Design Lessons from Unplugging

Janis Yee  

Design has deep roots in the development of solutions that improve the human standard of living. In order to do that, we need to periodically unplug and remember what it is to be human.

Design has deep roots in the development of solutions that improve the human standard of living. In order to do that, we need to periodically unplug and remember what it is to be human.

As a designer, and therefore somewhat of a tech addict, being forced to unplug at the cottage last weekend was at first unsettling. My friends and I were somewhere near Sault Ste Marie and happened to be in the shadow of a mountain that blocked the only cell tower in the area. Thoughts raced through my head:

What if there’s an emergency?
What could I be missing out on?
What if I can’t backup my pictures?

There was no way I was getting any signal for an entire week. So, I did what any person with a pre-internet childhood would do – exhaled and embraced the experience.

I went out fishing in the boat; helped out with the many family meals, and even had a chance to dip my feet in the cool, crystal clear water. Breathing in the clean air was refreshing.

Unplugging at the cottage was a great learning experience and gave me the inspiration to be a better designer. Fully recommend. Here are the valuable insights I gained on my journey and then some.

To understand ourselves is to understand others

When I was out on the boat, one of my friends caught more fish than I did. Did it make me jealous? Not really. There was healthy competition for sure, but at the end of the day, it was a group effort that brought in the bass. Instead of being depressed that I caught very few, I celebrated our team’s haul.

Indeed, we are all human. We all fail as much as we succeed in life. Everyone hurts. Everyone laughs and cries. Unplugging provides a chance to self-reflect and acknowledge how alike we are.

When we commit to learning about others, like in user research, we commit to gaining a deep understanding of them. This is what gives us the capacity to walk in another’s shoes.

“I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.” – Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The win of one is the win of many

As designers, we often work on cross-functional teams. We need to be able to accept and internalize other people’s wins as team wins. Just like us, developers, project managers, and everyone else on the team has their own idea of how to move forward. Regardless of how you get to your destination, everyone holds an oar.

I have witnessed endless arguments within product teams about how to complete a project, but we need to recognize that – win or lose – the entire team is in the same boat.

Success comes with a collaborative effort.

Communicate directly for more meaningful connections

Nothing brings us together more than sharing stories face-to-face around a campfire under the stars. When we wake up the next day, we can have breakfast as friends, instead of just doing chores as strangers.

In contrast, think about how many times we’ve seen couples in restaurants sitting in silence on their phones. By spending less time on the phone, we become more aware of those around us. Developing these direct social skills is extremely important for a successful career. It helps foster a community from honesty and collaboration.

This is the prime reason why many companies put so much emphasis on open communication and transparency as part of their culture.

Design with integrity

The cottage belonged to my friend’s family, all of whom were the most honest and genuine people I have ever met. Every night, we had a potluck. All of us participated in the cooking, the set-up, and the dishes. There was no expectation to do so but everyone sincerely wanted to help. Imagine over a dozen people in a tiny cottage getting ‘er done.

Consider what happens when we forget about the constraints, ‘paying it forward’ or expecting something back in return. Think about how we can help our audience in the true spirit of helping.

As designers, we are primarily responsible for the experience of users, not for developers and not just for business. Any developer or product manager worth their salt will understand and prioritize user-value.

In the end, we can always negotiate the path to get there, but never give up our integrity.

Scale up your designs, as needed

Every cottage I’ve known is a huge do-it-yourself project. Our host family would talk about the days before installing their sink when they had to boil buckets of water from the lake in order to wash dishes. It wasn’t the perfect solution at the time, but you make do on your way to the modern life.

Similarly, if we spend less time perfecting each iteration of our designs, we can devote more time to collecting and incorporating user feedback with greater frequency in the process. It can never be perfect on the first try, but it will be closer on the 50th.

Step Back from the Details and Focus on the Important

If I were to focus on the details, I would have 5 paragraphs about how uncivilized it felt to live in the boonies. I could describe how ripe the old fashioned hole-in-the-ground outhouse was with 13 of us sharing it; the bugs that came at us from all directions despite strong coatings of bug spray; and the fact that we were ‘roughing it’ without periodic showers.

Don’t worry, I’ll spare you. These were, after all, only minor discomforts. Notice how focusing on details overshadows the enjoyment of being at the cottage?

The best memories I now hold dear include meeting my friend’s family, being by the water, playing with the dogs and going fishing daily. In the evenings, we roasted marshmallows by the campfire and went out on the boat to marvel at the milky way galaxy and wonder how infinitesimally small our world is compared to the universe of stars.

As designers, we are trained to be the guardians of details. Everything could use constant improvement. Not to diminish the importance of details, but we need to be able to zoom between that and high-level perspectives. It’s way too easy to get caught up in typography that you forget to examine if it’s worth refining. Should that piece of content be there in the first place? There were many times in my career where I was able to save team effort on a task by discussing its value with the Product Owner.

At the end of the day, we should also be able to look back on our projects with pride, and not be weighed down with all the details that couldn’t be fixed in time.

Beg for forgiveness. Don’t ask for permission.

A big part of the cottage experience is do-it-yourself. Everyone is there to have a vacation. If you feel the urge to do something, just do it. Want a grilled cheese sandwich? Just make it. There are no rules at the cottage preventing you from doing anything as long as you own the dishes afterward.

Need to fix the sink? In our case, it is so remote and the nearby town has such a low population that it would be harder to call a plumber. Sometimes we just have to find a wrench and get in there.

Good designers are renegades. If we see something that needs to be done, like the often neglected user research, we just do it. Or, at least discuss it with our peers. Sometimes taking action will show others how valuable that action is. Most places will be appreciative that any initiative was taken at all.

Remember that design is here to serve people, not for its own sake. Disconnecting and people watching are both great exercises to partake in to gain perspective. Don’t forget who we are.

Stay human.

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