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Prototypes: Low- to High-Fidelity

Mar 5, 2020

Moving from low- to high-fidelity prototypes as your project progresses is one of the design lessons Irene Au shares in her talk The Architecture of Creative Collaboration. Too often Au has noticed software teams jumping straight into high-fidelity mockups instead of starting their projects with low-fidelity sketches and increasing the level of fidelity with each iteration.

Why start with low-fidelity? As a designer, why shouldn't you try to express your vision in as much detail as possible?

Au says that in the early stages of a software project, high-fidelity prototypes make teams focus on the wrong things and communicate clarity that's not actually there. Early stage conversations should revolve around high-level concepts like values and priorities. But when teams huddle around high-fidelity mockups, they start discussing the UI details presented to them – not vision and meaning.

Au herself learned that an architect agency who she was a client of sometimes hides high-fidelity drawings from their clients. The agency presents them instead with low-fidelity sketches in order to manage expectations and help clients focus on the right things at the right time.

I have previously touched on the subject of high-fidelity prototypes when I argued that mockups make it harder for teams to adopt iterative product development practices (here is a link to the post). In addition, when you start out with mockups, you do most of your design work up front instead of allowing the designs to grow and adapt as the team learns new things about the problem space.

Markers and sketchpads are still as important tools for designers as prototyping applications.

Final notes

A full transcript of Irene Au's talk (as well as the talk itself) can be found at 99u.adobe.com/videos/55969/irene-au-the-architecture-of-creative-collaboration.

Ryan Holiday's Notecard System

Feb 29, 2020

I used author Ryan Holiday's notecard system when I was writing a blog post about David Epstein's Range. It worked so well for me that I wanted to write this post to encourage you to give the system a try as well. I'll first summarize the system and then discuss the main advantages of it.

The notecard system starts out by underlining important passages and writing marginalia as you read through your book. When you underline or mark anything in the book, you also attach a post-it to that page in order to flag your markings and find them faster later on. I personally ripped my post-its to smaller strips to make them last longer and not take so much space inside the book.

After you have finished reading the book, and waited for a few weeks, you can start going through your markings. For this stage you need 10 to 50 index cards depending on the amount of markings (I ended up using around 30 index cards for Range). Transfer your underlines and thoughts to the index cards: First, write down a quote, a note, or whatever that captures the idea of your marking. After that, categorize the card by writing the theme or the category of the card in the top right hand corner of the index card. It's up to you to come up with your own categories but here are some categories I used with my Range notes:

  • Learning: strategies and practices for learning new things
  • Validation: the art of testing your hypotheses and ideas
  • Organizations: knowledge and ideas related to communal work
  • Me: advice and areas of improvement in my own life (I copied this category from Ryan Holiday)

Finally, store your index cards and return to them whenever you need inspiration or advice.

***

I used my index cards to write my blog post about Range. In practice, this meant that I spread out my index cards on the table and started outlining my post with them. It felt so intuitive and effortless to move physical cards around to structure my writing that I actually started preparing for an upcoming presentation using the same method.

However, you don't need to write in order to get benefits from the system. Here are some other things I found extremely valuable:

  • Writing notes based on your reading requires you to also reflect your reading more. It might take you more time to finish a book with a notecard system. But you will also engage more with the text and hopefully retain more of it.
  • Waiting for a few weeks before coming back to a book introduces some automatic pre-editing when it comes to your notetaking. Some of the underlines or marginalia that seemed really important at the moment don't actually seem that relevant anymore after some time has passed.
  • It's often not enough to make a note on a page in order to remember an important idea or concept later if it's something you can't make part of your everyday life immediately. Compiling knowledge into a commonplace book, whether it's in a form of index cards, electronic notes, or an actual book, is an age-old practice that's worth trying out.

Additional notes

You can find Ryan Holiday's more in-depth description of his system here: The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read

Marginal Gains and Things to Consider

Feb 23, 2020

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear does a great job telling the story of marginal gains and British Cycling. During the last decade, British cyclists have dominated the sport under Dave Brailsford's management. Brailsford is known to look for small opportunities to gain competitive advantage instead of focusing only on high impact improvements. These small opportunities include things like teaching team members how to wash their hands properly so that they would get ill less often and packing your own pillow when travelling so that you sleep a little better on the road.

Brailsford's claim is that if you break bicycle races into all the elements you can think of, and then improve every element by 1%, you end up with a significant increase in performance when you add up all these marginal gains. To read an excerpt from Atomic Habits about British Cycling and marginal gains, you can visit jamesclear.com/marginal-gains.

In addition to the big effect marginal gains can have as they compound, looking for 1% improvements can help your team avoid analysis paralysis: teams are forced to let go of the idea of perfection and focus on progression instead. However, before you introduce the idea of marginal gains to your team, there are couple of things you might want to consider:

Marginal gains are not long shots

Tim Harford points out in his article about marginal gains that "long shot" innovations are also needed in our society. Long shots are breakthrough innovations that change industries as opposed to small improvements to existing technologies. Whereas marginal gains resemble baby steps, long shots are giant leaps. As Harford puts it, "Marginal gains give us zippier web pages; long shots gave us the internet."

