Be Generous

When I read The Shape of Design, it was hard at first, and then lovely, and then I realized this wasn't so much a book as advice on living. Design isn't separate from your life. Be a better person who wants to make the world a better place and you'll be a better designer. I'm not much of a "touchy-feely" person, so I was surprised to find that this resonated with me. A successful design is one that elegantly moves forward business goals and satisfies user needs, but can everyday design make people's lives better? Not just happy to use our product, or delighted, but actually push in the direction of making the world a better place? 

The obvious answer is yes, especially when you think of projects like charity:water. But for the rest of your projects, the day-to-day work, it's possible too, it just requires a different lens.

Much is written about user experience design and empathy. Sometimes, it's implied that all one needs to do is to go out and interview a large number of users and the empathy will just naturally come. (And, don't get me wrong, it's a great start.)  A typical UX process involves finding out user problems and solving for them. And in the world of business applications, this seems to make sense, seems to fit, seems like the right tone. Ask the users some formal questions, find out what they need to do, don't get too personal with them. But – maybe there's more. Maybe we can try harder. Chimero says, Ask why. We can keep asking why until we go deep enough to uncover something we didn't expect.

When you think you have the answer, ask why again. Try to go deeper.

My current project has just finished a round of intensive field studies and is faced with a mountain of data. We observed the typical business processes and asked the typical workflow questions. Thankfully, our researcher is pretty great at asking why. As our team is looking at the data, we have a great starting place that is rich with motivation, emotion, and anxieties. Our first pass through these interviews was already pretty insightful. As we explore the data more in design concepts, the most productive and innovate sessions come from taking these insights and asking why again. Perhaps the harried project manager who needs to schedule the meeting is is over-anxious about the details because this is an important client and losing their business means another round of layoffs in the entire company. She's worried about a meeting, a big project, and the future of her colleagues. Why does she care so much about her colleagues? It turns out they're a strong team that values supporting each other. How can our designs support and encourage this feeling of community and support this team has, and spread it to other teams?

I used to think that Human-Computer Interaction was a weird, outdated phrase for a field that had moved on from command-line interfaces. But maybe it's relevant now more than ever. Perhaps "user experience" is depersonalizing our work.  If we can respond as a human and a designer, we can make meaningful and warm connections with our users, who transform our work (and the world) by their use of it. Give your users the gift of attention, time, and deep listening. Go back and ask why again. Go deeper than you normally do, more than you think you should.


While writing this, I stumbled across this excellent reflection by Dan Mall and even more advice from Frank Chimero. You should check these out, too.