Why you’ve gotta kill your darlings on your next tech project

Clara Parada

Clara Parada

Wait, what?

Disclaimer! Not to worry: we are definitely not asking you to murder those that you love most! It’s not like that! Let us explain why killing your darlings, in this case, will only help you and your team build better solutions for your users.

So what does “killing your darlings” mean?

It was William Faulkner, the American author, the one that coined the expression. He said that when writing a book, it was important to get rid of elements and even characters that he loved dearly, but was keeping unnecessarily. He postulated that an author shouldn’t force something into context just because they liked it; so if a brilliant passage, full of emotion and impact, didn’t fit with the rest of the story, the right, but painful thing to do, would be to cut it out, mercilessly.

Flash forward to the present day and the expression has found its way into the digital industry. It still has the same meaning: getting rid of ideas that you are precious about but don’t fit the wider context of a design. If it does not respond to your users needs, then it’s probably unnecessary, no matter how shiny it seems to be.

Killing your darlings is not an easy mindset to maintain: as designers, we often think that we know what is best for our users. However, we always need to validate and test ideas with them before: every idea, product and service should be evidence-based.

Tools of the trade

With this in mind, Ayup created a workshop for non-profits and charities that are starting out in digital services. We wanted to show the importance of speaking to users and teach them a few tools for getting ideas off the ground. Throughout the day, it was encouraged that participants thought of users first and, of course, be willing to kill their darlings. Three tools were particularly useful to practise the mindset:

Knowledge Board

#1 - Knowledge board

A wonderful exercise designed and used by Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST) in their Design HOPS. Using this template, you can visualise what you know, what you think you know and what you don’t know about your users.

During this part of the workshop, Sam Sparrow, Head of Digital Practice at CAST, said that if the column of “Don’t know”s was the smallest, she would encourage people to do it again. She justified this by stating that at the start of a project, we can only make assumptions about our users. To know things for sure, we must speak for them. Hence, we must take a deep breath and say repeatedly the three most difficult words in the English language: “I don’t know”. It’s ok to not know and admit it. It will only prevent you from making decisions based on guess-work, which could lead to investments on unnecessary products and services. The Knowledge Board is a great opportunity to admit your blind spots and commit to killing your darlings if they don’t fit your users’ needs.

Ebook Workshop

#2 - Problem and hypothesis statements

At the start of a project, it is often useful to draft a problem statement about your user. This is your best guess at understanding what their needs are and what triggers them. It usually reads

“When... [the people affected by the problem] are... [affected by loneliness and are in need of our support] … [the problem happens]. This means… [effects of the problem]”.

This statement will lead to ideas, and a few darlings of course! You might end up with something that you think will be a good fix to your users’ problem. That in turn can be turned into a hypothesis statement

“If… [idea/solution] then... [outcome]”.

Statements

Similar to the Knowledge Board, both these statements need to be validated: you need to make sure that the problem you thought your users faced holds true, and if your idea would be appropriate to solve it. If many users point you in another direction, then you must revisit your statements and rework them until they become accurate. Keeping an open mind is crucial, and being mindful that what you once thought to be true might not be correct.

#3 - Crazy 8’s

This is one of Google’s ideation tools! It is quite exciting and fast paced. The challenge is that you must sketch not one, but eight ideas very quickly. It is not an easy exercise for those who are not able to kill their darlings though: you can’t attach yourself to any of the concepts, treating them as drafts so that you can push onto the next ideas.

Crazy 8S

After the exercise is completed individually, teamworks begins! Each person has a chance to show their ideas to the rest of the group. It’s a great starter to build something together. To do this in harmony, it is important to adopt a stance of “Yes, and”.

When brainstorming, there are three stances that people can adopt: “No”, “Yes, but” and “Yes, and”. By saying “no”, you will be discarding someone’s idea completely, which is not very nice or productive; by saying “yes, but”, you are already criticising someone’s idea at a stage where you should be as open minded and imaginative as possible; alas, if you say “yes, and” you are opening doors to different possibilities and helping to build on each others’ ideas. It is important to kill your darlings if it is the will of the users and the wider group. Design is a team sport: it is important to be open to compromises and remaining unselfish.

Bottomline

Killing your darlings actually means more than one thing, as Faulkner first postulated. Today, it means not only being able to let go of an idea, but also keeping an open mind regarding other peoples’ ideas; it means suspending expectations of what users need, but actually making hypotheses and validating them - or not. According to the Government Design’s first principle

Service design starts with identifying user needs. If you don’t know what the user needs are, you won’t build the right thing. Do research, analyse data, talk to users. Don’t make assumptions.”

The end goal is to make your users’ lives better by solving one or multiple problems for them. So if your idea does not answer these issues, why keep it, invest money and build it? Kill your darlings and you will start designing services that are valuable for the people that you want to help.

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