Building Character: Creating Unique, Consistent Experiences with Design Principles
Adam Connor opened UX Camp Spring 2021 with the keynote “Building Character: Creating Unique, Consistent Experiences with Design Principles.” Enjoy!
Head of Experience Research & Design, Elixir
Adam’s work focuses on helping teams and organisations strengthen and grow their human-centered design and innovation capabilities. As a design leader, Adam’s work blends systems thinking, HCD, anthropology, and organisational behaviour to foster more collaborative, creative and customer-centric organisations. He has coached and trained teams across the world and from industry leading organisations such as Google, Disney, Fidelity, and Twitter. In 2015 he and co-author Aaron Irizarry released Discussing Design: Improving Communication & Collaboration Through Critique with O’Reilly Publishing. His thoughts on collaboration and design can be found at adamconnor.com and discussingdesign.com.
The following transcript very likely contains typographical errors. Please forgive any mistakes!
Alright, so I’m gonna put my slides here, and you all have seen my bearded mug, so I’m gonna hide myself so that I’m not watching myself do this or having me… My name is Adam Connor. I am the head of research and design for an organization called elixir. I actually joined elixir last July. Before that, I ran a practice called design transformation at a consultancy called map POW in New England for about 11 years, and that in my work there, most of it was focused on helping organizations build and scale their design teams and design capabilities, I realized about probably 10 years into my design career that… What I enjoyed even more than the solutions we were creating, the products and services we were designing, was just understanding how teams work best together, how people go through the process of coming up with an idea, building it and putting out into the world without killing each other, and I’ve had the luxury of being able to work with a great orator Aronson, a topic around critique and working with organizations across the country to really help them build their skills in talking to one another and thinking about how they make decisions and how they build products and a lot of that really has just given me the opportunity to watch those conversations and watch how people interact and bring up different topics when they’re trying to choose between one solution or another, or figure out what path to take, and in these conversations…
The topic that probably comes up the most often is this topic of vision and trying to figure out where exactly are we going as a team, as a company, as a service or a product, and I feel like in a lot of those conversations, what I’ve noticed is that people treat vision like it’s some spot on a map, it’s a discrete place that we should all be able to point to, and that’s what makes or breaks us, that’s what really helps us understand if we’re gonna be able to work together, if we’re gonna be able… To build something together. And the more I’ve noticed that, the more I’ve also realized that that discrete point almost never really exists, and what’s actually more accurate in terms of thinking about vision is that we think about it in terms of having a sense of where we’re going, it’s not about discreet spot on a map, but it’s about understanding of generally where that spot lives and what the bounds are that we need to stay with in order to get there. And so when we start to think about that and apply that level of thinking to the decisions we might make and how we might design an interface or what content wording we might use, or whether something should be digital or over the phone or in person, or any of those decisions that might come up, it really starts to bring us back to, well, if we don’t know exactly where we’re going, how do we make those decisions, how do we kind of set those bounds, and we have tools, we have things like personas and journey maps and great tools for understanding and defining some of those bounds, but it still leaves a lot to figure out, no matter how precise you think you’ve gotten in narrowing down a set of choices, there’s always a way to kind of expand and diverge.
I want Emma who, no matter how much I think I’ve gotten him down to, there’s two options, we gotta pick A or B, you will immediately turn around and give me 16 other options, he’s just… Uncanny able to do that. And so in thinking about how we make decisions and how we can do things in a consistent way. Make those decisions in a consistent way, what I’ve come to look for in teams and the conversations that they have is not only who are they designing for, but who are they… Who is the product that they’re creating, what is the essence of that relationship? And before I actually got into design, I studied film and animation, and it really brought me back to those classes, those projects, because in film writing, there’s a really a similar sense or a similar challenge in figuring out your characters and what the characters are gonna do in a given situation and how do you craft a character so that it’s consistent in terms of what people… That character to do how they’re gonna react to different stimuli, different events, and figure out how do we keep things cohesive or How do we juxtapose things, how do we break things up, how do we make things exciting or unexpected, and so understanding that character and how that gets-defined has been something I’ve been interested in for a while, and I wanted to just share a quick example of what I mean by character and how this kind of manifest, and we’ll start with the film space, so I’m gonna try and see if this works and we switch over to a video here, let’s see this place and here we go.
So an animation, we have character studies, we can take different characters from a cast and we can put them into the exact same environment, and we can look and try to understand how would this character behave in this given situation… So this is from Big Hero 6. All of these characters here in the film, this is the same environment in each one, and what the animators really wanted to know is, okay, how do these characters differ… What is it that makes them different? How are they gonna be having with this scene to take throughout.
