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Dan Brown at Prototypes, Process & Play 2017 (Podcast)

This podcast features Dan Brown, Co-founder of Eightshapes and author of several key design books, and his Presentation, “Curiosity, Skepticism, Humility: Achieving the Right Mindset for Design Discovery in Teams” from the design leadership conference Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th, 2017.

Prototypes, Process & Play presentation podcasts are sponsored by Balsamiq – with Balsamiq Mockups, anyone can design great software.

Dan Brown – Presentation

Co-founder of Eightshapes

In 2006, Dan Brown co-founded EightShapes, a design firm based in Washington, DC. EightShapes designs digital products and systematizes design standards for Fortune 500 clients. Most recently, Dan has conducted user research for a higher education product, designed an application for architects seeking a license, and lead the design of a web-based consumer application for a major educational publishing company.

Dan’s two books, Communicating Design and Designing Together, deal with communications and collaboration on design teams, and are widely considered to be essential reading for UX designers. UX teams all over the world have played his game Surviving Design Projects, to improve their conflict management skills. His new book Practical Design Discovery deals with the very first phase of a project, in which the product team seeks to understand the design problem.

For more, keep up with Dan at or on Twitter as @brownorama.

Curiosity, Skepticism, Humility: Achieving the Right Mindset for Design Discovery in Teams

Discovery, the first part of the design process, is crucial for aligning teams and leading them to design success. A well-aligned team works toward the same goal, and brings out the best in each other because they all understand what their trying to achieve. Discovery can take many forms: a multi-month endeavor to prepare for a complex business application, or a four-day “sprint” to align the team around a vision for a new product. Whatever the form, however, teams are prepping and priming themselves to do detailed design and development work.

Discovery is complicated, chaotic, and messy. In discovery, teams gather information about the problem and then explore different ways to tackle it. Through critical thinking, they refine their understanding of the problem and zero-in on a concrete plan for execution. Discovery requires participants to shift attitudes and perspectives almost constantly. Team members go from “tell me more about” to “how about this idea” in the blink of an eye.

To pull this off successfully, team members need to embrace a discovery mindset. This attitude emphasizes learning. It relies on team members maintaining an open mind, questioning everything, and above all not taking themselves too seriously.

In this session, we’ll look at why this attitude is important, how it affects your team’s approach to discovery, and ways you can cultivate this mindset in yourself and those you lead.

Presentation Transcript

Please note:

Podcast transcript below.​ Please note: Transcription was recorded live; there may be errors (typographical and contextual), as well as omissions or other content gaffes.

​Additionally,​ there was microphone feedback that happened in the room from time to time, and we did our best to minimize it in the podcasts. We apologize for any disruptions to your listening experience that this may cause.

Dan Brown:

I give two talks. – Communicating design. And when my second son was born I gave a talk called “Design together.” So I was thinking about the bizarre things about our profession. One of the things I really like to do is play games. So I designed a game around collaboration conflict. It’s a card game. If you play Apples to Apples, you know how to play this game. But it’s more of a work study than some versions of Apples to Apples.

You have situations like the one on your left. And you play this game to try to exercise your skills to deal with conflict situations.

So I’ve been thinking about the hallmarks of the design process and naturally got to a third book. – So I think about how do you start a design project. So it’s interesting to put that on paper.

So there are some really interesting projects. They’re interesting for me. You’ll get to see what some of the projects are that I get to work on. I got one a few years ago from a major book publisher in New York City and they want to help parents engage more with their children through educational content. They have a screen and they’re entertained, but we don’t necessarily know if they’re educated. We don’t necessarily know what they’re doing. So the intent here is how do you create more engagement with your parents and children.

More recently I’ve been doing a lot of work in higher education. So earlier this year – they used to be college administrators. But they’re – making business decisions using data.

And the other one is inspiring architects and how to deal with the licensing process. But what I appreciate is that I’m helping people solve problems in their world. How do I get a license? How do I communicate with my kid? – So where do you start? And that’s kind of the key question here. Where do we start when a client shows up and asks you or tells you what’s going on. Where do you start? Where do you start? –


What is your audience?

