The myth of 'doing things properly' and other secrets

By Peter Ballard @Ballyfool

I recently saw Mike Lynch, CEO of the UK software giant Autonomy, speak about his experiences of building his company from four people and a broom cupboard (which had its own part to play in their early successes) to the company that today HP values at $10billion.

He spoke about three ‘catch phrases’ that have become cornerstones to the success of Autonomy, all of which I felt had messages for anyone in business today.

1. Be the hungry wolf

This was a reference to adaptability, and being prepared to flex your plans to suit the environment you find yourself in. The analogy is that even a proud wolf can find itself starving sometimes, and will have to find food in whatever shape or form it can in order to survive. The most important thing is to survive, and fight another day.

2. Always bring a gun to a knife fight

Mike’s point is that getting drawn into a fight based on terms dictated by your opponent, or competitor, is a fight you are most likely to lose. His advice is to define your own battle ground, create a territory that you can own, and get them to come fight you on your terms. I loved this idea.

3. The myth of ‘doing things properly’

At Autonomy, no one is allowed to use the phrase ‘let’s do things properly’. This is because it often really means, “we always do it like this”, and can means something is being done in an unquestioning, routine, safe way. In his view, doing things properly leads to the death of innovation, creativity and learning.

It was this last point that got me thinking about the digital design industry that we are part of at Foolproof.

In experience design, there are many established best-practices, or ‘norms’, that frequently get followed in design. In many cases this is entirely justified, there is little value to be gained, and a lot to be lost, in forcing users to learn your own ‘unique and innovative’ navigation controls, if those controls are not adding anything positive to the experience.

But times change fast, and those ‘norms’ need to be constantly reappraised. This means not being afraid to challenge the norms, and ask the question “why is this done like this” and “can this be done better?”

Being prepared to try new ways of interaction, to look at things from a different perspective, is all part of the job of a good experience designer. A good designer will observe the behaviours of users. Will break down the experience into the component parts of what is trying to be accomplished by the user, and use this understanding to build back up to the interface necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

Yes, be sympathetic to those ‘norms’ that are still fit for purpose and serving to save users undue cognitive load, but reject those that are outdated and present us with opportunities for doing it better.

Peter Ballard

I co-founded Foolproof with Tom Wood back in 2002. Today I work across a range of clients, particularly in the roles of Experience Planner and Client Partner. In my role as Experience Planner, I ensure that our design teams have access to the right insight to respond appropriately to the business and creative challenges faced by our clients.

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