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Design Thinking for the Traditional Software Engineer
Recognizing when to ignore and when to pay attention. A lesson on human conditioning.
By Ashley Mulligan

June 28, 2018

7 min read
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We all want to solve problems we can’t see.

I’ve got a starting point worked out. It’s inspired by a cute little dog named Charlie.


Recently I decided to sell my house and downsize significantly. I was so done mowing an endless lawn and fixing things every other day. It’s expensive for one, and I was tired!

So I put my house on the market.

It sold really fast — I couldn’t believe it! — and I moved into my swanky new apartment with a pool and a gym and “all the things.”

Overall, things really couldn’t have gone any better.

But then there I am, settling in for my first night in my new apartment, on my mattress on the floor, feeling overwhelming gratitude for the stars aligning as they had. Suddenly it starts — the yappiest dog of my life yapping away right below me.

“What the heck is happening? Is someone dying?” I thought to myself.

The morning rolls around and I’m beyond exhausted. The good news was that no one had, in fact, died. The bad news was that Ted in Apartment 201 works nights and his dog Charlie barks until he gets home … everyday. Ted calls it “separation anxiety.”

The first few days go by and I was thinking “OMG. Is it too late to reverse my home sale? I can’t do this — this girl needs her freaking sleep!”

But THEN the most peculiar thing happened. As each day passed, I began to notice I was less and less bothered.

Is it because Charlie has gotten a prescription to doggie xanax? No.

Did Ted in 201 quit his job? No.

Did I purchase NASA-grade ear plugs? Nope.

It’s because, as humans, we have this extraordinary ability to get used to things really, really fast.

Think about something that took you a really long time to learn. For instance, how to parallel park.

At first, it was difficult and you had to devote all of your mental energy to it. You’d shut the music off, take a deep breath and try to visualize it happening in your mind.

Eventually, you grew comfortable and it became much easier — and now you’re able to focus on other things like the radio, or a conversation you’re having.

With practice, repetitive actions turn into operations that we can perform without considering them.

It’s called human conditioning, or habituation. And it’s super important for every engineer to know.

As heard on NPR,* every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” which is a three-part process:

1. Cue

First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.

2. Routine

Then there’s the routine, which is the behavior itself. In other words, the habit itself.

3. Reward

The third step is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future.

In cases like Charlie the dog, human conditioning is a good thing because there is little I can do to improve the barking situation.

But it isn’t always good.

Human conditioning can act as camouflage for problems that everyone just gets used to because no one has thought through a better way. No one even sees the problems because the habit loop reduces it to background noise.

And it’s near impossible to solve a problem that no one sees.

That’s why designers, developers and engineers have to train their eyes to identify them.

To do this and not fall victim to the habit loop, we must develop ways to regularly break the habits we form. In other words, we need to approach our jobs with creativity — the ability to think about things from many different perspectives.

As a software designer, I work on user flows daily. I can only hope they feel familiar and intuitive — I want our users to be able to use the platform without having to even think about it.

However, in complex business software, this is tough, to say the least.

My background as a designer has been essential for me to wrap my head around these issues. Though it’s funny to see me referring to myself as a designer. For most of my career I have avoided using anything remotely “designey” to describe myself.

Because I had always viewed designers and artists as people that were born with this God-given ability that, let’s face it, I just didn’t have.

Over time, I’ve found that this actually isn’t the case at all. Creativity and design-centered thinking is something we all have the ability to develop. We can all cultivate this ability to break the habit loop and make what we develop faster, easier and more seamless to use.

To avoid a Charlie-like situation with your projects, I’ve identified two steps anyone can take to develop a creativity-centered approach to their work:

1. Find a Safe Environment.

When we are children, we are curious and play without inhibitions. The world is our playground. But once we go to school and become educated, we begin worrying about “making mistakes.”

What happens? We begin to worry about what others think of us. This strips us of our once creative and spontaneous spirit.

To break habit loops, you have to be willing to be wrong. You have to be willing to make mistakes and be spontaneous.

I make mistakes seriously, like everyday — it’s just part of the territory. However, I have a team that doesn’t finger point, a boss that encourages taking risks, and the desire to do better tomorrow.

LumenAd has a safe environment where we can make mistakes. To try things, break them and put them back together so they can be better than ever.

2. Bend the Rules.

One day, Steve Jobs marched into the office of an engineer who was working on the Macintosh operating system and complained that it was taking too long to boot up.

The engineer started to explain why reducing the boot-up time wasn’t possible, but Jobs cut him off.

“If it would save a person’s life, could you find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?”

Naturally, the engineer changed tone and stated that he probably could. Our favorite word, right?


Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed him that if five million people were using the Mac and it took 10 seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to 300 million or so hours a year — the equivalent of at least 100 lifetimes a year.

After a few weeks, the engineer had the machine booting up 28 seconds faster.

So when thinking about experience in your application, reject the: “Oh, this is only internal” or “Oh, this just is an ancillary task, not our primary focus — I’ll just do it real quick.”

Instead, assume thousands of users will be using your app at all times. I mean, that is the end goal, right?


We all saw the world more clearly when we saw it for the first time, before a lifetime of habits got in the way.

Our everyday challenge is to find our way back there, to feel those defeating moments, to see those little details and to bend the rules so we can stay creative.

It’s not easy.

It requires us pushing back against one of the most basic ways we make sense of the world.

If we can do that, we could do some pretty amazing things. For me, hopefully, that’s better UX design.

For you, that could mean something else equally or even more powerful.

So I challenge you to wake up each day and ask yourself, “How can I make something better today?”

And if you do — if we all do that, maybe, just maybe, we can shut Charlie up.


* NPR Special Series Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them

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