So in that video, you could see how the animators experimented with the different characters, what did each character do given the scene, what was in the scene, the different props, the Chair of the table and each one behaved a little bit differently, and we can look at this even further, we can go into entire stories and plots, and we can think about movies like The Big Lebowski and the character of the dude within the Big Lebowski. One of the things that makes pupils such a great film is this juxtaposition of a very character role to a really contradictory or conflicting set of circumstances, so you’ve got the dude who’s a very laid-back character or somebody who really just wants to let things happen and write it out and go with the flow, and then he’s thrown into the situation that involves kidnapping and ransom, and heists and Hitman, and part of what makes the film so great is that just position is watching how he reacts in this progressively of servius set of circumstances.
And so we can think about character in terms of people and what they do, but we can also think about character in terms of our products and our services and how those get manifested.
So I wanted to show Vimeo here at a video sharing platform that I’m sure pretty much everyone is familiar with, and here is just a basic example of one of their screens, in this case, highlighting a video of Batman animation, and you can see here how they’ve broken up the screen, this is just a simple screenshot from my monitor here, and then I can look at this and then I can compare it to, say you two and YouTube set up for the exact same content, the exact same video, and now side by side, we can really start to get a sense of the difference between the two. We can see if you look at the Vimeo side on the right, there’s a lot more prominence given to the video itself, there’s a lot more space taken up by that, if I were to flip back to the other screen, you see how much real estate that actually takes up on my overall screen, leaving very little else on screen, and then comparison to YouTube, you can see that video space is much smaller and they’ve actually given a lot more prominence to the stuff on the right…
The other videos that they have…
And when you think about what this might mean in terms of how these different brands, these different organizations are reflected, Vimeo has always been about the quality of content, Vimeo was built on this idea of giving some kind of a brand platform to people who are producing very high quality content, but didn’t necessarily have channels to get it out in front of larger audiences. Now, contrast that with YouTube. And YouTube has always been about the volume, it’s always been about the community, how many people there are, how many videos there are, and
So what they emphasize and how they prioritize different things changes, both platforms have pretty similar features, pretty similar content, but their character helps drive different ways that they choose to bring that to life and bring that out into the world.
So in thinking about what helps us drive these decisions, because the audiences here are pretty similar, and again, those needs… Those features that are similar. The content’s the same. So what’s the difference between these two? What is it that helps us… Helps a team keep that character in mind, and
That’s where I feel principles really come into play, and we talk about principles all the time, I realize this is a topic that there have been countless conference presentations at are on… There’s been so many blog posts and so many articles written about it, but I really feel like one of the things we can do as a craft, as a discipline, is to dig into these things that we do talk about all the time and really give them… Looks a second time, a third time and really try to understand even more how they apply.
So when I’m talking about principles here, I’m not really referring to say the universal principles of design, this book always comes up when I talk about principles, these things… The stuff in this book, this is a great book, but these things are more rules that apply to the psychology of how we process information and how we understand and interpret information as it’s being presented to us, which is all really important, but I’m also not talking about things like values, tenants and pillars, because as I’ve experimented and explored with lots of people who are far smarter than me and trying to understand what the difference between all these things are, I can’t seem to find any one structure that really encapsulates everything, there’s no hierarchy that everybody can agree to on what’s of value versus what’s a tenant versus what’s a pillar… Every time I thought I found one, someone else has something very different that it equally makes sense, so don’t get so hung up on, what’s the principal, what’s a value? What’s a tenant? What’s a pillar? What I’d like to really focus this on is just thinking about what are the directives that guide the behavior and capture what we feel are the most desired or most emphasized qualities and the things we’re building… That’s what I mean when I say design principles, you might refer to them as experienced principles, they might be brand principles in your given space that labeling… It doesn’t really matter to me what we call these things, what matters is really understanding what it is we’re talking about, and it’s these directives that guide the behavior that I wanna focus on today, so let’s get back to the dude real quick.
So as I mentioned, the dude is a very character-Ed construct in the story of the Big Lebowski, he’s very principled, even though we might not think of him as somebody who’s very principled, we often when we think about principal people, we think about people who are very rigid, very stodgy and how they approach certain things, but the dues character, the does, principles can be heard and seen throughout the film, you can hear him, if you listen to his lines over the course of the film, you can hear him say things over and over again, like be cool-headed and take it easy and go with the flow. There is even a, I guess you would call it a religion called Judaism that is built on this philosophy, you can become an ordained duties priest and marry people, which I think is super cool, and so you can think about how these constructs work and how they can become encapsulated and codified, and then we can think about how do we actually apply that to our projects, our products, through our principles.
