Why I’m a Designer Part 4: Ego and Empathy

This post is part 4 of a series. You can read Part 1, Part 1.5, Part 2 and Part 3 if you’d like.

Web 2.0

Then something funny happened that we weren’t expecting, but sort of hoping for: the web became a tool everyone used, all the time, for a ton of reasons.

New users were arriving online every day, and new services were popping up in droves to give them fun stuff to do there. Years after Wall Street left the “dot-coms” to die in the gutter, the former employees of these companies built new tools, with new ideas about what a web interface could accomplish.

Web users adapted and started to actually love the products they used online. Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, Del.icio.us: we all have memories of what was new about these things when they first appeared that delighted us.

The web was a super-fun place to be, both as a user and designer.

2001 – 2010

I spent the intervening years doing the following:

  • Being unemployed Lots of freelance
  • I built a web page with only 5 kilobytes of code
  • Building PHP and MySQL from source on Mac OS X
  • Building custom Content Management Systems in PHP every time I launched a website for a client
  • Getting a job where I helped Einstein sell bagels on the internet
  • Securing just a few long-term freelance clients that would support me for years
  • Getting a low-paying job for health insurance reasons, then quitting that job because I found myself editing .NET code in a shirt and tie
  • Getting a job doing data visualization and financial design for investment banks
  • Traveling to New York to work with clients on Wall Street
  • Learning and forgetting Flash, ActionScript and Flex
  • Building in CakePHP and taking offline a web app for people to record very personal data
  • Spending 6 months designing a 15×10 GIF (among many other things) for the front page of the New York Times
  • Getting a job where I designed screens for people with mental disabilities as well as for people whose job was to support those with mental disabilities
  • Watching the idea of “mobile” evolve from WAP-based apps rendered on Handspring devices to the responsive web and iOS/Android apps we have today
  • Getting a job at Automattic, working on the blogging system I’m using to publish this very post.

I can honestly say that during those 9-10 years, my work was used by millions of people, and that by 2010 my work reached that many people daily. I learned a lot during this time about how people use web applications, how they share content on the web, and how they talk to one another with the tools we build. I learned what my medium was being used for (fun fact: in 2002 I owned the domain “automaticmedium.com”) above and beyond what I was personally using it for. And all this time, I blogged.

The Importance of Blogging in Earnest

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I blogged when Napster was shut down, I blogged when the Twin Towers fell, I blogged when Apple launched the iPod, I blogged when my son was diagnosed with diabetes.

I used a system built in PHP3 my friend Tai and I paid $500 for and then I ported that blog to a custom system I wrote in PHP 4 which I then wrote a custom importer for in 2007 that pulled it all into WordPress. Blogging was and is important to how I work.

Ego & Empathy

While designing and building the tools my clients asked me for, I was simultaneously either plugging away at a new CSS idea on my blog, or trying out a new language to build a web app. My craft and I grew up at the same time and I tried to stay involved in it above and beyond my client work for two simple reasons:

  1. Ego: I needed a place to play. Client work was now very serious and very important and playing with new ideas often wasn’t the best choice for these projects. Not to say we didn’t pitch new ideas, they just often weren’t chosen for development. Knowing I should and could keep my code chops up by playing on my blog was important to me for increasing the quality of my work.
  2. Empathy: I really wanted to have my own site with an audience and user base that I considered my own. This way, I could truly understand a client’s desire to do right by their users because I spent evenings and weekends making something for my own group of people I wanted to please.

These two concepts seem diametrically opposed: Ego and Empathy. I contend that to design a web application that people want to use on a daily basis you need both the ego to say:

“I can make something people will want to use that’s better than what exists”

and the empathy to listen to what your users actually say when you launch it. Additionally, your empathy for what you’d want on the screen you’re designing goes a long way toward making something your users may want to use.

Try All of the Things

How do you build this empathy? One of the ways besides maintaining a web app by yourself is to be a die-hard trier-and-user of any and all web apps. Really use them for really real things. See what making boards on Pinterest is all about. Follow art blogs on Tumblr and check it every day. Try Snapchat and get confused and close the app forever. Stuff like that.

You can start to understand what else the rest of the world is doing with their digital devices on a daily basis; you can see where your app fits into your users’ lives, not just how your users’ lives fit into your engagement cycle.

Empathize with what your users do on a daily basis with your tool by doing the same things with it and by doing the other things they do on a daily basis on the web, too. Pay fucking attention to what works and what doesn’t and why. You can start to synthesize this information with the designer’s ego telling you that you actually can produce a better product. What can result is remarkable: an app that people love using.

That’s always been my goal for my work on the web: to make something that people love having in their lives, something that feels like humans made it for other humans. They’ll come back over and over and give you their money for things you’re building that they want to use. You won’t have to beg for money from people who want to pay you for what you make.

Up next, part 5: Designer-Driven Design

I usually take …

I usually take a walk after breakfast, write for three hours, have lunch and read in the afternoon. Demons don’t like fresh air – they prefer it if you stay in bed with cold feet; for a person who is as chaotic as me, who struggles to be in control, it is an absolute necessity to follow these rules and routines. If I let myself go, nothing will get done.

Ingmar Bergman

Putting this here for my own reference. Move along. via frakintosh