Hack Everything by Design

Jason Kunesh, CEO of Public Good Software and former director of user experience at Obama for America, talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about how designers think about hacking.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems as if every designer I meet, whether they work in digital or not, talks about “hacks.” But to the average person off the street, I suspect they still think of the word as primarily referring to breaking into computer systems. So could you give me some examples of design hacks, maybe one from the digital world and one that’s not?

Jason Kunesh: Ultimately, hacking is always recombinatory. It’s using parts of a system in ways that haven’t been imagined. It’s using them to do something novel or to accomplish something old in a unique way.

The photo-sharing service Flickr started as a digital hack. It came out of a project by Ludicorp called The Game Neverending. It was a game where you could create virtual objects, and they realized that the object that was being created most often was photos. People were sharing them and commenting on them. So they eventually realized that they were not really creating a game, but a photo-sharing site. Today that’s not novel, but at the time it totally was. So the hack was realizing that people were using this system for something that it wasn’t designed for but that was really useful.

In the physical world, the most obvious example of a hack is cowpaths. Architects and planners will imagine how people will use a physical space. But over time, people will also create their own pathways through a space. The grass that has been beaten down by people’s feet is usually a way that a lot of people have decided is more useful for getting from point A to point B. That’s not something that the planners intended – it’s a physical hack.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And then you have cases where people adapt that hack into the design like they did with Flickr, right?

Jason Kunesh: Right. If you look at the city of Boston, it seems sort of crazy. Well, all those streets are cowpaths that were adapted from colonial times. You can see it in Chicago too. We have five northwest- and southwest-running streets from the Loop outwards. All those streets were originally paths to the first forts, and those paths were based on those that Native Americans used. Even when we went to a grid structure, we realized we had to incorporate those older hacks into the system.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Interesting. I wouldn’t normally think of hacks as something you inherit, but it sounds like that’s what happens.

Jason Kunesh: Well, any great hack is such a good shortcut that no one really cares about its origin.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Do you think all designers are drawn to hacks?

Jason Kunesh: I’d start by saying there are two ways to think about design. Claude Lévi-Strauss talked about the “bricolaire” or tinkerer. Hacks come from that tradition of design rather than the grand systems planning design that is the other tradition of the 20th century. It’s not a demonstration of your overwhelming engineering prowess. It’s an ability to combine elements in ways other than they were originally purposed but that people still find useful.

I think you see “hacking” coming from the world of technology in particular because there are so many ways in which technology itself is new. If you look at start-ups, the biggest hurdle they usually have to overcome is product-market fit. How will people actually use this thing I’m making? You never know exactly what the answer will be. People might use things in exactly the way you intended, but they might not.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And designers need a sort of sensibility about the space in between those two extremes.

Jason Kunesh: Yes. Think about J. R. R. Tolkien. He was really influenced by a woman named Dorothy Sayers. She wrote a book called The Mind of the Maker. It sort of applies some of the ideas of Christianity to design. The essence of what she says is that the maker has an idea in his or her head of what he or she is going to create. But the idea is not fully realized until the person for whom it is designed experiences it in their own life. So if you write a book, it doesn’t fully exist as a book until someone reads it and it touches them in some way.

In the same way, you create tools or products or services in the hope that somebody will interact with them. So If you make a hammer and it turns out that it’s a perfect screwdriver, that’s okay. It may not be what you intended, but it’s what emerged from that push and pull between the “author” and the “reader.” Hacking, to me, comes from that dialogue. The reader also becomes an author as they find their own purpose in the thing. And the author becomes a reader, reading the actions of the user and trying to adjust the text accordingly.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I love the idea that where design actually happens is a little further down the pipe than people usually assume.

Jason Kunesh: Oh yeah. Like a general, you have the plan and then you have the war. You have an idea. You have suppositions. You measure the response to those things and re-tune accordingly. And you may still end up way outside the bounds of anything you ever thought.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems to me that there are two kinds of hacks we should investigate here. There are hacks initiated by users and hacks initiated by designers. We’ve mainly been talking about things that grow out of user behavior. But can you think of a moment when you saw something that a friend or colleague came up with unilaterally that made you say, “Wow, what a brilliant hack”?

Jason Kunesh: Yeah, the Nest thermostat would fall into that category. It’s a hack that says the baseline assumptions we have about thermostats is wrong. One of those assumptions is that a thermostat is basically there to regulate temperature. But you can go far beyond that when you know more about the people and their lifestyle and when they do certain things. They charge a premium, but they go far beyond the things that are normally made possible by the interaction between the thermostat and the power grid by introducing people into the equation. It’s also a hack in the sense that they’re making an appreciable dent into the use of energy in this country at the same time as they provide value to consumers.

There is also a category of hacks that are brilliant but of a somewhat malicious nature, but I’d say those are starting to feel sort of out of date. You know, like Captain Crunch.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Wait, what?

Jason Kunesh: Captain Crunch was one of the original San Francisco hippies and a “phone phreak,” someone who would hack the phone system. He discovered that you could blow the whistle from a Captain Crunch cereal box and it would emit a perfect pitch of 2600 hertz. In the old days of the analog phone system, that let you blow the trunk off the line and access the entire switching station. So he would create devices that did things like route a call from a payphone all the way around the world to another payphone next to him. He could call the president directly. He could call anyone around the world and go completely untracked and completely uncharged.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Now that’s a hack. But you think that tradition is not as prevalent now?

