Dan Brown inspires us to get great at asking questions because ‘the question’ is one of our most invincible resources. He reminds us to maintain a spirit of collaboration with the the team members we’re struggling with since they care as much about the project as we do. He encourages us to always peer beneath the surface at the underlying structure of whatever we’re working on. He also motivates us to never settle.
Dan Brown is a web designer who specializes in information architecture, design research, and leading teams. He’s written three books: Practical Design Discovery (2017), Designing Together (2013), and Communicating Design (2011). He created a card game, Surviving Design Projects, to help designers practice their conflict resolution skills. Dan co-founded EightShapes, a UX design firm based in Washington, DC, in 2006 with his business partner Nathan Curtis. Professionally, Dan likes talking about design discovery, information architecture, user research, and team dynamics. Personally, Dan likes talking about cooking and board games. He also started an online support group for a rare disease he has.
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- Secret Identity (7:47)
- Origin Story (9:29)
- Biggest Failure (20:23)
- Awkward Testing Story (23:27)
- Design Superpower (28:04)
- Design Kryptonite (30:52)
- UX Superhero Name (33:50)
- Fights for Users (36:08)
- Habit of Success (40:54)
- Invincible Resource (43:27)
- Recommended Book (51:23)
- Practical Design Discovery (53:40)
- Overcoming Team Tension (57:00)
- Best Advice (69:04)
- Contact Info (71:48)
SUPERPOWER OF SUPPORT
Here’s your chance to use your superpower of support. Don’t rely on telepathy alone! If you’re enjoying the show, would you take two minutes and leave a rating and review on iTunes? I’d also be willing to remove my cloak of invisibility from your inbox if you’d subscribe to the Bi-Weekly Bugle for my best UX/Personal Growth tips and superguest announcements.
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Jason: Dan welcome to User Defenders. I’m super-excited to have you on the show today.
Dan: I’m really happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jason: Absolutely. Now do you mind if I ask you about the rare disease I know that’s not something you talk about and probably not something you’d expect to be asked on and design podcast.
Dan: But you know I think yeah you can ask me anything you want. I actually have two rare diseases and I’ve written a little bit about them online and I think it’s you know everyone you know different strokes for different folks. I think it’s important to me as part of my coping strategy for these rare diseases to be able to talk about them and educate other people about them. So yeah but what kinds of questions do you.
Jason: Well what do you what is it.
Dan: Well like I said I have two. One the one I started as a support group for you know is called Kallmann’s syndrome and it’s a rare endocrine disorder. My body doesn’t make any of its own hormones sex hormones. Honestly.
Dan: Even though I was born male identify male. I there’s something wrong with the feedback mechanism in my endocrine system. So I’m on hormone replacement therapy which allows me allowed me to go through puberty and, now live in essentially normal life.
Jason: Wow Dan I appreciate you sharing that. I mean and I hope I’m not prying at all. I appreciate your transparency that you are an open book. You told me that like you know nothing is off the table so I appreciate you sharing that Dan.
Dan: Sure sure. Yeah I mean it’s a it’s one of those diseases and that’s essentially not life threatening at all. But it’s somewhat insidious. You know it it strikes when you’re a teenager in a sense I mean you’re born with it but you sort of realize it when you’re a teenager and you just don’t go through puberty. And so it’s it’s insidious that even though the treatment for it is relatively straightforward it’s often hard to diagnose hard to zero in on what it is exactly. And it’s striking at your insecurities. So developing coping strategies around that I think is part of what’s helped me become empathetic right, you’d become a user defender right. Think about trying to think about these things from other people’s perspectives. That comes from you know experiencing a lack of empathy between people that I know medical professionals who don’t really understand the disease don’t really understand how it affects me as a person and just learning to kind of interact with other people with this disease as well. I tell you when I started that support group it was it was life changing because when you have a rare disease you think you’re alone in the world. I mean there’s just as much support as you get from your parents and your family. My wife has been incredibly supportive and understanding that do you think you’re alone in the world. And I think everyone feels like that at some point. But when you start a support group when you get that first e-mail that says I have Calman syndrome too, it changes everything right. It makes you think you know what I can make connections with other people.
Jason: Oh man so glad. And that’s one of the things I love so much about this field is it really is all about communication and connection. Right. And I’m sure you were able to use your design superpowers to make this community and this online group. And to help connect you with other folks and them to you and that’s so cool man. Well I’ll tell you the the hormone, You know I mean you got you have an awesome voice my friend it’s like manly and like well, I love that slight rasp too its just an awesome radio voice.
Dan: And that’s a rare disease that I have, I have a rare disease called recruit respiratory papilloma and all that means is I get polyps that spontaneously grow on my vocal cords. So they need to be removed once a year or so. And so and I’ve had this ever since I was 6 years old. So after dozens of surgeries now to have these things moved. There’s scars on my vocal cords and it just makes it sound like this which is you know I guess a silver lining to all that medical treatment.
Jason: Yeah absolutely. Well it’s kind of like you’re turning your kryptonite into a super power because I mean it’s perfect for this theme of this show because you know you are a superhero man and we’re going to dive into more about why that is. But you know every superhero as a secret identity and origin story and you’ve kind of touched on some really personal things already and I appreciate that it’s a great start to this show and it really talks about empathy it helps our Defenders listening really just dive right into knowing you know where you’re coming from. So I want to talk about yours Dan. Can you tell us a story just about maybe give us a look into your personal life? What you like to do when you’re not working perhaps?
Dan: Oh sure. I mean besides going and having throat surgeries every once and a while, I have a wife my wife and I’ve been married for 20 years and we have two children. And because of the Kallmann syndrome there were shall we say obstacles to getting pregnant. And I’m not saying that other people don’t appreciate their children the way I do but they do have special meaning a different kind of meaning for me because I never thought I would ever have children. So I liked spending a lot of time with them I appreciate them. I love watching them become the people that that they are becoming. We play a lot of board games and I am extremely lucky in that my two kids both share my love of gaming and board games and roleplaying games and things like that. So in my spare time on the weekends we always try and squeeze in one or two games. I also do a lot of cooking which I really use to help me kind of disconnect from my work days since I work from home and is also a really interesting reminder about user research because it turns out that my children are very critical of my cooking. I’m pretty good at it but they are empowered to offer all kinds of opinions about it. And there’s sort of an instantaneous feedback that you get right. You cook the meal you put in front of them and immediately you know whether it works or not and sometimes you don’t always get that luxury in the design world.
