I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Kyle and Claire, designers and generally awesome people working on a project called Passionately. It was a great time and you can watch the excerpt or read the whole interview over on their site!
I spent this last week in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with an amazingly talented group of designers, printers, creators, and makers. Design Week Portland was a great experience, and I enjoyed connecting with all of you who came out.
We set up an awesome little exercise at the Opening Party that let all the attendees draw what they loved about PDX. People were amazingly creative (and funny), and we had a blast getting to know everyone. It's amazing what you can do with some foamcore, a box of Sharpies, and an amazingly creative community.
I've been creative directing and designing at Virb for a couple years now, and for a long time I had an idea of the customer we were reaching—or so I thought. We've always designed and positioned ourselves to focus on the everyman, our friends, wives, and moms, people who have ideas that they need to get online—not digitally or design savvy. Having this goal user and target market was a great asset, and it helped us make informed decisions for years.
We're a pretty small team here at Virb, so we finally had a chance to send out our first comprehensive customer survey in June. And man—we were pretty wrong. This is what we found:
- 87% of our customers are adept with computers
- 66% are under the age of 35
- 70% are creatives or content creators
Let's just say that this wasn't the target market I had in my mind over two years ago. I was pretty floored to learn that we had attracted a customer base very aligned with who we were as a team, and who understood the value we were trying to bring to website building. They weren't necessarily our friends or moms—they were us.
This new data has been a huge asset so far, and it's allowed us to re-evaluate our roadmap and re-envision our target user. As designers and directors, we love user stories, but I learned from all of this that all those stories need to be rooted in real data. Whether you're part of a giant company or a small team, there's a huge difference between designing for who you think your user is, and who they actually are.
A few weeks ago I was in Los Angeles with Brad and Rubin, a few of my compatriots at Virb, and we were talking over dinner about how often we get asked a certain question—it has lots of forms but usually goes like this, "So you work on a website builder? Aren't you worried about competing with [Company]?" And my answer, always, is a resounding no.
Call it pride, or hubris, or confidence, but that's not really it. I'm not worried for one simple reason: I firmly believe that the way we let our customers build sites is not only simpler and easier, but best for our target market. At its core, it's actually one of our product's biggest differentiators, and one I'm surprised more products don't employ.
The reason I believe it's better is really less about Virb (we're by no means perfect), and more about the current trend of drag-and-drop website building used by a majority of our competition. With equal parts flashy UI, complex controls, and the possibility of endless design decisions for customers, this option seems great, right?
I would suggest the answer is a resounding "no" and the reason is perfectly summed up in this TED talk by Psychologist Barry Schwartz entitled "The Paradox of Choice."
Choice is something engrained in our culture, so much so that we barely think twice about whether endless choice is actually beneficial—for us or for our customers.
As a designer, I would wager that the single hardest part of any design is the blank slate, that point where the possibilities are endless. It's like when a friend asks you to make a tattoo (sidenote: why does that always happen?), and says "Just make something cool." It's why as an industry we've developed Creative Briefs, exploratory meetings, mood boards, style guides, deadlines, and budgets. We love operating inside a set of rules, and we love it because it helps guide us from point A to point B. If we've created all of these things for ourselves, and value the guidance they provide us in order to eliminate the paralysis of endless choice, why can't we provide the same guidance to our customers?
For my customers at Virb, I firmly believe that the best thing I can do is actually lessen the choices they face. As a design professional, I want to make decisions for my customers, if only to decrease the chances that they make poor ones. That's why we do what we do—to help people solve problems. If the core problem is that a person needs a website, as designers we should be creating solutions that say "Sure, let me help you as you build it," instead of "Just do whatever you want; good luck."
Sure, drag-and-drop feels great to us—our peers and Tech Blogs love it, and we get to flex all of our sexy-CSS/JS-transition muscles while developing an incredibly complex and powerful UI. But during that process all of our wisdom and knowledge is poured into this powerful tool we're providing to our customer, when at the end of the day I think that, sadly, most people who use a tool with that much freedom end up with exactly what they started out with: a blank slate.
Stop designing for myself and my peers, and design for my customers.
This ending was no deterrent. No one who is young is ever going to be old.
Burn out. As designers we all experience it — evidenced by the sheer amount of materials out there to help us get through these frustrating times that arise. Recently at Virb, we released a new responsive theme platform, a project that took over 10 months and took me through multiple creative blocks. I was right there where a lot of designers find themselves: frustrated, spent, unable to get things out on paper or pixels, and unhappy with what I was able to squeak out. Luckily, I was able to press on, push through, and it made that final launch day feel that much more triumphant. I thought that it might be helpful to share some of what I got out of the whole process, if only to help myself remember for next time.