So I worked years ago with Harvard Business Publishing, tie-in their redesign of what was, I think it might even still be called Management or… But it’s their online learning platform for managers. It was, I think the 12 free design that they were going through, and Harvard Business Publishing has a mass, an amazing, overwhelming amount of brilliant, brilliant content, and that’s what management or was built on… It was built on the idea of giving all of this content to managers so that they could consume as much of it as they could and make the best of it. Right, and with this 12th revision, they really wanted to re-look at that belief, that thing that they thought was so important, this volume of content, and they had a great UX team, and they had some great designs already, and they had design principles, they had lots of stuff around making it easy and intuitive and how information should be presented, but they really wanted to go back to the core and think about what this thing was, what was this product to people, and the more research we did, the more we kept coming back to this experience that we saw people having, where they were struggling, we had all this great knowledge, they had all this great content, but they were struggling with trying to figure out ways that they could effectively apply it to the work they were doing. And so one of the design principles we came up with for this effort was shift from thinking to doing, which sounds really obvious, but it was really important to the team for two reasons, it was applied in two ways, it was applied by the team, because up until that point, they had had a belief around the volume of content, they knew they had great quality content, and to them it was about making it all available.
So the system up to that point made all of these things really easy to find and really easy to consume, but that’s about where the experience stopped, and for, like I said, for the audience, there was this gap in kind of going beyond that step, so it applied to the team and thinking beyond their belief around the volume of content, and it applied to the audience and the product, in terms of the thing, the features and the capabilities that the product had to include, so the team came up with this model around learn, act and reflect, that really informed just about everything that the team did, it informed our information architecture and structure and how we kind of broke out the content and the different pieces of functionality and the experience, it got into the content design and the interaction design, the team had to move away just from the idea of making large quantities of content readable online to thinking about interactions that broke down how people were gonna consume smaller pieces of content, how they were going to build plans for putting that content into practice and then evaluating the actions they took and sharing those lessons and the things they learned from those actions with other people in their cohorts, and so it really shifted the quality, the type of product that they were releasing, the character of the product itself, and we can go into other great examples, there’s lots of them out there.
I think there’s still a website floating around that collects design principles, and there’s really great ones on there, we can look at things like Google, who’s had a principle around fast and every millisecond counts, so really clarifying what fast means, everything that they wanna do is measure down to those really discrete small points of time, there’s a great project ages ago, I feel so old, this one up an adaptive path, if anybody remembers adaptive path, before they were bought by Capital One, they did a project called charmer. It was a conceptual project and chimes, a blood glucose monitor. And what they really wanted to do with that, which is very often a clunky awkward thing to have on you at any given time, they really wanted to address that part of the experience, so they created this design principle around where it… During sex, they wanted to make sure that the product itself was elegant industry and made the person using it, wearing it, feel comfortable having it. In those most intimate of moments. We can look at organization and Microsoft in the Windows 17 who, because of past experiences with Windows set a design principle for the Windows version 7 around solving for distractions, not discoverability.
So it was more about looking at all the things that might get in people’s way of accomplishing their tasks and getting those distractions moved out, hidden, obscured something to kind of get them out of the way so that people could get what they needed done, or you can look at a product and a team, like the group at asana, Asana is collaboration software, and it’s really easy to think about collaboration software in terms of utility and just kind of having something that’s easy to let people talk to in one another, but they go beyond that into this fostering and productive and emotionally satisfying interpersonal dynamics, it’s not just about two people being able to talk to one another, but it’s about how they talk to one another and how that relationship is formed and built. We can look at things like NPR and their mission state, and we can look at statements like NPR will regard the individual differences with respect and joy rather than derision and hate, celebrate the human experience is infinitely varied rather than Pacis in the… Now we can encourage a sense of active constructive participation rather than apathetic helplessness, now, these maybe sound a little hyperbolic, but they really go a long way to saying what the character of NPR is or was intended to be, and we can apply these things and we can use them in the way, we make decisions about what features we need or how features will be designed, but it’s really important to think about how we get to them too, where do they come from? And I think it’s pretty obvious that they should come from research, I think everything we do and design, we wanted to be able to trace back to research, but in our research, we can look at how do people in our audience talk about the way they wish things were what are the adjectives that they use, how do they describe those desired experiences, what are the things that they appreciate about certain experiences, what are the things that bother them? Right, we can think about our organizations, our organizations very often have values, mission statements.
