Penn and Teller Get Killed is an odd look into the minds of the master magicians

“Don’t pout! I’ve got a goddamn knife in my stomach!”

I love Penn and Teller. They are incredibly talented, witty and brilliant entertainers. That their socioeconomic and political views align almost 100% with mine makes me appreciate them all the more. I was lucky enough to finally see them in person early this year, in Las Vegas, and they “killed”. They are a huge part of Vegas now, an institution that fills the house at the Rio every night they perform. They have become one of the most successful acts in the history of magic.

But it wasn’t always that way.

In the late 1980s they were perennial guests on Late Night with David Letterman, executing more and more elaborate tricks with each appearance. It was during this time, as their star was rising, that they came up with the idea for a movie. A movie starring themselves, playing themselves. A movie with a title that was so very very… Penn and Teller.

“Penn and Teller Get Killed.”

They wrote the script, convinced a studio to pay for it, and made the film. Some trick, huh?

Penn and Teller Get Killed came out on my birthday: September 22nd, 1989.

And it bombed.

Deservedly so? I think not.

Penn and Teller Get Killed is a dark sarcastic look into the twisted minds of the two creative guys over the title. It’s surreal, ludicrous, and funny. Oh, and it’s also directed by Arthur Penn. Yes, THAT Arthur Penn… the guy who made Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man (No relation Penn Jillette, though). It was the last film he ever directed.

One of the many joys of the movie is how Penn and Teller basically plays themselves as semi-sociopathic assholes who continuously play pranks on each other. Viewers hoping for sympathetic leads should look elsewhere. As per the movie’s plot, it’s fairly straightforward. After Penn casually tells America during a talk show he’d love it if someone was trying to kill him, to make his life more interesting… well, things get interesting.

Penn and Teller do a fairly good job playing themselves, though Penn will not win many acting lessons (and I’m struck by how much he looks and sounds a lot like a young… err, me). Teller, though, is amazing. He does speak, but only at the end of the film, and so his performance throughout the film is all physical and expressive. Teller does great work here, and the script (and Penn’s direction) give him plenty to do in the film.

As with many movies in this Neglected Cinema series, it’s NOT for everyone. It may not even be for casual fans of Penn and Teller, because it’s wildly uneven and also very very dark… especially the ending. Yes, Penn and Teller get killed… along with several other people. But if you appreciate dark comedy, the ending alone is reason enough for you to check out Penn and Teller get Killed.

(P.S. Look for a cameo of one of my heroes James Randi as an assistant early in the film, as well as Jon Cryer and Tom Sizemore in “blink and you’ll miss them” scenes.)

UX’s Greatest Mysteries, revealed!

UX

I’m a big fan of Penn and Teller, and have been for many years. I saw them live for the first time last month and was blown away at their performance. They were, and are, incredibly entertaining, and if you have never seen them live I strongly recommend it (I also got to meet both after the show, which was awesome).

What I really love about Penn and Teller is that they often “pull back the curtain” and reveal how they do their magic. Other magicians produce an air of mysticism and pretence around their craft, and Penn and Teller will have none of that. They know they are playing tricks, fooling the audience, and by letting everyone in on what they are doing they debunk mysticism while also (hopefully) teaching you something.

Their attitude towards their work inspired me to write this, an article that hopefully “pulls back the curtain” on some of user experience design’s “greatest mysteries.” Like Penn and Teller’s mocking of “artists” like Criss Angel, I have met quite a few pretentious design types in UX, people who think way too much of themselves and what they do. That type of attitude frustrates me, because the core of what UX professionals do is easy to teach and apply. That’s why I have written one book of essays, lessons and tactics around user experience, and have begun work on a second “primer” to the world of UX – to demystify the domain and make it accessible to all.

To that end, here’s some of the key “secrets” of UX to try and do exactly that.

We aren’t all-knowing prophets.

I know many UX designers present themselves as unquestionable experts on human beings, seers whose edicts should be followed to the letter. Come on. First off, no one can be that good. If you think you are, such arrogance will in all likelihood prevent you from seeing some basic truths about human behavior… truths that doesn’t align with your world view. The key to success in UX is to start from a place of humble confidence, not arrogance.