Jason: Well tell us your origin story Dan. What inspired you to pursue a career in this exciting challenging and ever evolving field?
Dan: Well I don’t know. You see that when you talk to old guys like me we just sort of found ourselves here more than anything else so my origin story is I don’t know maybe like the Fantastic Four right I kind of got a I got into a ship and I went into space and then boom I had powers. And I was not the intention but I guess every origin story is a bit of an accident. Anyway,I majored in philosophy and which meant that I was qualified for no careers whatsoever. And what I’d always use computers when I was a kid and what I what I didn’t like about computers were never occurred to me about computers is that someone needed to design the stuff that was on the screen. And I think I think it never occurred to me because in, you know when I first had a computer everything was command line right. There wasn’t wasn’t a lot of GUI there wasn’t wasn’t any of that kind of stuff. And so it was only sort of you know through the 80s and the 90s when we started to seem GUI. GUI and graphical user interface emerge. That and then the web specifically in the 90s and it sort of hit me that you can design stuff that goes on the screen not just the stuff that you end up printing out from a computer. I went to a conference called Siggraph which is like a huge computer graphics conference was you know thinking maybe I would be interested in that. I really didn’t it didn’t it didn’t click with me but there I did learn about another field called CHI computer human interaction CHI and sometimes HCI Human Computer Interaction and and I went to a conference for that field I think that was my graduation present for my parents and I loved it. I mean I just felt like I’d come home. And again that’s you know as you’re a young adult that’s a rare feeling to have. Like oh this is where I belong. I ended up. That was 94 ish so the web was really starting to emerge and I started to teaching myself HTML and I got this job at a book publishing company where I did all things web. And again finding myself not really qualified for any of them or especially good at any of them. But the one thing that I really enjoyed and that I was good at is thinking about the underlying structure is right, thinking about what should the underlying experience be what should the underlying architecture be.
Dan: So when I moved to Washington I got a job at an Internet Agency and decided to focus on information architecture there. From there you know doing most of my work has been agency or consulting or contracting and so I’ve worked on a bunch of different kinds of clients being in D.C. I got to do some stints in the government and then in 2006 Nathan approached me and said we should start this thing and by then I although I was fairly risk averse I had had my first kid and I was quite keen to have more flexibility and more freedom to spend time with him.
Dan: So starting age shapes really granted me an opportunity to grow my career in a new and different way. But also grant me some some flexibility.
Jason: Yeah I remember the early days of the Web. And honestly that’s it’s so it’s funny our stories are somewhat parallel. I remember the early days of the web and I was driving cars. I was a corporate lease driver, at the time when I first experienced a chat room on America Online and I couldn’t believe that I could hold a conversation with somebody on the other side of the world in real time. And it was just my mind was blown. I was like wow this is this is cool. And then he discovered her personal publisher where I could make my own web page. And that’s that was it for me like I actually made my own web page. I probably had about 20 animated GIFs on there which was pretty awesome back then. And I just fell in love with them with the medium. So I appreciate that but I think that that’s kind of what I was getting at was just how much we kind of knew a little bit of everything at the time maybe we weren’t incredibly awesome at everything but we you kind of had to know how to do a little bit of everything back then and I think that was kind of what drove me to really just go full bore into this and and I’ll be honest with you. Like lately I’ve just been feeling a little bit of malaise and I mean I love what I do I still work on the web but I don’t really get my hands dirty with like code as much I know and I feel like that’s probably what’s been missing a little bit.
Jason: And because that’s what it was you know you just kind of reflect when you feel like you’re what what’s going on what’s going wrong. He used to sort of reflect well what made me most joyful in this feel was what made me the happiest and most fulfilled. And I think it was when I was actually designing something and then coding it myself you know getting it into the browser and I just feel like you know that’s what’s been kind of missing a little bit. And so I’ve been a lot more intentional about trying to get back to that. And so I appreciate your origin story there Dan..
Dan: Yeah I mean I think one of the things that is happening on the Web is that the tooling around it has become far more complex. And yes I mean it’s sort of inevitable. Right it means it means one person can’t know everything. I mean I think about like 300 years ago. They say that one person could know all the knowledge that there was to know in the world because we were at the beginning of you know kind of science and you know thinking about going and sort of understanding the world in that way mathematics wasn’t as well-developed as it is today but now because knowledge has exploded so much. No one person can know everything there is to know. And the same is true I believe for the web right which is there’s lots of different techniques for tooling. There’s lots of different mechanisms for creating the underlying architecture of the Web. And so yeah one person could still probably build a website out of the box but you know we need, because of the nature of the complexity of the thing because it’s tied into business so specifically tied into business. We need more people we need more expertise there. Have we lost something?
Dan: Yeah I mean it’s you know it’s like you can’t really work on a car in your garage anymore because all the cars are you know basically computers these days and you know so in a sense it’s the same kind of thing. But at the same time what have we gained gain right? We’ve gained you know technology that is pervaded every aspect of our For the most part. You know for many people every aspect of their livelihood and their need and supporting a variety of needs which to me makes the work that we do the contribution that we have to that sort of stack of complexity it makes our contribution as designers even more important.
Jason: That is truly interesting Dan especially the part about automation. Everything is becoming automated and I saw a Kickstarter project. I’m a coffee guy. I saw Kickstarter project where it’s an automated pour over so it’s like crazy.
Jason: I was like don’t we even want to like just get our hands a little dirty anymore like I guess it’s just I’m kind of I don’t know I’m I think I’m kind of a neo luddite. I love technology so much but I start I guess I start to get my eyebrows raised a little bit more and more whenever the human aspect is removed from you know from our technologies I guess a little bit just because I think that you know I think it’s good to still be able to kind of you know do your own thing be able to pour your own coffee and you know like you said if you can work on your own you know change your own oil or whatever. So it’s interesting.
Dan: Yeah I mean I think I think we see this in design too where we have an instinct as designers to try and provide as much support for users as we can and by doing that we end up trying to remove some of their own agency in a sense right there their own ability to control what they see. I’m working on a project right now for higher education and you know, right now I mean it’s it’s an area where there’s not a lot of good technological support for the work that they need to do. Right it’s sort of this kind of open green field if you will. And we’re sort of like just to mix my metaphors. Kids in candy stores right were like what we can do this we could do this we can do this. And what I’d like getting excited about the possibilities but I also don’t want to remove agency from the users I don’t want them to feel a lack of empowerment to control what it is that they see and do a lot of times we want to put into the system, into the technology and the means for controlling a process or enforcing the rules. And I’m not sure the technology is great because rules change things happen right? situations arise and humans are really good at assessing what they need in order to address a new situation.
