Way before the Walt Disney Resort drew tourists to Florida like moths to a flame, they needed to buy some land. Had they waltzed over to the East Coast and declared Disney domain over central Florida, imagine what land costs would have been like. No, Walt had a plan to avoid paying “Hollywood upcharges”.
The land he wanted was soon being purchased by other companies. Little companies like Bay Lake Properties, Retlaw, The Ayefour Group, and M.T. Lott Real Estate were buying tracts of land for $80 an acre. The trick was that all these companies were Disney in disguise. Once the veil was lifted, Disney had managed to purchase more than 27,000 acres at roughly $200 per acre. Now before you start thinking Walt was out there fleecing the little land owner, understand that after people found out it was Disney buying the land, the price per acre ballooned up to $80,000.
That’s a 999% increase because they knew he could afford it.
“Ambition can creep as well as soar.” – Edmund Burke
This gets at the heart of taking little bets. Peter Sims wrote in his book, appropriately titled “Little Bets”, about comedian Chris Rock. Rock will test run jokes at a smaller venue, a laugh lab if you will, looking for the five or ten powerful lines to build an entire act around. Like Walt Disney, he’s looking for those little humor land grabs that can add up to a resort of hilarity.
We need to be doing the same thing while innovating. Ideation and business canvases can lead us to the next big things, but we can’t just build the theme park entrance out in the wild. There is some hypothesis testing and market fit analysis that should happen first. Take that big, disruptive idea and start testing those risky assumptions.
The best part is that each smallish prototype you test, only has to connect to the big, disruptive idea to you. Validating your hypotheses only has to look like another little land purchase by M.T. Lott. You’re going to be taking ground in small chunks, seemingly of little value to the market.
It is your big vision that makes the small grabs important.
“To multiply small successes is precisely to build one treasure after another. In time one becomes rich without realizing how it has come about.” – Frederick the Great
The best part of these small land grabs under little prototypes is that no one sees what you’re doing until its too late. It’s like building mini-games consisting of only one mechanic. This game you can only jump. This game you have to solve sliding puzzles. And so on until you use all your validated mini-game mechanics to build the big market disrupting game.
“I’ve got so many MBAs, but what I need is a poet. Poets are the original systems thinkers.” -Max DePree
Poetry uses “condensed or compressed form to convey emotion or ideas to the reader’s or listener’s mind or ear” as defined by Poetry.org. Which felt like the perfect site to define poetry at. If we re-word it a little, we get “the shortest path that gives a desired feeling to the user”. Just extrapolate that “feeling” out to include usability a perception of value, and good poetry becomes good user interface and experience design.
Now, this is a new analogy to me, something that I am going to try on my next prototype. I am going to design the user interface and experience through the lens of poetry. I will link to my findings here (when they exist). However some key components of poetry feel ripe for picking when designing.
Imagery in poetry actually relates to the five senses (not just relying on images). What are ways that a good user-centered design uses imagery? The friction felt when moving components around that gives it a real feeling. The audio cue when an action is triggered. Even the icons selected play a part in the overall imagery scheme.
Poetic rhythms range from the famous iambic pentameter to the unknown by name (but you totally know it when you hear it) anapestic tetrameter. Rhythm plays such a huge part that a lack of rhythm is used to create its own feeling. What kinds of rhythms do we create in our designs? Can we keep the user in a good flow state? Do we break the rhythms to call their attention to important pieces? I envision a UX rhythm being the user experiencing the entirety of the innovation, with each major beat striking true.
Word Association & Connotation
In an effort to be concise, poetry uses what the read brings along with them to add extra meaning to words. Each word chosen by the poet is specially selected to bring across a bouquet of feeling to the reader, without writing the bouquet in. This is the “show, don’t tell” writing advice. Clearly a UX can use an envelope to signify email, and a disk to represent saving, but what other rich connotations can we bring? One word of caution here: this requires some strong empathy and knowledge of your core user if you are going to rely on the baggage they bring to tell your story.
First of all, its just fun to try to say “enjambment”. Enjambment is breaking up a line in poem across two lines to create a sense of anticipation and intrigue.
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and asleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
Endymion by John Keats
Notice that the three middle lines can’t even stand by themselves. The line break pauses the reader in extracting meaning from what they are reading. How can we use enjambment in great UX UI design? Where do we need to create pauses or breaks that are beneficial to the user? Can we leverage that anticipation into a positive feeling while using our product?
This is used over and over and over to drive a point home. Poetry uses it to call out the important stuff or bring certain images back into view. A good design uses repetition to make sure the user is comfortable knowing when and how to take action. But when does repetition lead to boredom? Maybe this has some parallels to rhythm?
I don’t have the answers yet. But I’m willing to try to find them. Like I said, this is a new lens / analogy for me and one I’m eager to test out. If you test it out or already think of it this way, let me know! I’d love to start a conversation around Poetic UI UX Design.
