What Advice Do You Give Most Often?

Advice from The Sherwins for August 2019

Illustration by Ryan Johnson for Ask The Sherwins

Illustration by Ryan Johnson for Ask The Sherwins


Well, well, well. Here we are, everyone. It’s the three-year anniversary of our advice column! In celebration, we decided to do something different this month. Instead of answering a letter directly, we reviewed our notes and found the three tidbits of advice we’ve been giving out most consistently since the company started. (Sort of like bumper stickers on the family car.)

When we started this column, we made the controversial decision to have our advice disappear at the end of each month. As kids, we fell under the spell of print magazines, and we built the column around that sensibility. When you got a magazine in the mail or if you picked one up at the grocery store, you got to decide if you wanted to keep it. You could clip out an article, save the issue with all of the other ones in a box, or throw away the entire thing. We wanted people to develop their own ways of learning and retaining information, and this approach balances well with our books.

At the end of this column, you’ll find links to three of our favorite columns since we got started. Think of it as a letter of appreciation and special-edition reprint all in one.

So, without further ado, our three bumper stickers, and our thanks,
—The Sherwins

You can’t build a boat for everyone.

This is one of the first lessons we introduce to our students, and it’s easily the most difficult. So much so that even the most seasoned designers among us struggle with it.

Design talks a good game about changing the world, though, in doing so, it’s peculiar to us how often that talk skips over the part about the need for specificity. Good design may allow for a variety of paths within an experience, but at its heart, it is nuanced and selective. A design has a user and a problem and an end state in which, hopefully, that problem has been addressed. It is not for everyone. It can’t be and still function. People are different, and to demand that everyone conform to the operating specifications of a product or service in order for it to work for them all in exactly the same manner… well, that’s an ethical question your company might not be prepared to answer.

While the brilliant diversity of human behavior is pretty easy for our students to grasp, it’s the second aspect of this bumper sticker that gives them pause: You can’t build a boat for everyone, because you have to let other people build boats, too.

Let’s face it: No one’s ever going to accuse the design industry of being too humble. But design is not the only way to change the world. It’s not the only way to galvanize a community, and it’s not the only way to solve problems. Admitting that design has limits isn’t a weakness. Not discussing those limits definitely is.

If you design for the edge case, you invite the edge case.

Good product design has eyes on all of the corners in a problem space. The ability to plan for and navigate edge cases, those rare occurrences and unique situations, becomes a way to prove to your users that you’ve thought about them and their needs. Within a company, chasing edge cases is one of the first ways that a designer learns to push the work.

Ideally, edge cases are explored early on, reminding us to design for inclusion and accessibility rather than try to retrofit functionality. The attention paid to a small group of users under a specific set of circumstances doesn’t take away from the attention paid to another group. When a team truly understands this, edge cases reflect back towards the center of the design, enlivening the product’s possibilities from the first interactions. Designing for the few allows us to design for the many.

The downside to edge cases is that they can distract us. We want to plan for all of the contingencies, to be vigilant superheroes for our users, prepared for every villain. But you have to balance discouraging unwanted behaviors with encouraging desired behaviors. If you’re using edge cases to combat bad actors, those undesired behaviors will reflect back into the heart of the product and overwhelm it.

If you release a mobile banking app where the main selling point is a proprietary feature that prevents hacking, we can almost guarantee you the content of your first major product review. Selling worst-case scenarios is for life insurance companies.

Talking has no future.

We’ve been saying this one since the very beginning of our work together. If you want to change how your team works but can’t figure out where to start, look at what you write down. Odds are, there’s something missing in your documentation.

When we say “documentation”, it’s not a call for frameworks and systems. It’s really just a call to create some artifacts from your conversations and to have some formality about it.

If you have a great idea, you write it down. Easy. Pulling things out of your head and exploring them through another medium puts those ideas on a timeline; you can watch them grow and change. In your head, they may be free of time, but they simply aren’t real.

There’s a big call right now in the industry to have more conversations. Talk about your users, bring up the uncomfortable topics, push the boundaries of what’s possible. But when people talk about these conversations, about the power of “exchanging ideas”, they usually skip over how to capture things.

The capture of Great Ideas is not the problem. After all, if your idea breaks because you put it on a sticky note, it wasn’t that great of an idea in the first place.

No, the problem is all the stuff that we don’t think warrants capture. Design, especially product design, is frighteningly complex, and it only takes one or two untracked conversations—one decision here, one change there—to spin the whole thing out of control. We overestimate the power of human memory, especially in the workplace, where who remembers what can be a billion dollar question affecting millions of lives. (Or, you know, just a question that affects your ability to keep your job. It’s not the money that matters here.)

But it’s not just about capturing stuff, and it’s definitely not about transforming your workplace into a surveillance state. It’s about access.

Because when we do capture our words, we also overestimate their power to hold information. Without a way to recall and use information, it’s useless. Sure, you’ve trained your team to post summaries of critique to Slack, but do you have a way of reviewing them? Can new employees easily understand the system and utilize it? Do the summaries lead, say, engineering or business development, to a better long-term understanding of the product?

We say access instead of feedback, because it’s not a terrible idea to be able to consider your own value to society in a way that’s independent of external approval. Don’t let your tombstone say “Did I do this right?”

We say talking has no future because without something tangible to ground it, it is difficult to turn talking into knowledge. We repeat our past mistakes, or worse, we can’t replicate our successes. We allow someone else to tell our story, or worse, we forget that we can add to the narrative. We text or exchange emails or write an article and in the moment, we feel like we’re a part of something, but later on, we long to see that contribution acknowledged. Without being able to access and use the information we create, we might be heard, but we can’t be sure anyone’s really listening.

Three of our favorite advice columns from the past three years:

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. These bumper stickers will fade away in the summer sun by September 1, 2019.