XXIV.5 September - October 2017
Page: 72
Digital Citation

Bad advice

Paolo Malabuyo

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The right advice at the right moment can save an incredible amount of time, effort, and disappointment. I've had the privilege of working with smart and talented people, many of whom have been generous with words of wisdom.

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What I didn't realize early on was that much of this advice was actually bad. It's not the obviously bad advice that's problematic. Rather, the most dangerous advice is the kind that sounds good. Advice like that can make a difficult situation worse, a hard job even harder.

Here, I share my top three examples of bad advice and how I learned to avoid it.

back to top  "Trust Your Gut"

This advice is empowering, suggesting you already know the answer—just ignore the naysayers. This is bad advice because our cognitive biases often lead us astray. The following are just a few examples.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to favor information that supports our existing beliefs and discount information that contradicts them. Two people who hold different beliefs can process the exact same information and come to different conclusions. We view the past in the best possible light or least embarrassing way, and we selectively remember those things that support what we already hold to be true. What rationalizations are you creating to back up a decision you were already inclined to support? Are you dismissing legitimate critique of your work?

The sunk-cost fallacy leads us to continue because we have already invested time, resources, and effort in something, even when it's irrational to continue. How often have you pursued a design solution beyond the point of reason because you already spent so much time on it? It may be better to start fresh, but we find it difficult to do so because of the perceived waste of the already expended effort.

One of my favorites is the above-average effect, where we overestimate our positive qualities, specifically our capabilities. Most of us believe we are exceptional—the majority of drivers consider themselves to be above average. We might believe that we have such amazing insight into the human condition that we can design something that is obviously going to be immediately intuitive. Of course people will get it—I'm that good.

I was a designer on Crimson Skies, a game for the original Xbox. In that game, you flew around in cool propeller planes, shooting down other planes and airships. One chapter I designed required you, the protagonist, to prove yourself worthy. I devised a series of challenges, including a follow-the-leader flight trial through a series of obstacles and maneuvers. I spent a lot of time making sure the story made sense and that the environment was set up just so, and striking the proper balance of speed and special moves. Sounds fun, right? I thought so.

After launching, the feedback from customers on online forums made it clear that this particular chapter was anything but fun (Figure 1). During development I should have sought out more opinions from people outside the team who weren't already expert players, and I should have listened to those who said that it was a bit too difficult—I didn't recognize my confirmation bias. I should have ignored the fact that I had spent so much time on it—that it was a sunk cost. I listened to my gut a little too much, and I honestly feel like I almost broke the single-player campaign mode because of it.

ins04.gif Figure 1. Just a few of the online comments regarding the Trial of Skill.

Instead of following your gut blindly and falling victim to your own inherent cognitive biases, do the following:

  • Train your gut
  • Lead with design
  • Validate with data.

Instead of trusting your gut, develop good judgment. Actively train yourself to be aware of your biases and find ways to work against them. Train your brain to work with you, not against you.

Put your design skills and expertise to good use—understand the problem before trying to solve it. Validate your ideas and assumptions through testing, and seek out data that might refute it. It takes guts to go back to see if you were wrong and admit it when you are.


back to top  "Be Disruptive"

I love this one. Meant to encourage boldness and innovation, it's a great mantra to challenge existing models, businesses, and ways of doing things. Unfortunately, all too often I have seen it used as a meaningless platitude and as an excuse to become a self-righteous pain in the ass. Leading disruptive change isn't as simple as raising your fist and yelling "Follow me!" unless you're the big boss in a culture where people will actually do as you say. Being disruptive is easy. Enabling lasting, effective, and positive change is hard.

A few years into my career, I developed something of a reputation as the guy who asked hard, challenging questions of management. Because of this, my peers would encourage me to bring up the difficult topics while they'd hang back, nice and safe, and wait to be potentially better informed (and definitely highly amused). I didn't know any better, as my ego and mouth often got the better of me. Those all-hands studio meetings were fun, I tell you. Didn't help my career much, but I could stay warm at night curled up in my self-righteous blanket.

Over the years, I have seen many others across different organizations take a similar approach with similarly unproductive results. They were likely given the same advice to be disruptive and followed it. I can't say there was a single event that made it clear to me that my disruptive behavior wasn't helpful to anyone—least of all to me—but it's likely due to realizing that it wasn't getting me anywhere.


It's far easier to destroy than to build. In 2010 a blogger had a critical email exchange with Steve Jobs, who ended the discussion by saying, "By the way, what have you done that's so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others [sic] work and belittle their motivations?" Don't confuse the ability to critique with the ability to create. It isn't the same (unless you're someone like Roger Ebert or some other highly talented professional critic).

You don't have to be the hero of the change. This is difficult, since part of the "be disruptive" manifesto is its hero syndrome. We are human; we have egos. Learn to manage yours. (When you figure that out, please let me know how you did it.)

Don't confuse different with better. Sometimes different is worse or has already been discarded for good reasons you simply don't know. Sometimes different is better, but not everyone may agree, or it may be threatening to someone. This may be unreasonable, but if it's someone important (i.e., boss/client), you need to deal with it constructively.

Don't make your disruption someone else's problem. You want it to entice and rally others, not repel them. Don't throw figurative grenades at people who are just trying to work. Don't practice albatross management—flying above it all, making lots of noise, swooping down to poop on things, and then flying away from the mess. Instead of being disruptive, do the following:

  • Create fertile ground
  • Recruit others to fight with you
  • Hustle and do the hard work.

