A design experiment for writing better blog posts

When I think of design, the first thing that comes to mind is the sharp, sleek silhouette of a MacBook Air. This isn’t surprising—consumer technology’s recent design renaissance, led by young, saavy tech startup founders Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square, Dave Morin of Path, and Joe Gebbia of Airbnb, was pioneered by Steve Jobs and Apple. Yet, as I’ve come to learn through my work for education technology startup TurnRight, there is more to good design than the curve of an ergonomic keyboard or the minimalist layout of a website; rather, design is both a process and a way of looking at the world. Participating in user experience (UX) meetings on everything from philosophical discussions about the purpose of our product all the way down to the most granular details, such as how drop-down versus type-ahead will influence a user’s behavior in filling out their hometown on the profile page, has been eye-opening, to say the least. Although I still know paltry little about the technical skills of design—neither front-end web development languages HTML5 and CSS nor graphic design mainstays Photoshop and InDesign have found their way into my arsenal—I now at least have an introductory grasp of the way that designers think. In this blog post, I hope to peel away some of those layers and discuss how I apply them to my own life.

Last year, Ex Appler, current Facebooker Wilson Miner gave a transfomative talk called "When We Build." During the talk, he asks us all to think about the products of our design as not merely products, but living breathing organisms that make up larger ecosystems we ourselves inhabit and are inevitably shaped by. At the core of Miner’s talk is the idea that design is a two way street, summed up by a pithy quote from Marshall McLuhan: “we shape our tools, and our tools shape us.” That “our tools shape us” is no surprise—from the age old nature-nurture debate to immense bodies of research in the fields of economics, psychology, and sociology, we know that people around us, our material possessions, and of course, our environments shape us and influence our thoughts, behavior, and interactions. What is less obvious is the first part of the quote: “we shape our tools.” Unless you are a professional visual designer, architect, or literally, a shaper of tools, your response is probably: well that’s nice, but I’m no designer. Enter journalist John Hockenberry—he’s no designer either. When Hockenberry was 19, he suffered a horrible car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, confining him to life in a wheelchair; thereafter, the story of “tragedy and fear and misfortune” projected by his wheelchair blotted out everything else, and nothing he could do would prevent moms in public from pulling their kids away and gasping, “don’t stare!” How could he change this? A simple design change: flashy wheels. Yes, the simple act of ordering flashy wheels from a catalogue and installing them onto his wheelchair elicited a completely different response from people. Now, not only do kids think he is “cool,” but also little boys occasionally ask him: “can I get a ride?” According to Hockenberry, this simple design change made all the difference because it conveyed authorship and his intent of refusing to be a victim and taking charge of his own life. To sum it up, good design equals intent. To return full circle to Miner’s message, I learned that anyone can be a designer simply by acting with intent, and these actions will return to influence the designer’s thoughts and actions. Inspired by these two talks on design and my work at TurnRight, I decided to apply design to my own life to help achieve my summer goal of blogging weekly. 

I. Reflection

"It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know one’s self."—Lao Tzu 

In user experience (UX) design, actions are always focused with the end user and their goals, behaviors, and tendencies in mind. To start, I had to gain intimate knowledge of the end user—in this case, myself. I started by asking myself the question: what are my limitations? Time? During the school year, certainly, but not as much during the summer, although I am always wary of Parkinson’s Law, which says: “your work expands to fill the time allotted.” What about lack of motivation? Not after watching this video, or this one. After much thought, I came to the conclusion that the single biggest limiting factor for me writing a weekly blog post is my own tendency to procrastinate. What started as a rebellious streak in middle school of not doing homework until past my bedtime escalated into turning in papers, assignments, and even college applications at literally the last minute. These days, this vice largely manifests itself in time-sapping, aimless web surfing sessions. So I asked myself: how can I prevent myself from procrastinating? And more importantly: how can I design an environment that overcomes these obstacles to empower and encourage me to blog once a week?