Dan Brown:

Thank you. Who is your audience. When we say parents, what do we really mean? Parents of teenagers? So what do we mean when we say parents? Where else do you start? – Goals. How do we plan on doing this. That’s really important. What were you going to say?


Exactly the same.


What do you think you know?

Dan Brown:

What do you think you know? What are your underlying assumptions here so we can tease those out. – So the first 20% of the design process we usually reserve for asking these kinds of questions. Right? Big questions. As we move through the design process –


We ask more specific questions. Right? More detailed questions. So over there, who is your audience, over here, what color is the button. We have to answer that question there before we can answer this question here. Make sense? – I totally get it.

We want to ask some really big questions.

We need to ask things like what are the challenges they face in getting a license? Why is this hard? How does this make a difference in their world? What do they need to attain? What do they need to understand from a high‑level perspective – Sorry Brook, I started that sentence like three different times. So this is a process of discovery. It’s identifying these big questions. It may be trying to find the right answer.

So by going through discovery, the team creates what I call a shared pool of knowledge. They gain insights and ideas by learning more about design science. It gets way better. Don’t take a picture now.


This is like a C+. There’s some solid A+ later. Stop doing that. Very limited time.

So when we build and share knowledge, we actually share experience. We can relate to each other. Remember when we did that user test? When we came up with these stories, we have that shared culture of what worked and what didn’t. And we can draw on that knowledge to do our design work.

So my worry of that discovery is it’s a set of activities that inform our work later. We can make all of those decisions later in the process because we have that shared pool up front that we can draw up.

But here is the thing. When we ask for this discovery, we can talk about in terms of the deliverables. We can talk about it in terms of – we can talk about it in terms of the activities that we do. We can talk about it in terms of we’re going to do a brainstorming exercise. Or we’re going to go interview a bunch of users. So those outputs, those activities, – and that’s what we’re going to talk about for the next 30 minutes or so.

I think a lot about this, and thank God the psychologist is not still here, maybe he is, but he might disagree with some of these things. But I’m of the mindset that the way we perceive situations makes sense for those situations and we choose to interact to those situations. There’s a framework in our world that we use to react to it. Mindset is what we use for thoseinterpretations.

I don’t really understand who my users are. So I understand that I need to fill in the gaps. I can say I don’t understand my users, so I’ll just make assumptions about them. That’s a different clear statement. But in this instance we’re wanting to fill in the gaps. I do those activities to help me create that shared pool of knowledge. And each of these transitions we can pause and we can ask ourselves is this the right thing. And that may seem a little strange. But we’re going to give you some other examples that make it important for us to pause and reflect and ask ourselves am I making good choices. So did they perceive the situation correctly? Do I understand it correctly? And I made the right choice.

And then, only then, can we act. I want to talk a little bit about why a mindset is important in design. Projects are getting harder. Like really hard. Like need a lot of people. When I started in the Web back in the hypercard days, you had one person who could sit and build a whole website. Right? And that’s changed. We’re working on much more complicated things.

Mindset helps overcome this complexity. Complexity – and through our mindset we embrace behaviors that allow us to deal with complexity. Also, we have all kinds of new things that we’re dealing with here. And if you are not flexible, if you can’t confront novelty, you’re not in a position to create solutions that make use of it.

The right mindset is what allows us to evolve as designers, to incorporate new techniques and new perspectives into our work. And my favorite topic is collaboration, right? It’s hard to work with other people. People are weird. Right?


You laugh like that’s a joke. But people are weird and it’s hard to work with them. Mindset helps us to overcome those differences. And mindset helps me to understand when that person says that to me maybe they’re not attacking me personally. Maybe there is some truth in what they’re saying even though what they’re saying is shit.

