Designing for Change: “Be Water My Friend”

Our role as UX designers

Recently we returned from UX Australia 2011 in Sydney where critical and inspirational themes emerged in presentations, workshops and hall way discussions with people including Kim Goodwin, Rachel Hinman, Janna DeVylder, Steve Baty, Jon Kolko, Samantha Starmera, Whitney Quesenbery around topics including context, culture, change, global thinking and our role in community and leadership.

It got me thinking more about our role as User Experience Designers in all this towards driving change in delivering great products and services in the places we work.In a recent piece on “User Experience Design in Asia” Jo and I wrote –

People are starting to ask themselves: How am I perceived within my organization? How do I perceive myself? How am I and the work that I do positioned within my organization? People don’t always have clear answers to these questions. And some people feel powerless to make any real change through their UX design roles and the products they work on.

We also recently read this thought provoking piece in a Melbourne, Australia newspaper titled – “Jobs made Apple great by ignoring profit” saying:

I have come to the conclusion that what has made Apple so different is that instead of having a profit motive at its core, it has something else entirely. Many big companies like to pretend this is the case — “we put our customers first” — but very few truly live by that mantra. When the pressure is on and the CEO of a big public company has to choose between doing what’s best for the customer or making the quarter’s numbers… most CEOs will choose the numbers.

Apple never has.

As paradoxical as it is that the pursuit of profit is what causes the long-term failure of companies, I believe that Apple’s lack of focus on profitability has actually made it one of the most successful companies in the history of capitalism.

To refocus, this is not an article on how to be Apple, rather we believe that we all need to better understand our tools, beliefs and values at deep personal levels in the places we work, live and breathe in order to understand our place to lead change and the soft skills to do that.

So one may naturally ask – what has this got to do with me?

One may be happy enough doing the task or activity on an assigned project i.e. wireframe, usability testing etc. Why should one be prompted to think about personal characteristics needed to lead positive change?  Further, why does one need to look beyond team, organisation, community and my city, my country and the world to create positive change?

Under current …

We walked away from UX Australia 2011 thinking perhaps there is an under current of soft skills we as Experience Designers need to be more self aware about to get better at helping the people we work with “move” to a new place and to work on projects that really matter and truly add value.

So … why change?

People usually want to change when they are not happy with the current situation and either recognise or are introduced to a better future state. They may not always know what the future state looks like, be able to articulate it or even know how to get there. They may also think there is no great motivation to change as its just too hard to do.

Change usually signifies movement or something different to people as they look to people to help show them the necessary and relevant elements to make change happen. Who should do this? Perhaps its our role to help people get there and to create tactics to move people and thinking. Perhaps its our role to help and mentor people to experiment and iterate to nudge change along in themselves and the places they work. An example of this is a unique event that took place in Israel in August 2011 called Lean UX Machine. Lean UX Machine was born in a surprising way and VCs identified a need for UX mentorship for Israeli startups from 12 local and international UX mentors,. It was the first time in Israel that people asked UXers to take the lead and mentor them.

What are some factors we can think more deeply about and recognise if we want to understand the places we work, towards changing them as part of creating better experiences?

Places & Projects

<strong>Its important that we recognise our role as “Design Facilitators” and get better at recognising the projects and places we work to see if they are in fact receptive to change. So what do we need to be aware of? (in no particular order)

  • Recognition: do people recognize that the current situation is not working and that there can be another option?
  • Alternative future states: what does it look like? Who is going to help design the future state?
  • Open to learning:are there beginnings or evidence of an attitude that is willing to look at other ways to work? What will be the evidence of this?
  • Leadership: is there a person in the business who is willing to help you outline a “User Experience Roadmap” and help invite the necessary people towards understanding and defining a plan as part of bridging new thinking into every-one’s hearts, minds and souls in the organisation.
  • Places:what does the space people work in look like? Is it designed to encourage collaboration and open discussions? Do people look like they are energized and focused on improving the products they work on?
  • Time: are people given the right amount of time to both attend to current products but also given time to help plan forward, improve and envision?
  • Tone: how do people describe their work, colleagues, projects and the business they work for? Do they sound energized or deflated? Are there openings for change?
  • Rewards: are people rewarded or punished for coming up with alternative ideas, bringing in needs and opinions of people from other parts of the organisation? Does the project plan provide the space to help design and iterate on problem sets?
  • Team: how is the team structured? Are people with different skill sets and perspectives working together or is it left to a few people to own improving on the experience design?
  • Management: does management encourage new thinking or does it crush it?
  • The business and its legacy: What legacy exists in the current business? Is it useful, motivational or constraining? Where does it come from and has there been any signs of change that indicates the business is open to more change?
  • Business models and goals: do you agree with them or do you see opportunities to help the business continue to profit in positive ways or is there also opportunity to design alternative options? Think of a business who disrupting traditional ways of doing things.

