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To Improve A Design, Hack It

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Design is not just how something looks, design is how it functions. – Steve Jobs

Most of humankind’s progress has stemmed from improvements in the function rather than the form aspect of products. Design hacking is vital for this improvement.

Many of us might correlate hacking with unpleasant events like malware, privacy breach, and loss of valuable personal information. (Just run a Google Image search for the term “hack”.)

But hacking is much more. “[It’s] really just today’s name for the personal creative spirit that has always underpinned human ingenuity,” according to Scott Burnham.

Burnham is an author, keynote speaker, and advocate of building resilient, sustainable cities. He has authored several books on the subject of tapping into our abundance of creativity to manage limited resources. He has designed systems to improve the quality of life and ecological health of cities across the globe.

Design hacking is a concept he’s deeply passionate about. In his book by the same name, Burnham explains Design Hacking as:

“The resourcefulness of the individual stepping in when existing products and systems fall short.”

Design hacking creates new realities, options, and possibilities from the ones we’re given.

design hacking scott burnham book summary

Hacking a design gives users a voice and makes them a part of it instead of merely keeping them at the receiving end. Thus, hacking democratizes design. Here are three insightful lessons from Burnham’s book:


Lesson 1. We are all hackers by design.

The ability to do more with less has been a key reason for humankind to thrive. As hunter-foragers, we hacked sticks and stones to make weapons and discover fire. In the pre-consumerist days, we were inventive with what we were offered which, in turn, fueled ideas and ushered progress.

But the modern trend to dismiss hacking as gawky is dangerous. We’re flooded with options to get information and entertain ourselves now. But instead of making us smarter, such options make us dumber. Six-inch slot machines in our pockets give us orders on what we should pay attention to.

This severely limits our cognitive and creative abilities. We spend our days like zombies without considering how the systems (or routines) we follow impact the results in our work, studies, and relationships.

A productive life is possible when your routines work for you. This means it’s important to tweak and optimize the design of your routine. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Do more of what fills you with passion and less of what doesn’t.

This won’t just improve the results; it’ll also stretch your advanced cognitive abilities like critical thinking and decision-making. Hacking will let you bring an element of control in your own life which, according to research, enhances your happiness and satisfaction.


Lesson 2. Progress comes from giving users control.

We owe much of our advancements in computing to the hacking culture, open-source being an obvious example.

Many people attribute the beginning of their technology careers to the original Apple computer. It came with a schematic for users to hack, fix, and augment it however they wanted. But today’s iPad doesn’t even let us remove the battery, let alone install a piece of software that Apple doesn’t control.

Quibi is another example of a design meant to impose control. Its makers assumed their offering was so novel that the platform refused to let users watch its content on any device other than mobile. These and other reasons forced the company to shut shop.

Products alienate users when they begin to decide what’s right for them. In many cases, users don’t complain. They put up with what they’re offered until they find a better alternative, and quietly jump ship when they do. By the time companies realize that users are slipping out the back door, it’s often too late.

The opposite approach is to let users engage with products. This reveals the dysfunctional or vulnerable aspects of the product or system. When developers become aware of this, they can respond accordingly, and the system evolves.

Designs improve when users break them. Designs that impose efficiency and control turn obsolete.


Lesson 3. Design hacking prioritizes the stakeholder over the shareholder.

From the product standpoint, design hacking values the stakeholder more than the shareholder. The question “Will this provide value to the stakeholder?” gains priority over “Will this provide value to the shareholder?”

This process doesn’t just need users to hack a design. It also works when an existing design is improved to address the emotional, social, and functional Jobs To Be Done of consumers. The more jobs a design does well, the more lives it improves, and the faster it turns non-consumers into consumers.

Twitter introduced hashtags, @replies, and Retweets, after studying how users engaged with the platform. Instagram started off as a mobile check-in app but refocused on photo-sharing when the founders discovered that the feature was popular among the app’s users. Unacademy slashed the time it took for educators to create content on its platform from three hours to three minutes.

Design hacking can also lead to innovative products for the bottom of the pyramid. Here are two examples.

Anthropologists hired by Intel visited the remote villages of India. They informed Intel’s engineers that many Indian villages didn’t have electricity. This led to Intel designing laptops with longer battery lives and dust-resistant cases.

In Rwanda, over 75% of the homes have dirt floors, where puddles form during the rains and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The dirt from the floors also contaminates people’s belongings. But concrete floors can cost the average person several months of wages.

So EarthEnable provided hard earthen floors in Rwanda and other poor sub-Saharan African countries. These floors are as sturdy as concrete while being 75 percent cheaper. And they improve the health of their consumers.


Advancements in most communication technologies, from phones to the internet, are a result of discoveries and developments made by hackers. Design—of products and systems we use at work and in our personal lives—should be no different.

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