Bringing stories from people outside… inside

By July 28, 2017April 10th, 2022No Comments

There are so many incredible minds and talents that inspire us as designers. For me, its a long list! One person right up the top of that list is Dr Genevieve Bell, the renowned Australian anthropologist who led user insights and experience for Intel from around 1998.

I was fortunate enough to see her talk on a few occasions. Her presentations struck a chord with me and her words of wisdom have remained in the front of my mind throughout the years.

In a familiar American/Australian accent, her story began with “I met a guy in a bar…”. That guy was from Intel and not long after she was tasked to figure out “Women” and “Rest of World” in order to “reinvent computing”. No small ask right? As a team of one, she set out on this mission to later lead a lab of 100 plus UXers.

I love Genevieve’s definition of UX:

UX is a point of view. It is an assemblage, a collection of ideas, not just a method. It is one third design, one third engineering and one third social science. With these three forces combining, it is important to remember that UX is like an intervention: it is disruptive by nature.

This rings true for me and reminds us all that UX isn’t easy. It is the road less travelled. We are usually asking people to change, to slow down, to reconsider, to test, to hypothesize, to look beyond the bottom line, to listen, to dream, to imagine, to workshop, to collaborate, to stop… all the things that obviously fit with business goals and project methodologies.

Genevieve’s wonderfully simple response to the question of what does UX do is that “we bring stories from people outside the building inside the building.”

These are the 8 things that stuck with me over time and that I often find myself paraphrasing to others.

1. Turn our tools on ourselves

An ethnographic study of Intel to understand how it functioned and what things meant was vital to her and her team’s success.

“Knowing it was endogamous mattered”. Endogamous is an anthropological term that describes an insular group, distrusting of outsiders (apologies Social Scientists if I have overly or incorrectly simplified the concept!). Genevieve realised that she needed to find “daddies” for UX. Without someone to sponsor, to vouch for her, life on the inside would be very difficult.

As a UX individual and team, we need to be very self-aware — always evaluating and adjusting how we fit into our organisation. Working with us must be as easy the outcomes we try to achieve for our customers and users. We need to always consider the best way to to communicate-and adapt how we work with — stakeholders, marketers, technologists and engineers.

2. Break the rules

“Even though they want UX, the will get in the way of you getting what you need.”

UX is not traditional; it is not well understood within the corporate context. Property will battle you when you want to cover the walls in paper. Project Managers and business sponsors will be reluctant to give you the time and budget for iterative design. People will want you to prove that ‘learning stuff about people’ has an ROI.

We’ve come so far in that so many organisations see the value of design and UX and most desire to be customer-first. But its just not always that simple. Its amazing how nervous people get when it comes down to the crunch of actually engaging with real customers. It is confronting and can be logistically much harder than it needs to be.

All you can do is persist and be willing to ask for forgiveness rather than permission every now and then.

3. Be interdisciplinary until it hurts

Build varied, interesting teams. The Intel UX team employed fine artists, scientists, filmmakers and even poets. Growing the team and making it work will take time but, know that “if it isn’t painful, you aren’t doing it right”.

It is also important to remember the context and ecosystem in which you exist. Genevieve acknowledged that a UX team of 100 is big. Very big. But when you consider that Intel employs over 100,000 people, it is only logical that you need to constantly accommodate others. She keeps things in perspective and makes a nice point of always treating UX involvement in projects as an invitation, not a right.

4. “Get ahead of the duck”

Your toolkit certainly is never full of everything you need and you should often do things ‘just because’.

Genevieve told a story of a team brainstorming session about how much technology exists in our vehicles. They decided to excavate cars. The team didn’t immediately share their findings from pouring through people’s stuff but knew that one day it would be useful.

Sure enough, several months later an actual project involving technology in motor vehicles emerged. Her advice: “do stuff and keep it off the books until it will be more interesting”.

Whilst we must be focused on projects, outcomes, specific user stories, its also our job to keep our eye on the horizon and be open to possibility and opportunity. It’s also important to be strategic in how and when you share what you’re finding to ensure people listen when it matters most.

5. Theory counts

“UX is not about writing down what people say”. Hallelujah!

What people say is not necessarily what they do. What they don’t say is super important.

It is a core skill of designers to interpret, to stitch together, to discover meaning, to understand what is symbolic, and to give things sense.

Hypothesise, speculate and experiment. UX is not about right and wrong. It isn’t about having the answers, it’s about having the questions.

6. New conceptual models and methods

Interactions are important. Relationships are important. And the two are very different.

As technology advances at such rapid rates, we must respect it as an enabler of and for human need. Genevieve illustrated this point by highlighting the success of Apple’s Siri is not that it responds to voice commands, it is that she listens.

A subtle but important difference.

7. Getting from vision to stuff

It is good to have a process that supports customer insights, but it is better to have a process that demands them. Build checkpoints into processes to ensure their use.

For many of us, we are designers living in an engineering world. We need to understand and appreciate they systems and constraints in which we operate and adjust our processes to work as part of a bigger machine.

This can also help make design and customer engagement activities habitual rather than special occasions.

8. Have fun

Build fun into UX teams to “counter oppression”. UX can be tough as we are often telling people what they don’t want to hear. Our will often be compromised for countless reasons.

Keep the dream alive, keep things in perspective and enjoy the ride.

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