San Francisco, California

Unlearning the UI

With my new gig at Sentry I’ve returned to product design again as I hope to move as far away from design systems for as long as I can. Buttons and colors and fonts will catch up to me eventually, as they always do, but for the moment I need to slow down, be quiet, hands placed firmly in pockets. Because in order to do a good job I have to understand how everything click-clacks together in the way that it does.

So I must unlearn the UI.

Ignore the patterns and accessibility! Ignore the damn fonts! Eff the colors and the white-space! And the border-radius? That chap can go to hell, too! I’ve spent years now training myself to notice and sweat these details, to go rummaging about in the codebase to fix them. But I must unsee everything like this if I hope to be a great product designer. And that’s extremely tough.

Instead, I have to ask myself questions like “why?” and also “why???”—I have to understand every little detail that goes into it all. Why does this feature exist? What problem were they trying to solve? How is this system of verbs and nouns used? What do people mean when they say X and why do other people mean Y when they say Z?

No one will tell you this, but product design is the work of a detective.

This sort of questioning can quickly fall into useless philosophical quandaries that lead nowhere though—the sort of questions designed only to boost someone’s ego instead. I cannot count the number of meetings I’ve been in where someone will walk into the room and asks a bunch of questions, expecting you to praise them for it. These half-baked Steve Jobs impersonators believe that the questions are the work—but they’re not!

I’ve found that great product design requires two things. First off: no ego, no bravado, with every question leading to an answer. Secondly, great product design requires that we feel permanently, catastrophically dumb. If you ever feel smart during the design process then something has probably gone wrong and you haven’t noticed or you’re merely clueless to the fact that you have no idea what you’re doing at all.

Anyway, before good work can be done I must unlearn the UI and ask the same question over and over again until hurts, until everyone in the room is visibly upset.

And so I must return to the realm of maps and questions, nouns and verbs.