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All-Up: What the Moon Landing Can Teach Us About Design

vendredi 26 avril 2019, 20:07 , par Rogue Amoeba
At the start of the ’60s space race, NASA was wary of changing too many things during any one launch. The intention was to keep each launch controlled, much like a scientist only changing one variable in each iteration of an experiment.
This conservative approach was safe, but it was also very, very slow. To hit the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the head of the Office of Manned Space Flight George Mueller knew that NASA needed to change its approach. He instituted a new testing philosophy dubbed “all-up”. This involved including many systems in each launch, even if they weren’t fully baked. If they weren’t believed to be a large liability, they flew. This strategy ultimately saved both time and money, and it’s hard to argue with the results:
Buzz Aldrin getting results.[Photo credit: NASA]
Using All-Up in Design
Audio software isn’t rocket science, but it can still get pretty complicated. I try to embrace an all-up mentality wherever I can here at Rogue Amoeba.
Let’s take, for example, one of our product pages. After our initial planning session, I first do a super quick pass on all the elements. I make rough versions of everything I can. I use stock icons, I improvise text, I cobble together code from other projects or snippets. If I don’t have a good feature icon concept, I don’t dwell on it. I just use a placeholder and move on. The goal is to get everything up, connect links between pages, and establish a rough aesthetic.
Worth noting, except for longer passages like articles, I try hard to avoid using designer crutches like lorem ipsum. The eventual text is part of the design, and so we try to make even the first draft mimic what we expect to eventually see.
Sometimes, quickly writing in placeholder text can even result in usable copy. I improvised the first draft of what would become a tagline for SoundSource, “Sound control so good, it should be built in”, and it stuck.
My intention with this process is to get things “all-up” and have a passable first draft. Once we have that, we can work on improvements.
Iteration
Those who follow popular design chatter might recognize all-up as a form of iteration, and that’s exactly right. The goal is to get as much up as fast as possible, and then build on it. Part of the key to this is to iterate on things in place as much as possible.
In his architecture book “The Timeless Way of Building”, Christopher Alexander advocated starting work on a design for a building by visiting the construction site, walking around, and placing wooden poles in the ground to represent the different rooms and spaces the building would have. Alexander found this helps him visualize things at the real scale the building will eventually have.1
Alexander wrote:

Then we began with the design itself.

It took a week, Monday to Friday, out on the site itself, walking around parked cars and obstacles, overcoats against the fog, walking, walking all day long, cups of coffee, crazy dancing around, as the building took shape, chalk marks on the ground, stones to mark corners. People wondered what on earth we could be doing out there in the fog, walking around, all day long, for so many days.

The point of Alexander’s exercise is to remove as much abstraction from the process as possible. Rather than focusing solely on blueprints, he keeps everything at a human scale, and also going to maximum length to make sure the building design takes into account the context of the environment around it.
In a similar way, I like to design with the least abstraction possible, and like to jump pretty quickly to working in the direct medium. I often jump into the HTML and CSS early on, instead of making a pixel-perfect site mock-up with a design app like Photoshop or Sketch. This makes updating text pretty quick, and helps create a good sense of how the pages will work alongside the rest of our site.
Working Through Issues
One big benefit of the all-up process is that it leaves fewer places to get stuck, because getting everything perfect right away is not the goal. I’m a big advocate of quickly moving on to the next task the second you get stuck on something.
There will always be stumpers that threaten to derail the design process. Following this all-up thinking and having everything roughed out in place means there are many different elements to look at and work on improving. Stuck on icons? Work on the layout. Stuck on designing an interaction? Work on improving the writing.
Building Trust Within the Team
The all-up approach requires a fair amount of trust between team members. As a designer, I find it nerve-wracking to present anything that isn’t super polished. The whole team needs to have enough trust in the process and the design team for it to work. I have to trust that the team will see what I intend, and the team has to trust that I can get us where we need to be in the end.
[Photo credit: NASA]
Try All-Up Yourself
In the right context, all-up can be a super-effective process. It worked to put astronauts on the moon, and it can work for designing web sites, audio apps, and almost anything else you’re working on.

Footnotes:

While designers and information architects often love Christopher Alexander, almost every architect I talk to hates him with a strange passion. Beware of this when trying to seem cool to your architect friends. ↩︎
https://weblog.rogueamoeba.com/2019/04/26/all-up-what-the-moon-landing-can-teach-us-about-design/

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