So the technologiess should support that red should give them opportunities to give them the data and the information they need to make better decisions. So the idea of pour over that’s automated you know to me I agree with you right there. Why take that agency away from me. How does that how does that help me? Obviously if I’m a guy who’s doing a pour over which I do multiple times a day. I’m doing it because I like pouring it. I like pausing. I like watching you know the coffee go in. I mean there’s something about that ritual that is important to me. Right? If I yeah if I wanted an automated I would just drink regular drip coffee. Well we covered a lot of ground there. That was really impressive.
Jason: It was. I liked. I like this I like with this conversation going. Yeah it’s I mean certainly we could probably spend the whole show talking about about that. I definitely want to wanna get closer get more into kind of your journey as a designer and as a writer and part of that you know is maybe cringe worthy as it can be as talking about failure. I like to talk about it because I think it’s great you know failure is learning. And certainly especially in team environments and I know that’s something that’s been a big topic for you in a big area of research for you over the many years that you’ve been doing this his teams. And certainly there’s a lot of failure that it can occur on teams as well. So I just want to ask you Can you tell us a story about what’s been maybe the biggest failure in your career?
Dan: Yeah you shared that question with me and I was struggling and not because I don’t fail, obviously, but because I can’t point to a single project and say well that was a collossal failure. What I can do is look at almost every project I’ve ever done and say well there’s about a million things I would have done differently on the project. Did we get to our goal? Yeah. Is the client happy? Nine times out of ten yeah.Did the team fill fulfill feel fulfilled for the most part? yeah. I know there are things that I would like to be able to do better as a designer and as and as a leader. So it’s hard for me to point a single project that embodies a you know failure from beginning to end. But we were talking about this we just had Eight Shapes retreat and one of our my colleagues shared a story about a team that he worked on where there was one person on the team who really got under his skin and it really resonated with me and I shared this with the team that about once a year I’ll work with a group of people or a team or there’s one person there where I just I can’t get past the personality I can’t get past the tone I can’t get past you know the superficial part of it or even the content of what they’re saying to really engage in the project in a productive way. And when when my colleague admitted this as well it was you know there was a certain amount of relief like OK you know so we’re all just human here. But but at the same time it makes me wonder like why why does that happen. Could I sort of connect the dots between all the times that’s happened and tried to identify you know what were all those things have in common. Is there something about me that brings the worst out of of these people. So for me points of failure are times on the team where I can’t even get to did I manage the project well was the design good. I can’t even get to that point because I have this kind of weird disconnect with with one of the team member. Sometimes we can get past it and sometimes we can gloss over it and everyone has their own coping strategy for us. But for me that sort of embodies what I think of as personal failure.
Jason: Yeah I appreciate you sharing that Dan. And certainly working on a team. There’s always going to be that dynamic of that struggle again personalities clash. Maybe it’s the, Oh I wouldn’t do it that way or you know there’s. So I’m glad that you took the time to really write this book and pour in your experience into this about you know why why discovery is important and why being a good collaborator on a team is important too. So I want to get into that and a little bit but I want to ask you do you have a story like when some of your projects that you’ve done like of anything crazy or super awkward that may have happened during user testing.
Dan: Nothing nothing really crazy. For the most part I work on projects where the audiences are really specialized so I lean on my clients to bring folks in. Like for example for the higher education right I can’t just go out and recruit you know a dozen different deans from colleges I need you know I need people to to go out and do the legwork and when we recruit those folks it’s because you know they have an interest in the project that I did. I did do some testing last year for a government agency. And of course because they were a government agency, they were serving in the general public. So we used an online service to do a recruit for us. And because the nature of the testing they you know it was remote testing so they had to share their screens and they would share their screen and then we would direct them to the website or to the prototype and which they would walk through and for the most part it was fine. And even this was fine. But there’s one young woman came on and she shared her screen and her desktop was a picture. There was sort of a picture in her desk top of like a scantily clad steampunk vixen type character. And it was very startling because it was unusual and it was very. I appreciated the fact that she felt comfortable sharing this with total strangers. I don’t know if this is a generational thing or what but I mean it it’s it’s not my style to comment on those things. I know I’m sensitive to that’s who she is and I am glad that’s who she is. Well yeah it was just not like it was just it was unexpected. That’s all. And she gave a great interview. I mean that was I think it was like we got great feedback from her. So I love that I grew up in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. So I grew up around a lot of people who didn’t look or think like I do. And and yet I still often find myself challenged by when people are you know break conventions.
Jason: That’s that’s one of my sister and her family live in Greenwich. That’s funny you mention that Yeah. Love it. We got to stay there for a week. Couple of years ago my wife and I had left the kids. It was incredible. A lot of walking and a lot in New York.
Dan: Well it’s yeah that’s a that’s maybe the only thing I miss about Manhattan is my family never owned a car. So yeah. I know a lot of teenagers think of cars as kind of liberating but I always thought of it as kind of this albatross like gotta pay insurance. I got to worry about it. I got to maintain it like all these things which by the end of the day for New Yorkers like well rather just walk there. So yeah.
Jason: No it’s true. You know you really don’t you know you don’t need a vehicle especially out that way. Right. You just uber and taxi Uber is really disrupted the taxi service Uber and lift which is a whole nother conversation.
Dan: My parents are in their 70s and they are uber fanatics. So I’m trying to get them to use lift for a variety of reasons and I think my mom actually downloaded the the lyft App. But yeah I mean this is being a New Yorker these days.
Jason: Yeah I mean it’s interesting because we took our we took our cab ride from the airport and our driver was like we had a conversation with them and we were talking about it this is kind of before you know it really uber And that whole thing really took off. But was we were talking about it and he kind of made a comment it was interesting because every single taxicab in New York has to be officially licensed and like every year every car has its own unique ID and it’s totally done through that through the through through the whole state. And he said you know what one of these things is worth it you know like the tag the I.D. and the tags. He said these are worth over a million dollars each. You know something like that and I was like oh my gosh and you see every single yellow car you see. But I wonder what that maybe what that is now perhaps with the disruption. Dan, what’s your design superpower?