II. Design

"We shape our tools, and our tools shape us"—Marshall McLuhen

During his talk, in the middle of making a grand point about how screens (TV, computer, smartphone, tablet, etc.) are the environment of the future, Miner asks his audience, a little tongue-in-cheek, but mostly seriously: “How long does it take you after you wake up to get in front of a screen? What is your ‘time-to-screen’? 1 minute? 2 minutes? 5 minutes if you are really slow?’” The audience laughs, in that “funny-because-its-true” way. This prompted the question: what are the environments that I spend the most time in? Physically, other than my office, my apartment is the centerpiece of my time. Digitally, the obvious environments are my ‘screens’: my iPhone, my iPad, and my MacBook Air (thank goodness TV isn’t one of them). Getting even more granular, I spend most of my Internet browsing time (read: procrastination) on Facebook and email, with the majority of that access through my Facebook and Mail iPhone apps. Armed with both knowledge of myself and my limitations as well as the environments in which I spend the most time, I started designing. Here is a (constantly changing) list of 8 design changes I made to help me achieve my goal of writing a weekly blog post. 1-5 are changes made to cultivate the preconditions for my success even before writing, and 6-8 are changes made while writing, to remove distractions and encourage "flow," a psychological concept espoused by psychologist Cziksentmihalyi—major symptoms of “flow” include: losing track of time, unbridled focus, engagement, and elation: 

(1) make a mutual weekly blogging pact with my friend Brandon (read his blog here!) with negative repercussions if either of us skips a post, which is especially helpful when my individual motivation wanes a little as Sunday midnight approaches.

(2) move note-taking app Evernote, where I write my blog posts, to the front page of all of my devices (it has cross-platform integration, so I can start a post on my iPhone and finish it on my MacBook later), and move distracting apps to back pages.

(3) delete my once front-page Facebook app on my iPhone and iPad to curb addictive Facebook use.

(4) any time I think of, read, watch, or observe something that is blog-worthy, immediately write it into Evernote for iPhone—a positive habit (for once!).

(5) write motivational and thought-provoking quotes all over white boards placed around my room. After all, writing equals thinking, with the notable exception of YouTube video comments.

(6) go to Starbucks for a few hours every Sunday afternoon to write, because the environment, with its white noise, coffee scents, sunlight, and people are ideal for stimulating my productivity, whereas my apartment, though pleasant, puts me on the fast track to aimless web surfing, casual conversation, and watching episodes of “Suits.”

(7) use Evernote full screen when I am in the process of writing so I can’t see the time or easily click into other distracting applications, such as Google Chrome.

(8) listen to music when I write, because it helps me focus and blot out distractions—my favorite is Avicii’s Pier 94 setlist.

III. Evaluation

"fail fast, learn rapidly."—Mary & Tom Poppendiek

As someone who is admittedly horrible at science, I nearly gave myself a high-five for figuring out that the design process mirrors the Scientific Method—hypothesis testing and iteration are at the core of both. Because each design change I make is a hypothesis based on observations about my past behavior, it is constant feedback and reflection that reveals whether the change is actually effective. To my surprise, I found that writing motivational and thought-provoking quotes on whiteboards throughout my room has been mostly ineffective—just as heatmap analytics studies show that Facebook users tend to ignore the ads on the right side of their Facebook pages, I rarely look at the quotes written on my white boards. On the flip side, a couple of granular tweaks have proven to be incredibly effective. First, after I had deleted the Facebook app on my iPhone, I caught myself mindlessly tapping onto the app where my Facebook app used to be several times within an hour without even thinking, withdrawal symptoms from a bygone addiction; however, simply breaking this routine and tapping onto a different app forced myself to think about my actions and allowed my rational self to stop this distractive behavior. Second, entering into full screen mode on Evernote when I write has done wonders for allowing me to hit “flow,” because I can neither see the time nor other apps that I can click on. As far as I can tell, merely applying the rigorous level of thought and inquisition that the design process demands has made me more observant, skeptically optimistic, and elevated my level of thought. Based on this ongoing collection of evidence about my design experiment, I go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate, thinking of new design changes or even questioning the fundamental assumptions I am making in the initial reflection stage. Lather, rinse, and repeat—all this, from a government concentrator who doesn’t know the first thing about science. All this, from a designer who doesn’t know the first thing about Photoshop. All this, from a blog post about how to write a blog post.