#ProTip: One simple secret for designing better things

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Dave Wiskus thinks many designers are in need of an attitude adjustment.
Dave Wiskus thinks many designers are in need of an attitude adjustment.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

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SAN FRANCISCO — Designers can be a picky bunch, always ready to pick apart a colleague’s creation or slap down an idea with some withering snark.

But interaction designer Dave Wiskus is prescribing an attitude adjustment for his fellow creative types, especially those who seem to be engaged in some sort of bitchy competition to come off as the smartest person in the room.

“Just say no to cynicism,” he said Thursday during his talk at AltConf here. “It’s the enemy of everything.” (You’ll also want to avoid irony, sarcasm and passive aggression, which Wiskus called “gateway drugs” that can lead to full-on cynical addiction.)

Instead, Wiskus recommends giving a little thing called empathy a shot. It’s the key to making great products, he said, whether you’re designing a shower head or coding a note-taking app (like Vesper, which Wiskus helped create).

Wiskus’ talk, called “Designing for Humans,” was more like a TED talk about fostering the creative flame than some of the more technical presentations at AltConf 2015. Wiskus told amusing stories (ask him about how a panic attack can pay off) and also got philosophical, touching on the ways technology touches our lives — and focusing on the one key way designers can make their products better for everyone.

It was similar to designer Joe Cieplinski’s earlier talk, “Design Is Not for Designers,” which stressed the importance of front-burnering users’ wants and needs. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Cieplinski and Wiskus play together in indie rock band Airplane Mode.)

For Wiskus, empathy is the design secret everybody should know.

If you’re truly empathetic, you’re thinking about all the sorts of people who might want to (or be forced to) interact with your product. You’re putting yourself in their shoes, and your exploration of that mental turf means you’ll be more likely to produce something universally useful.

Besides, snarky smackdowns are way too easy.

“Being picky — that’s a parlor trick,” Wiskus said.

Dave Wiskus, a self-described YouTube sensation, writes at Better Elevation and can be found on Twitter (@dwiskus).

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