Traits of a maker mindset

The whole concept of makers has been on my and my colleagues’ mind a lot, especially with their current rise in prominence with generative AI.  

A fun question popped out in one of the conversations: “How might one tell a maker from a non-maker?” The idea of a “non-maker” immediately felt a bit ridiculous. Since we’ve already established that “maker” is a mindset, it’s pretty clear that shifting out of that mindset is going to land us in a “non-maker” territory. But when we are in the maker mindset, what are the traits and characteristics that might stand out?

After talking to a few folks about this, a rough list started to emerge. It’s still not quite right, but I thought I would share it early for your perusal.

So far, I have four traits that seem to resonate whenever I talk about a “maker mindset” to others. These traits are option-seeking, craving creative friction, zagging, and optimism.

🔢 Option-seeking

When in the maker mindset, we tend to seek more options. If offered a single way to solve a problem, no matter how simple and elegant, a maker in me will perceive it with skepticism. There’s something about optionality and preserving the agency to choose these options that is highly important to a maker mindset. The more knobs, the merrier. The more choices, the more exciting. This is plainly in conflict with the mainstream theories of user experience for the common consumers. When I am in a non-maker mindset, I want a simple single solution that gets the job done. When wearing a maker hat, I will steer away from it.

This might be one of the reasons why open source projects and modular solutions are attractive to makers. Being able to pick and choose whichever pieces I want and combine them in whatever way I want – and have an option to change mind – are a big part of the whole maker experience.

💪 Craving creative friction

Very related, a maker mindset frowns on well-solved problems. We will rarely find makers tinkering with obvious or fully understood problem spaces. For makers,  things have to be difficult and challenging to be attractive. Too much polish is a bit of a letdown – it means that someone already solved all the fun problems. Maker mindset cherishes creative friction – the presence of a challenge in the process of making is what stirs creative juices.

This is why makers don’t mind messing with stuff that isn’t yet fully baked. One of my colleagues put it as “makers are in it for the problems, not solutions.” This is a bit too blunt, but I can’t disagree with the sentiment. For makers, it’s about the journey, though the tantalizing promise of a destination definitely helps.

🔀 Zagging

Makers love to zag when everyone zigs. When in the maker mindset, we tend to look for opportunities that are odd-shaped compared to what everyone else is seeking.

Makers rejoice when it looks like they’re doing something weird.  Being outside of the curve means that there’s a chance we’re ahead of it. Makers wholeheartedly take this chance. Even if zagging doesn’t pay off, the thrill of exploring the wilderness is a powerful force that animates makers.

When everyone is making an AI-powered chatbot, makers are playing with meta-reasoning and autonomous agents. When everyone finally catches onto the agents, makers move on to something else.

☀️ Optimism

This one I am least certain about. It definitely rings true, but I don’t know if the word “optimism” captures the gist. When in the maker mindset, we are driven by a belief that our actions will lead to some outsized outcomes. Somehow, somewhere, we will hit that exponential curve, and things will truly get out of control. There’s a sense of “it’s definitely not working now, but just wait and see” that is like fresh air for makers.

Many makers are techno-optimists, who – often implicitly – believe that technology will solve all problems and do more good than evil over the long run. After all, making something often means creating new technology – be it physical, organizational, or social. And definitely, most makers believe that making something is better than not making it. Making is art, and all maker’s art has purpose, animated by often completely unfounded confidence in better outcomes.

📐 Designing for makers

Despite this list being so unkempt, we can start gleaning some interesting insights about designing user experiences that attract makers.

Makers flip the script on the conventional wisdom of delivering polished, simple experiences to users. Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think” turns into “Give me an interesting puzzle!” and sometimes into “Ooh, this mess of a product looks perfect for my project”. For makers, rough edges signal exciting possibilities. I am still learning what this all means, but it’s starting to feel that product design for makers is dramatically different from design for users not in the maker mindset.

If such a difference does indeed exist, it’s interesting to consider how a product might be perceived by the same person, but from different mindsets. And perhaps even more granularly: some tools I want to have lots of knobs and options and rough/unexplored edges, and some of them I just want to work, even when I am in the maker mindset.

It seems overwhelming – and likely foolhardy – to establish a precise taxonomy here. The only recipe I know is to have the maker’s intuition. To design for makers, one has to have accumulated a lot of experience of being a maker. There doesn’t seem to be any way around that.

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