Seek Extremes by Design

Davide “Folletto” Casali, user experience designer with Automattic, the makers of WordPress, talked with Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about how designers make use of outliers.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Every designer I’ve ever met has been interested in outliers. Why do you think that is?

Davide Casali: It’s because of the way designers can see. So when I find an outlier, I first try to decide if this is an outlier that is an exception, or if it is an extreme. What I mean by an exception is a behavior that you don’t normally find, but something that could come later or that could become a potential improvement to the system. This helps you to broaden your horizons and think about all the possibilities in the system you are designing for.

But it’s also helpful when you find an outlier that is an extreme example of a kind of usage you’ve already seen. It highlights it. It creates a spotlight on that behavior. So sometimes you may interview 20 people and find that they all have a certain behavior in common. But the person with the extreme behavior may have already figured out how to optimize that behavior. It’s someone who is so invested in that behavior that they’ve fully explored it and fine-tuned it. So both of these kind of outliers bring something to the mix.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: These distinctions seem pretty useful and interesting, but I also think you could apply them to just about any kind of inquiry into human behavior. Do you think there is something special about the way designers think that makes them pre-disposed to see outliers or recognize their value?

Davide Casali: It’s an interesting question. I would say yes, but it’s a little difficult to answer. Outliers are exciting. They’re more interesting. But the problem is always how to fit them into an overall framework.

Imagine that you are a designer who has been working for the past five years on digital newspapers. You started with blogs and you’ve gone from there, and now you’re great at it. Now, when you imagine your next project, what is going to excite you? It will be a new behavior. Because after five years, you’ve seen so much standard behavior that you can almost design the ideal thing blindly. But when you see a new thing, a new behavior, a new usage, you’re attracted to it.

So I think the attraction to outliers is built in to designers, in a sense. You build up a sort of sensibility about them.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: This makes sense to me. If you think about the types of people who become designers or the situations in which design occurs… they’re always in scenarios in which encounters with novelty are likely to lead to rewards. By contrast, if you’re a mechanic, you may be curious about some weird car problem you’ve never seen before, but solving it won’t lead to a bigger payoff than a plain old busted carburetor. Whereas designers are already hooked up to a system where novelty can be rewarded.

Davide Casali: That’s true, but it also leads to some of the problems within the field of design. I was recently talking with some people at the design firm Cooper. They defined two kinds of designers. One has an insight and then sketches out 40 ideas that may be useful. Then another kind has more attention to detail and sorts through every possible alternative. So I think it may just be true the first type of designer, the one who takes a more generative approach. For them, there is a huge reward for novelty.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But both types of designers would value outliers in the way you originally said, right?

Davide Casali: Yes. But one would probably look at an outlier and say, “How can I extract value from this?” whereas the other one might say, “How could I make this person comfortable with what I design?” The interest is framed in two slightly different ways.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So whether we’re talking about designers or everybody else, what are some obstacles that prevent people from seeing the value of outliers?

Davide Casali: It’s because they’re different, and different is scary. You either need to be in a context of safety or you need to be a very open person who is able to embrace that difference. Designers come from that safe background. They come from a background where they know that difference and outliers work. But for most people, something outside their common pattern is something to be afraid of. It’s a natural response. I would say that even a designer, outside of the context of the work of design, would behave the same. It’s the way we approach it that makes it safe.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you tell me about a time when you used an outlier to think in your own work?

Davide Casali: We were working for a legal firm. I interviewed a guy who had a lot of experience at the firm – he had been there for the past 30 years or so. We were building a digital system for them, so normally you would expect this kind of guy to be very conservative. He was in a sense. But in another, he helped us see the project in a completely new light.

When we spoke to him, he started re-framing every digital tool the firm had ever had in terms of the original way lawyers worked. He said, “You know, before computers, we had this kind of inbox, and here’s how you’d sort through it.” He said he would set a timer and divide his time between different types of documents. He basically broke down everything the law firm did into a series of three-minute activities. It was brilliant, because he was able to highlight the core activities, while everyone else was lost inside all of the details of their own daily activities, their relationship with others, and so on. But this one guy — very bluntly actually — explained everything.

A person with an extreme behavior may have already figured out how to optimize that behavior. It’s someone who is so invested in that behavior that they’ve fully explored it and fine-tuned it.

So this is an example of an extreme outlier. His mind was so fine-tuned on these core activities that he could perfectly explain them to us.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s interesting how it’s actually the most extreme examples that help you get at the essence of what everyone is doing.

Davide Casali: Yes, that’s it, exactly.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you think of any well-known or commonly-used designs that began their lives as outliers?

Davide Casali: I think you would see some version of that in the story of almost any innovative technology.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Well what about in your field, user-experience design? You sometimes see innovations that start their lives as unusual ways of using a system, right?

