Here’s a story from the #failureFiles.
Once upon a time, a civilian owned space exploration company who shall not be named approached us about designing part of the user interface in their ship’s command module. Yup. They wanted us to design a spaceship UI. For a team of sci-fi fanatics, this was pretty the most astoundingly exciting thing that had ever happened. By far.
The brief was thin on details. Apparently almost all ship functions were handled by mission control on the surface, but at a certain point—in an emergency, or perhaps when docking with the International Space Station—the crew played a critical role in controlling the ship. That was about all they would tell us. They wanted to talk that very week. But determined to prepare a mind-blowing pitch, we convinced them to give us a couple of extra days. In the absence of a detailed brief, we figured we would give them a window into how we thought. So we studied spaceship UIs from TV and movies, and demonstrated how these did or didn’t align with best practices of great interface design. We also redesigned about half our case studies. In the end the deck was more than 60 pages long. It was glossy and beautiful and we were incredibly excited to share it.
So we flew down for the pitch--I remember we dressed much better than usual. We gladly accepted their offer of a facility tour, during which we ooh’d and ahh’d like starstruck kids. The pitch itself was a blur. We only got through about half the slides. We flew home with fingers crossed.
We didn’t get the job. But they did tell us why, which is rare, and very much appreciated.
In an adjacent sliver of the multiverse, the sun’s light scattered through an atmosphere laden with Saharan dust, primordial chemicals, and wildfire smoke, revealing the vivid dawn of a planet almost identical to our own. Except in this world, we’d received a simple brief for a tight little project. Our clients were under extreme time and budget pressures. They wanted a partner who could roll up their sleeves and working side by side with their people, rapidly explore, prototype and produce a rock solid design solution. They wanted pragmatics, not pitches. This was yeoman's work, not portfolio fodder. Recognizing this and acknowledging our obvious lack of experience designing spaceship UIs, we determined it was enough to just be sponges. Having offered to meet them as soon as possible, we sent a small group who came prepared with nothing but a long list of questions. They offered us a tour and we said, “Sure, if it’s important, but our preference would be to spend our time together learning more about this particular challenge…”
Back in our slightly sadder sliver of the multiverse, I’m reminded that some situations demand the opposite response to what our emotions may dictate. Buy stock when it’s low, sell when it’s high. Swim parallel to shore in a rip tide. And, next time you get a chance to design a spaceship UI, play it cool and put your client first.