On the left here is design – rectangles. And on the right they’re going to critique the design. Let me tell you how this goes sometimes. So my perception here is if I’m the person receiving a critique, my perception is that my colleagues that are threatened by the genius that is Dan Brown. So clearly I understand that whoever wins gets promoted and therefore, you know, he gets really defensive. And that’s how my critique will go. Does that sound about right? Have you received a critique like that. No, that’s not how we can operate. We hope to be productive, hope to be successful. We can’t operate in that way. In fact, our critique mindset is hey, hey my colleagues are trying to help. Hey, I understand that we’re trying to achieve the same goals and their perspectives may be useful to me. And you know what? I’m going to listen to what they say. Because maybe what they’re saying will help me improve my ideas. Have a new mindset, a new approach, critique.

Let’s do one more. I was going to cut this one out, but then I thought no this is fun. I’m having fun.

One thing as a team you do research to inform our design process. We need to interpret that research. What I’ve noticed is people will interpret this differently. Hey, I have an agenda. I’m going to make this data fit into my agenda, correct? So we have multiple interpretations. So how does this affect a mindset perspective? So my colleagues’ interpretation of the data conforms with mine. I understand however that – perspectives – So my trick is I’m not going to hear what they said because that makes it more complicated for me. No. Obviously we can pause and make a different choice. Maybe that choice is let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about these different interpretations. And in this discussion period, we are learning more.

All right? Detour – A lot of what I think about in this book, did a bunch of experiments to try to figure out why kids who are smart wear – to engage in activities. – At age 7 he read The Lord of the Rings. – and it’s hard for him. It doesn’t come natural to him. And so he – About practicing piano. And we do it because it’s good. He’s overcome this mindset. I’m jumping ahead. A fix and growth mindset.

In a fixed mindset, I’ll just cut to the chase here. Too fast. Too much chase. With a fixed mindset, I’m looking and saying – So I understand that if I do this, I fail. People are going to think I’m dumb. So I’m going to choose not to do it. Not going to engage them. Because it undermines my sense of identity or who I am or what I’ve been told about myself.

Let’s contrast this with the growth mindset, where the perception is there’s a challenge out there. It’s difficult for me to do. But you know what? I understand that I’m learning and I’m growing and becoming – So let’s try and see what happens. I guarantee you there are things that you refuse to do because you feel it undermines, if you engage in them, it’s going to change who you think you are. Right? And there are other things that you readily embrace. She says – Different perspectives in our life. Or different things that we pursue. I get frustrated with this model, though, because I felt like the decisions were helpful were too broad for me to think about designers.

So I need additional mindsets to help me think about my work as a leader in design. And I’ll go through these fairly quickly. I wrote about them a lot in Design Together. That’s where I explore these mindsets.

Let’s talk about adaptability. The intent here is with an adaptive mindset, I am regularly able to try to do things. To deal with new situations with techniques. Part of mindset is it’s engrained in you. Pay therapists to help us figure out – My role here is not be a therapist. Not always. But instead to help people overcome these challenges that they face. They can’t be adaptable.

So what I do is I try to instill habits. They may be uncomfortable, but they are things that people can do to try to overcome some of the challenges that they face in adopting mindsets.

So for example, with adaptability, the intent here is to change the technique. You know, I always do user interviews. Let me try something different. Let me try something different. Right? And then can make me uncomfortable. It brings you into a place that you are unfamiliar with. That is the key growth. So collectivity.

A lot of us like sitting in the corner and making wireframes. Are you one of those people? You don’t have to admit it. But just think. Am I the kind of person who would rather not talk to anyone and sit in the corner and make wire frames or whatever it is that you do? I feel like there are a lot of people like that in our industry and it’s difficult for them to overcome this solitary nature of the work that they enjoy, to bring people into it.

So what can they do to apply multiple perspectives? Slack – allows me to post feedback and solicit feedback that doesn’t require any confrontation.

Assertiveness is the last mindset here. And the choice that I make is to put myself out there. Right? I’m not, even as I get older, I embrace the capacity of younger designers to put themselves out there. I’m not going to just sit and watch, I’m going to actively participate. Be assertive. I have worked with several very talented designers who once they got into a room full of people they kept their ideas to themselves. Or worse, didn’t push back on people who had negative ideas or unhelpful ideas. There are opportunities all the time to assert yourself. Nothing bad is going to help in a situation necessarily, right?

