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“Creativity Inc.” notes

“Creativity Inc” is a book that I absolutely adore. It’s written by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney animation. I highly recommend grabbing a copy. Here are a few of my favorite highlights:


  • What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all our energies to solve it.


  • Ultimately what we are after is authenticity.
  • Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. I call early mockups of our films “ugly babies”. Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.
  • The chaotic nature of the creative process needs to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it.
  • In order for a period of greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.
  • Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.
  • Since everyone at Pixar shows incomplete work, and everyone is free to make suggestions the embarrassment goes away. Once the embarrassment goes away, people become more creative.

Candid feedback

  • The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive. A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something.
  • Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often.
  • We are true believers in the power of bracing candid feedback and the iterative process — reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds it’s throughline or hollow character finds its soul.
  • Candor must override hierarchy for a any creative company to succeed in the long-term.
  • Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together.
  • Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.

Company Structure

  • When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless… Unhindered communication is key.
  • The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee. You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.
  • If the crew is confused, then the leaders are too.
  • If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate and don’t vilify their mistakes, then we enable a much larger set of problems to be addressed.

Fear and Failure

  • Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.
  • The antidote for fear is trust.
  • Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientist towards greater understanding. That means any outcome is a good outcome, because it yields new information.
  • While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance.
  • Fear of change, innate, stubborn, and resistant to reason, is a powerful force. In many ways, it reminds me of musical chairs: we cling as long as possible to the perceived “safe place” that we are ready know, refusing to loosen our grip until we feel sure another safe place awaits.
  • Deep down, even though we might wish it weren’t true: change is going to happen, whether we like it or not.


  • My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermined it.
  • I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.
  • In many organizations, managers tend to err on the side of secrecy, keeping things hidden from employees. I believe this is the wrong instinct.
  • Good leaders don’t dictate from on high. They reach out, they listen, they wrangle, coax, and cajole.


At Pixar they’ll frequently bring a director (and his or her in progress film) in with a group of other experienced storytellers. They call this a braintrust. The purpose of the braintrust is not to tell the director what to do, but to highlight areas that may be weak, and to spark ideas for moving forward.

  • To understand what the braintrust does and why it is so crucial to Pixar, you have to start with the basic truth: people who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.
  • The braintrust has no authority. This is crucial. The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. Braintrust meetings are not top-down, do-this-or-else affairs.
  • The braintrust sets the tone for everything we do.
  • The process of coming to clarity takes patience and candor.
  • Notably, participants do not prescribe how to fix the problems they diagnose. They test weak points, they make suggestions, but it is up to the director to settle on a path forward.
  • Moreover, we don’t want the braintrust to solve the directors problem because we believe that, in all likelihood, our solution won’t be as good as the one the director and his or her creative team comes up with.
  • Each of the braintrust participants focus on the film at hand and not on some hidden personal agenda. They are not motivated by the kinds of things — getting credit for an idea, pleasing their supervisors, winning a point just to say you did — that too often lurk beneath the surface of work related interactions. The film itself, not the filmmaker, is under the microscope.
  • The most important characteristic was an ability to analyze the emotional beats of the movie without any of its members themselves getting emotional or defensive.
  • To make a great film, it’s makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others. The braintrust provides that pivot and it is necessarily painful.
  • Even the most experienced braintrust can’t help people who don’t understand it’s philosophies, who refuse to hear criticism without getting defensive, or who don’t have the talent to digest feedback, reset, and start again.

Loved, loved, loved this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.

Avoid Bandwagon Wisdom

Bandwagon Wisdom
Strongly held, one-sided opinions on complex issues, often openly communicated with very little reason, personal research, experimentation or data to back them up.

The power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.

The problem

Bandwagon wisdom is a plague in our society. It’s unhealthy, and it appears to be growing in popularity.

I see it in subjects related to parenthood, in preconceived ideas at work, and obviously in controversial topics like politics, and religion. It’s everywhere.

I admittedly catch myself doing it occasionally.

I honestly think we do it most times without even thinking. It’s so easy to “jump on the bandwagon” and share that great one-liner quip, without really comprehending anything about the subject. We do it in person, via blogs, FaceBook, Twitter, and through a myriad of other channels.

Why is this a problem?

Bandwagon wisdom is a tool of manipulation. Topics are carefully crafted to be spread without much thought, but in doing so, we only perpetuate the problem. By “jumping on the bandwagon” we essentially fall prey to these manipulative campaigns, and unfortunately show our ignorance in the process.

