Throughout my life, I’ve constantly found myself amazed at how little I know. My ability to learn has always been fuelled by this feeling of inadequacy, and a desire to better myself. It’s the thing that keeps me going at 4.30am, trying to meet a deadline, with absolutely no idea of how I’m going to get there.
And nothing makes me feel more inadequate, than reading articles on the web. There are so many great minds in our industry – stalwarts like Jeffrey Zeldman and Oliver Reichenstein, trendsetters like Frank Chimero and Trent Walton, or up-and-coming youngsters like Devin Halladay and Cole Townsend. The writings of all of the above, and many others, have inspired me in some way or another. I trawl through article after article, I eagerly await updates, all in the hope of some sentence, some phrase or snippet which will teach me something new.
It also pleases me that the recurring theme, amongst all these words I take in, is improvement. Self-improvement, professional improvement. Improving design practices, development methods and performance optimisations. Improving work/life balance. Improving lives with ideas for new products, or charitable contributions. Improving the human race, one well-written article at a time.
Maybe as designers we are a little arrogant to think we have the power to cause this kind of change, but the simple fact is, we do. We work with hive mind, all striving subconsciously toward the same purpose – improving everything we touch. We see problems to be solved where others see frustration.
And there will always be problems to solve; always things to improve; always more knowledge to obtain.
When asked, I used to tell people that I got my motivation from striving to be the best in my field, as though there were some imaginary ladder I could climb in order to reach the top. But now I realise that such a thing simply does not exist. As I learn and develop and improve myself, so too do my peers. As hard as I try to reach a certain level, by the time I get there, the benchmark has moved.
Socrates once said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”, and I take solace in the fact that I’m never going to “know it all” – The world would be an incredibly boring place if I did.
This is a satellite image of the house where I grew up.
When I was young we had a real photograph of this view framed on our living room wall. It had been taken by a local man who, as the only pilot in the village, had hired a photographer and flown him across it, to take photos of all the houses.
He advertised them in the Post Office, and at local craft fairs, and the villagers would stop next to the stacks of photographs and flick through them one by one, searching for their own home. Along the way, they would spot the houses of friends and relatives, pointing and exclaiming their excitement.
My parents did exactly that, and then purchased and mounted the picture, as did many others. Neighbours would discuss and compare their own photographs in the street, and this little phenomenon became a sense of pride in our community.
At this young age, I would often look at this photo, taken high above the home I knew. I had never flown before; never seen the roof of my house. I would sit and look, imagining that this must be what the birds saw when I heard them calling and singing. It stank of freedom, and had a strange other-wordly aura.
By the time I first set foot on a plane two years later, I had moved to a different house, in another country. I had no frame of reference, I’d never seen the roof of this new home, but I remembered that photograph. As I travelled overhead, I stared out of the window for the entire flight, trying to see the roof of my house. I had no concept of distance and countries and borders. All the way over Germany, Belgium, France and then England, I stared and stared, knowing that my house was somewhere in the rolling terrain below.
When we arrived in England, I ran to my father in excitement. “I saw our house! I saw our house!” I shouted, not because I actually had seen it, but because I’d looked at every single building below that tiny plane window, and therefore one of them must have been ours.
It is now eighteen years later, and the picture which fueled my imagination so much is long since lost. That one photograph, nothing but paper and ink and a wooden frame, opened my mind to the idea that the world I lived in had a z-axis, and now sits discarded in a cupboard or box and forgetten.
I look back and remember that picture well, and struggle to see where, in this modern age, children will be able to excercise the same imagination and curiosity. The satellite image I embedded above only took me 30 seconds to find; but I didn’t frame it and hang it or discuss it with friends, I simply closed my browser window.
As much as I love the community that has been built around the web, I wish that I could bring back those days when the world and the simplest things within it were so awe-inspiring, because I worry that as my daughter grows up she will have so much information available to her that she’ll feel no need to go looking for it. Pictures and maps and videos and virtual three-dimensional models of every little corner of the earth are so prevalent online that they no longer attract our attention, and almost negate the need to visit the places they depict. Stories of disasters, tragedies and personal struggles are no longer as potent, so numbed we are through over-exposure. Friendly debates no longer take place, as the answer to an argument is a few taps on a smartphone away.
