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Blitz design — the value of intuition and speed

What l learned about designing quickly from Malcolm Gladwell and The Queen’s Gambit.

What do chess, law school exams, and UX design have in common? As it turns out, a lot. They all judge skill — rightly or wrongly — in terms of speed.

Hikaru Nakamura is a grandmaster chess player. Not quite as good as Magnus Carlsen, the greatest chess player of his era, but still exceptionally good. One of the best.

Hikaru’s specialty is blitz chess — he played it 6 hours a day growing up in Westchester County outside New York City. Blitz chess, unlike classical, is ultra-fast. Each player gets only five minutes for the entire game. In classical chess, you get two hours.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, he talks about how time constraints greatly affect how well different people perform skilled tasks, test, or games. It’s a uniquely American tradition to have standardised test under extreme time pressure, like the LSAT, which determines which law school you can get into.

Gladwell is particularly irked by this idea, which he says Americans, apparently, accept as gospel:

“A smart person is not the person who gets the right answer; the smart person is the person who gets the right answer the quickest.”

What does this have to do with chess or design? Bear with me, it’s coming.

The paradox of time constraints

Timed standardised tests favour the hare over the tortoise. The tortoise may be equally brilliant and come up with all the right answers in their own time, but they can’t complete the test in the time allowed, so they get mediocre scores — only the hare can reach the podium.

Since the LSAT is the primary factor in determining which law schools you can attend, all the top law schools like Harvard only accept hares — only those in the very top percentiles on the LSAT.

But is the LSAT an accurate predictor of how good of a law student or lawyer you’ll become? It turns out the answer is no. Many of the best lawyers and judges in the world are most certainly tortoises. Law is tricky, it requires a lot of careful reading and deliberation. Being fast isn’t necessarily an advantage.

And does the law school you attend make a big impact on how successful you’ll be in the profession? Again, the answer is no. Statistically, it’s almost meaningless, according to an analyst Gladwell interviewed who’s speciality is “Moneyball” for law firms.

So neither your high-percentile LSAT score nor the prestigious law school you attend actually makes a significant difference to how well you perform in the legal field. The entire path of American legal education is based on a flawed assumption that quicker is better. That the fastest to the right answer is always the smartest.

Is it the same for the field of UX design? Let’s go back to chess, as it gives us some clues to find out.

Calculation vs. intuition

Here’s Gladwell again, from Revisionist History S4E1:

Everything about blitz and classical is the same — same pieces, same board, same players, same choreographed openings, but the time limits are different. And what happens when you tinker with the time limit? You get a completely different set of results. At classical chess, Magnus Carlsen is number one. He’s also number one at blitz because he’s a genius. Hikaru, right now, is 11th in the classical rankings but, at blitz, he’s number two in the world. Why? Because he’s really, really good at the rapid pattern recognition that’s necessary for blitz and he’s not quite as good at the complex calculation that’s necessary for classical.

If we compress the time to even more extremes, it gets crazier. There’s a third variation of chess called “bullet” chess in which each player only has one minute to complete their entire game. Hikaru is the king of bullet. He’s even better than Magnus Carlson. He’s also #1 at Puzzle Rush, an online game where you have to complete as many chess endgames as possible in a short time period. Nobody has beaten Hikaru’s top score.

When you tinker with the time limit, you get a completely different set of results. Mediocre can become great, and even the best can drop down the pack. Tortoises start beating hares, or vice versa depending on the direction of the time adjustment. Despite having the same rules, there’s a huge chasm between classical, blitz and bullet chess simply due to the time you have to complete each game. Hikaru becomes a monster when the time limit handicaps methodical calculators and “intuition has to take over”.

Remember that scene in The Queen’s Gambit where Beth is sitting on the floor playing multiple simultaneous games of blitz chess against Benny Watts and his friends? She starts out confident but loses. She’s used to playing tortoise chess, not hare chess — calculating a hundred permutations along six lines of play for each move. But with practice, she learns to balance her calculation with intuition, and she beats them the next time. She learns to be both a tortoise and a hare.

The game of design

Design is not unlike chess. We look for optimal solutions under unique constraints just as a chess player works withing their opponent's strengths, weaknesses, and opening strategies. Weekly sprints, milestones, and project deadlines are our time constraints in design.

If there was a standardised test that measured UX design skill, would we celebrate those who can complete it the fastest? Would we only hire hares over tortoises, as all the fancy law firms do?

I’d like to believe the fairytale that we wouldn’t — that tortoises could thrive as well as hares do in the design world. But my 20 years of freelance design experience tells me otherwise. The faster you are, the more value you have. It comes down to one universal rule of professional services:

Time is money

If you bill by the hour, time literally is money. But even if you use a different pricing method, time is always tied to money for your business, internally. The more you can complete in a certain time determines your earning potential over that time. Quick designers solve more problem, produce more deliverables, and therefore provide more value and earn more money.

I’m always told I’m a quick designer. Clients are delighted by how fast I digest information and condense it into a potential solution. I often turn around revisions so quickly they have trouble keeping pace. This speed allows me to charge a high rate and still offer excellent value. I’m expensive, but you get more than you pay for.

But what does it actually mean to be a quick designer, and how can you increase your design speed?

Data-driven design is a tortoise’s game

You haven’t forgotten the chess example already, have you?

