JZ Jeff Zych

Where do you get ideas for blog posts?

A picture of a dam by Anthony Da Cruz on Unsplash

A dam, blocking all of your great ideas – Photo by Anthony Da Cruz on Unsplash

People often ask me, “Where do you get ideas for blog posts?” I have many sources, but my most effective one is simple: pay attention to the questions people ask you.

When a person asks you a question, it means they’re seeking your advice or expertise to fill a gap in their knowledge. Take your answer, and write it down.

This technique works so well because it overcomes the two biggest barriers to blogging: “What should I write about?” and, “Does anyone care what I have to say?”

It overcomes the first barrier by giving you a specific topic to write about. Our minds contain a lifetime of experiences to draw from, but when you try to find something specific to write about you’re blank. All that accumulated knowledge is locked up in your head, as if trapped behind a dam. A question cracks the dam and starts the flow of ideas.

It overcomes the second barrier (“will anyone care?”) because you already have your first reader: the question asker. Congratulations! You just infinitely increased your reader base. And chances are they aren’t the only person who’s ever asked this question, or ever will ask it. When this question comes up in the future, you’ll be more articulate when responding, and you can keep building your audience by sharing your post.

Having at least one reader has another benefit: you now have a specific person to write for. A leading cause of poorly written blog posts is that the author doesn’t know who they’re writing for (trust me, I’ve made this mistake plenty). This leads them to try to write for everyone. Which means their writing connects with no one. The resulting article is a Frankenstein’s monster of ideas bolted together that aimlessly stumbles around mumbling and groaning and scaring away the villagers.

Instead, you can avoid this fate by conjuring up the question asker in your mind, and write your response as if you’re talking to them. Instead of creating a monster, your post will sound like a polished, engaging TED speaker.

A final benefit to answering a specific question is that it keeps your post focused. Just answer the question, and call it a day. No more, no less. Another leading cause of Frankenstein’s monster blog posts is that they don’t have a specific point they’re trying to make. So the post tries to say everything there is to say about a subject, or deviates down side roads, or doesn’t say anything remarkable, or is just plain confusing. Answering a specific question keeps these temptations at bay.

So the next time you’re wondering where to get started blogging, start by paying attention to the questions people ask you. Then write down your answers.

p.s. Yes, I applied the advice in this post to the post itself :)

p.p.s. If you’d like more writing advice, I created a page to house all of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up from books and articles over the years. Check it out at jlzych.com/writing.

Discovery Kanban 101: My Newest Skillshare Class

I just published my first Skillshare class — Discovery Kanban 101: How to Integrate User-Centered Design with Agile. From the class description:

Learn how to make space for designers and researchers to do user-centered design in an Agile/scrum engineering environment. By creating an explicit Discovery process to focus on customer needs before committing engineers to shipping code, you will unlock design’s potential to deliver great user experiences to your customers.

By the end of this class, you will have built a Discovery Kanban board and learned how to use it to plan and manage the work of your team.

While I was at Optimizely, I implemented a Discovery kanban process to improve the effectiveness of my design team (which I blogged about previously here and here, and spoke about here). I took the lessons I learned from doing that and turned them into a class on Skillshare to help any design leader implement an explicit Discovery process at their organization.

Whether you’re a design manager, a product designer, a program manager, a product manager, or just someone who’s interested in user-centered design, I hope you find this course valuable. If you have any thoughts or questions, don’t hesitate to reach out: @jlzych

Why I Blog

The fable of the millipede and the songbird is a story about the difference between instinct and knowledge. It goes like this:

High above the forest floor, a millipede strolled along the branch of a tree, her thousand pairs of legs swinging in an easy gait. From the tree top, song birds looked down, fascinated by the synchronization of the millipede’s stride. “That’s an amazing talent,” chirped the songbirds. “You have more limbs than we can count. How do you do it?” And for the first time in her life the millipede thought about this. “Yes,” she wondered, “how do I do what I do?” As she turned to look back, her bristling legs suddenly ran into one another and tangled like vines of ivy. The songbirds laughed as the millipede, in a panic of confusion, twisted herself in a knot and fell to earth below.

