Make Better Stuff empowers people to make products and systems that strengthen human relationships. We reach people by way of hands-on workshops in creativity and new product development; in posts on this blog (scroll down for posts); and in an advisory board comprised of academics and professionals in the arts, technology, and business.

I’m Xanthe Matychak, founder of Make Better Stuff. I’m a designer and educator interested in the intersection of art, technology, and entrepreneurship. I’ve shared my work at national venues such as SxSW, World MakerFaire, and TEDx. Let’s make something amazing together.

Write me at xanthe.matychak@gmail.com

…so we might as well get good at it.”

This is the opening line to chapter four in Chris Anderson’s book Makers: The Next Industrial Revolution. Okay, I buy it. But just how do we get good at design? C. A. says that we need to learn to use software and hardware of the maker revolution. You can teach yourself or pop into any makerspace for classes on Arduino and 3D Printing and so on.

But there’s another thing that makes us “good at design.” And it’s not something you’ll likely find in a class at a makerspace. It’s the human side of design. And I argue that human centered design (HCD) skills are just as important as tech skills if we want to be designers who make stuff that matters.

To develop HCD skills, I propose we understand and practice three principles: Expertise, Empathy, and Emotion. I’ll flesh these out a bit right here:

EXPERTISE. In David Weinberger’s book Too Big To Know, he argues that the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge and expertise as we transition from a world in which knowledge is disseminated by individual experts via paper to a world in which knowledge is shared through a network. He defines this transition  here:

This transition from expertise modeled on books to expertise modeled on networks is uncomfortable, especially now as we live through the messy transition. We know the value of traditional expertise. We can see a new type emerging that offers different values. From credentialed to uncredentialed. From certitude to ambivalence. From consistency to plenitude. From the opacity conferred from authority to a constant demand for transparency. From contained and knowable to linked and unmasterable.

So if we’re all designers, the first thing we have to understand is that we aren’t 20th century design experts; rather, we are 21st century networked designers. And thus we need to transition from experts who know it all to designers who know how to harness the collective intelligence of a network.

EMPATHY. This transition is uncomfortable, Weinberger warns. How do we let go of our know-it-all status and harness the collective intelligence of our networks? It’s not as easy as asking people what they want. We all know Henry Ford’s famous line, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” But the trick isn’t just in asking, but in asking in a particular way. If we rely only on standard market research tools, like online surveys and conference room focus groups, then we might not gain the emotional connection necessary to understand what design will serve us best. But if we take cues from anthropology and gain trust of people in their homes, workplaces, and schools, then we might begin to understand the diverse points of view within our networks, all of them experts in their own lives.

EMOTION. Once we gain empathy for the people we are designing with — note that I didn’t say “the people we are designing for” — then we can design something that resonates. Why is resonance important? It’s the thing that separates the average from the remarkable. Emotion is in those little details, details that let your customers know that you understand them. The brainy quotes printed large on each Adafruit invoice, that’s an emotional detail. It’s a wink, an intimate gesture from the company to the customer that says, “Hey, you and I know each other, don’t we.”

Brainy quotes are one way to design for emotion. Another is less explicit: implied metaphor. Implied metaphors in design compel us to transfer to the new design the positive qualities of a familiar thing. Jonathan Chapman, author of Emotionally Durable Design, says, “Its easy to design a toaster that will last twenty years. It’s harder to design a toaster that someone will want to keep for twenty years.” So we need to look for metaphors for things that get better with age, and ask ourselves as designers how we might design those qualities into our work. A wooden laptop might make you want to keep it for longer than a metal one that scratches more easily, because it has taken on an heirloom quality for you.

Now that’s good design. Learn the tech tools. Yes, you must. But also learn humanity in design by redefining expertise, gaining empathy for all types of people, then design with emotion.

Jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny took inspiration from his grandfather’s player piano and had an entire robotic band built, then took it out on tour. Incredible.

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There’s a concept in Buddhism that’s often borrowed by folks who teach creativity. It’s called “The Beginner’s Mind.” Adopting a beginner’s mind about a subject or project is supposed to allow us to be open to many more possibilities than if we approach the project as an expert.

