Bad Advice

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I recently had my first article appear in print! You can find it in the the September/October 2017 issue of Interactions Magazine. 

What is Interactions Magazine? "The magazine is published bi-monthly by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the largest educational and scientific computing society in the world. Interactions is the flagship magazine for the ACM's Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI), with a global circulation that includes all SIGCHI members." 

I was encouraged by Dan Rosenberg, a mentor and former manager, to submit an article based on some previous blog posts here, so a few months ago I cobbled together my Bad Advice blog posts into a more cohesive article. A couple rounds of editing later, I was able to get it down to the suggested length. As the old saying goes, if I had more time I would have written a shorter letter. 

It's a kick to see some random thoughts shared in a few blog posts turn into a magazine article. It's not The New Yorker or Rolling Stone, but I didn't expect more than a handful of people to be paying any attention anyway. It's an honor, thank you.  

The original article as submitted appears in full below. Enjoy! 


I’ve had the privilege of working with many great professionals, some of whom have been generous with words of wisdom. The right advice at the right moment can save an incredible amount of time, effort, and disappointment. 

What I didn’t realize early on was that much of it was actually bad. It’s not the obviously bad advice that’s problematic, it’s the ones that sound good that are most dangerous since they can make a difficult situation worse, a hard job even harder. 

Here I share my top three examples of bad advice and how I learned to avoid them. 

"Trust Your Gut"

This advice is empowering, suggesting you already know the answer – just ignore the naysayers. This is bad advice because our cognitive biases often lead us astray. The following are just a few. 

Confirmation bias is our tendency to favor information that supports our existing beliefs and discount those that disagree with them. Two people who hold different beliefs can see the exact same information and come to different conclusions. We view the past in the best possible light or least embarrassing way and we selectively remember those things that support what we already believe. What rationalizations are you creating to back up a decision you were already inclined to support? Are you discounting legitimate critique of your work? 

The sunk-cost fallacy leads us to continue because we have already invested a lot of time, resources, and effort towards something, even when it's irrational to continue. How often have you pursued a design solution beyond the point of reason because you already spent so much time on it? It may be better to start fresh, but we find it difficult to do so because of the perceived waste of the already-expended effort. 

One of my favorites is the above average effect where we overestimate our positive qualities, specifically our capabilities. Most of us believe we are exceptional – the majority of drivers consider themselves to be above average. We might believe that we have such amazing insight into the human condition that we can design something that is obviously going to be immediately intuitive. Of course people will get it, I’m that good. 

I was a designer on Crimson Skies, a game for the original Xbox. In this game, you flew around in cool propeller planes shooting down other planes and airships. One chapter I designed required you, the protagonist, to prove yourself worthy. I devised a series of challenges including a follow-the-leader flight trial through a series of obstacles and maneuvers. I spent a lot of time making sure the story made sense, the environment was set up just so, and getting the proper balance of speed and special moves. Sounds fun, right? I thought so. 

 Just a few of the online comments regarding the Trial of Skill. 

Just a few of the online comments regarding the Trial of Skill. 

After launching, the feedback from customers on online forums was clear that this particular chapter was anything but. During development I should have sought out more opinions from people outside the team who weren't already expert players and I should have listened to those who said that it was a bit too difficult – I didn’t recognize my confirmation bias. I should have ignored the fact that I had spent so much time on it – that was a sunk cost. I listened to my gut a little too much and I honestly feel like I almost broke the single-player campaign mode because of it.

Instead of following your gut blindly and falling victim to your own inherent cognitive biases, do the following.

  • Train your gut
  • Lead with design
  • Validate with data

Instead of trusting your gut, develop good judgment. Actively train yourself to be aware of your biases and find ways to work against them. Train your brain to work with you, not against you.

Put your design skills and expertise to good use – understand the problem before trying to solve it. Validate your ideas and assumptions through testing and seek out data that might refute it. It takes guts to go back to see if you were wrong and admit it when you were.

"Be Disruptive"

I love this one. It’s meant to encourage boldness and innovation. It's a great mantra to challenge existing models, businesses, and ways of doing things. Unfortunately, all too often I have seen it used as a meaningless platitude and as an excuse to become a self-righteous pain in the ass. Leading disruptive change isn't as simple as raising your fist and yelling “follow me!” unless you’re the big boss in a culture where people will actually do as you say. Being disruptive is easy. Enabling lasting, effective, and positive change is hard.

A few years into my career, I developed a small reputation as the guy who asked hard, challenging questions of management. Because of this my peers would encourage me to bring up the difficult topics while they’d stay back, nice and safe, to be potentially better informed and definitely highly amused. I didn't know any better as my ego and mouth often got the better of me. Those all-hands studio meetings were fun, I tell you what. Didn’t help my career much, but I could stay warm at night curled up in my self-righteous blanket.

Over the years I have seen many others across different organizations take a similar approach with similarly unproductive results. They were likely given the same advice to "be disruptive" and followed it. I can’t say there was a single event that made it clear to me that my disruptive behavior wasn't helpful to anyone, least of all to me, but it’s likely due to realizing that it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

It’s far easier to destroy than build. In 2010 a blogger had a critical email exchange with Steve Jobs who ended the discussion by saying, "By the way, what have you done that's so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others [sic] work and belittle their motivations?" Don't confuse the ability to critique with the ability to create. It isn't the same unless you're Roger Ebert (or some other professional critic).