I think every organization has these things, and we can pull those down into design principles, think about how they translate, it might seem a little back-handed, but it’s a great way to test just how real or how much we’re really… An organization might really abide by the different values and things that they claim to have, and then the most important piece here is collaboration, so we wanna make sure that no matter where we’re getting these from research or our organizations, we’re building the principles themselves, but as a team, as the team interprets what comes out of the research, what comes out of the organization, how do we think those things apply to the future, what is the future that… They kind of paint for us. We need those things to be shared, we wanna do this as a team, so we have that shared understanding, so that when we go to use these principles in our conversations, we have the same definition around what they mean, and so we can engage in things like vocabulary workshops where we have people on the team describe our share adjectives around what they think the experience should be based on the research based on the organization, we can create a fin and a map so we can cluster, we can eliminate the obvious ones, we can look backwards we can go back to previous products or services that we’ve had, but the experience is there and talk about what worked well and what didn’t work well there, and what a principal be that would kind of help either carry on that legacy or maybe maybe take it in a different path, like the shifting from thinking to doing…
Alright, we can role play, we can ask ourselves, What would a person do if a person was helping a user complete this task, if your product for a person, who would they be in this given situation.
And then we can take what we get out of those workshops and we can apply them in other ways, we can figure out our principles or characteristics, and we can start to build them into… Say our journey maps. If you think about the structure of a journey map, you can take those challenges, opportunities as pain points, and maybe you even consider applying them there, putting a pin in in each one, and what this really helps us to do is think about different discrete points in time, who is the product to the user… Who is the service to the user, because it can change a little bit over time, certain instances, certain Ter-actions are gonna be more intense or need more immediate interaction, some will be longer, more drawn out, more subtle.
And so thinking about how principles apply over time can be a really effective way to figure out where our relationship or where our qualities might change in different ways, and
It’s important to understand some of the things that might help make things more effective, principles more effective in certain instances and others, thinking about things like fun and engaging, which I’ve seen in design principles over and over again, they’re not very useful, they’re fairly general, they’re ambiguous. What’s fun to me might not be fun to you, and really getting clear and directive in terms of what we’re defining for principals becomes important.
We wanna think about things that is something we might do differently with one product or service than we might do with another, and this is really what separates the principles we’re talking about here from the things you might find in that universal principles book, it… We wanna think about What’s our unique characteristic, What’s our unique character… The idea, going back to that, shifting from thinking to doing was up until that point, the product had been one thing and it was wildly successful in that space, but they wanted to change and a bit of a different character, different relationship. So both options are viable, but this new shift to doing really created a new space for them, we wanna think about things that push the team to say no, then they say Yes to a great principle of acts as a filter, if you can put 15 different options for a decision up on the wall and all of them work to kind of fit a certain principle that’s probably not a great principle to be using or thinking about, at least in the context of that decision, we want these things to help a team stay focus and understand where the bounds are. And with that, the other thing to think about, and really great principles is that they should help to identify what shouldn’t be done as well as what should be done right, so that’s one of the things I like about the NPR principles as they really kind of juxtapose two things, even though like I said, they’re a little hyperbolic.
And this doesn’t always have to happen in one single principle, this might be over a set of principles, so I worked with an organization that had a principal around doing whatever was necessary to blow the client out of the water. And what I watched happened with that organization was, because that’s what they rewarded, is that people started burning themselves out, working 80 hour weeks over and over and over again, people started leaving the company very quickly in those situations, and we had to take a step back and look at those principles and realized that there was nothing to say, what was on the other end of that principal, what kind of balance to that principal out? So thinking about how far people might take principles is not balanced, or if we don’t define what shouldn’t be done is really important in terms of helping make sure that these principles are useful in our conversations, and that’s really what makes or breaks a principle, the test of a principal is how well it helps a team have a conversation and stay focused and make decisions, you wanna think about how these principles are gonna be used and how they’re gonna drive a conversation or influence a conversation, and if they seem like they’re never really gonna be that useful, they’re never gonna come up in conversation, they’re never gonna help make a decision, then chances are, you don’t have…
You’re not at a great principle yet, they’re really only useful if you use them, so we have to think about how we’re applying these principles to our conversations to the decisions we’re making and when we’re doing it. So I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked with lots of organizations and been in lots of office buildings where I’ve seen principals plastered on walls and in PowerPoint decks and all over the place, and at the same time, never once heard anybody mentioned them in a conversation.