Dan: I really like peering beneath the surface. X-ray Vision. Let’s call an X-ray vision and peer beneath the surface and kind of seeing the underlying structure of of something. One of the reasons why I like Discovery as part of the design process is I really feel like there’s an opportunity for organizations to to kind of bring to the surface the underlying structure of the underlying assumptions of the work that they do the way they they engage with their their customers and bringing that stuff to light to critique it allows to tweak it, allows us to make sure that we’re all on the same page with what that structure is. I’m working on a great project now or let me say it’s a perfect project for me in so far as there is I work with an architectural licensing organization they’re kind of like an industry organization that facilitates architectural licensing and there’s a bunch of rules that govern how you can become an architect in different states. And because of the how this organization has positioned it needs to have a common understanding of those rules even though all those rules came from different states right that kind of emerged from individual state processes. So trying to find some commonality across all of these different mechanisms for becoming an architect is something that grew organically in this organization. But now they’re realizing that to facilitate speed and other benefits to burgeoning architects they need a common language a way of referring to these rules and in a common way. So this is it right looking beneath the surface identifying what’s there and trying to see structures that maybe people haven’t seen before and also build structures that can support this range of what you want to call it content. Right, that until now has lived in very disparate places.
Jason: You know I love that X ray vision that makes so much sense and I know that a lot of organizations they sort of have tunnel vision. Right. I mean they’re looking at the same thing every day with the same set of eyes. And so it makes a lot of sense that you’re able to come in as an outsider and really do your research and really dig deep into learning everything about this organization their culture and I mean and I love how you mentioned in the book too it’s like it’s even important to know the culture of the business when you’re doing design discovery so great great stuff in the book defenders.
Jason: Conversely Dan what’s your design Kryptonite?
Dan: Well I mean like a lot of superheroes I feel like my greatest strength is my greatest weakness and I feel like it’s easy for me to get stuck on that stuff because it’s a happy place. For me it’s a safe place for me. Yeah it’s like you know if you’re Thor you want to hit everything with your hammer. Right. And sometimes you know you just there’s just not a time and a place to use a hammer.
Jason: When you’re a hammer everything’s a nail. Right.
Dan: Right. And when you’re you know Muelnor everything looks like a troll. You know so that was was a deep cut.
Jason: I love it.
Dan: So digging deep into these rules for this particular organization is my happy place and they’re giving me a long leash to do it. And I’m grateful for that. But we don’t have that on every project right. So part of me needs to be the Steve Rogers or the Clark Kent right. who needs to kind of work with other people not in a X-ray vision kind of way right not using the superpowers but are we are we progressing towards our goals or are we getting towards the the objectives that we set out for this project. Are we getting to something that’s feasible that’s buildable that we know that users want. I was a philosophy major I love thinking deeply about things but that’s not a great way of building a website. Right that’s one part of it. You know, so I feel like I’m in a constant I was going to say this constant battle with myself sort of on the one hand let out and employ as much of that power as I can but also not not be irresponsible about it not not let it go so long just because it makes me feel good just because I’m good at it just because we’re learning interesting things but also bringing that back in and making sure that it’s meaningfully contributing to the goals of the project.
Jason: I’m tickled by this superhero analogy is Dan here the perfect guest for this format. I love it. You’re indulging in and bringing value to the superhero themes. I appreciate that.
Dan: Sure. Jason, when you reached out to me I was so excited because nothing nothing would make me happier than to talk about design in the context of Super Heroes. So it was great.
Jason: So speaking of that this is a fun one. And I always caveat this question ever since episode 6. Chloe you can call me out on it about a you know like like oh I’m I can’t be a superhero without my team. And you’re definitely a guy that would would admit that too because you’ve got a great team surrounding you Dan and I know that you always and in the things that I have research about you, you always mentioned your partner Nathan and just how you guys are kind of you know like a superhero force together and so I want to ask you what would your superhero name be.
Dan: I’m not going to lie. And I’ve given this a lot thought and I freely admit that makes me a giant nerd. There are I think part of the problem with this question I like the the hey we’re not you know we’re we’re a team. Right. We’re like Voltron right. All of the lines need to come together for us to be really powerful. I’m probably not the first person to say that on this podcast.
Jason: You are and that’s a great one.
Dan: I’m the first person?
Jason: The first Dan bing bing bing bing. You just won something.
Dan: Because I’m I’m probably the oldest person on this podcast.
Jason: No, No. you just want an automated pour over machine.
Dan: Only only two breaks apart into different minds.
Dan: But I feel like there’s you can look at your super power rack and look deeply at a problem see the underlying structures but you apply that in lots of different ways. Right. And so that’s useful to me in discovery right when we’re trying to first learn about the. It’s useful to me when we’re trying to figure out what the navigation is or what the content strategy is or what the overall structure of the Web site should be. You know what is the list of templates that you need.
Dan: So when I was thinking about this I was thinking well that the problem is that I use these powers on lots of different ways right. And so I you know I could I could sort of embody this in you know just the power but it’s also in the application of the power. So I did what I always do when I have a difficult question like this in front of me and I turn to one of the two people in my life who you know I always get sort of sound advice from and that’s either Nathan like my business partner or Sarah my wife and she I mean she did not even pause when I asked her this question. She said It’s Doctor discovery and I was like oh yeah that is really good. So you can see why I love her man.
Jason: Yes yes. You found the right one my friend. That’s awesome. I love that Dr. discovery. That’s perfect. Yes. So one of my favorite lines from Tron was when he said I fight for the users Here’s more nursery for you. Not a huge fight for your users Dan..
Dan: You know it’s a I love this question and I feel like there’s lots of ways we can talk about this right sort of cultivating an understanding of you know what their needs are seeing past what they report their needs to be and look at what their actual needs are trying work towards their goals try and balance out their needs with or try and create a counter balance between what the business is asking for how they need to make money with where users fit in to that to that process. You know advocating for them I feel like there’s a problem if I’ve gotten tons of great answers to this question. I feel like there is probably an opportunity for us to be thinking in terms of how do we challenge them.