Once upon a time, there was a donkey. This donkey, with all other conditions being the same, would eat from the hay closest to him. Kind of an easy win strategy. Well one day the donkey was walking down the road and his hunger grew immensely. There was a bail of hay up ahead, and an equal sized bail of hay, the exact same distance behind him. With neither being closer, the donkey stood still, not choosing one nor the other until he died.
This heartwarming tale is called Buridan’s donkey and it is a paradox about free will. Often, we become the donkey. There are disruptive ideas out there to follow, but we sit in the middle, too afraid to give up one for the other.
Nassim Taleb, in his book Antifragile, says that “when some systems become stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free.” The donkey just needs a little push; just one fly to land on its ear and nudge it towards one hay pile.
Organizations, teams, and people need that dose of random, unexpected, and different to get ideas moving.
These little nudges can feel scary, but there are ways to minimize the risk and fear. Start by breaking down the problem you want to solve into its core pieces; boil it down to its base essence. Then start looking for small things to move the needle. If you were to solve this problem, what’s the first thing you need to figure out? Find a way to prototype and test that thing. Prototyping is great for keeping cost low and risks at a minimum (especially when it is with paper).
“Prototyping is one of the most effective ways to both jump-start our thinking and to guide, inspire, and discipline an experimental approach.” – Peter Sims, Little Bets
Regularly we will need to unstick ourselves. Each idea we naturally think of is a byproduct of your point of view, past experiences, skill set, and what you had for lunch. That’s why I am going to give you a tool to help, a tool forged in process-driven chaos. It’s called…
The rules here are very simple. In fact, there’s only three:
CARD: On a notecard, write down six lenses and number them.
Things like “How would WordPress do it?”, “How would I never solve this?”, or use a random word. (Random words should be generated before each use of Donkey Dice.)
ROLL: Roll 1 six-sided die and identify lens selected
THINK: Generate ideas with lens
It’s simple, but effective. As you get good at Donkey Dice, expand your card up to 12 lenses and use two six-sided dice. You can unlock the extreme level and list 20 lenses and roll a twenty-sided die. Soon your donkey will be making his way towards relief, instead of stuck in the muck of status quo.
“I wondered about the explorers who’d sailed their ships to the end of the world. How terrified they must have been when they risked falling over the edge; how amazed to discover, instead, places they had seen only in their dreams.” -Jodi Picoult, Handle With Care
Curves are the enemy of fast moving trains. Just ask Denzel Washington and Chris Pine in Unstoppable. Nearly 30 years before the movie, The British Rail Research Team unveiled the APT. The APT was a train that tested out at an amazing top speed of 160mph, and could safely sprint 40% faster than any other train through curves. And it failed.
In 1981, the first public riders traveled aboard the APT and felt motion sick from the uncommon tilting that allowed the train to rip through the bends. Data, speed, and savings aside, the customers did not feel cool while leaning and the train quickly picked up a nickname. The Queasy Rider.
“If people are made to feel uncomfortable in the kitchen, they won’t go in there.”- Giada De Laurentiis
The APT was technically a marvel, doing something that the long, rigid rectangely trains never could before… lean into the curves like a well-trained sprinter. However it was the user experience that lacked the sparkle. It’s hard to argue how neat it is to go 40% faster when the rider is busy holding onto their lunch. The user experience is a major key.
Design thinking encourages us to find the real root problem for customers, and to evaluate what jobs they need a solution to do. Yet if your solution solves the problem at the expense of user experience, then it is doomed to fail. There is a famous quote by Leo McGinneva, while talking about how customers don’t go to the hardware store to buy quarter-inch drill bits. He said, ‘They don’t want quarter-inch bits. They want quarter-inch holes.” It’s easy to abstract this into a postulate:
Customers aren’t buying products, they are buying a version of their life with a problem solved.
People purchase products because they can make life easier, more enjoyable, more rewarding. This is why medicine comes in flavors now. Why choke down an unpalatable tonic when you can get the same benefits with bubblegum flavor?
It is easy for us to focus on the tangible features when developing a prototype. But it is crucial to bring user experience into the equation as early as you can, and for as many steps possible. There needs to be devoted thought to the future user and making them feel like they’re getting ahead of the game by using your product. Fast Company has a great article tackling the marketing angle of this. In it, Belle Beth Cooper (co-founder of Exist) says “A feature is what your product does; a benefit is what the customer can do with your product.”
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.” – Daniel Pink
APT eventually returned in 1984 after some work to shore up the uneasy feeling in the tilt. This time the reviews were much better, but not good enough to save the train. The negative user experience and nickname lingered, and all APT’s were removed from service by 1986.
