2017 Design Lessons

January
Sprinting with GV

I had followed the Design Partners at Google Ventures for quite a while, so it was tremendous to have the opportunity to do a sprint with John Zeratsky and Jake Knapp. The process opened my eyes to just how much can be accomplished in a week that can help steer the ship in the right direction. What I liked about FBN's sprint in particular was that the concept we prototyped was all wrong. And that's ok. It was fantastic to learn that critical information in a week as opposed to learning that over a much longer timeframe.

Lesson: Move fast and you'll be amazed at what you can do in a short amount of time.

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February
Bringing Sprint Mentality to FBN

After our GV Sprint, Jordan Taylor, a PM at FBN, and I continued our quick and iterative process by redesigning our project twice within a week and testing fully functional prototypes with our members. Beyond that, we also took some of the tools from our week at GV and utilized them with different teams within FBN in an attempt to unearth any concepts or ideas we were overlooking.

Lesson: Iterate on new ideas and evolve them to a stage where they can work for your team.

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March
Refer-No-Friends

After all of the time I put into Refer-A-Friend programs at Extole, I was sad to see DirecTV cancel their program. While not a client of Extole, I saw it as a bad sign that a nation-wide company like that would cancel such a program. Referral Marketing can be a very powerful tool, but there are so many variables that are baked into the success or failure of a program. It's never simple to understand why one program doesn't see results.

Lesson: Always self-diagnose your product to make sure you understand your users.

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April
Who Could Forget Architectural Design

FBN was moving into a new headquarters and it only made sense that I lend my services to the cause. This project was a reminder of how arduous the construction process can be. It also was a real challenge to stay up-to-speed with everything that was going on with the product at FBN while being on the team that was creating the company's new home.

Lesson: Time management is critical. (And I'm still working on it.)

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May
Talking About Ag Tech

I realized that I love to share what I'm learning. I was on a panel discussion for the Enterprise UX Bay Area Meet-up that focused on designing for the common good. I elaborated on the difference we were making for our members at FBN and also touched on the fact that all the designers in Silicon Valley who are yearning for a true sense of purpose behind what they are doing can look beyond non-profits to find fulfillment.

Lesson: Share your knowledge and make connections because you never know where it will lead.

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June
Mirrors Are Not Whiteboards

In the summer, I learned that if your startup grows incredibly quickly, you might have to use the music and dance school next door for additional meeting rooms. When that happens, you can't assume that the mirrors in the dance studio will work as well as whiteboards. They don't. And it's much harder to document design sessions than it is to read it in-person. And that's saying a lot.

Lesson: Always make sure you have quality writing surfaces in your office.

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July
Less is More

Once in a while you might make something that, on first glance, appears to be a bit boring. Sometimes that's ok. If design without content is frivolous, then make sure that the content comes across. Now, I can appreciate the hospital in Napa wanting to make the random signs on the wall in the ER a little more eye-catching, but the De Stijl abstractions certainly didn't help the readability of this sign. 

Lesson: Tone it down. Everything that is designed doesn't need to be unique.

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August
Engineers Love Designers

I learned that even if you don't know much of anything when it comes to backend software, if you get the job done designing the frontend and you are a team player, the engineering team will miss you when you are out. Even if you are out with two kidney stones in two-and-a-half weeks. In fact, they might miss you so much that when you come back you have a plush kidney holding stones next to your Darth Vader mug and John Deere tractor.

Lesson: Find a great team and always be yourself.

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September
Ugly But Useful Beats Pretty But Pointless

This is a mantra you will hear time and time again if you ever have the pleasure of knowing Kate Rutter. And it is so utterly and completely true. At FBN, we were beyond capacity and needed to move to our new office. Unfortunately, there had been a number of delays and construction was months behind schedule. Well, that didn't matter. I was a bit defeated that our company was moving into an unfinished office, but what I learned was that since we had all the necessary elements in place, no one cared that it wasn't finished. They saw the direction it was going and were excited. So, there were bathrooms with no mirrors, sections of the building with no walls, and conference rooms with no furniture. But it was useful. The fact that it wasn't pretty yet, didn't matter.

Lesson: As Kate always says, "Ugly but useful, beats pretty but pointless."

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October
The Napa Fires

My family lives in a neighborhood that was under recommended evacuation during the Napa fires. Just a few streets away, people were under mandatory evacuation and homes were lost within a mile or two. It was surreal to visually document our life and leave without knowing if we would ever come back. It brought a lot of clarity to me and my wife and we were able to spend some unexpected quality time with our kids down in Santa Cruz. The downside was that even our photos in Santa Cruz had the smoke from the Napa fires in the background.

Lesson: Even in difficult situations, you must remain focused on what really matters.

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November
Icons Aren't Always Enough

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I was on my way to work when the car started driving strangely. First, the radio stopped working. Then the "ABS" light came on. Then the battery light came on with another light that I had no idea what it meant. There was a big circle that I thought was the head of a stick figure, but I couldn't understand what it meant. So, I figured that I needed to pull over. As I was doing that, the car suddenly died and I drifted over and got off the road. After I called AAA, I got the manual out of the glove box and looked up all the icons. The description of each icon that lit up was, "If this comes on, pull over immediately and contact your dealership." So, not only did the icons not mean anything, but neither did the descriptions.

It turns out this icon isn't a man falling over with a hand puppet. It has something to do with airbags not working properly. Either way, I had no idea what was going on.

Lesson: Even if you think something is obvious, design it in a way that leaves no doubt.

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December
72 Feet of Glory

I have been the sole designer at FBN for a year-and-a-half. I know that people appreciate what I do and I know that I have made a difference for the product. But in spite of all of that, there are always new ways to make an impact in the role you are in.

FBN had it's Farmer2Farmer conference in Omaha during the middle of December, and there was a bit of work still left to be done on the keynote presentations. I had set deadlines before the company left for Omaha, but content was changing and people were slammed leading up to the event. So, when our wheels touched down, not everything was ready.

When your team is about to present in front of thousands of people and their presentations aren't complete, the importance of design is something that will never have to be debated again. I worked hard with a lot of incredible folks to get everything just right for the keynotes. Even Shark Tank's Kevin O'Leary sent me a deck that looked like it was built on a template from '97. I couldn't in good conscience let him go up there in front of a 72'x18' display and be shamed by the visual portion of his presentation! It was another way in which I was able to support my team and lead with design.

Lesson: When you can help people to look good with design, they always appreciate it.

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John FerriganComment