Playing the Right Chords

No matter what type of work you do, you can easily focus on the details too much. Let’s say you’re learning guitar, and you worry about your strumming technique or type of strings you use before you can even play two chords. If you don’t start at the foundation of playing guitar, the chords that make up songs, how you strum, and what you strum on doesn’t matter that much.

The same goes for making great digital products. You have to keep what matters at the forefront. You need something to guide you. That’s why at, we’re building a design system that includes foundational principles to serve as markers throughout our design process.

One of these draft principles is:

Start from curiosity. Welcome and seek out difference.

I used to work as a journalist, so this one resonates with me more than others. Curiosity can be a powerful engine to fuel learning, create new things and verify or disprove your assumptions.

I know this because I’ve tried to bring this principle into my work more regularly in the past year. The biggest way has been helping customers and potential customers of, specifically small business owners, create their sites through intense two to four-hour site-building sessions. It’s something I now seek out on a regular basis because it makes my work better in countless ways.

At, we’re well-known for making all new hires complete three-week support rotations when they start with the company. Everyone also does support for once week a year. It’s something I always look forward to and find extremely valuable, but it gave me a false impression that I knew my customers. Doing support provides a lot of insight into the experience of my main product – the front end – but not the whole journey. However, each time I’ve sat down with someone to help them build out a new site on our platform, I got an view of the whole experience. Not just one piece of it. It’s kept me focused on the right chords, to bring it back to the guitar metaphor.

What have I learned? That the transitions from parts of our products to the next need to be smoother. That the problems that I once thought came from one place actually come from many places. That my customers don’t need a lot of what we previously made for them. I wouldn’t have found those insights if I didn’t come from a place of curiosity and talked to someone different than me.

If you’re involved in making products, I bet using your curiosity to seek out differences will give you more than you imagine. You’ll be playing the right chords in no time.

Image courtesy of Mariana Vusiatytska.


By David A. Kennedy

I work as a Design Director at Automattic on Jetpack, focusing on the front end experience.