This Is What Real Analysis Looks Like

October 4, 2010

What I’ve learned most clearly from blogs is that the majority of them write about the problems from the outside for a reason—because they are missing the abilities that allow people to move to the inside. It holds true for so many of the categories, from self-improvement to design to media criticism on down. Of course, there is a lot of value in different angles of perspective but for most of us this kind of analysis (outsiders writing for other outsiders) is disconnected enough from reality that it is essentially meaningless. I think that’s why I was so impressed by this piece on boarding pass redesign by Timoni West.

Like the Dustin Curtis’s post on the American Airline website, the topic was kicked off by a smarmy nerd who laughably failed at what he set out to do [unsoliticted]. Then, thankfully, a better designer weighed in and actually put together something we can learn from. Honestly, I can’t even figure out why the original writer linked to it because it makes him look that bad in comparison.

Doing Analysis Right
What I notice first is that Timoni begins by examining the constraints. This is too rare. If we’re honest, I think we can actually admit that most of her creative insights come out of the discussion of these limitations. It’s how she defines what exactly she’s trying to overcome and then finally that if she’s able to do so, it’d be of use to someone. Alinsky famously said that we must start with where “the world is, as it is, not as we would like it to be” and that this makes no judgment on our desire to change it. In fact, starting where Timoni did—with an inventory on the limiting factors—is how you figure out how to get around them.

Next, she does what she calls “walking through the details.” Another word for this exercise is Empathy. She considers the effectiveness of her design from the perspective of several different actors who are plainly not her. Again, this is rarer than we want to admit. Where is this exercise in the original article or in Curtis’s AA redesign? I think its possible here because Timoni actually knows who she is (a single, childless traveler who self-checks bags) and is aware enough to admit that that sets her apart from fellow travelers.

Finally, she proposes one last addition in case airports are ever convinced to improve their printers: a much more exciting version using Helvetica. I see this as her nod to the latter part of Alinsky’s model for change. This is the seamless ability to move between the insider and outsider perspective—this is what I like as a designer, this is what I like as a designer on this specific project and I have the wisdom to demarcate the difference.

After publishing, comes what Gary Klein would call a Pre Mortem. In a second post, she critically reviews her design and hypothetically examines its failures and successes. Say this design had actually been tested by an airline, any idiot would have been able to incorporate the direct feedback from the users. But that’s not possible here. To hypothetically anticipate where her significant problems would have arisen and consider how to change the plan to avoid them is much more difficult. This is probably why most people don’t do it.

What I like about her is that in one most she shows so clearly what almost every other blog post misses: empathy, self-awareness, and phronesis. In other words, the things that matter in real life—those which get things done. And if we want to illustrate what the online world values, compare the traffic and comments to her page and the one she responded to. We have to ignore these signs because to read the others is a waste. It’s more than masturbatory—it is to pretend you’re learning something when you’re really being entertained like you would be with any other fiction. Not only could nothing ever come of that kind analysis (as in it could never be made), the worst part is that you internalize their logic.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

5 responses to This Is What Real Analysis Looks Like

  1. Checking my understanding, is this where we get bloggers writing and talking about the qualities of a CEO? They aren’t really writing for other CEOs, but for people that might idealize the position, right?


  2. Right. Outsiders writing for other outsiders, speculating about why things are the way they are on the inside.

  3. Here’s an example from the video game industry, people upset about the art style for the sequel of a game and doing the same thing churning out images of how they feel it should look. A designer for the game broke down both technical and design limitations in much of what they suggested:

    The tone contrast from the faulty analysis vs. the skilled analysis is the most striking thing to me. In the AA/Delta/Diablo III stories, the outsider design work feels like little more than a vehicle for condescension, a way of reassuring themselves that they’re just as good as any insider. Comparing that to the calm reasonableness from Timoni, etc that divorce how the thing makes them feel from the possibilities for fixing it makes me think that the outsider/insider difference in analysis skills you pointed out has to do with underlying humility .

  4. Err…. Please ignore the second half of my post, I re-read ‘Stop. Examine. Reconsder.’ and realized humility is exactly what you’re talking about when you reference their self-awareness.

    I still can’t believe the AA case where Dustin’s response to the AA employee explaining things to him isn’t to reflect on what he learned, but to instead just move the blame around to someone else in the company. Whenever that happens the image from Wikisource always pops into my head of the iceberg with 90% of its mass below water.

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