Designer Dave Wiskus explores the meaning of design and its impact on our lives. With a tour through the choices that brought the tech industry and software design to where they are today, his talk points to where our choices will lead us tomorrow. Every decision has a genesis, and every decision has an impact. Technology is created to empower people — but it all still starts with people.
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I’m an interaction designer, a musician, a producer - I make stuff. Let’s talk about design. In the last two hundred years or so, we’ve come a pretty long way. We started out by inventing the telephone, which was cool, and then, the automobile. Then we invented a way to use your phone to order an automobile [Uber].
Technology has empowered us, and it’s changed not just our toys, our gadgets, our watches, and what not, but it’s made big changes in the way we design - in the way we create and produce objects of every size, shape, color. There are roughly seven billion people on this planet. So, who is all this stuff for?
Case Study: A Shower (3:12)
When we talk about a design and people and who this stuff is for, we’re really talking about showers. This is a shower I used recently. First there are these dial things, and then there’s six more dial things. There’s a weird pull, turn, twist, mechanism thing that you see in showers from time to time, and then there’s a magic wand. This is a Hogwards shower. Not picture is a shower head, directly above, which is pointing straight down.
Based on what I see, I figured that the pull lever dial thing is for turning the water on. So I pull it, and nothing happens. Now what? I wait. I’m turning things, I’m poking things, and then next thing you know — I’m getting sprayed in the face, by those other dial things. It turns out that those aren’t dials, those are face spray things. That didn’t work, so I turn the thing, and now it’s blasting hot water right at me. I figured, well, maybe if I turn it, it’s temperature. I tried turning the top knob, and then it stops spraying me in the face. I turn the middle one, and I’m getting sprayed in the face by the magic wand thing. So, I turn that one off, and then I turn the bottom one — and now I’ve got water coming at my head from above.
Slowly, slowly, I worked out what’s going on here. It’s really simple. I made a color coded chart. The red things are shower heads. The blue thing is on/off and temperature. The green things are on/off for the three different things that can spray around your head.
When you think about it, it’s actually a good system — if you know how to use it. This is optimized for people who understand how it already works, with another example being the New York City subway system. I used another shower head in England that had instructions. You know you’re in trouble when there’s instructions printed next to the shower head.
Human Interaction (5:53)
It all comes down to the same thing: human interaction. We tend to think of interaction as objects interacting with people, or people interacting with each other directly. Human interaction can also be indirect. Me being here at this talk is a form of indirect human interaction. There’s a live stream. There’s me at the front of a room and even though you all can laugh at jokes, boo me, or throw popcorn, it’s still a one way conversation. And even in a one way conversation, it’s still us interacting.
I’m imagining what’s going on in your heads. I’m trying to say things that you would find interesting. I’m being affected by the interaction whether you feel like a direct participant or not. Product design, even for digital products, is still interaction.
There are a lot of misconceptions about design. Some people think that design is how something looks. Most people use Dribble. Steve Jobs said that design is how a product feels; that’s mostly true, but that just describes the receiving end of design. That doesn’t really describe the process.
Design is really about intent. Design is what happens when you create, while also giving a shit. This means that if you’re involved with the making of a thing, whether you realize it or not, whether you mean to be or not, you’re part of the design process. You’re part of a design team. I would hesitate to pull out a truism cliché like “everyone’s a designer”, but you have a voice in the process and you should think about that.
When I say think about it, there’s really the one word that sums design up. You don’t need to be good at making things pretty. You don’t need to be good at making things easy to use. What you really need to be good at is thinking about what it’s like to be on the other side of something.
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Empathy — it’s about the difference between the way we see something and the way somebody else sees something. It’s about “us” versus “them”. I understand that “us” can be a lot of different things. For the most part, my perspective on the world, my version of “us” is able-bodied, straight white males with a little bit of money. My world view is naturally outside that immediate “what my life is like” bubble. Up until recently, even emoji people were all white.
It’s easier to design when you see the world that way, for a world that looks that way. Think of design as telling a story, writing a letter, or recording a podcast. Those are all designed experiences, even though they are one way design, but it’s still a design experience. You have to think about what your audience is going to be thinking or feeling when they hear you say something. You don’t get their immediate feedback, for example when you say something offensive. You don’t get to see the look on their face. You don’t get to read their body language. You don’t get to get a sense of what it must be like to hear those words when you didn’t think them.
