What Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts Taught Me About UX

by Marissa Epstein

I cover my remote office with Post-it notes. I credit Lullabot’s Creative Director Jared Ponchot, who often asks, “What are the key insights you’ll write on Post-it notes and stick to your desk?” In this way, we distill weeks of design research and project context into 3x3” reminders, lighting the way throughout user experience engagements and beyond. One says only “Speak slowly.” I love this idea of succinct soundbites that represent larger concepts and elevate your work. So, it’s in that line of thinking that I present some of my favorite one-liners that, despite coming from an unexpected source, offer lessons about improving the user experience design process. I am referring, of course, to Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts.

If you aren’t familiar, Jack Handey is an American comedy writer that has written for a variety of shows and authored many books but is most famous for his work with SNL (Toonces the cat, anyone? Happy fun ball?). Handey's Deep Thoughts are self-described "irreverent observations on life" that debuted in 1984, filled five books, and created one of my all-time favorite SNL segments during the 90's. Even though his writing is hysterical first and foremost, not to mention personally nostalgic, I find real value in its accessible wisdom. I hope you do too.

Collaborate during discovery to leverage important perspectives

I hope if dogs take over the world, and they choose a king, they don't just go by size, because I bet there are some Chihuahuas with some good ideas.

– Jack Handey  

Lullabot gathers feedback from a diverse team when kicking off design projects. Once you create a safe space for sharing context and ideas within an organization, you might be surprised where some of the best insights originate.

Sometimes I think the so-called experts actually are experts.

– Jack Handey  

This one cracks me up both ways: first as “an expert” that can face skepticism and often needs to weave education into the client process, and again, as a reminder of the inverse, to be humble and leverage colleagues’ strengths.

Create a shared vocabulary to understand the context

I think there probably should be a rule that if you’re talking about how many loaves of bread a bullet will go through, it’s understood that you mean lengthwise loaves. Otherwise, it makes no sense.

– Jack Handey  

Getting up to speed fast with lots of domain knowledge and terminology is important, so document and simplify language together. Let this be your yardstick; try to make more sense than this.

Address knowledge gaps to eliminate assumptions

A lot of times when you first start out on a project you think, This is never going to be finished. But then it is, and you think, Wow, it wasn't even worth it.

– Jack Handey  

To avoid this “Wow, but in a bad way” moment, validate a product idea as viable before wasting time building the wrong thing, then translate your insights into a manageable scope and goals you can measure. Lullabot designers don’t believe in the big reveal. Instead, we work in small cycles, checking-in openly with clients and getting work in front of real users along the way.

Research your users to gain empathy

Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.

– Jack Handey  

By far, my favorite one. It is invaluable to “walk a mile” in the shoes of the users you design for before trying to improve their journey. Conduct interview calls and usability tests to understand their unique frameworks, goals, terminology, what have you.

Be curious but impartial during interviews

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t pretend to even know what the questions are. Hey, where am I?

– Jack Handey  

When doing your research, keep user and stakeholder interviews flexible and organic. Lullabot designers write and reference protocols to make sure we cover specific topics and have particular phrasing within reach, but let the conversation spontaneously lead to great insights.

We’re all afraid of something. Take my little nephew, for instance. He’s afraid of skeletons. He thinks they live in closets and under beds, and at night they come out to get you when you’re asleep. And what am I afraid of? Now, I’m afraid of skeletons.

– Jack Handey  

This quote is also a joke I use during the interview process, to remind myself of how easy it is for bias to creep in. Watch your wording and don’t lead participants in the conversation, lest ye end up with compromised results.

Leverage design patterns to create streamlined, consistent experiences

Instead of a welcome mat, what about just a plain mat and a little loudspeaker that says “welcome” over and over again?

– Jack Handey  

Handey shares many of these half-baked, “Instead of X, what about Y” Deep Thoughts, which remind me not to design overly complex web interactions that put novelty over ease-of-use. It can create friction if a user has to learn something new, so don’t reinvent the wheel in the name of razzle-dazzle. Your developers will thank you.

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