Davide Casali: Right. Humans are almost always able to use a system in a way that was not intended. I love one example from the old MySpace. The ability to customize the service began as a hack. One day somebody discovered that you could inject some code in a box on the page and add a “skin” to the page. We don’t know who originally discovered it. Who knows how things might have gone differently if MySpace had actually recognized it and done something with it. What happened in the end was that we got a lot of really ugly pages. But there were also a few people who were able to create really beautiful, well-crafted pages. And the system was not originally designed designed for that.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What I take from that story is that you have the potential to extract design insights even from outliers that seem really threatening. You could imagine that the record companies could have viewed file-sharing that way too, for example.

Davide Casali: Absolutely.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you think of any examples where someone got ahead of the curve after encountering this kind of outlier?

Davide Casali: The personal computer revolution starts in just that way. There is a famous tale in which Steve Wozniak goes to HP with one of his early designs and says, “I built this while working for you. It’s yours.” The manager at HP basically said, “We don’t care, this is a toy.” I’m not saying the manager made an error — probably anyone would have done that.

There is another example that I like because it is one of those undercover Italian design stories. We used to have Olivetti, which in a sense was the Apple of typewriters. They had a livable factory with lots of breaks and even symphonic music. In that factory, they created — well, it depends on the definition of computer you want to adopt — but they created the first programmable desktop computer. It eventually disappeared because Olivetti went into crisis and was sold despite the existence of this product, the Programma 101. But HP eventually produced a product that was virtually the same.

So this was a revolution that happened but wasn’t spotted. They had the key idea, which was putting the program on a card rather than building it into the device itself.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: There is a similar story with X-ray machines. The technology existed for decades before anyone ever figured out what it was really useful for and how to incorporate it into medical practice.

It seems to me that the lesson people who are interested in innovation should take away from all this is that for almost any kind of technology you might want, there is probably somebody out there already who is tinkering with it just for fun. But it’s going to look like a waste of time. It’s going to look like an outlier.

What kind of mental habits do you think people can adopt to make them more aware of those kinds of outliers?

Davide Casali: It may help to think of them as weak signals within a complex system. Many technologies were “discovered” multiple times or at virtually the same time in different places. Printing was invented several times even though we remember Gutenberg. It was more because of his moment in history than the technology he invented — it was that particular culture and political climate that made it stick. But it’s hard to tell if you’re in that moment or not.

This is a particular problem in the startup world. You need to find a startup that picks up early, that starts gaining traction. The earlier you get in, the more money you make as an investor. But when you’re at the very beginning, the curves that lead to exponential growth and linear growth look exactly the same.

So you have to remain open to all of these weak signals. You have to adapt your own thinking to them. And it’s never a bullet-proof system.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: This weak signals thing makes a lot of sense. I think you could take it even further. Let’s imagine that every year over 10,000 years of human history, you’re given a chance to invest in some sort of scheme to carry around every song you’ve ever heard in your pocket. For 9,950 years, that is a completely insane thing to invest in. Very briefly, for maybe a few decades — maybe — it becomes a highly profitable investment. But almost immediately afterward, it becomes an investment that is totally obvious, even passé.

The point is that for all of those previous years, and even in some of the most potentially profitable years, it’s just an outlier.

Davide Casali: You also have the problem of survivorship bias. So it may be that all over the planet, people have tried some thing 200 times and it succeeds just 10 times, or even 50 times. If you ignore all the others, you can claim that the thing is an obvious success, that it works over and over. You don’t have a realistic picture unless you also find all the failures.

We have a huge bias for things that succeed. For every Bill Gates out there, there are probably 2,000 people who had almost exactly the same characteristics with just a few slight differences. But the one success is also constantly hyped by the media as well as our own pre-dispositions. Almost no one can name any of the 2,000 others, even though we should be talking about them.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So there are a bunch of intellectual challenges to thinking with outliers. But I know that in the next few months you’ll probably see one and get excited about it.  So what, in the end, keeps that process going for you?

Davide Casali: In the startup world, people say that if you’re scratching your own itch, you may be on to something. There are a lot of things that may work or may not work, but if you find something that resonates with you a lot, there is probably some truth in it. That is the sense in which you see, in which you hope for, that outlier to be the next big thing, whether it is a completely new business idea or a simple design solution.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you’re right to point out that what really lets you use the outlier is some kind of spirit inside you. Consider your approach to that employee at the law firm. Now, many industries are obsessed with best practices. Their only way to process something like the example of that employee would either be to get everyone to copy what he does or make him comply with a new system. What’s crucial to that story is what you brought as a designer — you extracted something from his example that you could use elsewhere. I feel like that’s the extra work that most people don’t do.

Davide Casali: That’s true. That’s positively true. The difficulty is finding the simple solution inside the complex example. This is something that a growing designer is constantly told to do. Simplify the solution. Take out what’s not necessary. Keep the essence. This is repeated over and over again at schools and by professionals. So that informs the mindset with which they view the outlier.

