GO…

Although I don’t agree with every part of Krishna’s book, I do agree with his sentiment; that we as designers (and everyone around us) are stuck with using our default solutions:

“No matter the client, the industry, or the problem we’re trying to solve, the creative process for developing technological solutions repeats the lazy act of drawing a screen. […] We learn fascinating things, then we draw a lazy rectangle.”

Tools will always follow the solutions. As long as we continue to create the same kinds of solutions, we will get the same kinds of tools. If we want to create better things, then we need to break the cycle. As Bret Victor states, we have a choice:

“The most important thing to realize about the future is that it’s a choice. People choose which visions to pursue, people choose which research gets funded, people choose how they will spend their careers.”

We are seeing other types of needs emerge that will require new kinds of experiences designed for them. I’m not just talking about fitness wearables, IoT refrigerators, or Amazon’s Alexa — I’m talking about the future of services that companies will offer to make our lives better. It’s about services, not consumption of products and interfaces.

So how do you articulate and design for experiences that aren’t under glass?

Human-centered Storytelling

One method that I have used, with great success, is human-centered storytelling. Ok, waiting for some eye rolls… Alright, ready? It really works. I first wrote about the power of storytelling in the article Better User Experience Through Storytelling, six years ago.

There has been a trend in creative industries like advertising (or even with rollercoaster designers) to call themselves “storytellers.” This was heavily criticized by designers like Stefan Sagmeister. This is not that. At all. This is using well-documented design principles and ideation methodologies, and then generating a narrative based on those findings.

In companies today, most proposals for new products or new features for existing ones are presented with stats, bullet points, tech specs, unrealistic screen designs, or even a press release of that future project. And with a vision it is very important that everyone has the same understanding of that experience — especially in a large corporation. However this typical proposal method places the burden on the listener(s) to assemble the vision from this assortment of disparate elements.

“A recent Human Tech podcast presented a research study that measured brain activity during storytelling. The research showed that during the climax of a story the listener’s brain activity is closely similar to the storyteller’s brain activity — creating almost like a real connection between the two.”
 — Demian Borba
Output from a storytelling presentation. Illustrations by the fantastical Kevin White.

By telling (and I mean that somewhat loosely) a story you do several things: 
1) You are not designing screens or “lazy rectangles.”
2) The focus of the solution circles around human beings, rather than interfaces or apps. 
3) When you present the solution it’s not limiting the output to bullet points and screenshots of things under glass. 
4) More importantly, the listener (as seen in research) almost directly connects and has a higher understanding of your idea.

I won’t go through the details of every activity involved (that’s another blog post in the works) in this Human-centered Storytelling method, but I will give a brief overview. For clients I refer to it as creating a Product Story. Designers ought to consider three main phases of activity when moving from the broad world of finding a story to choosing the right one to tell. To help remember how the phases fit together, I’ve started using a little camping metaphor (co-created with Joe Johnston): The Forest, The Trail, and The Campfire.

In The Forest we listen, applying lean research techniques to talk to people and hear their stories. The Trail is then following a specific path, choosing one or two archetypes/characters (based on people we talked to) to tell a story about a moment in their life where they have an experience with that product or service. The Campfire is where we build the story, illustrate it, and share it with the team.

As I mentioned before: it works. I find that the discussions focus less around how to solve points of friction with only a set of screens. Even within the research phase our team is looking at things like the physical environment of a space and other parts of an individual’s daily life that may be adding to the friction in the experience. If our assignment began with “design an app that does X…” we would never (have the permission or time to) consider any of these other parts of the problem.

Storytelling forces us to really conceptualize the problem, and to do it in a way that fits most naturally with the narrative-driven creatures we (and our clients and our customers) are. When we are forced to think about the problem and then which tool we should use to solve that, it makes a complete difference in the solution we end up choosing.

I strongly believe that we will see aspects of storytelling being tied into how we design and present experiences in the future.

Digital interfaces (in some shape or form) and our focus on creating those will still be some part of the future of experience design. However, we need to step away from that as our default and it will be critical to find better ways to articulate the majority of life’s experiences that are not on screens.

The next phase of design is beginning and we will need to design solutions for these emergent experiences. We are not limited by the current tools because we don’t need them for that. We can imagine and design for the future without the perfect tools. Just like we always have.

This article serves as a companion to an interview I did for the User Defenders podcast — you can listen to it here. Follow me on twitter at @iamfinch.