JZ Jeff Zych

How Tina Fey’s “Lessons From Late Night” Apply to Product Design

In “Lessons From Late Night”, Tina Fey discusses the lessons she learned from Lorne Michaels while working at SNL. Turns out most of them are lessons I’ve learned in product design while working at Optimizely.

“Producing is about discouraging creativity.”

She goes on to say, “A TV show comprises many departments — costumes, props, talent, graphics, set dressing, transportation. Everyone in every department wants to show off his or her skills and contribute creatively to the show, which is a blessing.” But this creative energy must be harnessed and directed in a way that contributes positively to the sketch.

Applied to design, this basically means you need to say “no” a lot. Everyone’s full of ideas and will suggest things like, “Why don’t we just add a toggle so the user can choose their preference? More choice is good, right?” And then you need to explain that actually, users typically stick with the defaults, and don’t spend time configuring their software, and letting them toggle this option has all kinds of other product implications, so, no, sorry, lets try this other solution instead.

“The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty.”

This is a lesson in perfection. She elaborates:

You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, but then you have to let it go. You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute. […] You have to let people see what you wrote. It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring on live television.

Just change a few words to “design” and “the web,” and this applies perfectly to product design. Designers can polish forever, but perfect is the enemy of done. But unlike SNL, Optimizely (and I imagine most startups) doesn’t often have hard 11:30 PM Saturday night deadlines, which means we have a tendency to let dates slip. I used to think that was great (“I can spend time polishing!”), but I’ve found that deadlines force you to make tough decisions in order to release product (such as cutting the scope of a feature). And that extra “polish” I think I’m adding is just me overthinking decisions I’ve already made and, oh, guess what, now that actual human beings are using it we need to cut or change those corners of the UI you’ve polished because actually they don’t matter at all now that it’s being used in the real world.

“When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir.”

The gist of this lesson is that diversity of thought is important when hiring. Having a variety of designers with different backgrounds and skills results in a better product.

At Optimizely, we have a mix of visual-designers-turned-UX-designers, designers formally trained in human–computer interaction and psychology (the Harvard nerds of the group, such as yours truly), and developers turned designers. We all push and learn from each other. “The Harvard guys check the logic and grammatical construction of every joke, and the improvisers teach them how to be human. It’s Spock and Kirk.” In our case, the HCI folks make sure designs are usable and don’t violate established interaction patterns, and the visual designers make sure we aren’t shipping a bunch of gray boxes.

“Never cut to a closed door.”

As applied to user experience design, this is a way of saying, “don’t leave the user at a dead end”. If users get to a screen where they can’t do anything, then you’ve lost them. Products often dump users in empty screens that have no content (we’ve made this mistake plenty at Optimizely), which lowers engagement and increases churn. Marketing pages can lack a call to action, leading to a high bounce rate. You should always provide clear next steps.

“Don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning.”

This is a way of saying hire people you enjoy working with. At Optimizely, culture is a huge part of the hiring process. Work is easier, more fun, and turns out better when you’re working with people you like and respect.

Writing comedy and designing product don’t sound related, but there’s a lot of overlap in the creative process. As Tina’s lessons show, they each have a lot they can learn from each other.

Tags: product design
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