Dan: And you know I don’t want to get rid of their agency. We talked about that earlier. But at the same time can we and we talk a lot about simplification and streamlining and keeping them focused. I’m not advocating for going back to you know very complex Windows interfaces or you know green screen and that’s not what this is about but this is maybe giving them more credit for being able to think about what’s in front of them and giving them more credit for parsing complexity. In order for them to feel empowered in order for them to feel like they own their information we need to show it to them. And though a lot of modern web design is really about kind of streamlining simplifying pulling things out flattening I think there’s there’s something to be said for giving them a little bit of credit to say you know what I can put this in front of them and I’m confident that even if they don’t understand it immediately that they will. If it’s important to them they will figure it out.
Jason: Fascinating and I couldn’t help but think about Steve Jobs. And you know when you talk about giving the user the credit isn’t it funny how when you’re in like an A in a research environment like you’re doing a contextual inquiry for example watching the person use the software use the the Web design that you made. Isn’t it funny how if they can’t really figure it out right away they kind of blame themselves. Yeah isn’t that. I mean it’s funny and it’s sad because it’s you know Steve Jobs said if the user has a problem it’s our problem right not their problem. Right. But we didn’t design it well we didn’t research enough. Right.
Jason: Right. You want to speak do it?
Dan: Yeah I mean it’s a good it’s a it’s a good point. I feel like I’m actually seeing less and less about these dates and I don’t know if it’s just because as generations have moved on you know the current cohort of grown ups you know grew up with this technology and understand that it’s not on them entirely. Yeah that’s true. But you know I’ve I feel like there’s greater sophistication there. That’s a good point. But I do feel like because of that we can we can challenge them some more. And this doesn’t this doesn’t eliminate the need to make things clear. It doesn’t eliminate the need to make things direct doesn’t eliminate the need to make things well-designed. It just means we don’t have to treat them in a way that disempowers let them in any way.
Jason: All right well hey Dan let’s wrap up the show with the imparting of superpowers. What’s one habit that you believe contributes to your success.
Dan: That’s a really good question. Drinking pourovers. But I think never settle and one of the things that I love doing is coming up with a design or coming up with a structure or an information architecture and then saying What if I were to do this completely differently. And that does a couple of things right. Right. It exposes some new ideas and lets me look at the problem in a new way. Right. So on the one hand I can sort of say let me turn this inside out and see does structuring the thing completely differently give me any new solution. And even if it doesn’t maybe just by doing that I’m seeing the problem in a new way. So I never sort of settling on this is the right way to do it. I can always ask myself Well what’s another way that I can approach this. I use this in sketching sessions all the time where when we when we hold a brainstorming session with our clients you know we’ll will give them 10 15 minutes to sketch out the first idea that comes to them. But often we try and sketch out two or three or four ideas of different ways to approach them and I challenge myself in that time to just put the first thing I think of down on paper. OK I’ve done that I’ve got that out of my system now. What if I were to do it completely differently or what if I were to take this little part and make that the focus of the UI. And now I can put a range of options in the front of the client and challenge them as well. Right. Get them to see the problem in a new way and never settling never settling defenders never settle.
Jason: I talk to my buddies when I’m when I’m talking to you. It’s like you know this is this is a conversation that it’s amazing to be able to share it and people are actually listening to this so I like to talk to the defenders and encourage them you know especially when there’s a great takeaway like that and I mean never settle. And the amazing thing about this field is that we don’t have to ever settle in really design is never done. A design is never done in the beauty of it is we can actually put something out there and that’s when we really start learning and then we can make it better. Right. Amazing. Exactly not settle always be iterating. That’s great right. So Dan what’s your most invincible resource or tool you can recommend to our listeners.
Dan: Oh wow. I sometimes I wish I had Thor’s hammer.
Jason: Did you see that new movie The new movie coming out where she grabs the hammer and crushes it. She must be pretty powerful.
Jason: Ragna rock.
Dan: Yeah I oh yeah I think I did. Yeah. So when were Hulk shows up excited that one of his coworkers showed up.
Jason: We work together.
Dan: Yeah my son and I loved that trailer. Sorry. So the question was in most important tool and a resource are taught. I mean you have to understand. So when I started in the 90s there were no tools. And then we discovered you know everyone was using Photoshop because that existed back then. Then we discovered Vizio which was a diagramming I remember going to help us create some diagrams to explain architecture and then Vizio fell out of favor and I switched to a Mac. And so we started using Indesign and then we started prototyping and HTML now and you know then we started using on the gravel for our diagrams and then you know it’s just been this endless parade of tools of digital tools. I should say and I feel like that is that’s going to continue and for as long as we’re around I love. So just to be clear. I used sketch and envision as my primary tools. I do a lot of diagramming and creating posters in on omnigraffle. But I think the most powerful tool that we have is the question and maybe you’ve heard that before from some of your other guests but you know it’s the one that I can always turn to.
Dan: I can always use question whenever I have whenever something is unclear or whenever something has baked in assumptions that I want to unpack or when people show up with preconceived ideas I can always turn to the question to help keep the design process moving forward at our off site just in the last couple days. We had someone come in to help us learn about coaching as consultants were experts rightly come in and yeah we asked a lot of questions but were asking questions about the product about how the organization works but we don’t ask a lot of questions about the people who are working on it. And this coach coaching coach I guess really helped us see questions in a new way. And I bring that up only to say that yeah you might think OK questions I can ask questions. Or I’m an expert user INTERVIEWER So I’ve I’m really good at asking questions and this person was coaching us in how to ask questions in a way that made us uncomfortable.
Dan: Right. That made us look at questions in a new way and these are people with you know combined probably close to 100 years of experience right at this table. And here we were sort of being pushed into new territory. So even the lowly question is ripe for constant. You can constantly improve how you do that.
Jason: That’s that’s really cool. Then the question is is a is a great invincible resource. And I love that because it’s that’s the only way we can really learn is by asking questions right. And I think the precursor to asking questions is that spirit of curiosity which is a requirement for any designer in this field. You have to get curious right about the people you are designing for and you have to have empathy for them in their situations and try to understand as best you can. They’re the context of how they’re using this tool and things and how it improves our lives.
Dan: In my second book which was called Designing together. That’s where I talk a lot about teamwork and dealing with conflict and cultivating collaboration.
And I spend a lot of time talking about mindset which is all yes just not just attitude but it’s it’s a way that we look at the world and I feel like the the things that you’re talking about in terms of curiosity I don’t get it those so much in that book but it occurred to me that while collaboration requires one type of mindset Creativity requires another kind of mindset and that’s in part curiosity there’s skepticism in there and there’s humility in there as well right.