Your Takeaway — So if “culture” was a physical product, what does it look like and how do you get people around you to help design for it?

Your Role

We need specific skills and attitudes to help create change in the places and projects we work. So what are these? (in no particular order)

  • Planning & facilitation: we need to stand in front of groups of people to provide activities that work on both tactical and strategic issues.
  • Communications style: we need to embody the change we are aiming for. How do we want people to feel after they have worked with us? How do we want this energy to transfer to their colleagues and people outside of their team? How can our style teach people about how to create change in their work, products and onto the customer?
  • Solutions not problems: we should listen carefully to existing problems as part of learning about how we can help. But we also need to be good at presenting possible solution states to help people shift their thinking and ultimately to help the business achieve their goals
  • Shifting and challenging the status quo: its important to teach people to question and discuss alternative ways of doing things. Not for the sake of it, rather towards something better for all.
  • Empathy: we work in a human field, so we should embed this in the way we work, in business and across every part of our engagement. How do people learn by our example

Your Takeaway – Identify the gaps in yourself that need to be supplemented with further learning to help create change in the places you work.

Spaces to play in

Recently we were invited to facilitate a workshop in Beijing to help bridge design research findings into design concepts. We were assigned a room and opportunity to not only deliver designs but an opportunity to show how teams can work together towards bigger goals.

Having a space that embodies a new way of working, learning and thinking is critical. It becomes the embodiment of the culture change you are creating.

So what should be in this space? Note – Will Evans has a wonderful article on “Design Studio methodology” that talks to some of this.

  • Paper, pens and other goodies: materials for people to express thoughts publicly. Photos and other visuals to get people to think beyond the confines of the room.
  • Music: music is a lovely tool to use in breaks and to relax minds.
  • Food and drink: feed people so they have good energies to do great work.
  • Breakout areas: as places to relax and look at the view. Its an opportunity to step away from the work focus and take a breather.

Your Takeaway – have a space for people do their best work

A future world

To facilitate change we need to show people the place they are moving to. What does the old world look like? What does the future world look like? What do we need to do as a team to get people to both think and behave on the journey to the future world? So how do we do this?

  • Time: give yourself and the team time to help them envision the future world. This can help create ownership in the journey to get there.
  • Visual: the future world should be physical and something people in the team and outside of the team can see and point to as you walk the path.
  • Realistic: include realistic activities that are visible so that the rest of the team can experience the journey to this future world. Map it to design deliverables that show movement and improvement that should in effect talk to success metrics for yourself, the team, business and community.
  • Heart & soul: check in with people in the team to see how they feel about the journey to the future world. Are people still upbeat and energized? Do people need to stop for a rest? Do we all need to check again on where we are all headed?

Your Takeaway – know what your future world looks like and find simple ways to communicate it.

Or … from Roy Luebke, Innovation and Strategy Consultant in an article titled “Linking Design, Marketing, and Innovation” –

Innovation is a result. Achieving innovation requires a combination of user research, competitor research, and market driver research (i.e. social, technical, economic, environmental, and political/legal evolutions) and analysis of these elements to make sense of the customers’ world and then creatively solve the challenges people have while operating in these worlds. Effective solution development and delivery requires the skills and talents of both marketers and designers, not to mention engineers, accountants, and customer service people as well. It is marketing and design people, though, who should be on the leading edge of opportunity discovery and customer problem framing.

In conclusion … Be water my friend

Conversations in our recent travels suggests the following characteristics at both an individual and organizational level:

  • Flexibility
  • Openness
  • Creativity
  • Humanity
  • Empathy
  • Humility
  • Global Thinking
  • Selflessness
  • Objectivity
  • Connectivity
  • Add your own

Perhaps these characteristics and others not in the list speak to UX Values or Design Principles we want to live by and that talk directly to our practice, the people we work with, the businesses we run, the future business leaders we want and and the long term behaviours we want to change sustainably and persistently in people and places.

Bruce Lee summarizes:

Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.


Thank you:
Tom Wood, Ray McCune, Tim Loo, Neil Pawley, Gill McIntosh, Rob Findlay, Jin Zwicky, Raven Chai, Will Evans, Tomer Sharon, the Ekkli team, Bas Raijmakers, Geke van Dijk, Steve Baty, Whitney Quesenbery, Marc Rettig, Diana Adorno and Michael Davis-Burchat for your contributions and thoughts over time in the writing of this article.

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