What Jerry Seinfeld can teach us about interaction design

Jerry Seinfeld may not be a designer, but we can learn a lot from his life of craftsmanship.

The New York Times Magazine has a great piece on Jerry Seinfeld which illustrates what an amazing craftsman he is. In the accompanying video he explains how he writes a joke.

The video is great because you see that Jerry is very much a writer…and if you’ve ever written anything yourself you’ll appreciate Jerry’s craftsmanship and how he pays attention to minute details to make something just right. Craftsmanship is knowing that the details matter and that getting them just right is the difference between good and great.

But craftsmanship is craftsmanship, no matter what field you’re in. So as I was watching I kept noticing parallels with UI design…how Jerry works on a joke, refines it, and makes sure that it tests well before considering it done is a lot like the steps that UI designers go through.

Here are some similarities:

  1. Works in low fidelity. Jerry writes his jokes on a yellow pad with a blue pen, and authored every episode of Seinfeld in long-hand in this way. This is like the sketching stage of UI design.
  2. He tests on small audiences first. He’ll tell jokes in small venues to work through them and get the timing right. This is like usability testing your designs.
  3. Works as long as he needs to to get it right. (the Pop Tart joke in the video he’s been working on for two years). Most bits he says he finishes in a few days. This is the continuous iteration part of design.
  4. It’s a messy process. Seinfeld hasn’t shown anybody even what he shows in the film, which is the draft of a joke on yellow paper. It’s messy and non-linear. Sounds a lot like design, where the sausage-making can be ugly.
  5. He convinces with contrast. In this joke he’s adding context by explaining the types of food they had around then, just so he can then contrast with the pop tart and how different it is. So much of design is in exposing contrast…in order for people to make decisions by. (see Designing for the Next Step for more on that)

But the best part is when Jerry explains how he writes a joke. In the video he has two parts to a joke, and he’s trying to figure out the transition from one to the next.

“So I’m looking for the connective tissue that gives me the tight, smooth link, like a jigsaw puzzle, and if it’s too long, if it’s just a split second too long, I’ll shave letters off of words, you count syllables to get it just (right).

This is craftsmanship…the continuous refinement (dare I say protoyping) that results into something effortless…something that appears almost nothing in the end. I think that’s also the goal of great UI design…to refine it until it feels like you’ve barely interacted with it because it’s so natural…it naturally flows.

From Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up

Published: December 28th, 2012