It can be taken to an extreme. But luckily, designers are paired with developers and marketing people and other experts who say, “Wait a minute, we can’t remove that piece.” But designers represent the force that goes to the core.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So the work that you do with your own designs also pre-disposes you to see what’s essential in other things.

Davide Casali: Exactly. But this is also why people are scared of designers or why businesses think that we don’t see the complexity of things. Plenty of people at big corporations think that designers don’t see how complicated their business is or think they will remove some core business practice. There is a tension there, even in the best circumstances, but it is a good tension.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: We’re interested in helping people on the other end of that tension see through the eyes of designers. What would be your advice to help those folks see things the way you do for a few days, or even for a few hours?

Davide Casali: It’s the sort of things that are usually suggested for finding creativity. The most difficult thing when we are so focused on efficiency and deliverables is actually taking the time you need to do this. Relax a bit, drop out of all the activities you are doing for an hour, be idle — the key is to lose your focus so that you can widen your perspective. Stop working and play, because playful behavior makes you open to new things.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think it’s important to apply this to outliers specifically, because this may be the only way to do the “extraction” work we talked about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a designer’s office or workshop and there is some odd thing there. You ask, “Why is this in here?” and the person says, “Oh, I just needed to play with it for a while.” You can’t possibly get to what’s interesting about the outlier through any known, rational process.

Davide Casali: That’s right. Everyone has something like that. I recently re-read something John Cleese from Monty Python wrote about creativity. And he said that what distinguishes the best creative people, whether they’re artists or architects or designers, is actually the ability to withhold a solution until the last minute.

It’s easy to read that as laziness or procrastination or the inability to measure their time. But when you look closer, you see that these people are actually holding in a lot of frustration, because they don’t want to arrive at a solution too early. They know that if they go with the first idea that comes into their mind, it won’t be the best one, even if it’s a solution that works. It’s the ability to suspend their judgment that helps them find the best solution.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And I would think the lived experience of being a designer would help you understand that that actually works. Here’s what I mean. If you dig ditches for a living, and you don’t dig for a day, you’ll never recover that work. But when you’re doing something creative like design, there are whole days in which you seem to get nothing done.

I think it’s hard to convey to people that those days are in fact essential to the process. I mean, even when you are trying to come up with a solution as quickly as possible, it sometimes occurs at a time that is just not convenient at all. And so eventually you re-design your own process to accommodate for that, because you want to achieve the best results. It becomes ridiculous to think about things like filling out time-sheets because that has so little to do with a quality outcome.

Davide Casali: Right, you actually see how difficult it is and you’re just trying to strike a balance.

When I talk to young designers, they want to deliver. They want to do good work for the client. But they eventually start repeating themselves. When you talk to more experienced designers, they say things like, “To really give you an answer, I’ll need two weeks.” So what are they doing in those two weeks? They’re thinking about it! You can’t always explain that to the client. But we really do need that time for the creative moment to occur.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And you’re also walking through the world with the problem in mind. I mean, it’s not like these outliers truly come out of nowhere. You notice them because you’re carrying around problems in your head.

Davide Casali: Exactly. To make it even more clear, think about this. If you have a deadline in two hours, would you spend any time talking to someone who has nothing to do with the problem you’re working on? You would just do your work. But if your deadline is two days from now, and you know it will take four hours to be done, and this weird guy comes up to you — why not, you’ll have a chat with him. And maybe you’ll discover that what he’s saying could be applied to what you’re doing. You’ll take the time to pull something out of it.

It sounds so normal when you say it that there’s almost no magic in it. But it’s just time.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think it’s more magic than you think, because in practice, when most people have two days instead of two hours, they make all sorts of errors. Some of them deliver early and think they’ll be rewarded more. Some of them deliver much more than they were asked to do and think that that is the way to win. Some of them take a nap. I think you actually need to have a particular attitude to behave in the way you’re describing.

Davide Casali: Yes. You’d be surprised at how even some of the best creative or design agencies out there end up trying to just make one deliverable after another. Then you find one agency that is doing things better, and you discover that they just had the time to do it that way. They had the mental freedom to explore instead of worrying about the next deadline or billable hours. But I think regardless or the field or the business you’re in, creative work requires time.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And you have to be confident that you’re going to use the time well. It requires some self-knowledge, does it?

Davide Casali: Yes, self-knowledge and… you may want to find a mentor or two along the way who can give you some idea of what it actually looks like. We all have this fear of not doing things. Because you need to eat!

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: In the end, I wonder if that’s what distinguishes designers. They’ve been working in this particular environment long enough to know that in the end, it does really turn out okay. You still get to eat, even if you spend most of your day acting in a way that would get most people fired.

Davide Casali: Yes. There is a difficult, personal effort that needs to be put into it. It’s a daily fight, even at a design company.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.