Jason Kunesh: Well, you’re talking about things that are ultimately a form of piracy. That notion of hacking still exists with folks like 4chan and Anonymous and some of the stuff going on with Wikileaks. … A lot of the tools people are using to protect their privacy are hacks or are descended from hacks. But a lot of that stuff has also gone by the wayside.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But I still want to bring them into our conversation about design hacks. Because sometimes designers incorporate unintentional innovations by users who didn’t know any better, but there are also a lot of really good design ideas that originate with folks who were trying to work around or break the system. Could you speak to that?

Jason Kunesh: Sure. At its heart, you’re seeing entrepreneurial activity and design activity collapse into each other. They’re both recognizing opportunities. You could view an entrepreneurial company like Uber as an attempt to hack the relationship between hired rides and people. Zipcar is another version of the same thing. You’re looking for opportunities in unmet human needs.

Jefferson said that “with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” He goes on to say that otherwise, we would still be under the laws of barbarians. That activity is ultimately hacking. It’s recognizing social needs and then adapting existing systems or products or offerings to them whether they’re ready or not. …

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So there’s a feeling that you get when a storm is coming, that feeling of the hair standing up on the back of your neck. I bet you get a similar feeling when there’s potential for a great hack.

Jason Kunesh: Well, predicting a hack is almost like quantum physics. You need a very specific type of collision between two different elements. For example, many of the original phone freaks hacked that network because they were blind. For them, it was this amazing unexplored world of possibility. It speaks to our fundamental nature as curious beings. We want to combine things to find out what will happen. And we want to find productive shortcuts that let us do more with our lives.

T. S. Eliot wrote, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” in “The Waste Land.” He was saying, “I’m going to recombine old stuff to make new stuff.” Who knew that a white bank clerk in 1920s England would presage rap? But all of that is hacking. It’s recombining old stuff to make something new and useful.

So to answer your question, I think all sorts of things are ripe to be hacked. We’ve done a lot of work in business to add value through technology. But there are a lot of other things in society that need that too. I think government is ripe to be hacked. But we’ll need to re-imagine the relationship between people and government to do it, then use technology to remove everything getting in the way of making those relationships open and authentic. I think everyone who is interested in Western democracy will need to think about this stuff.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And presumably some of the tools invented to make those things happen be not be strictly legal, even if they are benign.

Jason Kunesh: Well yeah – a hacker isn’t interested in legality. He’s interested in utility. He’s interested in making things happen more quickly without bad things happening. He’s interested in shortcuts that will help people. In a way, it’s the essence of participatory democracy.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you think of a situation in which you or one of your designer colleagues recognized a hack and wanted to incorporate it into a design but faced resistance because of where it came from?

Jason Kunesh: Your question is right on, because when you find a new kind of optimization or a hack, the question is not where you found it – it’s always about how you apply it. You have to come at it with the attitude that the system can always be improved, and you’re in a dialogue with that system. A lot of the ideas that can improve that system are going to come from places that don’t seem to make sense. That’s why as a designer, when I’m looking for ideas and inspiration, I’m always going to look far afield. I try to focus on the relationship I’m trying to engender between the people using the system and the system. If the metaphors that help that make sense come from somewhere unexpected, that’s okay. …

In the end, if a door handle is poorly designed, and you put a sign on the door that says, “Pull,” that’s a hack. You’ve hacked the systems of architecture and ingress and egress. A hack doesn’t have to be breaking into the computer system of the bank and stealing people’s credit cards. Anytime you combine unexpected elements to make something more effective, it’s a hack. And that’s where designers live.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: How can people who aren’t designers get more comfortable with incorporating hacks into their lives?

Jason Kunesh: The first thing is that you have to get comfortable with feeling stupid. You have to get used to being outside of the norms. Hacks almost always fight against a very strong social mean. If everyone is waking on the sidewalk and you’re the first one to cut across the grass, there will be a strong social pull to keep you on the sidewalk even if it’s not efficient. That’s why a lot of the people who started hacking were anti-social types. They didn’t really care about what those other people thought. So you have to be a little bit like that.

You also have to be prepared to generate a whole lot of ideas that end up being stupid. You’ll figure out that they’re stupid, but you don’t have to do it now. The critical part of your brain will eventually take care of that. But you have to turn off that inner critic and listen to your instincts. That’s a trainable skill. Designers learn to flip that switch on and off on a regular basis.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And how do you think people who aren’t designers can get better at recognizing useful hacks that have been pulled off by others?

Jason Kunesh: There are a few things that tell you that you’re on the heels of an epic hack. First, you should feel a little dirty. You should be asking yourself, “Can I really get away with this?” It should meet a big unmet demand. And for the really epic ones, after you find out about it, it will feel obvious and self-evident.

Steve Jobs said something to the effect that you need to get comfortable with the fact that when you look around you, you’re seeing a set of solutions that were the best people could come up with at the time. That doesn’t mean they’re permanent or universal. … Nothing is a given, and nothing that came before us was a given. If you just accept that, it sets you up to win.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I would think that’s something that people in the legal profession would be very comfortable with. I mean, the idea of a test case, of setting up a series of small arguments in order to achieve a big new interpretation from a court…that’s as subtle as any piece of code.

Jason Kunesh: Totally. And moreso. Law is the scar tissue of our culture. Two things collided in some unexpected way, they came into conflict, and a judge said, “This is how we will decide these cases until things change.” So people are naturally always looking for new ways into that system.

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.