You don’t have to be the hero of the change. This is difficult, since part of the “be disruptive” manifesto is its hero syndrome. We are human; we have egos. Learn to manage yours. (When you figure that out, please let me know how you did it.)

Don’t confuse “different” with “better”. Sometimes different is worse or already discarded for good reasons you simply don’t know. Sometimes different is better, but not everyone may agree or it may be threatening. This may be unreasonable, but if it’s someone important (i.e. boss/client), you need to deal with it constructively.

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Don't make your disruption someone else’s problem. You want to entice others to be a part of it, not something they want to avoid. Don't throw figurative grenades at people just trying to work. Don’t practice albatross management – flying above it all, making lots of noise, swooping down to poop on things, and then flying away from the mess. Instead of "being disruptive", do the following.

  • Create fertile ground
  • Recruit others to fight with you
  • Hustle and do the hard work

Effective communication is a skill many aren’t trained for. Apply the design process to the communication strategy as well. What is its goal – to inform, to drive a decision, or what? Who's the audience and what do they already know versus need to know? Good design work is necessary but often not sufficient; to take root and flourish, the work must land in fertile ground.

You need to recruit others to be part of the change. The art of persuasion is something that designers are often uncomfortable with, but it’s how we enable groups to work together and do great things. Get others to believe what you believe in order to fight alongside you.

Ultimately, you have to hustle; walk the walk and talk the talk. Be flexible and creative about scheduling time with someone. Read the memo before the meeting. Do the research instead of having an uninformed opinion. Go the extra mile. Do the hard work, especially when it’s the work that others won’t do.

"Let The Work Speak For Itself"

You’ve done a bunch of work and now need to present to someone important, and you get this piece of advice. Please, don’t let the work ever speak for itself. It often speaks a secret language only its creators understand, especially during its infancy. It needs you to speak for it until it's mature enough, and even then, it needs as much help as you can give it in order to fulfill its potential.

I’ve struggled with this in the past, putting up work for feedback without giving it a fighting chance. The feedback would often be distracting or unhelpful because they’re simply reacting to what they see. I would do my best to respond, but I would get defensive, repetitive, and lose my confidence. Rinse, repeat.

Ideas are cheap and design proposals are fragile. Not until they are hammered and hardened by a robust design process are they able to stand on their own and withstand a proverbial beating. We are designers, not artists, so our work has to address a need, not just make a statement. Our ideas have to go through a tremendous amount of development and iteration to become finished products.

Plan the communication so that the work is received properly and you get the outcome you need. I'm not advocating developing dazzling B.S. skills (though quite helpful regardless), but I believe that great design work deserves great communication:

  • Provide context
  • Connect the dots
  • Seek to understand

You have to provide context that allows people to see the work as intended. Get them in the right frame of mind to empathize for the user, not themselves. Is what you’re showing a concept or finished design so they can calibrate feedback appropriately? Do they understand your goal so that they’re not assuming it’s one of their own?

It’s invaluable to connect the various ideas and insights that led to the solution. Don’t leave it up to them to make the connections, do it for them. If you can somehow make the solution feel obvious or inevitable, you’ve won.

If they have questions or feedback, try to accept and understand it. Don’t automatically defend or revert to simply repeating yourself. Often, just listening to someone helps tremendously. Probe deeper and listen. It may be that they’re missing some necessary context or they’re giving you some valuable insight that could make the work stronger.

Go Fish

Most advice is well-meaning, but some advice can actually do more harm than good. Many promise shortcuts – with this one trick, you can have massive impact. It’s a very attractive proposition. I’ve shared some ideas of how one might avoid the pitfalls of these pernicious pieces of advice. In my experience, there aren’t any shortcuts. You can’t just go with your gut and avoid the rigor of developing good judgment.

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.
— Rita Mae Brown, Will Rogers, Mark Twain…

Nothing can replace doing the hard work and earning the experience that comes with it; developing your own good judgment through hard work will pay off with compound interest.

But how do you enable others to do this? As leaders, this is our job. It should go without saying that leading by example is an effective way to do this, but let’s not take that for granted. “Do as I say but not as I do” is one of the most destructive ways to lead; hypocrisy is not a virtue. If you have made the transition from individual contributor to manager, you know well the challenge of going from doing to enabling, especially when you were promoted or hired because you were great at the doing part. It’s hard not to just do the work yourself, but you must learn to enable others to do it even better than you could have.

When someone is seemingly going with their gut and nothing else, ask questions. Get them to articulate their rationale. If appropriate, point out the cognitive biases that all of us are prone to then help them apply rigor in their approach to make their solution stronger.

If someone’s being disruptive, seek to understand why. If it’s just to be disruptive, shut it down or divert it; it’s not good for anyone. If there’s a good reason for it, guide them on how they can be more effective.

And if someone is letting the work dangle without proper support, you can help them drive the discussion to share context. Guide them to connect the dots and to seek to understand the feedback they receive.

That old proverb of giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish is still relevant. If people come to you for wisdom, don’t give them the same, tired, bad advice nor just give them the answer. Help them earn valuable experience and build up good judgment. Teach them to fish and give them a fishing pole. You’ll both catch lots of fish instead of talking about the one that got away.