User Experience Designers don’t design user experiences.

UX designers don’t design experiences, experiences happen… users encounter a situation and respond to it. They can respond well or badly. All UX designers can do is understand users well enough to design a series of objects, interactions and/or screens that make sense and work for users… and hopefully provokes a positive “experience” in users.

The most important UX skills are “soft skills.”

There’s an old saying, often attributed to Woody Allen, that says “90% of life is just showing up.” I’d say that, if you are a UX professional, a good chunk of the remaining 10 percent consist of the soft skills of listening, empathy and communication. Listen, in order to understand the problem and the feedback from users to candidate solutions. Have empathy towards users, so that you can care about what you are doing to help them. Be good communicators, so that you can message your solution and discuss it with the people who have to execute it.

Simple is hard.

In my experience, the best designs are simple designs, but creating such designs is really hard. Not only do you have to fight your own instinct to make things more complicated than they need to be or actually are, but you also have to fight that same instinct in everyone you are working with, including stakeholders and product managers. Which is why you need…

Debate skills.

Not only do good UX people have good communication skills, but they can make their points well with critics and cynics who don’t like the solutions they have produced. At the same time, an open “balanced” designer can debate a point but also accept when they are wrong. Because…

Failing is awesome.

In our society failure has a stigma, because if you fail then somehow you are a “loser”. A huge part of UX design involves conceptual design and user testing, and when we fail (if we are paying attention) we can learn from it. At the very least, when a design we pilot doesn’t work we know that particular approach doesn’t work. Some of the best insights into people have come from testing designs that they did not understand and/or could not use… because their responses let me know what would.

It’s not rocket science.

Yes, when you do formal usability testing or user research, there is a certain amount of analysis involved… but it’s not that hard. If there was a lot of math involved, frankly, I wouldn’t be doing it (I suck at math).

Common sense is the best tool a designer has.

If a design solution that you or a peer creates doesn’t “make sense” then it probably won’t make sense to the end users. A big dose of common sense helps filter out good ideas from the bad ones. Don’t try and “sell” a design that requires leaps in logic and over thinking things.

UI design is not that important.

I’ve designed screens and interfaces for over a decade, and what I’m about to state may make some of my colleagues mad, but I’m going to put it out there. UI design is not that important, and it’s not even that hard. It may have been hard ten years ago, but we now have a plethora of design patterns and best practices available for our review and use. We have design guidelines from every major software platform. Focus (and sweat) the details, yes, but don’t try and rethink things that others smarter than you have already figured out.

The best designers know users, not UIs.

UI design is not hard… knowing your users and how to make their lives better with your designs, THAT’S what’s hard. The best designers spend their time and do due diligence to understand who they are designing for, by doing research and interviews. “Know your audience” is a common statement I have heard in multiple domains, and it’s absolutely true in UX design as well.

Usability testing can be done (almost) anywhere.

I have built three different usability labs in my career, and have done the majority of my usability testing with one laptop in a quite area (a coffee shop, an empty office). Building out a huge technological terror to do something as simple as testing a concept with some users… it’s overkill, and unnecessary.

Developers can do UX design, too (and many are really good at it).

I’ve never been a big fan of “silos” in projects, an approach where a dedicated group of designers do a design and then they hand it over to developers to build it – that’s why I work in an agile team, where developers pitch design ideas just like us UXers do. I’ve met many developers over the years that could create great useable screens, often better than those the “UX professional” made.

If you are on a team of talented people but ignore the talents of many on the team because they aren’t “accredited” designers or don’t have the right title… well, I pity you. You’re missing out.

Usability is not enough.

We have gone beyond usability – now, UX designers have to think about desirability, about content, and about how to frame the offering to increase usage. Usability is “table stakes.”

We are all storytellers. Tell a good story.

Explaining is a huge part of what we do – explaining what we have found out about our users, explaining how we can help users by what we have designed, explaining why a certain feature should be accentuated or descoped. The best way to explain is through telling a story, because humans are all storytellers. Some of us are good at it, some of us are not.

The best of us weave a compelling tale, and the best UX professionals know that storytelling is the key to it all.