Relaxed time constraints allow for experimentation, trial and error. Just as in chess — where you game out at least 6 moves in advance in your head — designers game out multiple solutions and then test them against each other to find a winner. We rely on qualitative and quantitative data to help us calculate and predict the success of a design solution before we have to commit to it. Data-driven design is classical chess — it’s a tortoise’s game.

But what if you don’t have the time or budget to allow for it? What if the best you can do, as Hikaru explains blitz chess, “becomes about finding moves that look good that are not blunders that you can play almost instantly”.

This isn’t a hypothetical question. When was the last time you had a relaxed timeframe? We face this kind of time pressure in our jobs every day. Outside of design-led corporate environment with cushy budgets, we rarely have the luxury of “gaming out” all the potential solutions. “We need this done tomorrow” is not conducive to methodical calculations and meandering design experimentation. The real world of design requires more hares than tortoises.

So what makes a designer into a hare?

Design intuition makes valuable hares

You might call it intuition or instinct. In this case, I use the words interchangeably.

When I talk about design intuition it’s not some hippie notion of innate talent or god-given inspiration that strikes from above. It’s not a subjective feeling of what looks cool or strokes your designer’s ego.

As I wrote in Data-Drive Design Is Killing Our Instincts:

Design instinct is a lot more than innate creative ability and cultural guesswork. It’s your wealth of experience. It’s familiarity with industry standards and best practices. You develop that instinct from trial and error — learning from your success and mistakes (your’s and other’s).

Instinct is recognizing pitfalls before they manifest into problems, recognizing winning solutions without having to explore and test endless options. It’s seeing balance, observing inconsistencies, and honing your design eye. It’s having good aesthetic taste, but knowing how to adapt your style on a whim.

Design instinct is the sum of all the tools you need to make great design decisions in the absence of meaningful data.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Design intuition or instinct is the hare’s game. It’s how to master design like a blitz chess player. Intuition is how you become the Hikaru Nakamura of design.

Design intuition isn’t a magic ability. It doesn’t always guide you to the best design solutions, and it usually needs to be validated by data to inform an ideal decision. But it’s immensely valuable in weeding out the worst options and narrowing your focus on the most likely solutions. I rely on design intuition daily as a replacement for experimentation when time pressure doesn’t allow for a perfect process.

Trusting my designer’s intuition — and having built a reliable intuition worthy of that trust — is what make me a quick designer. It’s what makes me more valuable to my clients than my slower counterparts, even if my rate is twice as high.

Let me make myself perfectly clear when I define what a quick designer is. It’s not speed just for the sake of it. It’s not cutting corners and dropping quality to get something out the door faster than your neighbour. It’s not an obsession with productivity at the cost of making rushed decisions.

A quick designer, all else being equal, comes up with great design solutions just as his counterparts, only faster. They’re equally good and fast — never one at the expense of the other.

Importantly, a design hare hasn’t lost the ability to revert to a tortoise when needed.

Intuition is not the enemy of data

But wait, you say, we don’t do guesswork anymore. Data drives our decisions now. You can’t go “trusting your gut” willy-nilly. Design has matured way past that age.

Has it? If you’re a product or UX designer you may make hundreds of micro-decisions every day. Do you validate every one of them with external testing and data? Of course not. You trust your designer’s intuition constantly — every time you choose this style over that, this form control, that font pairing, this visual pattern, that navigation structure. The big decisions you test. The small decisions you already know in your gut to be right.

How to grow design intuition?

Intuition generally comes from experience. Green designers operate like tortoises. Experts gain their status, in part, because they know how and when it’s appropriate to play the hare.

Intuition is nothing but years of observing the world. It’s an accumulation of data that’s so deeply integrated that it no longer feels external. Trusting our intuition means obeying long-term trends and proven industry norms.

You can test and grow your design intuition by playing blitz design. How fast can you come up with a good, if not ideal, design solution with only seconds to game through your options? How often does the first idea that pops into your head turn out to be the winning solution, even after you’ve taken the time to test out the second and third idea?

If you pass these tests, your confidence soars. The more good decisions you can make in the absence of perfect data, the more tools you have in your design toolbox — no matter what kind of process is thrown your way.

It’s easy for a hare to revert back to tortoise speed when they have the luxury of time. But it’s nearly impossible for a tortoise to jump to a hare’s pace if they haven’t yet trained their mind how. So every time you learn a new design lesson, stash in in your intuition bank. When your account fills up with enough design intuition, you can survive many tricky design decisions off the interest alone.

Never underestimate speed

Developing a strong designer’s intuition might be the difference between plateauing at $100/hr or commanding $150/hr for your time. It might determine whether you can cut it in a fast-paced, agile environment, or falter under the pressure. The value of your speed may be what lands you your dream job, because, like law firms, some people find it too much risk to hire anyone but the fastest hares.

So forget the old fable of the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady will build you a solid mediocre design career, but if you want to be truly impactful, you need to learn to be a hare.

While I don’t agree that the arbitrary time constraints of standardised tests create the most accurate reflection of everyone’s potential to succeed, the lesson behind them may not be wrong after all. The smart designer very well may be the one who comes up with the right answer the quickest.

I’d find it very challenging to argue that a design hare is less valuable than a tortoise, but my personal career experience may be too limited (freelance only) and tinting my perspective. If anyone would like to argue on behalf of designing slowly, I’d love to hear a lively debate in the Medium comments. Who will rally to the cause of the design tortoises?

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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