Legacy

I urge each and every one of you to seek out projects that leave the world a better place than you found it. We used to design ways to get to the moon; now we design ways to never have to get out of bed. You have the power to change that.

Mike Monteiro, Design Is a Job

We push so much data into the world. Tweets and blog posts and Facebook photos and on and on it goes. I’m worried that the things we say — wait, let me make this personal. I’m worried that the things I say and do and make aren’t always respectful of the limited time and attention that you have at your disposal.

Nothing exemplifies this issue more than automated tweets made by apps like Foursquare, GetGlue, Path, etc. In a post that is now unfortunately password protected, Frank Chimero calls this kind of automated sharing “huffing the exhaust of other peopl’s digital lives”. I can’t think of a better description than that. I know we’re not supposed to tell people how to tweet, but I have to ask: is this kind of automated “content creation” really worth other people’s time? What value does it add to their lives?

I’m increasingly thinking that the things we do and make should aim to take unnecessary stuff away from people, not add more crap to their lives. This is a principle that most web and mobile applications certainly do not subscribe to. We seem almost incapable of saying “no” to shininess and more features, mostly to the detriment of the purpose of the site or application. This description by Garr Reynolds unfortunately sums the situation up too well:

These cluttered and distracting multimedia creations, filled with the superfluous and the nonessential, incorporating seemingly every special effect, color, and font the software had to offer, end up assaulting the brains of anyone who dares to look in the general direction of the screen.

Instead of just adding all the things to the world, I wish we would think more about how we can effectively remove complexities to make life easier for our users and the people who give us their time and attention. After all, the things we design become our legacy:

Great design starts with a problem statement and then proposes a solution. What you design, the way you solve the problem represents your values and ideals — it presents your vision of the good life. In solving a problem, you make certain things easier and other things harder — through intention or by omission. You assume many things about your customers, how they will engage with the solutions you have built and what they will value/the benefits they will enjoy when they use your design. This is true of companies, products and services and in each case thoughtful, detail oriented problem solving that puts the consumer first speaks most clearly.

These thoughts are all related to intent — the purpose behind the things we do, and the need for us to take responsibility for that intent. This fantastic TED talk by John Hockenberry, below, goes into the idea of intentional design in great depth and with much eloquence. It feels a lot quicker than 20 minutes, so I highly recommend that you watch it:

The point is simply this: when we do things with good intent, we show that we have empathy for our audience/users, and we try to improve their lives in some way.

Now, all of this brings me to the central question I’ve been asking myself the past few weeks. Actually, it’s a question Paul Ford planted in my mind:

If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?

I wish I knew the answer to his question. I don’t. But I know this: before I tweet something, before I start writing, and most importantly, before I start a new design project, I will ask myself: am I being a good steward of my audience’s time and attention? Because I’d like to design for those who want to go to the moon, not those who don’t want to get out of bed.