So all of these things combine to help us be our most creative selves. And sometimes it’s hard for us to be humble and sometimes it’s hard for us to be curious and get excited about new things especially when you’re talking about I don’t know you know dental insurance. I worked on a dental insurance product and it’s like I mean you cannot take two more boring topics and put them together. But here we were. And skepticism right sometimes sometimes you’re just so focused on getting to your goal that you forget to be skeptical right to sort of question everything because you just want to get to the finish line. Right. It’s easy to push those things aside in order to be our most creative selves. We really need to embrace those mindsets and we do that through behaviors by cultivating certain behaviors like how to ask a better question or how do I do I never said all right how do I never look at this is done right. All those things help our surface level behaviors that help us cultivate those those mindsets.
Jason: Yeah. And this is good for me too Dan because as I say if I listen and I do occasionally when I need a dose of humility I listen to episode one when I first time I ever you know hit record on this thing. So humbling. But I see the trajectory I feel like I’m I’m getting better I’m getting I’m I’m always learning always growing. And I definitely have a growth mindset. So this is good for me and I want to continue to learn how to ask good questions how to ask questions and try to extract value for listeners so that’s good for me too. I appreciate that.
Dan: There’s a book that I just picked up on I only just started reading but I’ve already underlined a bunch of stuff and it’s called a more beautiful question. And one of the reasons why the title resonated with me is that Nathan’s favorite poet. I think it’s his favorite poet certainly that he talks a lot about his comings and that title of the book is taken from E.E Cummings poem. Wow. So a more beautiful question and the author I don’t remember the author’s name but he wrote a whole book on innovation and creativity and sort of looking at people and looking at successful creative people and where do they get their ideas. And in doing the research for that book when he realized that one of the things that they all have in common is that they’re good at asking questions. So he then wrote this book a more beautiful question about that practice as well. So that’s what’s on my nightstand underneath a lot of comic books.
Jason: But it’s there I’m getting it I’m getting that book now. I don’t know if this is a spoiler alert for the next question. I have an assumption of what your answer might be based on the talk you did. It’s called Stop fighting start designing which was great by the way. But you mention I’m not going to spoil it. I’m going to I’m going to see what you answer and I might have just a biased you could recommend it. And by the way I’m going to carry out this question too. In addition to practical design discovery which defenders I highly recommend picking up and our friends at a book apart have been kind enough to offer a discount code 15 percent off. I mentioned it at the end of the show and also look for it in the show notes. In addition to that which I’m going to recommend if you could recommend one book to our listeners and you just did. If you could recommend a different book what would it be and why.
Dan: I really push designers to read books that are just slightly outside the design field right there. Tons and tons of technical books out there and there are a lot of great ones. I mean I think the book that you should read is the book about some topic that interests you whether that’s history or psychology or sociology or or any of those things. For me a book that I read a couple years ago in preparing for a practical design discovery I read a bunch of books about creativity and one of the ones that I read is called powers of 2 and by Josh won’t lose and powers of two is a book about creative couples or creative partnerships. And he makes the argument that creativity doesn’t happen in a single person’s brain that in fact it was two people or at least two people where some of our best most creative work comes from the canonical example where the archetypical example is of course John Lennon and Paul McCartney right. That they had this kind of intense relationship verging on you know sort of the drama of a romantic relationship that drew some of their best work out of each other. They were. And on the one hand competitive but on the other hand supportive of each other. And I really feel like there’s something to be said for those kinds of relationships. It’s a different take on creativity. And that’s why it was it was useful and interesting for me to read.
Jason: Awesome awesome. No these are. This is great. I’m going to put links to these books in the show notes as well. Defenders and have an Amazon affiliate too. By the way so if you buy it through my link I’ll actually be helping the user or defenders at no additional costs. They finally let Coloradans into the affiliate program. They didn’t do that for a while because a tax some tax issue here I don’t know. But anyway those are great and I do want to talk about your book Dan.. I want to take a few moments here to talk about practical design discovery. What is it and why is that important. What inspired you to write it.
Dan: I know I have this ridiculous habit of trying to unpack the complicated parts of their design practice. So my first book was on documentation and my second book was on collaboration. But now this is on Discovery which is you know that that kind of messy almost chaotic first part of the design process we often associated with the first part of the design process where we’re trying to get our arms around the design problem. But by doing that we’re also trying to establish a design direction or creative direction for the project. So practical design discovery is really the a bird’s eye view of the processes that I use to help me understand the problem and set a direction and those two halves of discovery are really important. Historically people have often thought of discovery as you know gathering the requirements or just doing the research. But I think it’s one of things I learned about creativity is that you can’t really understand a problem until you try and solve the problem. And so that’s why there are these these two halves to it the other way that we can cut it up is sort of broad thinking and convergent thinking are divergent convergent thinking and a lot of people have sort of treated that aspect of design. But I wanted to elaborate on that model so that we’re thinking not just in terms of what the solution is how we come to understand the problem and the relationship between understanding the problem and conceiving of the solution. So practical design discovery is really divided into into three or five chapters. The first is is just an overview of what discovery is.
Dan: Chapters 2 and 3 are really about this to happen. Right. So what do we mean when we say trying to understand a problem. What do we mean when we say we’re trying to set a direction for a solution and then chapters 4 and 5 deal with more nuts and bolts aspects of discovery. So one of those is the process. Right. But what does a schedule look like. What is it. What is a plan for discovery look like. And then the last chapter is really how do we take everything that we have learned and package that up into the documentation. The hard part about reading a book like this is there are lots of different software engineering methodologies these days there’s lots of design process these days. So the entire book rests on a framework that is meant to be agnostic. It’s meant to sort of say I don’t care whether you’re waterfall or scrum. I don’t I don’t care if you do big documents at the end or informal documentation throughout. Like I don’t. Doesn’t matter to me how what method you use to what methodology use what matters to me is that you’ve got a vocabulary and a way of thinking about the discovery process so that you can then apply that to whatever framework that you’re using.