You have to imagine what their face would look like and what their body language would be like. You have to take your experiences and try to project somebody else’s imagined experiences onto yourself and try to make some assumptions about how they’d react and feel. You have to try to see the world through their eyes. Or, let them see it through yours.
Be My Eyes (9:38)
Be My Eyes is a non-profit service for the blind. The funny thing about this is that I originally started putting this in my slides because I thought it was a great way to expose more people to this thing, and to get more excited people to use this service. When you sign up, you’re on call if a person who doesn’t have full use of their sight needs to know what the label on a bottle says, or if they want help picking out a photo to print for their parents as a gift. They’d go on, ask for help, and you accept the call. You’d go and you work with them.
The trouble is that it became so popular that, for example, I’ve had this app on my phone for maybe six months and I never once was called. There’s so many people who’ve signed up to do this that it’s hard to actually get a call to help somebody. That is a little disappointing, but it’s such a great way to take something that you have, that we have, and maybe offer to people who don’t. We are literally trying to experience the way they do, and trying to account for the way other people experience the world.
Technology can be empowering in that way. This is the best possible use of all of this stuff. This is what we should be doing. This should be what inspires us — this human connection. We have the ability to refine the humanity on the other side of a glass and metal brick. That’s why we do this stuff, right? That is the point of technology: to make our lives easier; to make it easier to connect with each other; to make it easier to have more human experiences. It’s not just so that we can check Twitter while we’re in the bathroom, but can’t it be both?
Wheelchair ramps are both funky and cumbersome. They don’t really inspire a lot of confidence. You get turned down over steps as an afterthought. It takes ten minutes to wheel your way up the thing, and when you walk past it, you just go up the three steps. You’re not thinking, “God, it would sure suck if I had to spend two minutes of my life wheeling up this cumbersome, crappy ramp that somebody didn’t imagine having to add when they built the building.” What must that be like? How do other people see it?
Design for Women (12:18)
It’s not just disabilities - according to HP, this is a laptop for women. They wanted to build a laptop for women, so they put butterflies and flowers on it. Great. It’s cool though, because it comes with an optional mouse. [Sarcasm] This is what happens when you take the needs and considerations of fifty percent of the world’s population and reduce them to fashion & style.
People are more than this. There’s an entire industry of design for children because there’s a profit in it. There’s very little profit in designing for disabled people or trans people. But even when we do design for children, we do it according to our own world view. The Lego people haven’t quite gotten it yet.
“With Lego toys for girls, your little one can build exciting creations with Lego pink brick buckets, develop her own friends’ adventures, or simply discover her passion for play, as she gains dexterity and problem solving skills.” — Lego website
How condescending is that? Here you go, Sweety, play with some pink bricks. But as Maritsa Patrinos points out, there is an easier solution. There is a way to make Lego for girls that isn’t condescending and sort of sad.
For the full comic by Maritsa Patrinos, go here.
Asynchronous Conversation (13:38)
Product design is an asynchronous conversation. Most art is a series of opinions expressed as human interaction. Design may be there to inspire or start a conversation, as art often is, but it’s still generally a broadcast medium. You’re making something to put out there. Interactive products need to account for feedback after leaving their creator’s hands. Software is humans using technology to interact. Developers may only see their computer screens, and users may only see their phones, but there’s no way to get around the fact that whether you’re making or whether you’re using an iPhone app, there’s still a human being or a group of human beings on the other side of that glass who have different experiences and thoughts.
When you’re on the creating side and putting something out in the world, just as you would when you’re making a podcast or posting on your blog, you have to think about the audience’s experiences. How would their lives affect the way they see these things, and the way they end up experiencing? In a way, it’s all kind of poetry. We’re bad at thinking about the way other people use technology.
My favorite example of this is the reaction we have when we see people taking a picture with an iPad. There are blogs and endless tweets about how stupid these people are, how dumb they look, and how they’re all idiots — but you know what? I can come up with a million reasons why that person might use their iPad as a camera. Maybe it’s the best camera they own. Maybe their phone died and they’re on vacation. Maybe they want to make sure their phone doesn’t die when they’re on vacation. Maybe they just like it.
Here’s the truth — if you’re going to be upset at somebody, make it Apple, because Apple put a camera in the iPad. It’s a lack of empathy that leads to our reaction, because what we’re saying is, “I don’t understand how other people who aren’t me, experience, view, or use technology.” That’s a really bad place to be when your job is to make technology for other people to use. It’s cynical.
