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Intellectual humility: how to be wrong productively

How to use being wrong to improve UX and product design. Learn how to embrace mistakes and create better products for your users.

The hardest thing about building a new company is that you have to be wrong a lot. From the moment you breathe life into the thing-you're-building, you need to be intentional about challenging your assumptions, and seeking out the truth. This requires a willingness to be wrong, to be wrong often, and to make good decisions when you are wrong.

When was the last time you were wrong? How did you respond?

For many of us, being wrong is a painful experience. It's a blow to our ego, and it can feel like a personal attack. It's easy to get defensive, and to try to justify our decisions, even when we know they're wrong.

Hell, if I were to look back on myself in the past, I was often defensive, and would dig my heels in to justify my decisions, even if it wasn't the best choice for the product or business.

I wasn't learning from my mistakes.

In my work, I am wrong all the time, and as strange as it sounds, I'm getting better at being wrong. Somewhere in the process of building my last company, I learned that being wrong is a good thing. It's a sign that you're listening, learning, and growing. This aligns with UX research principles: question, observe, and adjust.

I learned that being wrong is a skill. It's something you can practice, and get better at.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to practice intellectual humility - trust the people around you to help you make better decisions, and be willing to admit when you're wrong. Give your friends, colleagues, and customers the benefit of the doubt, and take feedback and challenges in good faith.

If you're building a product, this means that you will be building, tweaking, and sometimes outright rebuilding features and interfaces to make them more useful and valuable to your customers. Software is never done, and it's a mistake to mark a feature as "done" and to never think about it again.

Be wrong, and be smart about it. It's a great way to learn.

Smarter Every Day and intellectual humility

The topic for this week's newsletter was inspired by the YouTube channel Smarter Every Day, who recently published a video called THE IMPOSSIBLE SHOT. The team made two bullets collide mid-air, and captured it in super slowmo. It's an incredible video. In this video, Destin (the host) uses the term "intellectual humility",

I don't like guns at all, but I am all about pursuing creative challenges, and taking on seemingly impossible tasks. The setup for the shot they captured is incredibly tricky to get right. Firing two guns at each other is extremely dangerous - and capturing it on camera required a lot of problem solving.

There's a fantastic moment in the video where Destin has his inner circle of experts analyze and question the setup for the experiment. He listens intently as they all try to poke holes in his assumptions, because he trusts their expertise. It's really impressive to watch.

Resources for further learning

  • 🖇️ This video from TikToker and bio-ethecicist Charlie Peterson analyzes the Smarter Every Day video through the lens of men's mental health. Brilliant stuff - and a solid reminder that the men in our lives (hi, it's me) need to be encouraged to be vulnerable and open about their feelings.

  • 🦠 Science vs: AI, is it out of control? is a great listen. The capabilities of what AI can do today would have felt like Science Fiction to most of us 18 months ago, and it's important to educate yourself on the basics of how AI works. One reason I love this show: they cite their research. The transcript for this episode contains 97 citations. That's good damn work, y'all.

  • 🔬 Near the end of the most recent episode of the podcast (about the 1hr mark) Reconcilable Differences: My Personal Fantastia, hosts John Siracusa and Merlin Mann discuss an interesting question: how do you know when something is true? If the past few years have shown me anything, an approach to finding and determining provable truth is fundamental to societal growth and safety.

That's all for this week. To all my friends and colleagues who have helped me learn from being wrong: thank you. I appreciate you.

Intellectual humility: how to be wrong productively

How to use being wrong to improve UX and product design. Learn how to embrace mistakes and create better products for your users.



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