It’s Never Too Late to Listen

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

– Abraham Lincoln

I’ve learned a lot of lessons as a designer/human over the years. More than anything, I’ve learned by making mistakes. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way is that it’s never too late to spend time understanding the problem you’re solving. It sounds simple and obvious, doesn’t it? When you’re working on something and feel like you are on the clock, it’s easy to feel like there isn’t time to pause and do research.

Start from curiosity. Welcome and seek out difference.

– One of our guiding design principles at Automattic

On the mobile design team at Automattic we try to be proactive and do as much research on the front end of a project as possible, but every project is different, and things don’t always go according to plan. While it’s always best to do quality research up front, it’s okay and it’s almost never too late to start. Let me give you a recent example.

We are in the process of building a brand new publishing experience, which we’re calling Gutenberg. This project has been underway on the web side for over a year, with the focus primarily on desktop publishing. When we started discovery on the Mobile Gutenberg project, I had the opportunity to spend some time exploring how Gutenberg might look and feel on mobile. I started by using the web interface (which is beautiful!) and its patterns as a foundation while diverting in approach in cases where it was better to follow platform-familiar patterns for iOS and Android users.

This was a great start, and was an exercise that allowed us to explore many possibilities in a short period of time, but it meant we were starting with everything. As we dug deeper during a recent research sprint, we found that at the end of the day our mobile apps customers’ expectations and needs are quite different from desktop/web. The most important things to folks using our mobile apps are things like checking stats/notifications, and making quick edits to posts or pages while on the go. This is in contrast to folks on the web, who typically expect a more full-featured editor with complex creation/layout tools, and are most often working in a stationary environment on a desktop computer.

In other words, while most of our mobile app customers might be along the lines of the Blogger, it’s worth noting that they have different needs between the same product on different devices. This has enabled us to shift our approach slightly to align more with our actual customers before getting too far in the development process, and will thus save us a lot of time and energy in the future.

If I could give new designers one piece of advice it would be to always talk to as many actual customers as you can, as early as you can. Ask them questions, watch them using prototypes or the actual product, etc. Understand the differences in their contexts, struggles, things they enjoy, where they’re coming from. If you aren’t listening to folks and learning from their stories and experiences, you’re doing them a disservice.


By Thomas Bishop

Senior product designer focused on mobile and design systems. Prev.
Automattic / Wordpress mobile apps. Musician. Always be learning.