Assertiveness also means working with – knowledge. One of the techniques here is to say I don’t have all of the knowledge, but be assertive and say this is what I do know and make decisions based on that.

All of these things go against the grain of your personality. Or can go against the grain of your personality. This is the thick skin dichotomy here. All of these have opposing mindsets. So if you’re not someone who is adaptable, maybe you’re someone who is like well it’s worked this way the whole time. I’m afraid to try new things. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who says I like working alone. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who says I get intimidated by authority figures and that makes it difficult to be assertive. But that’s how growth happens. That’s how we become better at what we do. That’s how we get comfortable putting ourselves in situations that are not entirely comfortable for us. We try to adopt habits for these mindsets.

Perhaps you make the argument that a fixed or solitary mindset or non‑assertive mindset is good for design. I’m interested in hearing that. But in my experience in order to deal with complexity and the issues that we’re dealing with these days, these mindsets are crucial.

Habits – But I knew something was missing. – in the scope of collaboration. But when I was thinking how can we be our most creative selfs? And Scott Berkun has obviously thought a lot about this. And what I was also realizing, we haven’t added much to the conversation about what’s the right mindset for discovery.

Here’s my hypothesis. Because everything is better in threes. There are three of them. And that’s where the title of this talk comes from. We’re going to spend the last 15 minutes here go through these mindsets.

So when I’m curious, I perceive hey I’m missing some information in my knowledge. And I understand that I can’t know everything there is to know in order to do this design work. But at least I can try to fill in that knowledge. So I’m going to choose to take the time to understand this space. Right? That’s curiosity in a very boring form. It sucked all the life out of curiosity. So how do you embody curiosity? I’ll use that as an opportunity to ask you. How do you embody curiosity? What is a habit that you can adopt to be curious? To embody this mindset? Talk to new people! That’s a really good one. The architecture licensing program, we’re working on a brand new project. They never really talked to the customer of this product. Here’s a list. It’s been so enlightening to hear from these people who are actually educators of architects to hear from them what their perspectives are, completely changed how we’re thinking about this project.

What’s another one?


Sandboxing new tools and processes.

Dan Brown:

Sandboxing new tools and processes. Let’s harness curiosity by using this tool to look at the world in a different way. If you take nothing away from this talk, I don’t think you will, you should take this one. This may seem straightforward. It may seem easy. But think about every time instead of asking a question you try to assert your knowledge. Think about the time someone said convey something about themselves and instead of saying tell me more about that or how did you feel about that, you said oh yeah – Asking questions is something we all believe and it’s crucial to our work. And all of us can practice it more.

So for the example, this is part of the architectural licensing process. The portfolio. We asked a lot of questions of reviewers. How do you do this work? Here’s another habit beyond the ones, which is follow your assumptions. – what creative people do is they have a hunch. Where do you think that hunch comes from? Do you have a sense of where that hunch comes from?



Dan Brown:

Past experience. Based off of what you learned. One of the things that we learn – right? So one of the things that we had heard from stakeholders that are clients is that deans and provosts, this is now higher ed, made decisions in a cyclical way – and as we got more education, I’m not sure about seasonality. Let me follow that. Let me try to learn more about that.

Let’s talk about skepticism. Again, I think this is crucial for being your most creative self. So again perception here is that some of our work depends on making assumptions or drawing on other people’s assumptions. But I understand that we can’t validate all of the assumptions that we have. But I’m at the very least going to make sure I service those assumptions. So an obvious behavior here is to make a list of them. Take the time to sit down and based on what I know, what are the assumptions that I have? – All my stakeholders do. I asked them what do you think about this? And that helps us understand and make the assumption that they’re going in –

Another – It’s okay. – But what I did here is not so much I’m going to tear down your design because it’s terrible and I hate it. But I’m going to put a hold on your design because I think that design is stronger. Let’s talk about where it doesn’t work. They’ll say all right. What is the worst thing the CEO can say? – But I’m playing skeptic. Skepticism. Trying to undermine all of my assumptions. So here is – data and animation. This animation makes sense, but let’s try –

It’s hard for some of us. Maybe not you. But some of us. It’s fine. Okay. – for parents and kids, I have two children. I think I know everything there is to know about relating to children, obviously. But the truth is when we get to the user interviews some of those assumptions were undermined. I needed to be more humble.

