Navigating Signal and Noise: Finding Your Direction with Boon Sheridan
The ability to critically think is a key skill for today’s designer regardless of which strain of the profession you currently practice. Critical thought is what allows us to understand the design problems we are commonly asked to solve for. Utilizing deep thinking and problem solving skills allows us to look for solutions deeper than surface fixes and can lead to regular innovation. Critical thinking can also help us to process the onslaught of information we are constantly hammered with day after day. Let’s face it, of everything you read, watch, or consume in a day; how much of it is meaningful and will bring lasting benefit to you? The sad reality is that of the content produced today much of it is noise rather than signal—making your path difficult to discern. Critical thinking, however, can help to sort between what is worthless and what is worthwhile to pursue, but that is predicated on the fact that we know how to think in a critical fashion.
Critical thought is not something we are taught in school (generally speaking). Of all the years we spend educating ourselves (even up to the hallowed halls of higher education), developing critical thinking skills are not amongst the syllabi of most educational systems. As a designer, much of our training will focus on developing solid software skills (“the how”of what we do) and less on deep thinking skills (“the why” of what we do). Yet, “the why” of what we do is as important on a daily basis, and in the long run. If you can’t think you will struggle to move beyond the basics (“the how”) and out of trenches to play more key roles in your organization. Signal and noise will also be tougher to discern, as will plotting your course over the length of your career.
We recently spoke with designer and author Boon Sheridan about some of his techniques for finding direction amongst all the shouting voices. His sage advice on thinking critically and forging your path is both practical and applicable in these overwhelming times.
Critical thinking is THE most important skill a designer can have.
Knowledge is increasing at an incredible rate—some good, and an awful lot of it just horrible. How do you separate between quality information (ideas to retain) and garbage (best left in the can)?
It’s amazing how much knowledge is available now, isn’t it? We’ve gone from one or two books on a topic (if any) to an explosion. Now you’re likely to have a dozen books, a hundred columns, and twice as many talks about a topic available in an instant. As always, it’s finding the quality over the quantity.
Starting out it was critical for me to develop a sense of who my peers were and who my teachers were. There were things I wanted to learn from people with years, if not decades, of experience. At the same time I wanted to learn along from people at my level. I wanted to see how they tackled the same problems, and hear their stories of what worked and what didn’t. The key was never to confuse the two.
Starting out I read Morville and Rosenfeld’s, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web cover to cover. It helped me set rules for things I hadn’t learned yet, and taught me so much. At the same time I paid attention to and participated in discussions with folks like myself doing the work on the ground for the first time. We pushed and pulled on what we knew and learned as we had our own successes and failures.
So the non-stop flow of information out there can be a huge drag if you don’t have some system to help you edit it.
The onslaught of information that comes at us everyday is utterly overwhelming. How do you stop listening to the noise and start finding the signal? How do you strike out on your own path?
Pulling signal from the noise has become a necessary task for basic survival, let alone work. Personal experience is still the best guide you can ask for, and that takes time. Early in my career a boss told me to keep notes about my projects – what worked and what didn’t. It wasn’t so much about keeping the final documents or the pretty pictures as much as it was one sheet of things like:
- “Next time we do research, get folks to talk about what ‘a right answer’ looks like to them.”
- “A sitemap early is better than late, and late is better than never.”
- “Always ask the marketing people to draw on the board.”
- “A great kickoff meeting buys you time for mistakes later.”
- “Always ask about devices, even if it doesn’t seem important at kickoff.”
- “Take the time to get buy-in on prototype fidelity before you do anything. Show ‘em samples.”
With that in mind, I find talking to people about their work experiences more helpful than any essay.
I also believe it’s helpful to set time aside to take inventory of your personal body of knowledge. It sounds silly but taking the time to answer, “how do I even know what I know?” can be incredibly illuminating (and kind of fun). I looked at my bookcase one day and said, “How many of these are even still relevant?” I re-read a bunch of books, tossed out those that didn’t apply any more, and sort of reset myself.
Is there a role for gut checks or coin flips in a world of best practices and guidelines?
There’s absolutely a role for gut checks these days. I’ve watched projects grind to a halt when someone asks about the best practices of X or Y. Suddenly everyone is distracted by researching, building a case, and debating it to death.
In my experience best practices come from well meaning places but often fall short of what they hope to solve. By the time someone has mapped out all the angles of a best practice it’s lost freshness, efficacy, and meaning. I mean, just the phrase ‘best practice’ makes your hair stand on end, doesn’t it? It’s become a time-honored phrase designed to frustrate.
The best practice is the one that works in your context, in the midst of your needs. Best practices for some industries can be downright awkward, if not harmful, in others.
How many times have you seen a project derailed by a mundane discussion blown out of proportion? People like to be right. What starts as a discussion suddenly turns into citing analyst papers, blog posts, and tweets like someone’s on trial at The Hague.
So before people spin off into oblivion looking for guidelines or best practices I ask: is this something we should stop everything for because it will impact the final work? If yes, let’s stop and do real research, get the right answer, and move on. Otherwise, let someone with authority make a call. We’ll mark it down as something we should come back to, especially in testing.
Another approach I like is to tee up two choices and ask my partners, “pick one, and we’ll develop scenarios to test it specifically against the other when we reach that stage.” (This used to happen all the time when I was working in an agency. Folks wanted to debate the effectiveness of UI elements all the time.
One of the issues we see continually in many these days is the inability (or unwillingness) to think and reflect—preferring simply to take in others experiences or looking to use someone else’s solution because it’s easy. What role should deep, critical thinking play in the life of those in the design profession?
Critical thinking is THE most important skill a designer can have (note: emphasis and italics ours).
Here’s a dirty truth: In some cases there’s no benefit to applying critical thinking to a project. When you’re handed a project with all the decisions made for you and an impending deadline what are you supposed to do? I can think of at least one major project where I dug in about a fundamental aspect of a project and all it did was exasperate everyone and waste time. It sure seemed like the right thing to do, but it didn’t help.
You can’t blame folks in ‘fire drill’ mode for doing exactly what’s in front of them and no more. The hope is that companies get better at taking people out of that mode and letting them really dig into a problem. I also think the design industry is more mature and better decisions are being made every day. (OK, I hope better decisions are being made.)
You’ve had a long and somewhat varied work history…voice-over actor, stage manager, information designer, user researcher. How have these experiences helped to form your ideas and how you chart your course for the future?
Being a stage manager was the most inspiring and formative because of the pure chaos of it all. When you’re backstage or in the booth with a headset on you can’t stop a show if something goes wrong. You learn to improvise in a way you can’t in other fields. Barring a disaster the next sound and light cue is seconds away and you have to be ready for whatever’s next. It taught me to think of worst-case scenarios every night and prepare for them. I developed a sense of ‘defensive pessimism’ and learned to make better back-up plans.
Being part of a stage team also gives you an appreciation for how much work goes into making things look easy. On an average run of a play I might see the performance two hundred times (with or without an audience). People come out and comment how flawless it looks and you nod and smile, knowing how scared you were in tech rehearsals when two characters were still wrestling with hitting their spots and the sound cues weren’t right yet.
That defensive pessimism has served me well over the years, especially when dealing with complex projects. When you have a lot of moving parts (research, design, testing, development, etc.) you have to be sure a failure in one area won’t derail the others. It doesn’t prevent disasters but it sure helps when one happens.
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Boon Sheridan loves solving problems and sharing stories. He brings over 15 years of design and strategy experience to life in words, pictures, personas, maps, flows, workshops, and the occasional voice-over. Boon will be speaking at WebVisions Portland on the subject of Rules, Hunches, and Coin Flips.
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