The solution

The next time you think about retweeting that highly opinionated, controversial, one-sided statement, perhaps stop and take a moment to consider how much you really comprehend about this topic. Have you spent ANY time trying to understand both side of the issue? If someone called you out on your retweet, would you even know the least bit about the issue at all? Until your answer to both of these questions is, “yes”, why not just hold off on taking a firm public stand?

If you’re going to take an opinionated stance on complex issue, that’s great. I actually applaud informed opinions being shared on complex issues. But if you’re going to take a stand publicly, please start by doing a bit of research first.

The vast majority of times you retweet something, no one will even know whether you’ve invested any time researching the issue beforehand. But you’ll know, and to me, that personal integrity is what matters most. Let’s stop falling prey to the manipulation. Let’s please stop with all of the bandwagon wisdom.


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.

I’m a Mormon

First, a few disclaimers:

1. If this topic is of no interest to you, don’t read it.

This is my personal blog, The vast majority of posts that I write will tend to be about design and startups. Occasionally I’ll deviate to cover a topic that is as important, if not much more deeply important to me personally.

2. This post is meant to be 100% informational. My hope is:

A) That by the end of this post, Mormonism will seem like slightly less of a cultish mystery to you, and

B) That at a bare minimum, you’ll be able to at least say to yourself, “I honestly don’t believe anything that dude believes, but I now at least think I understand why Dave Martin is a Mormon”.

3. I posted a link to this article on FaceBook, as that is where all of my closest friends and family are. I didn’t tweet this post out. I didn’t push it to LinkedIn. I’m not preachy by nature. Not in person, not on this blog, not on FaceBook. For the most part, just know that unless you ask, I’m probably not going to bring up religion with you, ever.

4. I’m in no way perfect. Not even close. I fail, and make mistakes all the time. I don’t write any of the following to set myself up on a pedestal in any way.

5. My intention in writing this is not to persuade. I’m not trying to turn you into a Mormon by reading it. Whatever your beliefs or religious affiliations may or may not be, however you choose to live your life, whatever things you value, I love you as you are. For those of you who know me closely, I hope that this sentiment comes through as genuine.

There’s a lot to cover. I’ll do my best to keep everything as concise as possible.

Here are the reasons why I’m a Mormon, ranked in order of importance (to me):


Our official church name is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. That’s a mouthful, so most people just call us LDS (Latter Day Saints), or Mormon for short.

Our religion is 100% centered around Jesus Christ, his ministry on earth, his atonement and resurrection, and his ministry in these latter days.

Christ stands at the center of our religion. Without him, I believe that quite literally I’d be lost.


Life on earth can be lonely. It can be scary. It can be tough. Christ’s love helps me feel at peace, in both the good times, as well as the bad.

I pray for this peace daily, and find refuge regularly in the comfort it brings.


Some trials in life feel too great for me to bear alone. In Christ I am strengthened. He helps shoulder my burdens. He’ll also help me turn my weaknesses into strengths.

I’ve witnessed this strengthening effect in my life numerous times.


The world can be a dark place. I’m mortal. I make mistakes. No matter how good of a person I am, while on this earth, I’m not immune to temptation, which leads to sin, which leads to unhappiness.

After I was baptized, I received the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which serves as a constant protection to me, as long as I’m worthy of it.

I receive additional protection (from temptation) by doing things that bring additional light into my life. Things like: fasting monthly, praying daily, reading scriptures daily, going to church weekly, and through regular temple service.


I was married to my wonderful wife in the Palmyra NY Temple. We were sealed for time and all eternity. Not just till death do us part. Our children are also sealed to us for eternity.

I take great comfort knowing that I can be with my amazing wife, and wonderful children forever.


Christ said, “Ask, and it shall be given you”. I take this quite literally. Whenever I am unsure about something, I:

A) think about the question myself

B) come to a decision on my own

C) seek conformation from God that my decision is according to his will

Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t.

I do this with bigger issues (should we move to a new house), as well as with smaller issues (how can I best solve this tiny problem). It’s like having a magic 8 ball that actually works. It’s pretty amazing.


The LDS Church is established the same way Christ’s church was established when he was on earth. We have a modern day Prophet. We have twelve Apostles.

Twice a year we have “General Conference”, giving us a chance to hear from our Prophet, Apostles, and other church leaders.

