The potential for technology-enabled connections

XVI.1 January + February 2009
Page: 10
Digital Citation

FEATURE90 mobiles in 90 days

Rachel Hinman

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Who hasn't felt the post-project blues? The emotional journey of any creative assignment is eerily similar: The initial thrill of beginning a new and interesting project, the excitement of digging into the process and subject matter and inevitably becoming consumed by the design problem, and then losing your sanity in the pursuit of excellence. Toward the end you feel the fatigue and disillusionment of the final death march, the joy of the finish, and ultimately the hollow sense of emotional loss once it's all over. Regardless of your role—consultant or in-house creative—I'm convinced any designer worth their salt has been through this emotional cycle countless times.

I was suffering through a bout of the post-project blues after rolling off an exciting eight-month mobile design project that focused on envisioning the future of mobile interfaces. The project was thrilling—by far the most interesting work I've done. But it came at a cost. I lost myself in the project; it consumed my thoughts and held me hostage for months. Once it was over, I felt an enormous amount of sadness and loss.

A good friend shared with me his belief that all good designers are obsessed and addicted to the thrill of the mental and creative engagement. He claimed that obsessive behavior is the hallmark of a real designer.

I wondered if that was true. I wondered if all designers are just junkies for the thrill of creativity? Is the feeling of loss at the end of a project the price we pay for the thrill of being mentally and emotionally connected to our work? Can we find a cure with a more disciplined approach while striving to achieve some semblance of work/life balance? Or are we doomed to this emotional cycle of obsession and loss?

I discussed my dilemma with some friends who were in recovery from alcohol addiction. They shared feelings—at first consumed and obsessed, followed by a feeling of loss—that were eerily similar to my experience as a designer. During the early stages of alcohol recovery, attendance of 90 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 90 days to begin dealing with addiction is recommended. The theory is that through the daily ritual of AA meetings, alcoholics learn to understand their relationship to alcohol and can then develop the skills necessary to cope and deal with their addiction. My friends suggested I "dry out" with a creative 90 Mobiles in 90 Days" eendeavor to recover from my project addiction.

So began my creative recovery. Starting last year on June 20, I began to think about, sketch, draw, and prototype ideas about mobile design and user experience. I posted the ideas to a blog each and every day. Like folks recovering from any addiction, I didn't know what I would find at the end of those 90 days, but I had faith that something good was on the other side... eand there was. Here is what I learned.

back to top  Creative Outlets

Addiction is the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice, so much so that cessation causes severe trauma. There's a razor-thin line between addiction and passion, and I started this project questioning if I had crossed that line. My biggest fear was being identified as a workaholic: a person with no sense of self outside of my vocation, because I lacked the discipline to enforce boundaries between my personal and professional selves. I thought I just might be addicted to my work. Instead, I discovered through this journey that I am just passionate about ideas...and that my ideas need outlets.

I went into this project feeling blue, and I was surprised at how quickly those feelings of sadness and loss disappeared once I started the 90 in 90 project. The daily ritual of allotting myself the space and time to explore my thoughts was liberating. Giving form to my ideas through writing or sketching was more than fun—it was pure joy. I realized that my head was full of ideas, and the 90 in 90 project gave those ideas a place to go. I discovered that my feelings of sadness and loss were not caused by the project's coming to an end, but by the loss of my creative outlet.

The design profession has a built-in outlet for ideas, but projects and professional work are riddled with boundaries and constraints. So many ideas are abandoned and left on the cutting-room floor. After three years of working in the mobile industry, there were tons of ideas that I'd left behind because they didn't fit into the project's particular constraint.

I hadn't lost them, though. Those ideas were trapped in my mind, left to haunt and torture me; stuck, unexplored, undocumented, with nowhere to go. I realized that ideas belong in the world. The act of writing about them—giving them form—gave my ideas somewhere to go and a sense of life and vibrancy, movement, and velocity. Ideas need a space to be explored, shared, and built on, and creative outlets provide that environment. Work had become my primary creative outlet, and I realized I simply needed more outlets... emany more.

90 in 90 served as a creative escape; plus, it allowed me to rediscover other dormant creative outlets—drawing, photography, painting, and writing—and the role they play in my life. I quickly realized that I need these outlets, these places and environments to explore ideas in order to feel happy and fulfilled, for my own well-being. This project allowed me to revive these outlets and nurture them. I now realize that my daily basic necessities are sleeping, eating, exercising, and creating.

back to top  A Template for Creative Practice

Back when I studied fine art in college, I had a painting professor who assigned the class the task of painting 30 paintings in a week. Seven days and a demoralizing critique later, she told us the point of the exercise was not to produce brilliant work, but to give us a template for a creative practice. She believed in the law of averages: The more you paint, the better the chances of creating something great. She encouraged us to be prolific, knowing that success would follow.