More people could benefit from training in effective communication. Apply the design process to the communication strategy as well. What is its goal—to inform, to drive a decision, or what? Who's the audience, and what do they already know versus need to know? Good design work is necessary but often not sufficient; to take root and flourish, the work must land on fertile ground.

You need to recruit others to be part of the change. The art of persuasion is something that designers are often uncomfortable with, but it's how we enable groups to work together and do great things. Get others to believe what you believe so they'll fight alongside you.

Ultimately, you have to hustle; walk the walk and talk the talk. Be flexible and creative about scheduling time with someone. Read the memo before the meeting. Do the research instead of having an uninformed opinion. Go the extra mile. Do the hard work, especially when it's the work that others won't do.

back to top  "Let the Work Speak for Itself"

You've done a bunch of work and now need to present it to someone important, and you get this piece of advice. Please, don't ever let the work speak for itself. It often speaks a secret language only its creators understand, especially during its infancy. It needs you to speak for it until it's mature enough, and even then it needs as much help as you can give it in order to fulfill its potential.

I've struggled with this in the past, putting up work for feedback without giving it a fighting chance. The feedback would often be distracting or unhelpful because they'd simply be reacting to what they saw. I would do my best to respond, but I would get defensive, repetitive, and lose my confidence. Rinse, repeat.

Ideas are cheap and design proposals are fragile. Not until they are hammered and hardened by a robust design process are they able to stand on their own and withstand a proverbial beating. We are designers, not artists, so our work has to address a need, not just make a statement. Our ideas have to go through a tremendous amount of development and iteration to become finished products.

Plan the communication so that the work is received properly and you get the outcome you need. I'm not advocating the development of dazzling B.S. skills (though they certainly come in handy), but I believe that great design work deserves great communication. Therefore, I advocate the following:

  • Provide context
  • Connect the dots
  • Seek to understand.

You have to provide context that allows people to see the work as intended. Get them in the right frame of mind to empathize with the user, not just think of themselves. Is what you're showing a concept or a finished design, so they can calibrate feedback appropriately? Do they understand your goal so that they're not assuming it's one of their own?

It's invaluable to connect the various ideas and insights that led to the solution. Don't leave it up to others to make the connections; do it for them. If you can somehow make the solution feel obvious or inevitable, you've won.

If colleagues have questions or feedback, try to accept and understand it. Don't automatically defend or revert to simply repeating yourself. Often, just listening to someone helps tremendously. Probe deeper and listen. It may be that they're missing some necessary context or they're giving you some valuable insight that could make the work stronger.

back to top  Go Fish

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.—Rita Mae Brown, Will Rogers, Mark Twain...

Most advice is well-meaning, but some advice can actually do more harm than good. Many promise shortcuts—with this one trick, you can have massive impact. It's an attractive proposition. I've shared some ideas of how one might avoid the pitfalls of these pernicious pieces of advice. In my experience, there aren't any shortcuts. You can't just go with your gut and avoid the rigor of developing good judgment.

Developing your own good judgment through hard work will pay off with compound interest.

Nothing can replace doing the hard work and earning the experience that comes with it; developing your own good judgment through hard work will pay off with compound interest.

But how do you enable others to do this? As leaders, this is our job. It should go without saying that leading by example is effective, but let's not take that for granted. "Do as I say but not as I do" is one of the most destructive ways to lead; hypocrisy is not a virtue. If you have made the transition from individual contributor to manager, you know the challenge of going from doing to enabling, especially when you were promoted or hired because you were great at the doing part. It's hard not to just do the work yourself, but you must learn to enable others to do it even better than you could have.

When someone is seemingly going with their gut and nothing else, ask questions. Get them to articulate their rationale. If appropriate, point out the cognitive biases that all of us are prone to, then help them apply rigor in their approach to make their solution stronger.

If someone's being disruptive, seek to understand why. If it's just to be disruptive, shut it down or divert it; it's not good for anyone. If there's a good reason for it, guide them on how they can be more effective.

And if someone is letting the work dangle without proper support, you can help them drive the discussion to share the context. Guide them to connect the dots and to seek to understand the feedback they receive.

That old proverb of giving someone a fish rather than teaching them to fish is still relevant. If people come to you for wisdom, don't give them the same tired, bad advice or just give them the answer. Help them earn valuable experience and develop good judgment. Teach them to fish and give them a fishing pole. You'll both catch lots of fish instead of talking about the one that got away.

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Paolo Malabuyo (; @wildchicken] is a director of UX at Google and an adjunct professor at CMU Silicon Valley. Previously he worked at Netflix, Mercedes-Benz R&D, Zynga, Microsoft/Xbox, Pelago, Oracle, and IBM.

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Post Comment

@Joel Burns (2017 10 10)

Terrific article, Paolo! 
In my over forty years working in media, marketing, tech and investing, this is one of the best, well designed and real-world articles I have ever read.  I was lucky enough to have a chance meeting with Paolo two years ago and he was right on point answering my questions, which helped me tremendously.
His engagement at that time mirrored his suggestions in this valuable article.  This should be saved and referred to again and again by anyone interested in looking deeper into improving their value to their own mission, their employers, their family and all relationships.