Jason: Yeah, and team collaboration is a big part of this to this process and what you outline in the book. And I know like just from experience and my and my past and but also I’ve heard other stories too just there’s that tension sometimes between designers and developers and maybe just not being on the same page and you kind of touch a little bit on it and you’re talking I mentioned about you know for example there’s a designer’s point of view and like a prototype or a developers point of view and sometimes there’s they’re at odds and so that can be that can build tension that can kind of hold up the success of a project sometimes and maybe even you know and unfortunately too on the side of the client. Their expectations are not managed well because of that possible tension or dissension or whatever in the team. What are what are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve seen like that. And what are what are some of the kind of the solutions like without giving without giving everything away. But like what are some ideas. You know because we get to buy the book defenders.
Dan: I have two kids I need to send to college so selling books helps pay for college.
Dan: I mean it’s a big question right now because of that. Yeah I mean it’s it’s I think look and if you would ask me this tomorrow or yesterday I would have a completely different answer. just the nature of kind of how we work different things are top of mind for us. For me what’s top of mind at the moment is culture. Right.
Dan: And which is a word that a lot of people throw around in this case. I mean sort of the habits of how people work together. I work with organizations that have have historically not collaborated right they’ve sort of maintained those very clear silos between them and attempts to traverse those silos to at least peek through the silence are discouraged and at the individual level. This comes down I guess at the executive level there is there’s a certain amount of possessiveness right the sort of if you have the knowledge and you’re more powerful and at the individual level there’s.
Dan: My friend Erica called status anxiety right. This idea of how do I look in the organization what you know how does this how does this make me up. How does this make me look to my boss. And we see this in a lot of not just large bureaucracies. Right. Even startups these days have these these problems of rewarding the wrong behaviors. So I think that the biggest obstacles to collaboration are the simple excuse of well this is the way we’ve always done it with. Yeah I mean a lot of people say oh that’s that’s not my that’s not my organization or that you know we we never make that excuse. But I don’t know I guess I would challenge people out there to sort of really think about well why did you do something this way the last time you did it or. Or. Well when you look at your project plan why did you make those choices are they make based on experience. Are they based on a desire to experiment or are they literally a regurgitation of your previous project plan. You know what. What is it that’s that’s driving your your method and your approach. Believe me I acknowledge that I am the I am the worst one of the worst project managers in the world. I acknowledge that this is something that I that I need to work on the same time. I like being deliberate about OK what are we doing this week and why are we doing it.
Jason: Yeah. And you know you mentioned kind of the whole we’ve always done it this way. And obviously that’s a big roadblock to innovation. I’m really glad that there’s a lot of companies and you know a lot of startups let’s be honest that they haven’t adopted that point of view because we wouldn’t have we wouldn’t be where we are if we just settled on. We’ve always done it that way and that’s why we’re not changing it’s safer that way. You know Seth Godin said it’s safer to be risky right especially in this world. So I appreciate that. I always say if it ain’t broke break it and make it better. Right. And we need to do more of that as designers especially And that’s that’s what we love to do and we love to solve problems and make things better. And I had a conversation with Matt Rivkin recently and it was kind of funny and it’s probably the title of his episode but everything sucks and it’s great. Everything is terrible and it’s and that’s great for designers. But but I want to say I think part of the problem too is is that a lack of trust and again that that does kind of stem from culture. And I want to tell a quick story too about kind of just something that I personally encountered. I had some challenges with with a developer at my organization and we bumped heads a little bit and it was kind of that you know sort of ownership thing. Who owns what and what roles and responsibilities which I know you talk a lot about as well. In the book and so what I did was I actually I invited the guy out to coffee. I paid for it. You know make sure you pay for it. But I invite him to coffee it was there’s one right down the street and so we took a nice stroll it was beautiful outside took a stroll together to the coffeehouse and we talked and it wasn’t about business until toward the end. It was personal. We talked about I wanted to get to know him and he genuinely did. It wasn’t like trying to buy your favorite. Like no I genuinely wanted to get to know him more and I and I didn’t realize what I was building trust at the time that I was doing this. And I’ll tell you I kid you not Dan every ever since then everything’s been different like it was like. Come Ottery there’s like this kind of invisible sort of trust and camaraderie now between this guy and a lot more collaboration has happened as a result. I recommend that.
Dan: Yeah that’s that’s great. Do you have a sense of what was it that was motivating you to want to genuinely want to get to know the guy. Because I can I can see and we talked about this a little bit earlier. I can also see the dispersant completely rubs me the wrong way. I don’t want to have anything to do with them. I’ll have a meeting if I need to. But other than that I don’t want them in my life. They bring out the worst in me. Yes so yeah. What where do you think that that motivation came from.
Jason: Yeah well I think it was just kind of taking myself out of it kid and how to get out of my own head which has been the podcast has really helped me a lot. I still struggle with it but the podcast has helped me to get out of my own head a lot but it’s really kind of just going this isn’t this is another human being who has similar if not probably different struggles as me. And I just want to get to know this guy more I feel like it’s only going to help. I feel like you know getting into his world a little more. We talked about family. I got to know more about his family and you know kind of where he’s from and and what they are doing there taking a trip back there you know shortly after our coffee. So it was just it was really neat. You know and got to talk about kids and I don’t know I think it was just one of the things his emotional intelligence. And that’s kind of an you know I know I’m sure you’ve studied a lot about that too Dan in leadership and you know was studying leadership. I think it’s growing in emotional intelligence too and just being willing to overlook somebody’s faults to try to realize that there are humans too and they’re having they’re struggling through this life as well just like you are and how much better could things be. To be able to just connect and to overlook faults we all have faults we all have issues. And I’m sure that like you said you touched on earlier it’s like you know I’m having so much struggle with this person is it me maybe it’s me.
Dan: Right. There’s something you said that I really liked and I think that’s it’s important to acknowledge that’s that for the most part 99 percent of the time even if you feel like you’re struggling with someone they have the best interest of the project at heart too. So even if you don’t agree with what they’re doing or how they’re doing it they believe that they are different believes they are doing the right thing. They have and they have good motives. Right and I feel like to your point about emotional intelligence understanding admitting that and then trying to understand how is it that they’re trying to make a contribution. Yes helps you. And I love how you put this get out of your own head. Right it helps you sort of get past the sort of superficial they’ve gotten under my skin. I can’t even listen to them anymore. Right. But as soon as you start to say clearly they want to they are working towards the same thing I am. But you know what is it about their perspective or what is their perspective on achieving those goals.