This past week I found another great use for beginner’s mind. I was at Ed Tech Day at Ithaca College sharing the work I am doing with my students in the Department of Environmental Science there. The exhibit was titled “Arduino in the Classroom” and folks really enjoyed talking with me about it.

Part of what made the conversation so engaging, I realized, is that when it comes to Arduino, I am a beginner. Thus, when talking about Arduino I was much more clear about it than I am with what I have expertise in, such as design.

I found it easy to talk about the Arduino and what it means in the world. Most people think it’s something for kids, but I was there in part to correct that assumption. Arduino is the stuff that’s hidden inside of most of the products we use every day, but because it’s hidden inside folks don’t relate.

Which is why people are so easily excited about 3D printers. The stuff that comes off a 3D printer looks like something they might own or see in a store because 3D printing provides the skin of a product. Arduino is the guts. And it’s much easier for average folks to identify a person by their skin than by their guts, right?

Once I got them looking at the guts, I explained with a very simple example (servo sweep), how hardware and software work together to make our stuff do stuff. And then I explained how what we prototype on an Arduino can be made into a circuit board diagram and manufactured in USA, in a batch as small as three boards! And that was it. People got it. And they were amazed. As they should be. The democratization of this type of technology is amazing.

Thank you, beginner’s mind, for helping me tell that story.

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I had a fun experience the other day. I am working on a game project with a designer and an electrical engineer. On Friday, I had lunch with the designer and we worked on a series of storyboards for the game. At the end of the lunch he left and I thought, “Great. With this storyboard, the EE will know exactly what to do.” Then I thought about that for a minute and concluded, “I don’t think the EE will appreciate this storyboard so much.”

So I translated the storyboard in to faux code pictured here. I showed it to the EE and he said, “O yeh. This makes sense.”

This past Friday and Saturday I helped out with a design-thinking workshop led by Tracy Brandenburg and Sirietta Simoncini and their graduate students in the Systems Engineering program at Cornell University. The workshop was held for dozens of executives from around the country.

Throughout the two-day workshop, the execs were asked to prototype their ideas in several forms: physical prototypes, storyboards, and skits. Each time the workshop participants had to present their prototypes, Tracy or Sirietta would call out a reminder, “OK. Once again, it’s time to let go of your prototype both physically and emotionally.” For some, this was easy. For others, this was really difficult. It’s hard to detach from something we just made and admit to ourselves “This isn’t done yet. I need help.”

In an art school critique, it’s often the case that students aren’t allowed to defend their work. “You won’t be there in the gallery to explain your concept to the viewer” so the reasoning goes.

Art students are trained to let go of their work.  My colleague from RIT, Roberley Bell, has an assignment in which her design freshmen work on a project all semester. Then on the last day of class, she hands out shovels and tells the students to bury their work in the ground. This may seem extreme. But compare the burying to the exercise from the professor she got the idea from — he hands out matches and instructs his students to burn their work!

And then there’s this experience I had as an undergrad in art school: I approached my professor with a print I had made and asked him what he thought. He looked at it for 10 long seconds. Then he picked it up, ripped it in half, threw it on the floor and said “That’s what I think.” For months I was shocked. But then I came to realize two things: 1. He was probably having a bad day and 2. He didn’t rip up my work because he didn’t like it. He did it to show me that I was being too precious about it. Harsh as that approach may seem, he effectively taught me to let go.

What makes this letting go even more difficult is that you can’t let go completely. You need to let go enough to gather useful feedback and listen well. But you also have to remember that you are the designer or artist or entrepreneur and your vision matters. When Project Runway contestants have a client challenge, their mentor Tim Gunn always has to remind them, “At the end of the day, it’s your name going down the runway. You want to please the client. But you also want to maintain your vision.”

Not easy.

A trick, I think, is to remember that feedback is essential but should not always be taken literally. For example, when someone testing your prototype says “This button should be red” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the button should be red. As a designer, you need to interpret feedback. “This button should be red” probably means, “I want the button, or the action the button sets into place, easier to find and use.”

Still, in order to get feedback in the first place, you need to let go of your prototypes, both physically and emotionally. You need to be open and vulnerable. You need to have faith that the feedback, once you interpret it, will help you develop and deliver something better that you are able to when working alone.

related reading:

http://99u.com/articles/7187/why-sharing-your-work-setbacks-struggles-breaks-creative-blocks

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