I consider this a great, and fairly unique blessing.


The LDS church is a lay-ministry. This means that no local or regional leaders are paid or compensated for their service. Additionally, no one vies for office. No one is voted in to a church calling. Service callings are always extended through inspiration.

My wife serves in the primary presidency in our local ward (“ward” is the term we use for our local congregation). She helps lead the youth. I serve as the Elders Quorum President of our ward. I minister to the middle aged brethren in our congregation.

On top of everything else in our busy lives, it can be hard at times. But it’s service, as such, it can be very, very rewarding.


With the restoration of the church in the 1830’s, came a restoration of the Aaronic, and Melchizedek Priesthoods. The same Priesthood that the Apostles of old used to bless the people of their time.

I’ve personally seen the priesthood work miracles in my life a number of times.


About seven years ago when my wife and I moved to The Sutherland Shire (just south of Sydney Australia) for work, all it took was a single visit to the local LDS branch, and we were accepted into the congregation immediately, like we were family.

This happens anywhere you move. The exact same thing happened when we then moved to North Carolina two years later.

The church is global, but it’s like one big family.


Having grown up in the church, I saw first-hand how much it shaped who I am today. The doctrine of the Mormon church is strict. I wasn’t always fond of that, but today (especially now that I have kids of my own) I absolutely see that as a good thing. It served as a spiritual anchor for me growing up, and I hope that it can provide the same solid foundation for my kids.


The Mormon church offers answers to many of lifes greatest questions. Questions like:

– Who am I?
– Where did I come from?
– What’s the secret to real happiness?
– Why do bad things happen to good people?
– What happens when I die?


I thrive when my life is in order – when things are organized. I can’t really think of any other organization (public, private, government, you name it) that is more organized than the Mormon church. That’s pretty cool if you ask me.


The church operates it’s own welfare system, both internally for members, and externally as humanitarian aid. My family was blessed multiple times by the church welfare system while I was growing up, as such it’s also been something that has meant a lot to me personally.


I’m Dave Martin.

I’m a husband

I’m a Father.

I’m a designer at Help Scout.

And I’m also a Mormon.

These are my personal beliefs.

Mormonism is tightly woven into who I am. It’s helped me become the person I am today, and it pushes me to always want to be better.


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.

Gym of the future – Startup idea

I’d love to see someone get creative and disrupt the gym industry. It currently feels so stale. There doesn’t seem to be any creativity or innovation at all.

The Market

With a quick Google search I saw varied reports of the gym market being a $21.8 billion market, all the way up to it being a $78.2 billion market. In any case it’s sizable. There’s value to be delivered there, and ultimately money to be made.

How might someone disrupt this stagnant industry? Here’s my take:

Get creative with facilities

Instead of going with boring old rows of treadmills, and rows of elliptical machines, and small pocket of free weights route, why not mix it up?

I’d look around for some old abandoned supermarket/strip mall real estate. The inside of an old supermarket gives you quite a bit of room to play with.

I’d fill the space with an assortment of different sections. Of course there’d be an aerobic section, and a free weights section, but there would also be a small section for crossfit, and a small section for parkour, there would be a small bouldering/rock climbing section, in addition to multiple smaller yoga/pilate/dance rooms.

The idea here: attract a larger cross-section of customers than your typical gym.

I’d also figure out a way to keep the place open 24 hours a day (not novel these days, but important enough to mention).

Get creative with pricing

Every gym I’ve ever looked at has the exact same strategy when it comes to pricing. This is a huge opportunity for someone to come along and quickly differentiate themselves. Gyms know that for the vast majority of their customers, joining a gym is an idealistic impulse buy. They bank on it, and they price their services accordingly. Generally this involves yearly contracts, with penalties for breaking them early.

Here’s what I’d charge:

$5/visit, for the first 5 visits, then free for the rest of the month.

A couple of thoughts:

  • Immediately your gym caters to a long tail of users who would otherwise never step foot in a gym. This long tail of customers knows that they’d never benefit enough from a monthly membership subscription to make it pay off, so they never go to a gym. But with pay as you go pricing that all changes. They could come once a month, and pay just $5.
  • The $25/mo ceiling sets people at ease. Every trip they make to the gym after the first 5 visits makes them feel like they are cheating the system somehow. Like they’re sticking it to the gym owner.
  • Occasionally I’d enjoy working out with friends. This almost never works in practice though as it requires two people to be members in the same gym. With pay as you go pricing, working out with a friend becomes something you can do without much thought at all. All you have to do is arrange a time.

