No Strong Feelings

User interface designers work in a world of pixels, and perfectionism is part of their job description. They notice if an icon is slightly off-center, if the line-height of a text block is a little tight, if the border radius on a button is too large. Designers are opinionated, and they’re not easily satisfied.

I worked with a few of them last summer at Storehouse, a small startup in San Francisco. Storehouse makes an app for iOS that allows people to create beautiful visual stories by dragging and dropping their photos, videos, and text into a flexible template.

On my second day at the company, I told Mark Kawano—Storehouse’s founder and CEO—that I was interested in helping out with UI design. Later that week, he called me over to his desk (execs don’t have their own offices in startup land) and suggested that I work on designing the account creation UI for the Storehouse website. There was no easy way to sign up for an account or view other people’s stories without downloading the iPhone app.

I presented my work in weekly design critiques on the second floor of the Storehouse office. My coworkers would sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor while I walked them through my designs. The mockups I presented probably wouldn’t have seemed very conversation-worthy to the average person. But to the designers at Storehouse, they were enough to spark hour-long design discussions. We argued about whether users should be required to re-type their passwords, their emails, or both. We thought about how much marketing copy should accompany the sign up form. We went back and forth on the number of steps it should take to create an account: should we ask users to follow interesting photojournalists before they log in? Should we force them to connect their Facebook and Twitter accounts?

The Phrase that Pays

Each design critique had a vibe of its own, but there was one thing they all shared.

Without fail, at least one person on the team would use the phrase, “I don’t have strong feelings on that.”

At first, the sentence confused me. I thought designers were supposed to be perfectionists—anal-retentive about the position of every last pixel. “I don’t have strong feelings” seemed uncharacteristically apathetic. But at Storehouse, the phrase was common and its use was even encouraged. I quickly realized that the phrase played a big role in the company’s ability to develop and ship quality software at such a fast pace.

“I don’t have strong feelings” is what keeps design critiques and other meetings from lasting the entire day. Designers can pull opinions out of thin air at a moment’s notice, but “I don’t have strong feelings” frees them from the notion that they have to talk just because they can. Thanks to that phrase, speaking time is allocated based on who cares the most about the decision at hand rather than who is best at bullshitting.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

Importantly, the phrase also acts as a shield against Parkinson’s law of triviality—the idea that organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. In 1957, Cyril Parkinson, an author and historian, noted that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant will probably spend most of its time on pointless discussions about relatively trivial, but easy-to-understand issues, like what materials to use for the staff bike shed. Meanwhile, they’ll neglect the proposed design of the power plant because it’s harder to discuss constructively.

When a company is very young, employees often feel like they’re building on top of quicksand. No decision is permanent, and anything can be changed without much effort. The challenge, then, is to move quickly without losing direction—to run experiments without becoming mad scientists. It’s as much as a curse as it is a blessing that most early-stage startups aren’t very constrained by decisions they’ve made in the past. Without the phrase “I don’t have strong feelings,” design critiques would quickly devolve into philosophical discussions about where the company should be in five years and what role it should play in the broader industry landscape. It’s easy to voice an opinion on a product decision, but it’s sometimes more productive to keep it to yourself.

I write the occassional essay on design, cognitive science, politics, or some combination thereof. You should follow me on Twitter and subscribe to receive updates via email.