Think about your project. Is it full of fantastic features but leaving the core customer queasy? Maybe it is time to lean into some user empathy and tilt your solution in a different direction.
After all, our customers shouldn’t just be able to go forth. They also need to be awesome!
I think we can all agree that Disney Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out, doesn’t merely tug at your heartstrings. Rather it grabs hold with a death grip and shakes them with a vigor that would make the Grinch weep, even prior to his heart enlargement. If you’ve not seen it yet, prepare your “It’s dusty in here” and “I got something in my eye” crying cover stories and go.
As you shed tears for Bing Bong (and you will) think of one simple fact… At one point, this story sucked.
One key takeaway here is that we, as innovators, must start our creative idea somewhere, tell the story, and figure out how to get it “from suck to not-suck”. In fact, the faster we do this, the better. We don’t want to spend needless hours putting all kinds of sheen, gloss, and functionality into that first prototype because we will likely fail and need to pivot. That is why we need to prototype on paper.
I’ve prototyped a few games just as a means to get an idea down, get it moderately functional, and to give the game idea some quick playtesting. I do not want to spend time or money in making beautiful, final quality game pieces because there are still many aspects that will need developing, balancing, or discarding. In order to prototype quickly, I keep a large stack of 3 by 5 notecards nearby (along with shiny glass beads, sparkly sticker books, and a plethora of dice). These become my makeshift game pieces. The best part is, they aren’t limited to prototyping games. A notecard could represent an app’s splash screen, an email template, or whatever you are innovating. There is always a way.
One quick note: Paper prototyping is a method, a way of making your ideas tangible in a quick, low-cost manner so that your innovative hypothesis can be validated. It does not HAVE to be paper, but whatever material you use should have the same inexpensive and recyclable nature.
Let’s take a look at some reasons why you should prototype of paper early, and often.
YOU CAN PROTOTYPE CHEAP
Notecards can be bought for several on the dollar. This definitely beats the time and effort that would go into developing a digital or physical first version of your innovation. Imagine spending resources to have a first iteration of your innovation built, only to put it in front of some customers and find out that your solution needs some big time overhauling. Instead, if you had paper prototyped that primary version, you might be out a couple dollars. That’s a pretty decent Return on Investment for all the learning you can do with a first prototype.
YOU CAN PROTOTYPE FAST
There you are, sitting with a target customer, showing them your idea. You watch them interact with your prototype and you notice a huge flaw that needs to be addressed. If you’ve built a more elaborate prototype, this pivot can be costly and put a huge delay in your deliverable timelines. All those items in your kanban or development pipeline now have to sit and wait for this first one to be addressed. If you prototyped on paper (and remembered to bring notecards and pencils to your focus group) you can mock up the new screen or feature within seconds! Remember that you are just telling your innovation’s story so these don’t have to be marketable graphics. They just need to be enough for the customer to see how it works and for you to watch them “interact”. Plus this reduces your iteration time to something very minimal.
YOU CAN BE DARING
When you aren’t worried about cost of developing a prototype, and you aren’t worried about the time it takes to pivot and persevere into iteration two and beyond, then you can be as adventurous with your prototype as you want to be. You aren’t risking a ton of resources so put those ugly ideas out there! Be disruptive, do things the way no one in your industry does them. If your “out-there” idea crashes and burns, all you are out is a handful of notecards.
YOU CAN PUT THE FLOW IN THE CUSTOMER’S HANDS SOONER
The best time to learn about your solution’s fit with your customers is when they are holding it in their hands. When your prototype only lives internally, it will always appear perfect. You need to kick it out of the nest and see if your idea can fly on its own. The faster you can do this, the less time you spend on bad ideas. Even if you don’t have it all figured out yet, get your core mechanics on paper and start asking your customers to look at it. It opens up new idea avenues for you to explore and it helps paint a better picture of what jobs the customer needs your innovation to do. We can all work on understanding our customer better, because they are always changing. Opportunities to learn and grow are valuable, especially when your innovation is in the very formative stages of its lifespan.
Later, we’ll go into some methods on “how” to prototype with paper… but for now, grab your notecards and start iterating!
For this challenge, you will need 10 notecards.
Take 6 notecards and prototype the flow your customer will experience with your prototype.
Show it to someone and have them “pretend” its the real deal.
Iterate right then and there on any pain points they experience. Use your remaining 4 notecards for any additional or replacement steps in the flow.
Identify places you need to pivot and persevere and use more notecards to craft the next version!
What materials do you use to prototype with? I’d love to see what is in your bag of tricks down in the comment section.
I’ve had this really amazing opportunity to freelance and do some game writing for indie studio, Mastermind Games. Affliction is set in small town America, circa 1950. You can smell the pies cooling on the windowsills, hear the brass band playing in town square, and everyone greets you with a smile. Until all that ended. You’ll experience the town as an abandoned wasteland, uncovering the tattered history, while keeping a safe distance from the shadowy Reapers. You can either cure the town or fall victim to the many dangers that lurk inside its borders.