On the forest floor, the millipede, realizing that only her pride was hurt, slowly, carefully, limb by limb, unraveled herself. With patience and hard work, she studied and flexed and tested her appendages, until she was able to stand and walk. What was once instinct became knowledge. She realized she didn’t have to move at her old, slow, rote pace. She could amble, strut, prance, even run and jump. Then, as never before, she listened to the symphony of the songbirds and let music touch her heart. Now in perfect command of thousands of talented legs, she gathered courage, and, with a style of her own, danced and danced a dazzling dance that astonished all the creatures of her world. [1]

The lesson here is that conscious reflection of an unconscious action will impair your ability to do that action. But after you introspect and really study how you do what you do, it will transform into knowledge and you will have greater command of that skill.

That, in a nutshell, is why I blog. The act of introspection — of turning abstract thoughts into concrete words — strengthens my knowledge of that subject and enables me to dance a dazzling dance.


[1] I got this version of the fable from the book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee, but can’t find the original version of it anywhere (it’s uncredited in his book). The closest I can find is The Centipede’s Dilemma, but that version lacks the second half of the fable.

On Mastery

Mastery

I completely agree with this view on mastery from American fashion designer, writer, television personality, entrepreneur, and occasional cabaret star Isaac Mizrahi:

I’m a person who’s interested in doing a bunch of things. It’s just what I like. I like it better than doing one thing over and over. This idea of mastery—of being the very best at just one thing—is not in my future. I don’t really care that much. I care about doing things that are interesting to me and that I don’t lose interest in.

Mastery – “being the very best at just one thing” – doesn’t hold much appeal for me. I’m a very curious person. I like jumping between various creative endeavors that “are interesting to me and that I don’t lose interest in.” Guitar, web design, coding, writing, hand lettering – these are just some of the creative paths I’ve gone down so far, and I know that list will continue to grow.

I’ve found that my understanding of one discipline fosters a deeper understanding of other disciplines. New skills don’t take away from each other – they only add.

So no, mastery isn’t for me. The more creative paths I go down, the better. Keep ‘em coming.


Update 4/2/18

Quartz recently profiled Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s billionaire deputy, who credits his investing success to not mastering just 1 field — investment theory — but instead “mastering the multiple models which underlie reality.” In other words, Munger is an expert-generalist. The term was coined by Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co, who describes an expert-generalist as:

Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:

  1. Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
  2. Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.

The article goes on to describe the strength of this strategy:

Being an expert-generalist allows individuals to quickly adapt to change. Research shows that they:

  • See the world more accurately and make better predictions of the future because they are not as susceptible to the biases and assumptions prevailing in any given field or community.
  • Have more breakthrough ideas, because they pull insights that already work in one area into ones where they haven’t been tried yet.
  • Build deeper connections with people who are different than them because of understanding of their perspectives.
  • Build more open networks, which allows them to serve as a connector between people in different groups. According to network science research, having an open network is the #1 predictor of career success.

All of this sounds exactly right. I had never thought about the benefits of being an expert-generalist, nor did I deliberately set out to be one (my natural curiosity got me here), but reading these descriptions gave form to something that previously felt intuitively true.

Read the full article here: https://qz.com/1179027/mental-models-how-warren-buffetts-billionaire-deputy-became-an-expert-generalist/

Stay Focused on the User by Switching Between Maker Mode and Listener Mode

When writing music, ambient music composer Brian Eno makes music that’s pleasurable to listen to by switching between “maker” mode and “listener” mode. He says:

I just start something simple [in the studio]—like a couple of tones that overlay each other—and then I come back in here and do emails or write or whatever I have to do. So as I’m listening, I’ll think, It would be nice if I had more harmonics in there. So I take a few minutes to go and fix that up, and I leave it playing. Sometimes that’s all that happens, and I do my emails and then go home. But other times, it starts to sound like a piece of music. So then I start working on it.

I always try to keep this balance with ambient pieces between making them and listening to them. If you’re only in maker mode all the time, you put too much in. […] As a maker, you tend to do too much, because you’re there with all the tools and you keep putting things in. As a listener, you’re happy with quite a lot less.

In other words, Eno makes great music by experiencing it the way his listeners do: by listening to it.

This is also a great lesson for product development teams: to make a great product, regularly use your product.

By switching between “maker” and “listener” modes, you put yourself in your user’s shoes and seeing your work through their eyes, which helps prevent you from “put[ting] too much in.”

This isn’t a replacement for user testing, of course. We are not our users. But in my experience, it’s all too common for product development teams to rarely, if ever, use what they’re building. No shade – I’ve been there. We get caught on the treadmill of building new features, always moving on to the next without stopping to catch our breath and use what we’ve built. This is how products devolve into an incomprehensible pile of features.

Eno’s process is an important reminder to keep your focus on the user by regularly switching between “maker” mode and “listener” mode.

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