I thought I knew everything there was to know about a domain. So in my experience – as an expert. I understand that. Therefore I’m going to embody this beginner’s mind and ask a lot of questions and learn about this as if I don’t already know a lot about it.

My favorite humble behavior.



Dan Brown:

That’s a really good one! It should be my favorite. I feel bad.


Listening is ultimately one of the most humble things you can do. Right? I perceive that this person has something interesting to say. I understand that I can learn something from this. Therefore, I’m going to choose to listen to what the other person says.


Ask them to teach you.

Dan Brown:

Ask them to teach you. You can say I don’t understand architectural licensing. Let’s start at the beginning. How does this work?

Along those lines, here I am a middle aged man and I sometimes struggle to say I don’t know. But it’s okay. I get through projects by saying “I don’t know how to do this” because it encourages people to talk and encourages people to teach me and gives me an opportunity to listen.

There’s another one that I like here. And it is how am I learning on this project? He has a lot to say. A lot of deep thinking. What I’m ultimately proud of is when he wins – so he can talk about it. He’s like here are some of the challenges that I had. Here are the things that I couldn’t carry out. Here are some new experiences that changed the way I was thinking about it. There’s this humility there. This sense of how can I improve myself.

And in a way, I think that’s what this conference is about here. How can I improve myself as a leader? Imagine wanting to give a wellness behavior here. It came up on an early talk. Someone asked what can you do. I took this one probably too seriously. I tend to practice a lot of the things with – I don’t get further by hording credit. So I feel like this is one of those behaviors that embodies humility that really positive things come from.

I gave this talk at another conference. And – And that feels like it embodies humility a little bit more. I’m going to put this out there, but I don’t know if this is right. – You want to find out what can I do to make it right.

So just to recap, we can talk about discovery as a thing. But really it’s not so much a phase as it is a mindset. When we say mindset, we mean we are translating our perceptions of the world into actions. This is hard for me, so I’m not going to practice piano. That’s a fixed mindset. I know everything I know about parenting, so I’m not going to ask any questions. Right?

I’ve identified six mindsets. This is like a B + slide. A B ‑ is what I meant. So I have these six mindsets of things that I think embody perceptions and attitudes that I can help designers in collaboration and being their most creative selves. And like I said, these attributes or these attitudes can be difficult to embrace. They can feel uncomfortable and go against the grain of our personality.

But sometimes the best way to embrace a mindset is to ask things even though they’re uncomfortable for you.

I can stop here. But I want to give you this set of behaviors. So you can think about your work in terms of what is a behavior or habit that I can start to build. Because it may change your mindset. But you might know the right things to do. So just by way of one more example, I can get really excited about other people’s work. Like when a designer comes to me and shows me work that they’ve done, I just think about all the mental effort, the technical effort that went into that. And I just feel a swell of pride. Even if the design is not so good. Right?

So I’m always like “That’s so cool! You’ve got somewhere, which is great, but it’s not helpful when you’re trying to explore new ideas.”

That’s not embracing a skeptical mindset. How can I change my perception so I can give this designer better advice? My mindset is more like “Wow, I couldn’t have come up with that, so that must be a good idea” so obviously I’m a terrible designer and I’m just going to say “This is great” in order to cover up my own inadequacies and insecurities. That feels right to me. I can pull that play devil’s advocate and I can pull out that play bad cop card. And it encourages me to look at things differently. But it also encourages me to look at my own behavior and my own reactions. You feel it. You feel it when something is uncomfortable and that is an opportunity to ask yourself why does this hurt so much? Why does it feel hard to me? Why do I perceive the things that I do? Why do I react the way I do? Why do those perceptions trump certain emotions? And how can I be different next time? Discovery of any creative endeavor has us look at ourselves. Reflect on our behaviors.

And my work here is done.

Thank you very much.


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