Get creative with onboarding

I’d rather get a root canal on multiple teeth than be forced to deal with having to sign up for most gym memberships. The experience is down right awful!

Not a lot would have to be done to make it even slightly better, but what if we shot for the moon? Here’s my thinking:

What if the entire process was self service, and what if signing up took less than a minute?

You walk in the door and immediately see a number of self serve stations. You step up to one. Pricing is clearly visible. A screen asks you to swipe your credit card. You do so. If this is your first visit, it asks for your email address (and that’s it). You’re done. You see a big welcome screen that says “enjoy your workout”.

At this point, your mind is kinda blown. This is remarkable enough of an experience that you feel like telling everyone you know.

What about fraud, you say?

What if someone comes in with another persons credit card who has already paid for 5 visits this month? That’s where a little technology under the hood comes in handy.

Every self serve station has mat, that while you’re swiping your card weighs you. A photo is also snapped every time you swipe your credit card. If someone comes in, swipes a credit card to trigger a free visit, and the weight is inconsistent with a range of weights for the card holders most recent visits, then an alert is sent to the iPhone of the attendant on hand showing the weight discrepancy, and headshot photos of the card holders last visit, along with this visit. The attendant can then “help” the customer set up a new profile for that credit card.

Get creative with retention

There’s loads you could do to introduce “runkeeper” like mechanics into a physical gym environment. You might also experiment with offering some sort of fitbit like tracking device for customers to use freely, helping them track activity within your gym. All of which you could make easy for people to share with their friends and family, and all of which you could use to generate triggers to help bring customers back regularly.

There’s the idea

Now someone go build it so I can give you my money.


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.

Don’t “Growth Hack”

Can we lay this term to rest? It just feels… tainted.

To be clear, growth in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. But somehow “growth hacking” has earned itself a bad reputation. Why is that?

To figure this out, let’s journey back to the very beginning.

Doomed by definition

When Sean Ellis coined the term growth hacker in 2010, he stated that:

A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.

And therein lies the problem…

Growth for the sake of growth has never been a good LONG-TERM business strategy. Growth for the sake of growth may appear to work wonders in the short-term, but long-term it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Long-term, growth should be centered around people not numbers or percentages.

The simple truth:

Everything that a “growth hacker” fights tooth and nail to optimize can be improved across the board by focusing on one thing:

Just focus on making your users lives better

Instead of having your north star be growth, what if instead you focused on the success of your users as your primary objective? Once your primary focus shifts to making your users lives better, everything else that you used to wrestle with as a “growth hacker” will begin to fall into place:

  • Activation – By focusing on your users, and their needs, you’ll have less friction in your new user flow, so more people will stick around.
  • Revenue – With more people sticking around, chances are you’ll make more money.
  • Retention – By definition, if more people stick around, your churn decreases.
  • Referrals – If people find your app remarkable, they’ll spread the word.
  • Acquisition – As people tell others, you’ll acquire more users.

By focusing 100% on users you likely won’t see as many short-term benefits as you would if you continued growth hacking. Unfortunately, one side effect of aggressively optimized short-term growth is that it often comes at the expense of long-term losses. Only, you won’t see the long-term effects for years to come, and by then it’s often too late to do anything about it.


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.


I loved What separates Peter Pans from the pros by @jkglei

Here’s an excerpt:

When the going gets rough in any creative or entrepreneurial project, what we require isn’t reason or rationality, it’s sheer tenacity—commitment to our abilities, commitment to our process, commitment to finishing even in the face of the inevitable setbacks. This is what separates children from the adults, and the Peter Pans from the Pros.

If being grown up means being committed—to a business, a project, a person—then it’s impossible to peak. And the deeper the commitment, the deeper the meaning that can emerge.

It reminds me of the classic War of Art, and Turning Pro (both HIGHLY recommended) by Steven Pressfield.


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.

Sustainable Side Projects

For the longest time now I’ve been fond of indie businesses.

Most of my friends don’t even know this, but the first real company that I ever started on my own was called SimpleStartup.

It was a web app written in PHP that helped single person companies create a website, charge money for their services, and track finances:

It took me about a decade to realize that I don’t really want to be a start up founder. Up until that point, quitting my job, and launching a startup had always been in the back of my mind. It was an obsession that plagued me.