Jason: Thanks Dan, I totally agree with you. And I love what you said too about like like just look at the contributions that they’re making. Like they care as much about the project as you do. And I like that because I think that’s something that gets forgotten when we kind of start to try to get the owner on everything and not kind of lose that spirit of collaboration it’s like no this person cares to and maybe that’s where a lot of the tension comes from is that you know you both care about the project. Yea right. That’s a good thing. Let’s let’s go all in on that quality on that characteristic. I also want to share. It’s so funny because I’m just started reading a book by Jen Sincero called ‘You are a bad ass’. OK. And it’s really it’s good. She does not mince words like this is a quote I just wrote this down I’m not getting I think it was yesterday and it’s about people and this is so good. And this is great it’s release all expectations let everyone off the hook. Treat people as a blank slate over and over again expect only the best from them regardless of what they’ve done in the past and you may be surprised what you focus on you create more of. And if you keep expecting people to annoy you they will not let you down focused on their finer points and encourage their good behavior if you want to create more of it.
Dan: I like the second half of that a lot. Yeah I guess I. There’s you know when when you get to a point in your career a lot of people look to you to provide mentoring or leadership or or counseling. And so I often feel like part of my role is not to treat someone as a blank slate right to help them draw on their experiences and not discount the things like that. I don’t think there’s the point that the author was making but I I worry about and this is I’m also a person in the third decade of my career where I’m sort of thinking about part of the value that I bring to the table is I’ve done this a lot right and I’ve released a lot of different situations and I don’t want younger folks to discount that experience at my expense or their experience. I don’t want them to say that just because now I’m in my mid as opposed to my late 20s I have less to offer because whenever I’m less creative or less dynamic or slower. You know I can’t learn the technologies as fast. There is there is tremendous value to the fact that your slate is mostly filled up right. You can draw on that stuff and that’s that’s useful. I think using that against someone yeah that’s that’s you know that’s not something you want to do yet allowing someone to kind of reflect on their own slate and understand what’s there and how it got there. I don’t I don’t think we see enough of them in the world in general but also in our business.
Jason: Pick up the book defenders practical design discovery. I’ll be sure to link to it in the show notes and again there’ll be a discount Thanks to our great friends at a book apart.
Josh Clark: Hello this is Josh Clark. I’m the author of designing for touch and friends. This is user defenders defending their use or against noxious user experiences. Go get em..
Jason: This is my last question for you and it’s one of my favorites because I know that there’s a lot of aspiring designers listening and they’re really trying to navigate find their way. That’s why I do this to try to offer some guidance and maybe a light light on the pathway and you have certainly done a lot to that end today and I appreciate it. What’s your best advice for aspiring you ex superheroes Well boy you’ve given a lot already I’ll give you that.
Dan: Yeah I wrote this medium boast that I hope you link to this as well it’s called Do as I say not as I do which is sort of my parenting philosophy which is really not not good. Fortunately my children don’t work either as well so they should just do everything she does and everything will be fine anyway. And then do as I say not as I do I give eight pieces of advice. To tell aspiring UX designers. So it’s hard to zero in on on just just one. But I don’t know. I’m trying to think of something new that I didn’t say in that article.
Jason: Well it’s OK you can touch on something you’re on your greatest take away the article as well and we’ll link to it and I’ll read the rest it’s up to you.
Dan: It will be good. Well I feel like I want to go back to something I said earlier which is that you know the invincible tool the owner of of user experience designers is the question.
Dan: And I think get great in asking questions. Right I think yes I think that if we’re talking about advice in terms of you know what’s one thing that you can cultivate and start to cultivate today. I don’t care what your role is. I don’t care even if you’re not a researcher even if you conceive of yourself as a person who just sits in a corner and makes mockups all day long. Right. Get great at asking questions. Sometimes that means making little props for yourself. So you know not to ask yes no questions but instead ask more qualitative questions. Sometimes it means preparing a list of questions before you walk in to a meeting. Sometimes it means as as I often do I sort of think about what are the questions that I would want someone to ask me the question. And my friend Erica again in a talk at the O’Reilly design conference two years ago said this exact thing. The question is the most powerful tool that we have. So but it’s not something that’s static right it’s something that we can always be thinking about how to make that better. Taking 15 minutes out of your day to prep for a meeting to think and the good questions. I think that’s time very very well spent.
Jason: So good Dan couldn’t agree more ‘the question’. So Dan as we close why don’t you tell our audience the best way to connect and to keep up with you.
Dan: I tweet a lot a lot of politics these days so if that’s not your bag then you know you don’t have to follow me on Twitter.
Dan: I’m brown-o-rama on Twitter. Also Brown Rama on medium. I write articles on medium. A lot of practical stuff these days on different discovery techniques as kind of a supplement for the book practical design discovery. I didn’t dig into different discovery techniques in detail in the book because it is this 10000 foot view. But I had been writing short pieces on different techniques that I use there. And if you like board games I am on Instagram also has brown around and it’s largely pictures of my kids and I playing different work decks. So
Dan: it’s interesting it’s different. Well this is not your food.
Dan: I occasionally cook occasionally. I occasionally post like I’m particularly proud of something that I I post a picture of before the kids critique it because then I’ll just feel bad about it. I’ll get the dog. So for some reason a lot of dog pictures. I’m lost.
Jason: No I’m not I’m kidding around. It’s you know it’s slightly I’m sort of kidding.
Dan: I’ll post a picture of my pour over for you.
Jason: Yes please do.
Jason: Right on. And by the way you know real quick I just was thinking about the book we’re talking about books and I kind of said that I think I know what you’re going to say and I never really spoke to that. And I just I thought you were going to say a mindset because you mentioned that book in your talk. And I’ll tell you that book that was such a great read to it really and that was probably been one of my one of my more impactful like personal growth books that I’ve read this year. And I think ever to be quite honest. Know I Know You Do. You touch on mindset too and in your book and in your work which is just an important thing so that’s what one of the defenders if you’re listening you’re like why didn’t he say what he was going to say. That’s what I was going to say. OK.
Dan: But anyway you know I recommend minds mindset almost every time. But you know making things up about keeping your listeners on their toes.
Jason: No I love it. And this is I feel like this is like just total exclusive man because you know I just feel like you shared so much that I haven’t heard you share elsewhere. So I just really appreciate you Dan. Thank you for all you do for our field. Dude you are fighting on. And I appreciate that. And I just want to say fight on my friend.
Dan: Thank you very much for all of those kind words. It means a lot to me and I will continue to fight.