Death by Screens Tip: Transcribe your rationale

published6 months ago
3 min read

In this week’s brain-waffle, I expand on one idea from the book - writing is critical to explaining your design rationale, and how to do it quickly. Let’s-a… doh!

PS - News from 🇯🇵 at the end...

When first designing something, getting caught up in the details is easy. But once you try explaining what you’re building to someone else, you must distill down what’s essential and how everything fits together to make sense of it.

–Tanner Christensen, Designer at Netflix, Lyft, Facebook

There are some people who are persuasive without writing a word. Let’s get classical again (see last week!) - many of our best-known storytellers and thinkers from western history were orators (Homer, Socrates); they never wrote, they memorised and recited. Let’s be honest though, that tradition is long-since gone. if you want to be clear, write. And practise it. Here’s why.

Writing may be about to undergo a major shift with the emergence of AI, but maybe not in a good way? I'm fairly sure though, that good writing will still be a useful differentiator for us lowly, slow humans. Perhaps the mistake some people make when thinking about writing, is assuming that it is just capturing thoughts. But that’s not what writing is for: we write to have thoughts. And machines can't read our minds... yet.

Writing is thinking.

Writing out your rationale forces you to think more clearly about it and express something unique. It’s easy to bullshit someone when they’re listening, not so much when they’re reading. The written word strips down ideas to their essence, untouched by a persuasive tone of voice or an entertaining delivery. You can judge your own words much better when written down; writing and reading your own words becomes a useful feedback loop with which to judge your own clarity.

Writing is the wireframing of rationale: establishing if an idea makes sense, before it’s delivered in high-fidelity.

Why don’t designers write?

It’s not something we get a lot of time for, but I’d argue this is something of an illusion: a persuasive narrative can stop an awful lot of time wasted on misunderstanding each other later on. Designers have also been drawn to the craft because of it’s non-verbal, spatial, visual, and intuitive nature. It's a way to avoid words, for some.

And finally, there’s the ‘blank page’. It’s an intimidating thing in any craft, starting with nothing. Steven Pressfield calls this the resistance. So what’s the best way to overcome it? This method I’m about to explain doesn’t work for all kinds of content, but for a design presentation where you’ve already planned an outline for (see the book!), it pretty much does.

Transcribe your first draft

We’re lucky to live in an era when transcription services (like Otter) are cheap, accurate and reliable. Cure your natural reluctance to write by improvising the first draft of your talk and using automated transcription to capture it. Speaking your first draft ensures you won’t stop to nit-pick anything. You just get all your ideas out without stopping.

Things you’ll need:

  • A transcription service: the dictation feature on your laptop is often good enough
  • A quiet place where you won’t feel self-conscious or be interrupted
  • Your outline and key designs for reference as you talk through them

Improvise the presentation by following your outline. It will feel awkward at first, and that’s OK. All you need is a messy first draft to edit; the quality doesn’t matter.

This first draft will be full of uhhms and ahhhs, and that is just fine. It’s giving you something to play with; something to tear apart; something to judge, so you can make it a million times better. Here’s the legendary Simpson’s writer John Swartzwelder on how he worked:

Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight.

So, cure any reluctance to write by dictating your first draft, and then editing the transcript. You’ll quickly find out where your rationale is making sense, and where it isn’t.

That’s it for this week’s presentation tip.

Next week I’ll be presenting the book, a talk, and the workshop at UX Days Tokyo! Maybe I’ll write next week’s tip from the bullet train, on my way past Mt. Fuji.

Sayonara! 🇯🇵

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