When I started 90 in 90, I felt stuck. I knew I had ideas that I wanted to express and share, but I didn't know where to begin. I wanted the ideas to be good, brilliant in fact, and the pressure I put on myself to share only brilliant ideas became paralyzing. For a good long while, I had allowed my ideas to wallow in the shadows of my mind, and it became the ultimate downer. Inertia set in.

Committing to creating something everyday for 90 days was daunting, but the alternative was to become a hostage of the ideas trapped in my head. In the end the choice was easy: Sit around and feel bad, or direct that energy into something productive. Starting 90 in 90 was like taking a deep breath and leaping forward. It created momentum.

Some of the ideas from 90 in 90 are brilliant, others are pretty good, and some of them simply stink. Instead of getting hung up on evaluating my ideas, I focused on the practice of producing an idea every day. I couldn't predict when brilliant ideas would strike, but I realized the process and the practice of making a space for my ideas would allow something great to happen. When you're generating lots of ideas, you increase your odds of something magical happening. I became prolific.

Moreover, by committing to this project for 90 days, I was bound to get better at it each day. Thinking about mobile user experience became habit forming, almost like an itch I had to scratch. It helped me clarify the things about mobile user experience that matter to me and also to find my point of view.

back to top  Silencing My Inner Critic and Finding My Tribe

The decision to carry out this project online, in a public forum, was initially one of the most terrifying aspects. I was scared. What if my ideas were dumb? What if I wrote something stupid? What if everything I posted had been previously articulated and discussed? Did I really have anything interesting to say? These questions ate away at me until I remembered something my old figure-skating coach once told me: "You are your own worst critic. Nobody is harder on you than you." He was right. Many times throughout my life, I have come face to face with my own worst enemy. I see her every time I look in the mirror.

I quickly realized that silencing that inner critic would be quite possibly the biggest and most daunting part of this project. If I kept my ideas to myself, I would be alone to contend with that critical voice. I decided to share these ideas in a public forum instead of leaving them to the brutality of my internal judge and jury.

My inner critic was quickly tempered by the encouragement of the people who followed me on this journey. People who read my blog emailed me and cheered me on with their words of encouragement. My inner critic lost power when people told me I had inspired them. With support and encouragement, I found my voice and the courage to use it.

More important, my ideas served as a bridge for connecting me with people who share my interests and passions. In sharing my ideas and point of view, I connected with a tribe of people interested in nurturing, supporting, and celebrating ideas about mobile user experience. This project allowed me to become part of that conversation and part of that tribe.

Plus, the ideas just got better. Sharing my ideas with the world gave them a life of their own. They were free to connect with other ideas and were incorporated into a host of other conversations. Even when people disagreed with a concept or an opinion, it started a conversation. Ideas get better with debate and when others are able to build upon them. 90 in 90 became less about authorship and "my ideas" and more about contributing to a community of thought. 90 in 90 allowed me to connect to something bigger than myself.

back to top  Renewed Engagement with the World

In the process of coming up with an idea about mobile experience every day for 90 days, I started thinking about where inspiration comes from. It would seem it came from anywhere and everywhere. Admittedly and obviously, a lot of the ideas were born from firsthand experiences in mobile contexts—waiting for the bus, walking down the street, sitting in an airport. But inspiration also comes from unexpected places. I was inspired by architecture, kelp forests at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, my niece. I never knew when inspiration would strike, and I quickly learned that I needed to be completely open to the world—to the people and places around me—and then inspiration would follow.

This process has allowed me to forge a different relationship to the people, places, and things that touch my daily life. I feel more engaged with the world because I see it and rely on it as a source of inspiration. This process has also opened me up to new people and new conversations. I've become actively engaged with my neighborhood, the city, and with nature. I've become a more observant, empathetic, and patient person. It has made me a better designer.

90 in 90 started out as an exercise in creative recovery. When I started, I didn't know where it would end. I just had faith that in the practice of doing something every day, something good would happen. And it did. I went on a creative journey and created a body of work that reflects aspects of the mobile user experience that I believe are important and emergent. I also learned loads about myself as a person and as a designer.

When people ask me what others can learn from this project, I come back to the reasons why people take journeys of any kind. Journeys allow us to explore; they allow us to discover. They can be arduous at times, and full of surprises and fun at other times. Most important, journeys provide us with an understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world. The journeys themselves are often the least difficult part; more often it's finding the courage to start.

I started by taking it one day at a time.

back to top  Author

Rachel Hinman is a mobile experience design director for Adaptive Path, a user experience and design firm based in San Francisco California. She is the creative force behind the "90 Mobiles in 90 Days project" and a recognized thought leader in the mobile user experience field. She speaks frequently on the topic of mobile research, design and strategy and publishes her point of view on mobile user experience on the Adaptive Path website and BusinessWeek.

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0100  $5.00

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