It is as though as a society we have been climbing a rope, higher and higher, trying to get a better view of the world, just like the pilot. Except now, as we are nearing the top, we are so high, and we are faced with so much of the world below us that we are simply incapable of feeling the awe which we anticipated. We are simply staring, unsure which way to turn, such that we cannot find the enthusiasm, the innovation and the time which we need to bind thread and make the rope longer. Instead we have no choice but to gingerly climb back down, or simply let go.
And I feel partly responsible, as I am helping contribute to this impasse. I build websites and write articles that people will read alone, and then post on social media for other people to then read alone. I am helping to build a web which is slowly nullifying the enjoyment of exploration and discovery, as experienced by the pilot, the photographer, and the many families who purchased a photo of their home.
We need a shift of direction. The web is already prevalent in every area of our lives; we need to stop building it so that it only improves and contributes to itself. So much of the focus in open-source and publicly accessible software is on building “a better web”, but what if instead we could work together to build a better world. What if we could write software that contributed to society, rather than providing it with more distractions?
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Country Ken.
Country Ken is a 1967 long-scale Epiphone Casino. You might not think that he’s anything special.
The paintwork is cracked across nearly every inch of his body and neck. There is a large patch of paint missing from the corner of his body, where the player’s arm rests against it. The paint on the back of his neck has bubbled and turned black, where the sweat from 46 years of heavy playing has reacted with his nitro-cellulose finish. The original Burgundy Sparkle colour on his body has faded to a dull copper from contact with sunlight.
To many people, he looks like a piece of junk, found in some old relative’s attic; the sort of thing that would be discarded once found. In actual fact, he is the most expensive thing I have ever purchased.
So why would I spend twice the value of my car on a beaten up plank of wood? The reason is simple: because of the feeling I get from playing music on it. Any artist will tell you that it’s impossible to write or play good music without inspiration, and what better to provide inspiration than an instrument which radiates the 46 years of love, devotion and attention shown to it by those who have played it.
The Epiphone Casino was a hugely well designed instrument. It was used by the best in the business when first released, and the original guitars are a highly sought after today. It has beenimitatedcountlesstimes in the years since. But none of these modern, machine built models can possibly hope to match the care and attention that was put into building the handmade original. In comparison they feel cold, rigid and almost clinical. They lack feeling. They lack personality.
Where’s this going?
The same can usually be said about modern UI and web design. Those who design and build great user experiences allow fun, feeling and personality to shine through at every stage of the site or application’s use. Those who build cold, clinical interfaces rarely see the same levels of user engagement.
One of the best examples of this is Github. What could be an incredibly tedious user-experience – let’s face it, pushing code and fixing bugs is rarely anyone’s idea of “fun” – is made rewarding thanks to the generous use of Octocats, playful error messages, and the gamification of stats on user profiles.
With Siri, Apple managed to remove some of the stigma attached to feeling like a dick when talking to your phone by making it tell you jokes.
Google’s brilliantvideoadvertising focuses on stories and real-life events that their target market can empathise with, and introduces their product’s user interfaces almost as an additional character in the story itself. By personifying their products in this way, users immediately feel an affinity towards them.
There’s a reason that copywriting, content marketing and conversion rate optimisation have become multi-million-dollar industries. The people who do these things are (for the most part) professionals, and have spent years perfecting their craft.
With the low barrier-to-entry in web and UI design these days, far too many people are focusing on pitching their product in a cold, lifeless environment, without trying in any way to empathise with their users, and as a result, they struggle.
The cheap imitation guitars I linked to above suffer from the same issue. Instead of being built by people who love and make guitars, like the original they are attempting to imitate, they are built by people who know how to operate the machinery they are built with – two very different approaches.
So before you next start a design, spend some time with a product you love. Think about the feeling it gives you when using it. Then think about the feeling you want your users to experience, and try and implement your UI in a way that really makes them feel like they know your product, on a personal level.
That way, when you finally show the user that “Sign Up” or “Buy” button, it feels less like a sale, and more like an invitation.