Design intuitions benefit from non-Internet hours

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The beauty of distributed work is that you can be anywhere in the world and not limited to a headquarters in some-city-out-there. That’s a great way to free oneself from the physical environment of some companies that don’t have inspiring workplaces. But it also means that you might get stuck working from home and without a lot of new stimulation from the non-remote universe. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I’m a believer that if you’re a developer, it doesn’t matter too much if you get outside or not. Because the power of computation lives inside the machine — and you can live inside the machine from anywhere that you like.

Designers, however, have cultural antennae and cilia that are tuned by far-field signals that are hard to leverage when imprisoned on the other side of the glass display of a smartphone. Digital omniscience is cool — no doubt about it — but the algorithms that are used to fetch for us “interesting things” lack a bit of multi-dimensional randomness that the real world can often bring us. 

So recently I was pleased to hear that one of our longtime distributed design/devs left their remote office (aka “home”) to do an anthropological study of a retail business — to discover that many of the practices he saw enacted there were either: 1/ superior to online, or 2/ inferior to online.  The latter wasn’t a surprise to any of us because digital is truly cool and powerful; but the former, was. I tell all my folks to get out and explore the offline world as much as they can — and that goes beyond just coffee shops and generic hipster coworking spaces.

What’s offline retail experiences better than online retail experiences at achieving?

  • There’s a greater sense of scale. On-screen hierarchies works fairly well when navigating them, but there’s nothing like a large space in which you have a good sense of the path you’ve taken and the clear sense of what remains ahead. 
  • Discovery is more valuable than search. There’s no magnifying glass at which you can type and search for things easily inside a store. Maybe you can ask the store manager for directions, but in general you need to wander. Good stores have good browsing UX.
  • Shoppers are treated nicely. Of course you’re going to have some so-so interactions with people working in a business, but in general you’re likely to be taken better care of than when just talking with a complete stranger on the street.

Knowing your context, maximizing your time, and feeling personally engaged are three things that IRL retail often does better (for me) than NIRL (Not In Real Life) retail, or e-commerce. And because design is all about business, learning what we can from IRL retail has long been a passion of mine. Translation: I love to go window shopping (smile). —JM

Moral of the story: Encourage your remote design team to be sure not to get stuck in a pattern of working from home, their favorite coffee shop, or a co-working space. Suggest that they break their routine as often as they can — and non-retail spaces like museums and the outdoors are totally fine.