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How eating frogs, dog-food, cat-food and raw monkey meat makes us better designers
We frowned upon any weird food, and our sub-conscious mind filters out what we do not perceive as “design-ish.”
As the saying goes, “You are what you eat!” While the saying suggests healthy eating in the modern age, the French author, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, actually said these words with an entirely different meaning: the human culture between food and identity. Inevitably, food and culture are so often paired with history and nations, from the early days of the Romans to modern-day Italian cuisine. Even sparkling wine takes various names from different regions. Champagne can only be named if it comes from the region of Champagne, France, whereas Prosecco is a sparkling wine mostly made in the Veneto region, Italy. Human beings are in search of perfection, elegance, and an elevated lifestyle, even in the food choices that we make.
Hence, there is no surprise that technical and design teams get squirmy when they hear phrases like “eating your own dog-food”, to the extent that they have substituted the words “drinking your own champagne”. First used by Pegasystems’ Chief Information Officer (CIO), Jo Hoppe, in an attempt to use a classier expression, we shun away from the grotesque symbols in our life so that we may not need to engage them. Alas, this is very true for us as designers who will go the extra mile with our identity. The designer clothes that we wear, the Apple products that we use, and even the words (eg. Juxtaposition) that we say. It all points toward the designs that we make because, “you are what you eat!”
The molecular gastronomist, Nathan Myhrvold, was once interviewed by Smithsonian Magazine about his unique approach to food. In defiance, Myhrvold rattled against the motto of another prolific food author, Michael Pollan, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” His response was as follows,
“If everyone had followed his rule about great-grandmothers, recursively back into history, nobody would ever have tried anything new,” Myhrvold says. “Many of the things the slow food people honour were innovations within historical times. Somebody had to be the first European to eat a tomato.”
I would argue that we, as designers, may have been eating “safe” food, and have not tried the first tomato. This is quite normal because not everyone wants to get an upset stomach. But, over time, we reverted to a more familiar diet without trying anything different. We frowned upon the weird and the unusual, and as a result, we did not put in the effort to understand the underlying meanings behind the pioneers of our time. Like Hoppe, we prefer music to our ears, or in this case, the stereotypical food and beverages that we go for. The same old way of creating wireframes. The oh-so-familiar approach of moderated usability testing. And so, when something new comes about, we overlook the impact of a new approach. Our subconscious mind filters out what we do not perceive as “design-ish.”
Thankfully, we do not need to eat anything foul. Instead, we can read about how others have ventured before us, and from there, learn how this is applicable to our given context. The rest of the article will talk about four brave individuals who did what no one had ever done. To eat something weird. Let’s dig in.
1. Mitch eats his own dog food, literally.
“Dog food is not easy to eat. It tastes like it smells.” This is probably the same thought that Mitch Felderhoff had whenever he scooped down on the dishbowl in front of him for over 30 days. In all fairness, the ingredients are what you find in regular meals: chicken, beef meatballs, fish, and elk patties. He did require support from his friends and family, and was doing this with a purpose in mind. As the president of Muenster Milling and the fourth generation owner of his family business, Mitch was determined to show his dog-loving customers that his products were safe to eat, even for humans. And despite losing 30 pounds, there were no other medical conditions that followed suit.
“Eat your own dog food” is now considered folklore among programmers and designers. Known as a phrase to incite an increase in internal usage of a company’s product, it originated from a Microsoft email between Paul Maritz and Brian Valentine in 1988. Fast forward to today, many tech companies have practiced internal testing based on this saying by sharing their products as prototypes to hundreds of employees to get feedback.
What could be lost in translation is how the dog-food, whilst revolting in appearance, ought to be safe enough for human consumption. This is precisely the notion of a minimal viable product (MVP), when a product team ships not only the bare essential product that delivers on its promised functionality, but allows enough quality assurance to meet your own standards. As a de-risking strategy, this product tends to be in the hands of employees before going into production.
As designers, we should be acutely aware of the products that we ship to different users. Before considering the time it takes to produce high definition screens, let’s ask ourselves whether the screens are even “safe for consuming.” We could save time, energy, and opportunity cost if we are proven wrong, but more importantly, certain design principles are already upheld at this stage. And while our colleagues may be the very first guinea pigs, the customer’s furry children (i.e., dogs) are safe.