We’re all software people. I can speak frankly, right? Why do we always have to be the smartest people in the room? Why is it always a game of “well, actually”? This isn’t prescriptive, we don’t get to tell people what to do. We get to make things, they get to use them, we get feedback, and we get to roll on from there. This isn’t, “I’m going to go make the album I wanted to make and screw the critics because this isn’t for them”. This is a commercial endeavor. We’re making things for other people, so let’s actually make them for other people. We’re in an abusive relationship with our users, and we’re not on the receiving end of that. We have to stop acting as if we’re tech elites who get to decide how technology is being used.
The Best Designer… (16:37)
I get ranty and fired up, and I think to myself that I should give an example of a good designer, somebody who understands human interaction and knows what it’s like to provide an experience to people that they by and large enjoy. Who is the best designer I know, and how can I showcase their work? After giving it a thought, I chose the best human interaction designer ever I know — my dog.
Her name is Pixel. Nobody interacts with humans like she does. She’s the life of any party. She’s never met a human she doesn’t like, especially babies — they’re just like most people, so babies are like tiny people coated in food. She has a lot of jobs: a roadie for my band, my office assistant, handling all my travel. Once a year, she works as a mall Santa. And, she’s super smart.
Dogs are little empathy machines. If you give them food and attention, they’re going to hang onto your every word. It’s amazing, and unlike human children, they don’t grow up to resent you. They do human interaction better than anybody; that makes sense, since we’ve been training them to do it for about ten thousand years. It’s in their nature to want to make us happy. It’s interesting, because they’re like designed designers.
We’ve shaped them into providing us with the best experience that they’re capable of doing. They’re an adapted interface, and as far as designed experiences go, they’re pretty fantastic. It makes me wonder why when we see somebody else’s work, our first reaction is to complain about it, snark, point at the things that we would’ve done differently, or question their decisions. That’s a little picky. We complain, and I am certainly guilty of this — remember earlier when I made fun of Dribbble people?
Being picky is a parlor trick, and anybody can do that. Anybody can point out the thing that you did wrong. Anybody can find the note you got wrong. That’s not rock and roll; sometimes you get notes wrong. That’s okay, that’s part of the process. This isn’t art — this is fashion, and when you put something out in the world, it’s not the final version. You get to do it again because this stuff, it all goes away. Somebody, please open up your phone and go to version 1.0 of the Facebook app. You can’t.
You know what else is going away? Your phone. You’re not going to have this thing in three years. All of this is transient and temporary. So what are you doing now? What’s the best version that you can do now?
Interacting With People (19:43)
I grew up being super socially awkward. I wasn’t good with people, I wasn’t good at being in front of a room full of people. I wasn’t great at any the social stuff. High school was hell. Making friends, meeting girls — all that stuff wasn’t that good. When I was sixteen years old, I dropped out of high school, because I couldn’t handle the social stuff anymore. I wound up getting like late night tech support jobs so I didn’t have to leave the house during the day. There was a point where because of social anxiety, I couldn’t take the trash out when the sun was up because I didn’t want to be seen by my neighbors. I didn’t want to risk running into someone.
One day I woke up and I though, “this sucks”. I’ve got these things I want to do. I wanted to play in bands. I wanted to get on stages and play music. I wanted to meet people. I wanted to make friends — how do you do any of that if you can’t figure out how to talk to people? So I sat down with a yellow legal pad and I made a list of the things that were in my way, things I didn’t like about me and how I could solve these problems. One by one, I went down the list checking them off.
What it came down to was the fact that I like people. I was afraid of them, I was terrified of them. But, it was the enjoyment or appreciation of other people that led me to want to make things for them; to perform in front of them; to shake somebody’s hand at a party — to just be at a party. All the best things I’ve ever made in my life, I’ve made for other people to enjoy, be it arts, music, software, podcasts, or video stuff. It’s all there because I want somebody else to have some kind of experience. I couldn’t design interactions for people if I didn’t love interacting with people.
Empathy, Revisited (21:49)
How do you hone that intuition? How do you find some sense of empathy? You do that by listening. It’s about practice. I get the question all the time: “How do you go from being terrified, to…?” You just start listening more. In any kind of social situation, listen more. It’s easy to say when I’m up here talking. But again, in the cliché “everyone’s a designer” way, it’s the most valuable tool you have.
I used to think that my ability to see the flaws in everything was what would make me a good designer. After a few years of experience both as a designer and just in life, I think the opposite is true. It’s my ability to see the beauty in things that helps me make things. So, just say no to cynicism. It’s the enemy of everything. Be careful, because the irony, apathy, sarcasm, passive aggression — they’re gateway drugs.