I find myself in a unique position now, where:

  • I have a a great job.
  • I have no desire to stop working for someone else any time soon.
  • I have no desire to ever launch my own startup again, but…
  • I do still feel a strong pull to build, and launch indie businesses on the side.

I’ve spent a bunch of time trying to define exactly what I want in an indie business. I call it my “Sustainable Side Project” – S.S.P. for short. I figured I’d share my list here.

What I’m looking for:

  • Something I can do while employed (I’m a great employee, I don’t want to quit, I don’t want a startup)
  • To keep it small indefinitely
  • To stay independent – always own 100%
  • No employees – ever – I don’t want this to ever scale to the point that I’d have to hire anyone
  • Something I can be excited to work on over the course of many years
  • Where I embrace constraints (out of necessity)
  • A product I wish existed
  • Something around helping designers
  • Simple compelling story
  • Time commitment is no more than 1-2 hours per day
  • Focused on businesses (not consumers)
  • Strong brand – fun, sticks in your head
  • Strong on the design side
  • Long-term play (Since I have a job, I’m not really worried about making money with this—if it does, that’s great. If not, no worries!)
  • Super niche
  • Solves a real pain
  • Low maintenance users
  • Zero overhead
  • Something I can put on auto-pilot for 2 weeks, or even 2 months (if need be)
  • Minimal feature-set
  • Simple tech
  • Authentic (product, and story)
  • My little Utopia
  • Always create more value than I capture
  • Where I can stay balanced – Spiritually, Physically, and with Family/Work
  • Principles, People, Product, Profits – always in that order – revenue (if it ever comes) is just a by-product of building something great, never the primary focus

It’s a big list, but I’ve found that it helps me focus my attention. I’m currently using this list to help define what my next side project will look like.

If you have similar aspirations, I’d love to hear about them!


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.

Finding Balance

Between having a young family, working a full-time job, serving at church, and side projects, my life can feel pretty hectic at times. Finding balance in life is a constant obsession of mine.

My ultimate goal is to live a boring, perfectly scheduled, monotonous life. Turns out, that’s harder than it sounds… 😛

There are 5 areas that I care about maintaining balance in:

This is always fluctuating, but if I dissect each of these areas at any one moment in time, I can get a good feel for where I stand.

So, how would I rate each area on a scale from 0-5 (0 being terrible, 5 being healthy & strong)?

Today, my overall health looks like this:

  • My Family: 3
  • My Physical Health: 1
  • My Spiritual health: 3
  • My Work: 5
  • My Side Projects: 2

There’s lot’s of room for improvement there.

Now what can I do about it?

I’ll do my best to outline what constitutes a 5 in each of these areas.

It’s worth acknowledging that I’m naturally tough on myself when it comes to rating my strengths and weaknesses.

My Family

  • No tech after 5pm. Period. Phone goes in a box. Laptop stays docked
  • Spend 30 min each night cleaning the house
  • Date night weekly
  • Talk with Liesl each night
  • Spend some quality time each day with each of my kids
  • Put kids to bed each night
  • Budget together with Liesl once a month
  • One on one date with each kid once a month

Physical Health

  • Shoot for max of 1750 calories per day
  • 15-30 min working out
  • 40 min walk each day

Spiritual Health

  • Regular nightly & morning prayers
  • Regular morning scripture study
  • Weekly family home evenings
  • Weekly church attendance
  • Regular temple attendance
  • Fasting once a month
  • Serving in my church calling


  • Able to stay above water
  • Able to connect with folks
  • Able to make an impact
  • Able to get a lot done each week
  • Able to set aside time for high level thinking
  • Able to execute on new things
  • Able to keep the brand/product strong

Side Projects

  • Wake early – work on side projects 2 hours each day – 6 days a week
  • Build things I wish existed in the world
  • Don’t stress about side projects needing to make money
  • Find joy in the work

Now it’s your turn

I’d love to hear your take, and learn from you. How do you measure balance in your life? What areas are important to you, and how would you rate yourself in those areas?


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.