2. Richard tries raw monkey meat
What could possibly compel someone to consume raw monkey meat? Rather than compulsion, Richard volunteered to go on this strange and obscure diet out of curiosity. Initially, the menu was mostly plant-based, with the occasional termite dish. Soon enough, through observation, it eventually led to an unlikely meal of raw colobus monkey meat. As an observer, you might be disgusted by having to choose between the white-black or the red species. However, for Dr. Richard Wrangham and Dr. Jane Goodall, they were primarily focused on the groundbreaking discovery of chimpanzee behavior, which expanded the field of primatology and anthropology — the systematic study of humanity. In fact, the shift from raw to cooked food inspired the creation of a book about human evolution.
Eating raw Colobus Monkey meat helped Dr. Richard Wrangham advanced in his field of research. (source: Alta Obscura)
Every once in a while, designers may become researchers on a quest to discover or validate the impact of their designs. Sometimes, they may even forage for new findings to add to the original “taste”. This is known as the walk-a-mile immersion, whereby a designer re-enacts the experience of their intended end-user, exposing them to previously unknown learning. It is from such activities that will lead to a better understanding of their design and a design change based on a new insight. As renowned design researcher Jane Fulton Sari signs off in her book, The Little Book of Design Research Ethics,
“Keep exploring, stay connected, and we’ll evolve as we must.”
3. Mark knows how to eat frogs
Frog legs are known as an Asian (and French) delicacy, but what about eating a whole frog? According to Mark, it is possible with some conditions. “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” So says the American writer and humorist, Mark Twain. Or so it seems. From one gentleman to another, it turned out that the frog eater was the Frenchman, Mr. De Lassay, who mentioned the following statement: “We should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.”
Eat that Frog is a productivity technique that stops procrastination. (source: Business Observer)
Either way, eating a frog has been transformed into a business metaphor known to tackle procrastination and achieve higher productivity. The idea is to identify the most important task to get done in the morning when you are at your sharpest and most motivated. Designers can apply the technique so as to achieve focus and a flow state. By completing it within the first hours of the day, the rest of the time can then be spent on other work matters, such as attending meetings or finishing up on admin matters like emails. Your best work should thus be reserved for the mornings. In other words, spend the right time on your designs when it matters the most.
4. Yvon eats cat food for the better things in life
Yvon and Ken prepared their meal by rummaging through the back of the car for their food supply. Thankfully, they still have a couple of cat food cans from a recent raid at a damaged can outlet for cheap. As for the side dish, the two friends could choose from a wide selection of oatmeal, potatoes, ground squirrel, blue grouse, or porcupines. That is as much as a dollar could do for them back in the 1950s. But they didn’t care because they were free to climb mountains and they could earn a living by making climbing gear. To them, sleeping under a boulder or in a sleeping bag was the least of their worries. Making equipment of the right quality was what was more important to them, especially for Yvon Chouinard. Half a century later, Patagonia, Yvon’s brainchild and best known for their apparel, is now worth 3 billion dollars. And more recently, he has decided to give all of his fortune away to fight climate change, making him one of the most charitable billionaires in the world.
Yvon Chouinard is not only a frugal businessman, he is also a hardcore producer with a deep purpose of environmental stewardship and sustainability. (source: Patagonia Provisions)
When asked who he is, Yvon stated the following: climber, surfer, kayaker, skier, blacksmith, and reluctant businessman. At the same time, his behaviour suggests that he was also a frugal individual who did not believe that the material things he possessed made up his identity. He has been wearing the same flannel shirt for 20 years. His family had lived in a beach shack, an old van, and the basement of their retail store. You might say he is a regular dirtbag, but conversely, he is also a hardcore producer with a deep purpose of environmental stewardship and sustainability. The dilemma of any designer returns when he/she is faced with an existential situation of identity. Does what we consume define who we are as designers? To Patagonia’s founder, the answer is a flat no.
In the final thought experiment, what could happen if our earlier CIO, Jo Hoppe, was to meet Nathan Myhrvold? As it turns out, there could be a lot in common. For starters, Myhrvold was also a former CIO of Microsoft, who also founded Microsoft Research in 1991. Thus, both of them would also very likely have eaten their own dog food (or drank their own champagne). However, this is where the comparison stops when Nathan goes far and beyond drinking champagne with his team by building robots specialising in wine handling and taking breathtaking photography. He has broken out of the stereotypical association of what food could be by becoming a food scientist and chef. He has found what was more important to him, and he has discovered new breakthroughs in his work. He has effectively eaten all four weird foods on his journey.
Perhaps the following quote will help us to understand how we can better make and eat our designs:
“The new revolution in cooking can be viewed in two ways. One is that you can take any traditional food and apply modern techniques. The other approach is to create food that is quite different than anything that has existed before.”Nathan Myhrvold built a robot to capture this image of a champagne cork. (source: CBS)
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The designer’s guide of eating weird food was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.