Would Blockbuster still be operational if it had focused more on marginal gains? Probably not. As business environments change, you also have to make substantial systematic changes to your operations. Marginal gains might sustain your competitive advantage against other established incumbents but not against upstarts that operate with new technologies and business models.

Critical success factors

While Brailsford does look for improvements in areas that other coaches might ignore, he makes sure that the focus is on the core and not the periphery: "You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place, and then focus your improvements around them."

There are certain fundamentals that your team has to get right. There are also areas and improvements that are easier or more fun to work with. It might be helpful for your team to observe which areas get a lot of attention and which very little as you start working with marginal gains.

Team buy-in

Here is one more piece of advice from Brailsford, "One caveat is that the whole marginal gains approach doesn’t work if only half the team buy in. In that case, the search for small improvements will cause resentment."

People get territorial at work as they take ownership of their projects and tasks. In addition, ideas for improvements can be interpreted as criticism and therefore result in defensive behavior. As you approach others with your 1% improvements, you might face resistance unless you get others to also identify marginal gains and share their ideas with the rest of the team.

What Software Developers Can Learn from Range

Feb 16, 2020

David Epstein's Range is the antithesis of the 10,000 hour rule. Whereas the 10,000 hour rule tells us that excellence is a result of early specialization, Range argues that instead of pursuing deep expertise, we should seek breadth in our skills and knowledge. For example, did you know that Nobel laureates are more likely to have interests in arts and other fields compared to their peers?

In this post, I'll discuss the key lessons software developers can take away from Range.

All section headings are quotes from the book.

"Frustration is not a sign you are not learning, but ease is"

Continuous learning is not an option for software developers who want to stay relevant as the technology landscape keeps on changing. Here is what Range teaches us about productive learning:

First, the more mistakes you are able to tolerate when learning new things, the better you are going to remember the new information even as time passes. This phenomenon is referred to as the hypercorrection effect. Hypercorrection effect is so powerful that educators say struggle is more important than repetition when it comes to efficient learning.

Second, you should practice "spacing" and "interleaving" when learning. Spacing means leaving time between practice sessions. Its effectiveness is somewhat related to the hypercorrection effect: with spacing, you add struggle to your learning and therefore help yourself remember things better in the long run.

Interleaving refers to mixed practice, and it's the opposite of focusing on one type of problem when practicing – i.e. "blocking." Blockers perform better than interleavers during practice sessions but when interleavers and blockers are given new problem scenarios, interleavers surpass blockers.

"Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren't you"

Career switchers are not a rare sight among software developers (I'm a career switcher myself). When you start a new career as an adult, it's easy to feel like others have a head start over you. At your workplace, you look around and see younger people who seem to know twice as much about software as you do. Meanwhile, your past colleagues in your old field are comfortably moving up the career ladder. You might think to yourself if switching careers was such a smart choice after all.

When The Dark Horse Project researchers started looking for high-flyers from different professions, they soon discovered that the majority of their interviewees had unconventional career paths. It was much more likely for a person to be a career switcher than a person who had pursued the same professional goals from early adulthood. Throughout their professional lives, these "dark horses" had been on a lookout for opportunities that could be a good match for them. They were concerned much more about matching their interests and skills with different opportunities as opposed to "falling behind" when switching professions.

"There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors"

When you become highly skilled in one domain, you also become inflexible in thought and behavior. When the problems you are used to solving change even slightly, your expertise can become a hindrance. This is referred to as "cognitive entrenchment."

If you want to avoid cognitive entrenchment, you could learn a new programming language or a new domain instead of specializing in one domain or language.

Going for breadth instead of depth might not reward you in the short term. For example, in my profession as a software consultant, my clients want to see deep specialization when they are looking for, let's say, a JavaScript developer. However, breadth helps you become a better problem solver as you become better equipped to study the problem itself instead of trying to match your preferred tools to it. Compare this to the law of the instrument: if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As is the case with learning, what's good for you in the short term can be harmful in the long term.

Final notes

Range contains much more lessons and interesting food for thought about topics such as grit and innovation than this post tries to cover. If you are wondering whether to add Range to your reading list or not, here's a link The New York Times review of the book. I personally recommend this book for everyone who is facing external or internal pressure to specialize instead of choosing the path of a generalist.

Weirdness Budget

Feb 9, 2020

Weirdness budget is the idea that when you are learning something new, there are only so many unfamiliar concepts that you can handle without getting frustrated or confused. It's easier for us to learn one thing at a time instead of getting bombarded by lots of new ideas that don't align with our current practices or ways of thinking.

This means that when you are building a new product, you should avoid making things any weirder than they need to be. You have a budget for weirdness and you should spend it wisely.

Of course, weirdness is subjective. What's weird for us can be normal for others. Part of understanding your customer is knowing what's weird for them.

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