Science Fiction (23:00)
The next step in interaction design is a little bit more hands off, at least in terms of what we’re used to. It’s more transient, more ephemeral…less requirement for attention. Iron Man’s helmet is future UI. This, and things like the Minority Report. But the single most impressive thing about Iron Man’s whole getup is Jarvis. I almost don’t want to say “Hey, Siri”, but it’s kind of the same thing when Iron Man asks, “What’s my power level like? What are the missiles coming at me? Do I need to go blow something up? Am I about to die?” All these gadgets and everything are cool for us to look at, but he can just say, “I need you to do this thing”, and the thing happens. That’s pretty cool.
Science fiction in general does a really good thing for technology through storytelling. It humanizes it. In a story, the only way to make technology relatable is to make it human. Data from Star Trek and C-3PO from Star Wars — even though they are just robots, their job in the story is really to explain the story to the audience. Their job, in the narrative, is to explain things that are happening from one character to another. He is a translator. He is human interaction, and that is what he’s for. In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal gradually becomes more terrifying as his behavior becomes more human. As he reacts to the things happening around him, more emotionally, he becomes scarier. That’s kind of human.
Now, we have Amazon’s Echo, the device that sits in your living room. The idea is simple: vocal interaction to get the things that you want, whether it’s music, adding things to a shopping list, etc. It’s not hard to imagine a future where you would order all of your groceries this way. It’s not hard to imagine a future where, when you want to know what your calendar looks like, you can just ask, Jarvis style. You can just say things out loud and like an assistant would give you, you get feedback. Wouldn’t it be cool if Siri did do all that stuff? There is a place already in your living room where Siri could sit to do all of that — Apple TV.
Technology isn’t becoming more popular because computers have gotten better, technologically, or because CPUs got faster. It’s not because the hard drives are bigger. It’s becoming popular because it’s becoming more human. We still have a long way to go, but things that were only usable to an elite few twenty years ago are now in our pockets.
Right here on my phone, I have a recording studio that records demos and stuff. That’s amazing. The thing that I’m using to power this screen right now is my actual recording studio — my computer. This is where all of the stuff happens. It’s also where I make software. It’s where I write things. It wasn’t that long ago in the span of human history that indoor plumbing would have been welcomed. We have all these things, so let’s do some cool stuff with those things and help other people do the same thing.
A Final Story ✈️ (26:55)
I’ve got this story to tell in the last five minutes, and I’ll give as much of an abridged version of this as I can possibly get. I freaked out on an airplane once. It was before takeoff, I had a bit of a panic attack and I literally ran off the plane. The flight attendants ran after me and they were very concerned. This was in Amsterdam, and it was all Dutch people on the airline. When I ran off, they grabbed me and they were asking, “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
I say I’m fine, I’m just having an anxiety attack. I’m a white American dude, so I think they responded more to the word anxiety and less to the work attack. Good for me, or I wouldn’t be here right now. They were trying to convince me that we needed to get moving and get this plane in the air. I was like, “I just, I can’t, just let me off the plane.” They kept asking me if I was sure, and I said, “Look, you’re surrounding me, I feel like I’m being buried alive, and I’m kind of suffocated right now. Can you like, elect a leader to be the person that talks to me?”
So they did — they chose the captain. He comes over and he says, “Hey, what’s going on?” You know, panic attack, blah blah blah. He goes, “Well, I don’t think you’re crazy”, which was nice to hear. “I’m going to give you a few minutes. I’m going to step over here, you don’t have to fly, we can’t make you fly, but if you don’t fly, your bag has to come off the plane. We’re already running late, that’s going to take a while. Take a couple minutes to see if you change your mind. I’ll be right over here.”
So I think about it, I had to calm myself down, and I’m being a real crybaby right now. I should just get on the plane and shut up and do it. So he comes back over and he’s like, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “Well, yeah, screw it. I’m on board.” Along the way he had said, “Well what if we did this? Or what if we did this?” I was just breezing through it, saying I just wanted to go. But I kind of wish I had been listening, because there was some good stuff in there.
So, he says, “Great, you’re going to fly, let’s get you to your seat.” He takes me to my new seat, which is in first class, and I had about eight feet of leg room. There was nobody on either side of me. I had a dedicated flight attendant, and I was told I could have as much booze as I wanted. That was nice. They assigned a single dedicated flight attendant to watch over me,and I swear, no joke, she looked just like Taylor Swift. They kept coming by and asking, “Do you need anything? Do you need anything?”, and I was like, “Ah, you know what, I’m okay.”