Writing for the game has been an absolute blast and the more I write for this game, the more I’ve realized that game writing is like running a Startup. So I leaned into that slide and started to look at startups for ways to help my writing. Let me share with you four ideas I borrow from startups and how to apply them to your writing.
Bring Loads of Ideas
Picture a suitcase. A really large suitcase. In this suitcase you can fit every shirt you’ve ever owned. But wait! Before you start cramming your sixth grade Camp Okeechobee t-shirt into the suitcase, you’re going to fill it with ideas. And like a suitcase full of every shirt you’ve ever owned, only a few will get worn. Your “idea case” should be bursting at the seems because when you begin writing, you’ll never know when you’ll need to break out a new idea.
You can practice this skill by picking something you did today, and try to think of ten different ways you could have done it. Did you text a friend today? What are ten other ways you could have communicated? Once a list of ten is easy, try to get twenty, then thirty. The benefit to this method is that the first ten ideas you have are probably the same ten ideas everyone has. By pushing your limits, you will stretch and start finding more ideas, which leads to the more creative ideas.
Prototype Early and Often
You’ll envision the narrative in a perfect state, but until you get it on paper and in front of someone else, you’ll only stunt its potential. We’ve prototyped the narrative for this project a number of times. Each time we’ve been able to look at different aspects and really get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Each prototype allowed us to get ideas out there, kind of play test them a little mentally, and identify which pieces worked.
If we hadn’t prototyped the narrative, I would be off happily writing myself into corners that the game wouldn’t able to fix. Worse yet, my literary lost causes, my poetic pinch points, my description the doglegs into a dead-end… they could all cost the developer money and time. No one wants to delay a game because their story got stuck and they need to circle back to when it made sense. The benefit has been keeping the narrative, in whatever raw and rough state it is in, out in the open for all of us to work on.
Be Willing to Kill Off the Bad Ideas
Admitting an idea is bad is not easy at first. But remember, we were chasing sheer quantity in tip Number One. Not all of those ideas are going to be winners. Honestly, they shouldn’t be. You can’t be afraid of taking the bad ideas, crumpling up the paper they’re written on, and sky-hooking them into the nearest trashcan.
Occasionally they aren’t even bad ideas! Sometimes they just don’t fit into the scheme of the narrative anymore. You will find yourself looking at that beautifully crafted story arc with its twists and player choices, and you’ll try to shoehorn it in. Unfortunately, like Cinderella’s step-sister’s foot and the glass slipper, it just won’t fit. Remember, it’s ok to kill off these ideas because if it doesn’t fit for you, it won’t work for the player/reader.
Pivot and Persevere
This is where all three of the previous tips blend together into a delicious stew. Since you prototyped your narrative (Number Three), you will be able to identify where the gaps are. These gaps either come from bad ideas where you need to prune those story branches (Number Two) or from missing steps between one chunk to the next, in which case you can try to bridge it with a new idea (Number One). However, here is where this practice gets its own number instead of being delegated a “summary”.
When you are evaluating your prototype, you will have to consciously make the decision “Should I pivot or persevere?”
Pivoting is when you’ve come to a dark spot that has failed so poorly that it just needs to be removed, replaced, and rewritten. Maybe you get to the end of a narrative road to find out that it is a dead-end and you really should have never gone down this road in the first place. Great news! Because you prototyped first, you found this before you wrote it in stone. It is way easier to swing a u-turn and pivot back to where the story is good.
You can persevere when your prototype road is good enough to move to deeper writing. Maybe it isn’t perfect, yet, but you can feel that it can get there. WARNING! This is not something you do because you just love this idea. It honestly has to feel right in the flow of your prototype and earn the ability to persevere. There is no room for “idea nepotism”; no narrative arc gets a free pass because its the nephew of the boss.
I’ve found by incorporating these Startup mentalities to my writing, I’ve destroyed some of the biggest barriers. I no longer fear the blank page; a.k.a. the Great Void. I am bringing an “idea case” full of good, and less-than-good ideas, to start shaping the page into my vision. I also don’t fear critiques either, because I know i’ve got more ideas and I’m willing to remove any of the ones that don’t work. So get out your notebooks, there are literary startups in your brain, waiting to hit the page running.
The next time you sit down to write (your blog, a story, some game narrative, or copy for your product), fill your “idea case” with as many thoughts as you can.
Find a way to get your writing in the hands of some readers early. Even if it isn’t in a final stage. The roughness can sometimes help readers offer more honest critiques.
Protect your heart now that your favorite idea may not make the cut.
When you do find a spot that isn’t working, dig in and see if you need to pivot, or if you can persevere and improve it.