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Beyond “The Last Lecture”: Design lessons I learned from Randy Pausch

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This week will mark the fifth anniverary of Randy Pausch’s death. Randy was a passionate educator and mentor, and in his final years, he gained worldwide recognition for “The Last Lecture,” as well as for the bravery he publicly displayed facing a terminal illness.

I was one of many graduate students he taught at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (the ETC), which he co-founded. His lessons about the role of collaboration in design – and more, about how to collaborate effectively – have profoundly influenced my career and work as a designer, including my work with startups. Here are three of Randy’s lessons that I think are essential for anyone who hopes to build products for a living.

Pausch reprising his “Time Management” talk in 2007.
Pausch reprising his “Time Management” talk in 2007.

Lesson 1: Test early, test often.

Randy made observing guests (he never used the label “users”) a fundamental element of good design with his students: Get people to try your work early on, and simply watch what they do. The idea was that by welcoming guests openly, setting up an unbiased environment, and observing their interactions with limited inquiry, designers can uncover product flaws and assumptions quickly. And the goal isn’t just to improve a product’s usability, but to also challenge the assumptions and ideas designers have about what their guests want, need and understand.

Despite the hype today around the Lean Startup, customer validation, and usability testing, in my experience frequent observational testing is still sorely missing from product design and development. Over the past two years I’ve worked for and advised 12 different startups, all small teams focusing on building and scaling a single product. Out of the 12 only four had bothered to conduct in-person guest testing before I joined them. And only one of those four teams had conducted testing early on.

This is sadly a common misstep: young startups assume input from real guests early on will muddy the waters, so they opt to wait until they have a prototype (time spent coding) or perfected mockups (time designing in pixels) to gather feedback. But in reality, consumers are often savvier than we give them credit for — even design storyboards or sketches can be enough to solicit helpful feedback that prevents errors, omissions and missed opportunities from becoming deeply ingrained into your product. Test with real guests early and often.

Randy in 2005, introducing the audience to a Building Virtual Worlds project.
Randy in 2005, introducing the audience to a Building Virtual Worlds project.

Lesson 2: Stop being nice; start being helpful

Randy created a course at Carnegie Mellon called “Building Virtual Worlds” for artists and technologists to work together using new tech. My team and I created a virtual world called “Guiding Lights.” The idea was that a large audience guided an on-screen character by passing around lights that were tracked by a computer vision system. These lights were the “game controller” for our interactive world.

I took the lead presenting the team’s prototype to an audience of 70-odd peers, faculty and some visiting leadership from Electronic Arts. While demonstrating to the audience how to use the lights and move them around, I suddenly felt like I had lost their attention. I panicked and scolded them, saying something like: “Guys, pay attention here, you’re acting like little kids.”  It was met with a unanimous “boo” from the crowd.

The next day, Randy took me aside into a conference room for some honest feedback: “You know, you were kind of an asshole.” (And he was right.) He took over an hour that day to work through things with me — a painful experience that ultimately completely changed me as a person and as a designer.

Designers have to appreciate that the success of their venture rests on the ability of a team to give  (and receive) straight, honest feedback. Sharing feedback and criticism is never convenient – it’s a challenge, and often painful. And while being nice will keep things amicable, true mentorship and leadership comes from being helpful, and sometimes that requires unfiltered candor.

An auditorium audience at Carnegie Mellon, passing around lights to guide an on-screen virtual character.
An auditorium audience at Carnegie Mellon, passing around lights to guide an on-screen virtual character.

Lesson 3: Designers are shepherds

Randy had all of his students read his “Tips for Working Successfully in a Group” at the beginning of every semester. Immediate impressions by students to these tips were always the same: “These seem so obvious.” Yet time has proved otherwise in my experience: With every collaborative environment I’ve ever been a part of, it’s not the work that challenges people the most, it is collaboration.

Throughout my career as a designer I am amazed how often basic tentpoles of collaboration are overlooked. I’ve seen creative directors at agencies who felt their title allowed them to be rude or dismissive, and I’ve worked with product managers and developers who immediately shot down a teammate’s ideas because they didn’t seem easy to implement.

Randy’s tips read like elementary Zen teaching for creative types:

  • Check your ego at the door when you review another person’s work.
  • Let everyone talk and share ideas without anyone shooting them down.
  • Praise each other, and always find the good in a person’s contribution.

The truth behind Randy’s tips is this: Design is not a set of tools or skills, it is a mindset centered around collaborative problem solving. Rarely does one person create a great digital product all on their own – at the core of great design is collaboration.

Being a great designer means championing a design vision and process, aiding collaboration, and shepherding design decisions forward. Randy’s tips for groups are deceptively simple lessons that have become a guide for how I work as a designer. I’ve distilled them into a simple, personal mantra: “Be nice, work hard.”

Donations can be made in Randy’s memory to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Ross Popoff-Walker leads design at Follow him on Twitter @rosspw, or via his blog:

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