The How and Why
Let's go way back. After working at design firms doing client work for over 6 years, I landed my amazing job Creative Directing the magic that is Virb. With client work (or at least the type I did) each job was wrapped up with a nice little bow: a job starts, then ends, and you get paid. I took for granted the closure that this sort of workflow creates. When I traded clients for a product, I traded a good deal of that closure away.
Products don't end — there are always new features, implementations, things to be refreshed or redesigned, but that didn't phase me at first. At first, tackling things felt like a client job. I had a site to redesign, and little things here and there that needed my attention, but after a while I started to yearn for that closure, and it didn't exist. Having a years-worth of things planned out for the product, I became almost paralyzed with the sheer amount of things that needed to be done. That's when I made my first mistake.
There's this idea buried deep in the Startup culture, and fueled even more by the midwestern and entrepreneurial work ethic: those who work harder than everyone else are the ones that succeed. When you have a mounting pile of tasks, you do them, whatever it takes. We wear our all-nighters and 60-hour weeks like badges of honor. With this idea as my banner I pushed on, spending every waking minute that I could trying to finish my projects: nights, weekends on the couch, whenever I could spare enough time to code or design something. Of course I got things done — lots of things — but the toll it took on my creativity, health, and relationships led me to my first real bout with serious burn out.
I had thought that hunkering down and working as hard as I could would lead me to greater peace and lighten the burden that I felt, but it did the opposite. I was consumed by my work, and without the respite of friends and family, I felt even more buried. So I regrouped, and came up with another plan.
Work, Pause, Repeat
Working as many hours as possible had the opposite effect than what I had planned. If I thought I was burnt out before, I was really burnt out now. In order to recharge my batteries and find some sort of creative traction, I tried a new technique: each morning I would sit down and give myself a goal. I would make a small list of tasks to accomplish — manageable, but important ones — and when those were done, so was my workday, be it 3pm or 10pm. This benefitted me in two specific ways:
- Focus. With a smaller and more pointed list, I could focus all of my energy on one task at a time. I quit worrying about everything that had to be done that week, or that current sprint (we scrum at Virb), and directed all of my attention and energy to what I had to do that day. With everything clear of my peripheral vision I unlocked a focus which hadn't been there, and little by little, my creativity. In the wise words of Garth, "Live in the now!"
- Rest. This new workflow allowed me to take meaningful breaks in between workdays, and even individual tasks during the day. Those small respites allowed me to recharge — both mentally and physically — which even further increased my creativity and production.
Working less, or really less at once, allowed me to focus better and get more done. And the relief from these two things was instrumental in moving past my creative block. As my energy and creative output increased, I started adding more things to my list each day, or tossing in a fun side-project or feature to mess with in my spare time. Soon enough I was whirring along with a newfound drive and inspiration, and it felt like I was back at my first day on the job.
So I was back in the swing of things, but my heaping pile of tasks were still staring me down every time I checked them. Every couple months I would find myself back right where I had been: tired, exhausted, and caught in a creative state best described by the word "meh". I didn't want to fall into the same habits as before but I did, so I set out to find some balance.
Balance is a hard thing. It seems counter-intuitive sometimes; that filling our lives with other things can actually help us get more work done, but it was this reality that finally worked for me, and has kept me going ever since. Full disclosure: I can hardly walk without tripping, and I have an even harder time balancing a life filled with working remotely, Skype calls, a really fast toddler (where does the energy come from?!), a wife I love dearly, and friends that I enjoy being around. But I had realized that I work better and get more things done the less I work. And so in order to make time for the things I care about, and help me keep from burning out again, I created some boundaries between work-life and life-life. Here's a couple of them:
- I deleted all my social media from my phone. I actually deleted most of my social media entirely, save for Instagram, but that's for another post. This kept me from talking shop with designers at all times of the night or refreshing Twitter every 30 seconds, and let me give my wife and son the purposeful and meaningful time that they deserve. Or watch Monday Night Football. Sometimes both.
- I manually checked email. You don't need to know the second that you get an email. I promise. You will live.
- I put the computer away. It seems super simple, but I closed my laptop at night and left it that way. If it was open I would find myself gravitating towards it, and then thinking "Why did I start working again?" The closed or shut-down computer became a visual queue that my focus should be elsewhere.
It was this balance that was able to keep me going through the remainder of our development process, which wasn't always so smooth, and emerge on the other side with a creativity and energy that I've never had before — and one that I hope to keep intact from now on.
Next time you find yourself struggling with your creativity or burnt out during a huge project, try slowing down instead of speeding up — you might just find the renewed energy allows you to focus and find some of that lost creative output. And once you have that creativity back, find your own balance. That way you'll be that much more unlikely to ever find yourself in that dreaded place again.