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Going Offline to Design Better Solutions

Going Offline to Design Better Solutions

A blog from Eugen Esanu explaining why it's best to take a break from the online world and take your your inspiration for design from books and printed methods instead.
Going Offline to Design Better Solutions Eugen Esanu

Disconnecting will make you a better designer and thinker

In our modern days, with all the technological advancements, we become tangled in a daily loop of checking our phones, social media accounts, and staying connected to multiple devices.

We scroll through infinite feeds of almost useless information which bloat our minds. Distractions are everywhere and they only make our thinking process harder. Even we, designers, sit for hours on websites such as Dribbble and Pinterest, craving for new colour combinations and “cool” stuff.

In the age of everything-digital, we slowly forget what it means to draw a prototype by hand. So I recommend you to open and read books written by the masters who did it before us. Books with solid design principles and lessons, and not our subtle design cues and delights

We slowly forget what it means to disconnect from the Internet and reconnect with the offline world. And it affects designers more than ever. Why? Because we become blind to the problems we are trying to solve. People who design for others become sucked by a tech wave, forgetting what the real needs of a user are.

“I have said it before, and I think it is worth repeating. Technology alone is not enough. Technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities… is what yields the results that make our hearts sing.”— Steve Jobs

People on phones on a subway

Longer we stay in the loop, easier we forget that our thinking becomes like everyone’s else. We subconsciously kill any meaningful solutions to any significant problems we are trying to solve. When designing a website or app, the first thing we usually do is to ask the research team for data and then go to Dribbble for “solutions”. A pixel here, a pixel there, a glance at our competitors and voila — the final product is ready. And then we complain that everything around looks the same. Of course it does, because most of us use the same process.

If you want to create something different, meaningful, and impactful, you have to break the loop.

Crowd waiting for a train

The story of how a CEO disconnected from the loop and reconnected to his customers

In his book Scramble, Marty Neumeier tells the story of David Stone, the young CEO of BigSky. BigSky owns a hotel chain accross the America, but lately the travel industry isn’t doing so well. People aren’t travelling that much anymore, and a lot of people don’t want to book accommodation anymore.

One rainy night in December, David is called back to the office for a management meeting. The company’s chairman says that the board members have reached the end of their patience. If David and his leadership team can’t produce a viable turnaround plan in five weeks, they’re out of a job. The problem is, they’ve already used every trick in the book, and nothing has worked. Their only hope is to try something new.

He set on a road of experimentation and research, to find a solution on how to fix the company and the industry. He went back to the basics, re-reading all the strategy books and blogs he could find. He asked for ideas and suggestions from his team, but in the end nothing good came out. All the suggestions he heard were just small fixes that will only create an illusion of revenue boost and profits.

One day he hires an old friend’s design consulting company to help him solve the problem. His friend suggests a creative process that will lead them to their answers. Once David agreed, his friend guides him and the leadership team through the process. It consists of defining and re-defining what the company is, its uniqueness, origins, where is heading and how to build a tribe around their product. They followed through the steps for an entire week and worked hard without seeing any real results.

After a couple of days into the process, David, being exhausted from all the thinking process, decides to take a weekend off to travel. He wanted to relax his mind a bit and travel to a neighbouring city and see for himself how his customers experience things.

Snow covered street with a bus

He bought a bus ticket and eagerly took his place and stared through the window. Through a cold winter, the bus rolled smoothly, passing small cities on its way, just before a town where it began to decelerate. Yellow detour signs appeared on the right side of the road. The driver announced a delay due to ongoing highway construction. David sighed and thought “Why can’t they announce the passengers on time when there are ongoing works?”

By the time he arrived at his destination, he had missed the train. The man in the booth said there are no refunds, but another train was leaving soon. David bought a second ticket, but this particular train will take him in nine hours to the final destination. So this trip already became a pain in the a* for him.

Once the train arrive, he got in, leaned back in the seat and thought, “Why is it so hard to travel such a short distance? If a weekend to a neighbouring city is this complicated, what’s it like for BigSky’s customers?” BigSky’s customers, sometimes have to travel thousands of kilometres. During these long travel distances, there are a lot of connections, long layovers and security lines. David had always been more focused on the hotels themselves — the design, experience, atmosphere, service, quality, people. But he never thought about the end-to-end experience.

While you search for solutions online, your answers may be offline.

Blocked doorway

And then he realised that with all modern advances, the process of travel today is far from simple. In fact, it’s much more complicated now than it was before (irony of life). With the dying agency business, the tasks of piecing together a complicated trip had fallen on the shoulders of customers.

A smile spread across David’s face. What if BigSky automated the agency business? They could simplify travel using modern technologies. That would ease the process, and allow to predict and build these travel routes for people. They could design a website with an intuitive interface, that would produce complete itineraries and not just flight or hotel suggestions.

David realised that while he was trying to fix a tire (metaphor for small problem), the real problems was that the roads were closed. The broader issues were that people were not travelling because of complicated and unpredictable travels.

Designers have to embrace physical again

If you approach your work process in the same way all the time, your results are not going to change.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail” — Abraham Maslow

Think outside the box

 We often assume our users are very much like us

And we make this mistakes especially when it comes to building digital products. We picture them with the latest devices, the most recent software, and the fastest connections. And while we may maintain a veritable zoo of older devices and browsers for testing, we spend most of our time building from the comfort of our modern, always-online desktop devices.

Nowadays we have to think about offline more than ever because this is what makes us human. By staying focused only on the online experiences of our product, we forget that our users at one point go will have no access to the Internet or the phone. And they need us on the other side of the screen (metaphor). According to Alex Schleifer, Airbnb’s head of design:

You need to bring your tool forward when it’s most needed, and hide it when it’s not. And then you need to build the transition from the digital world to the real world. We’re constantly talking about designing for mom and dad and the travel experiences we can transform offline. We as designers have to embrace the physical again.

Phone out of battery

Sometimes you just need to disconnect to get the answers to your questions

Feel stuck in a process?

  • Go for a walk with your dog and let the mind breath;
  • Go and meet your users and try to live a day in their life;
  • Go and consume thoughts and ideas from design masters of previous centuries;
  • Go and visit a museum and see how other creators made things;

All of us need to do a little bit of each to understand the essence of creating better products and experiences for people. In the age of everything-digital, I have a feeling that computers have robbed us of the feeling that we are actually making things for people. Lynda Barry, a cartoonist, has a saying:

In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits.

And I would like to finish this piece with what Ryan Holiday writes in his article 22 Rules for Creating Work That Lasts:

Seek Inspiration In the Greats — Rick Rubin, the record producer who has worked with everyone from Jay-Z to Adele, urges his artists not to think about what’s currently on the airwaves. “If you listen to the greatest music ever made, that would be a better way,” he says, “to find your own voice to matter today than listening to what’s on the radio and thinking: ‘I want to compete with this.’ It’s stepping back and looking at a bigger picture than what’s going on at the moment.” He also urges them not to constrain themselves merely to their medium for inspiration — you might be better off drawing inspiration from the world’s greatest museums than, say, finding it in the current Billboard charts.

Further reading

The article was inspired from the upcoming book of Marty Neumeier, Scramble which is written in the style of a business thriller. Highly recommended read for anyone, whether you are a designer, entrepreneur or product manager. And also make sure to check Ryan Holiday’s article 22 Rules for Creating Work That Lasts.