And if we’re going to take the time to really craft and understand the character of our products, of our services, it’s really important that we then do something with what we’ve just created. So when we talk about principals were very often thinking about what would be on the right side of the diamond model, we’re thinking about convergence, we’re thinking about editing and revising, does this idea help us to… Blank, we’re thinking about decision-making. And everything I’ve talked about in this presentation so far has been about making decisions, and that’s a very important piece of what principles allow us to do, but we can also think about the other side of that diamond, we can think about the left side and we can think about generating ideas, we can think about the qualities of an characteristics of what we wanna create, and we can use those to brainstorm, we can use them as lenses, if anybody is familiar with the lens brainstorm technique, and we can take those adjectives and put them into prompts, and then try to figure out how many ways might we shift a pattern from thinking to doing, or how many ways might we promote emotional connections between team members or whatever the case might be, we can use those in on that divergence side of our conversations as well, and even if you’re not formally using the Diamond model in any way, chances are in your sprints, in your projects, in your product life cycles, you are going through this diamond countless times over and over and over again.
And what that means is that you probably have the opportunity to apply the principles that you come up with over and over and over again, and it’s taking advantage of that opportunity that I really wanna emphasize here, and then as those opportunities arise, as you continue to use things… Over time, we all know that things change over time, the new situations are gonna come up new observations, new insights.
So we have to be ready to change and evolve our principles as we go as well. We have to be able to grow and iterate on what we believe in, what we value and what we want to create for the future world as we learn more about the work we’re doing, so thinking about what those trigger points might be for evolving a principle. You might find that a principal that you set originally at the beginning of an effort, the longer you go and applying it or applying it to a very specific aspect of what you’re creating, that you need to tweak it to be a little bit more applicable to something like taking a principle that’s set out at the onset of a project and then getting all the way into visual design, you might realize that you need to further tighten or clarify that principal when you’re thinking about colors or typography or layouts, you might find that as you go, some of them just feel like they’re too broad, like I said, they’re not really helping you make decisions, they’re not really filtering things down, or you might find that they’re really restrictive, that they seem to only ever let you choose one option, and that’s it, and it really doesn’t really let you brainstorm lots of different ideas because they’re too restrictive, so you might wanna try change those thresholds as you go there, and you might find that not all principles apply to every situation, in fact, this is pretty common.
And so trying to figure out five principles that apply to everything you’re gonna do in a product or service, probably isn’t gonna work all that well, you will find some things that apply in certain situations and other situations they don’t… You’ll find that you need to build or create new principles as you get into further levels of details with the type of tasks that you’re solving for.
And you’re gonna learn more about the audiences, you go, I hope everyone here in their organizations has a continuous learning cycle continuous research in their organization, and that you’re not just learning about tasks and usability, but you’re learning about people’s emotions and their perspectives and their reactions to things, and that that’s helping you understand more about what that character of your product should be, and that’s gonna change over time, so we have to make sure that as we’re using principles, as we’re going through those diamonds and we’re using them to generate ideas and to refine our decisions, that we’re also taking the time to stop and step back from those principles and the character that we’ve created, and understand, is this still the right character… Do we know anything now that we didn’t before that would change the character that we’re creating here? And so with that, I just wanna end with one quick story that I’ve seen come up pretty much every talk I’ve ever seen on Design Principles, and it’s the story about Belarus and cathedrals, and I’ll probably but it… But it goes something like this.
A man is walking down the streets of his city and he comes upon a construction site and he sees three men working in that construction site, and so he goes to the first one and he says, Hey, what’s going on here? What are you guys doing? What are you working on? And the construction worker says, I bet I’m laying bricks, and the guy… Just takes that inside.
Alright, and keep walking comes upon and the second construction work, it says… So tell me more about what’s going on here, what are you guys working on? You says, Well, I’m building a wall. Okay, keep going. It goes to the third guy… Right, so please tell me what’s happening here, what are you all working on? And the third construction were says, I’m building a cathedral, and I don’t know why the story is supposed to have some profound illustration of a vision, and it’s so great and so grand that the third construction worker gets it, that he’s got a vision of what he’s creating this cathedral, and every time I’ve ever heard the story, I can’t help but think about, why… Why was it bricks? Why was it a wall? Why was it a cathedral… What were the things that the people behind this project thought were important that bounded them to choose these options, these decisions as they created something… To me, principles are all about those bounds, they’re about understanding that a vision is not to just great point on a map, it’s about having a sense of where that point lives, and the principles give us the balance to understand what kind of… Is within that space and what lives outside of that space, principle is about driving action to achieve vision, they’re about defining our character and what we do when we encounter different situations. And that’s where I’ll be you today. Thank you very much, everybody.