Then about around three or four hours into the flight, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look up; it’s an older gentleman in a suit, and he goes, “Dave? Can you take a walk with me?” I go, ”Shit! I’m about to get Air Force One’d out of the back of this plane, aren’t I?” Yikes.
I walk with him, and we go to the flight attendant galley area. He sits me down and asks about my trip, and we get to sharing stories, personal stories, and sort of become friends. At one point, I feel another hand on my shoulder. I look up and it’s the captain, who’s flying this thing. He asks me how I’m feeling, and I said, “Pretty good, actually, I was having a bad day, but everybody’s been really nice to me. I really appreciate that, so thanks to you and your crew for taking such good care of me.”
He goes, “That’s fantastic, I’m really glad to hear it. So you ready to come see it?” Come see what? “Come see the cockpit.” Yes! I didn’t know that was part of the deal but that sounds fantastic, yes I’m in. I tried to play it like, “Oh, yeah I see flight decks all the time, it’s cool. I guess I’ll go.” He’s like, “All right, give me a minute.” He walks away and I look at the flight attendant galley, what do I do? Is this actually going to happen? Well, he says it’s going to happen, I guess so.
I wait a minute and the little phone next to us rings. He answers it and says something in Dutch, which, if you have never heard Dutch, sounds like German meets Klingon. That’s not mean, it really does. He nods, so I guess we’re going. The flight attendant leads me up, back through first class, and through one and then another curtain thing. We knock on the door, we had to wave to the camera, he opens it up and I sit down in the seat right behind the captain. I’m just thinking, “What the hell happened?” The captain turns around, says “Welcome!”, and shakes my hand — so this is it. I don’t know what to say.
Some people will wear Canadian flag to make sure that, as Americans, people will be nice to us anyway. My move, which is very similar, is to wear something with an Apple logo on it, because everybody loves their iPad. This guy loved his iPad. He asked if I worked with Apple, and I said, “No, no, I’m third party. I work on apps and stuff like that.”
“Oh … Do you work closely with Apple?” I respond, “Yeah, you know, I’ve been doing this stuff for a while. I know some people who are there.” He said, “Have you ever been to the mother ship?” Who are you? I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve had a lunch there, a couple meetings,” and he goes, “Cafe Max?” I’m like, “Seriously, who are you?” Are you with corporate?
It turns out that he bought an iPad, his first Apple product ever, two months before this.He fell in love with it so hard that he read all of folklore.org and everything he could find about Apple and its history. The guy went nuts about Apple stuff. We started trading stories about our favorite Apple stores around the world, saying “I like this one in San Francisco” and “Oh, I really like the one downtown”. We’re going back and forth; he was so excited about this Apple stuff.
He was asking about apps and what I’ve seen. “Did you ever meet Steve?” I’m like no, sadly I never got to meet the guy. We’re going for a while, and he turns around, “Man, you’ve got the coolest job.” I’ve got the coolest job? You’re flying a 777 over the Atlantic Ocean, and actually, you should probably turn around because you’re flying a 777 across the Atlantic Ocean. It goes back and forth like this for a little while, and finally I had to get out of the flight deck because U.S. airspace doesn’t like strangers in the cockpit.
As I’m leaving, though, I asked him a question. I was being kind of a crybaby and I was delaying an international flight, which sure is not cheap. Why have you guys been so nice to me? He looks me right in the eyes and he says, “Looked like you were having a bad day, we thought we could make it better. We love our customers.”
The moral of the story is, fly KLM. [Audience laughter] Quick epilogue to that: people will come up to me after I talk and they’ll say, “Oh, so what I need to do is fake an anxiety attack.” No, no, if that’s what you got out of this, then you missed the point entirely. I am not the hero of the story, I am the asshole. KLM, this guy, the captain, he is the hero.
The moral of the story is, in the face of somebody who is being a jerk and was taking up time and resources, they found a way to be empathetic and to see the situation through my eyes. What’s our version of that? When we’re making things for customers, internal, external, when we’re working with other people — what is our version of letting somebody fly in the front of the plane?
What is our version? What is our way to provide somebody, who may not on the face of it deserve it — provide them with a very cool story? That’s what I prefer you come away with. Thank you.
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About the content
This talk was delivered live in June 2015 at AltConf. The video was recorded, produced, and transcribed by Realm, and is published here with the permission of the conference organizers.