Frictionless Interviews: Matt Gemmell

Frictionless Interviews are short chats with amazingly productive people from around the internet. Learn how they manage to get so much done, despite the friction that could potentially stop them.


Tell me a little bit about who you are and what job or profession takes up the majority of your time and energy.

I like to describe my work by saying that “I help computers be nice to people”, but if you’re looking for a job description then these days it would probably be Experience Designer.

I’ve worked for myself for about five and a half years now (under the name Instinctive Code) from my home office, mainly doing consultant UI, UX and development work for a variety of clients - including Apple on several occasions. My main job is take an idea or an interface, and make it not only usable by humans but also delightful for them. As an extension of that, I’m also passionate about accessibility technologies.

In the second 90% of my life, I try to contribute as much as I can to the developer community (mainly iOS and OS X). To that end, I regularly write at mattgemmell.com, release open source code and components that have been used in hundreds of Mac and iOS apps (my degree is in Computing Science, so I’m absolutely a programmer at heart), speak at various industry conferences each year, and write the Dev Zone section of Tap! magazine each month for Future Publishing.

I’m Scottish, I live in the city of Edinburgh with my wife, and I just turned 33 recently.

When you began your roles and settled into your responsibilities, what were the areas where that created the most frustration and stress in your day-to-day?

Aside from the usual hassles of starting your own business (administrative work, setting up projects, and learning to manage your own time effectively), one of the biggest frustrations was in feeling constrained, in two main areas.

Firstly, in my work, clients often have strong preconceived notions of what the issues are with their apps and interfaces, and just want you to address those: make this screen easier to use, or redesign this control. More often than not, the actual problem is different, or deeper, and it can be an uphill battle to help people realise that. We all tend to hyper-focus on the things we’ve already noticed, and we become blind to the bigger picture.

Secondly, in connection with writing articles on my blog, I found it draining to manage the ‘community’ side of blogging: the comments. Once you get above a certain traffic level, you become very, very aware of the signal to noise ratio of internet comments. As someone who writes mostly for developers I think I’m fortunate to have more generally educated, intelligent people as readers, but there’s still self-evidently a vast majority of valueless comments out there. I found that I was being held hostage by my own vanity, and it was taking some of the joy out of writing.

Obviously, finding solutions to those frustrations took time. But boiling it down into a teachable chunk of knowledge, what solutions did you ultimately discover that helped you remove that friction and find a smoother path to success in what you do?

In my work, the two most valuable lessons I’ve learned are:

  1. Have a strong opinion; and
  2. Ask the real question.

Regarding the first point, I like to say that good software is opinionated, and it applies to people too. You should have a solid reason for your opinion, but you should definitely have an opinion. People value guidance, leadership and expertise, and I’d much rather have a (reasonably justified) wrong opinion, strongly-held, than to sit on the fence. You can always change your position, but constantly hedging your bets is the hallmark of ineffective people. The best software has fewer options because it has already made better choices - that’s how I like to approach things. Think first, of course, but then commit fully to your position (especially when talking to clients).

On point 2, I often have people approach me asking how to solve a given problem, and in perhaps 70% or more of those situations, they’ve identified the wrong problem. I’ve learned to ask the real question, which is “What’s the actual issue?”, rather than to accept the problem I’m initially presented with.

It takes practice, but it can be a very freeing thing, and leads to better solutions. If your app’s navigational structure feels clunky or cumbersome, maybe it’s not the UI that’s at a fault, but instead that there’s just too much stuff to navigate through. If you’re trying to make a feature more prominent because people aren’t using it, perhaps it’s actually because you should get rid of it. You have to be willing to throw away the implicit assumptions of a problem, and try to identify what the real issue is.

In my writing and my life in general, the most valuable lesson has been to control your own environment - and that means both physically and socially. Life is too short for dealing with negative people, or having unproductive or unedifying interactions. Don’t be afraid to cut people from your life if it’ll make you happier. Delete phone numbers or emails, block or unfollow on social networks, and generally optimise your happiness. I disabled comments on my blog a number of months ago, and I think that my writing - and my enjoyment of it - has never been better.

There’s a self-defeating unwritten rule in society that politeness mandates tolerating other people, and I just don’t believe that’s true. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and their life, but they’re not entitled to have it overlap with your life unless you want it to. Don’t be afraid to fire acquaintances, friends or clients. We’re alive for a very short time, and we have more important things to do than worry about corrosive relationships and experiences.

What advice would you offer to other people in a similar situation who are looking to streamline, de-stress and de-clutter their procedures and systems?

I’d offer one very simple piece of advice: remember your humanity.

We’re humans, and that means we’re emotional, empathic creatures. We don’t exist or work in a vacuum: we’re affected deeply by our environment and interactions. I do my best thinking (which is by far the most important part of my work, and probably yours too) when I’m attending to my humanity. Get away from the machine (in particularly, don’t be looking at a screen), and let your mind breathe for a while.

I like to physically leave the office, and either wander around for a while outside, or just take some time and space to truly focus on a problem. You can’t fully engage with a task if your thoughts are cluttered with artifice like the keyboard or the computer or whatever it is that you use to do your work. It’s important to disengage from those things, and give yourself a chance to be creative without worrying about output.

Equally, when you get back into the office, remember that your working surroundings are a reflection of your inner environment. Most of my work involves helping people to reduce distractions and clutter and confusion, and to focus on a single task or piece of functionality in a pleasant and undemanding way. It would be the height of hypocrisy (and damaging to my work) if I didn’t also pursue that goal for my office itself. Control your space, keep it clean and focused, and invest in tools (including computers, art supplies, furniture and whatever else you need) that will help.

I’m fortunate to live pretty much in a park, with office windows looking out through trees towards a river. It’s quiet, and has its own beauty no matter what time of year it is. My office is simple, with natural materials and plenty of space, and I buy the best hardware I can find. My desk is big, and the surface is as clear as I can make it (but no clearer). Those surroundings let me immediately get into the mindset of what I’m doing, whether it’s designing a software interface or writing an article.

With a controlled environment that prioritises your own focus and creativity, your surroundings can become translucent for a while and let you lose yourself in the actual work. Everyone has not only a right but also a duty to feel that way about what they do.