It’s so easy to be caught in the trap of keeping up appearances:

  • The way you do your hair each morning
  • The amount of time you spend putting on makeup
  • The cost & style of your clothes/shoes/bag
  • The car you drive
  • The laptop you use at work
  • The house you own
  • The way your house looks (inside/outside)
  • The schools you went to
  • The schools your kids go to
  • How knowledgable you are about any given topic
  • The type of restaurants you eat at (and refuse to eat at)
  • The drinks you choose
  • The people you hang out with (and those you choose not to)
  • The company you work for
  • Your title at work
  • Your previous successes
  • The achievements of your kids
  • How far you ran/swam/rode your bike
  • The amount of time you train each week
  • The length & difficulty of the race you completed
  • The books you’ve read & can quote
  • The activities you participate in

Isn’t it all a bit tiring?

Who is it that you’re trying to impress? When it comes down to it, isn’t this just vanity? Pride? Yet, here you are investing heaps of your time/money/attention into these activities.

One question:

So… What’s this investment given you in return lately?


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.

Be Gut Driven, But Data Informed

Many organizations are either all in on data driven design, or zealots about listening to their gut. It’s natural to feel polarized toward one side or the other.

You already know from the title of this post where I stand. I believe pretty strongly that there’s a sweet spot, and I don’t think it lies at either end of the spectrum.

In my experience, the sweet spot comes when a designer primarily trusts their gut to design, but also allocates some time to collect data, and to do some testing. These last two things are key, because they help you validate your assumptions, and they add clarity to your design process.

Trusting your gut is paramount

Great design comes primarily from a combination of experience, and from a designers gut intuition. That said, at what point do you know (not think, but really truly know) whether a design is great?

Truthfully, many designers and organization never take the time to find out. They’re content to ship whatever design they think is best. End of story. But that’s a shame. Launching designs without testing is just ignorant, lazy, or both.

Think about it. You’d never intentionally launch a design that stinks (at least I hope you never would). But chances are that some of the designs you launch — even though you may feel they are great — may actually stink. If you aren’t testing your designs, you’ll never really know which of your designs are the great ones, and which ones could still use some love. Without testing your design or looking at any data, all you really have is a hypothesis that the design you’ve created is great.

Data is not a 4 letter word…

Okay, well it is, but…

Just mentioning the word “data” can brings a sour look to some designers faces. But it shouldn’t. Data in and of itself isn’t bad. Data when leveraged properly can lead to insights and clarity.

It’s worth noting that there’s a huge difference between being data informed and being data driven. If you are data driven, you are being lazy by allowing the data to make decisions for you (bad). If you are data informed, you are using the data to help you validate your hypothesis and make informed decisions (good).

Simple example

Let’s say you’re gut says you should move a signup button from the right side of the page to the left. In testing the button on the left, the biggest thing you should be looking for is to ensure that having the button on the left doesn’t completely tank signups. Even if the data tells you that having the button on the right is slightly better, you should trust your gut.

Clarity comes via data & testing

So far, I’ve been ranting about incorporating some “data” and “testing” into your design process, but what does that really mean?

Let’s look at a few examples

Here’s a list of things that you can do throughout your design cycle to add clarity, and gather insights about your design:

  • You can dig into analytics to try and discover existing insights.
  • You can use Qualaroo, or SquareInsights to ask users questions inside your app.
  • You can chat with happiness/support folks to help determine what the most common complaints, and user pain points are. You could also do support regularly yourself.
  • You can ask other designers for feedback.
  • You can ask your partner/spouse/relative/friend to try your interactive prototype while you watch.
  • You can run some quick usability tests.
  • You can approach strangers to help you out for 5 min in exchange for a $10 Starbucks gift card.
  • You can ping people in your company that have never seen whatever it is that you’re building, and request 5 minutes of their time, watching them attempt to use your design.
  • You can run a user report in MixPanel (or whatever app you use to track users), get a list of actual users, and email them requesting feedback.
  • You can run an A/B test on your design to make sure that it isn’t sinking the ship.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Each of these activities will help you validate the hypothesis that’s in your head, and either A) confirm your assumptions, or B) give you insight into how you might tweak your design to make it even better.

Feel free to pick and choose. If you try one of these things a couple of times, and it doesn’t work for you. No worries. The important thing is to try a bunch of them, especially early in your design process. The earlier you incorporate these activities, the quicker you’ll know whether the design you’ve come up with is a great one, or whether it’s a dud.

Summing it up

Use data to help you make informed decisions, but don’t let data bully you around.

Use your existing knowledge to make a hypothesis. Use data as a safety mechanism. As long as your change doesn’t sink the ship, trust your gut.

The sweet spot comes when you A) primarily trust your gut, but also B) use data, and testing to validate your assumptions, and add clarity.


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at its@davemart.in.