Part 4 of a 4-part series with the keynote speakers of the Big Design conference in Dallas, TX. I’m joined by Kim Goodwin, author of Designing for the Digital Age. We discuss how UXers can help organizations transform their values beyond merely including “user-centered” on a poster, and actually shifting human needs as a top priority of the business.

Photo by Daniel H. Tong

Autumn Hood: So what do you do, ?

Kim : My focus for quite some time has been helping organizations build their design capabilities. I do that in a few different ways. I look at building teams by scaling up skills and capacities on product and design teams. I also look at it from a culture change point of view. How do you actually shift organizational views and habits? Sometimes I work with teams to do that by example on specific projects by developing product and design strategy as a way to help them move that foot forward.

AH: That sounds really cool. Is this something that you’ve always done, or has your career evolved into this role?

KG: I would say I am lucky enough that I got a bunch of management and leadership training early in my career. I probably leveraged that a lot. Early on, I was doing design projects just like every other designer, thinking, “if I just deliver good design, I will have done my job”. I realized that wasn’t working for me, and as I helped build the practice at Cooper I realized my teams were delivering great stuff and then our clients weren’t executing on it, and that was depressing for all of us.

I realized that it’s not about just doing great design; that’s maybe half the problem. I think that’s actually less than half the problem. It’s more about whether the organization is equipped not just in practice, but in values, to deliver a great user experience. It’s so much more than just what you put in the pixels.

AH: Yeah, the maturation of the value of “experience” is still really relevant. Where the organization is, where our team members in business in the product are, even just mentally… I think in design a big part of your job outside of the core skill set of design principles is having to be an educator, and having to learn new methods of explaining things and almost having to adapt your education style to your audience, whether or not they’re receptive, whether they’re local or remote, and so on.

KG: That’s absolutely true. That operates at 2 levels. There’s a change at the individual level. In some cases, it’s efficient to educate people. But in most cases, humans are much more resistant to change and it’s become more about helping people understand that they’re not losing things by changing. So that’s the individual level.

There’s also the organizational or systemic level: how do we hire and train people? What are the organizational values we actually measure and reward, vs. the ones we put on a poster and claim are our values? How do we institutionalize this change so it’s not dependent on that one individual getting it? You really have to work at both of those levels, and you have to work on the structures and procedures. At the same tie that you work on how people feel and make decisions. It’s a complex situation, we can’t do all of it ourselves. We have to figure out what part of that change do we own and drive, and where do we find allies to make that change and make it stick?

AH: You touched a little on the “perceived value” of design, or maybe user experience as a whole. It’s another part of your job outside of simple “design” where you have to be able to use these terms and speak this language because so much of what you’re doing is not tangible and doesn’t have a 1:1 correlation in terms of dollars.

KG: As a profession, we spend a lot of time trying to get people to value design. I think that comes from personal angst for a lot of us. We spend plenty of time arguing to get time and space to do what we do. To be valued as members of the team. I think that’s less of a battle than it’s been previously. I’ve been in the industry long enough to see a shift.

I think we actually spend too much time worrying about how people value us, and I think the real fight is how much does the organization value human beings, period? A lot of what we really need to do is focus on the “user-centered” part of the design and a little less on the actual “design” part. A lot of things that affect user experience are more about user-centeredness than they are about design, per say.

AH: Also, everyone has a hand in the design. It’s not just one person’s call. Everyone does touch the design, and everyone has to have that human-centered compass driving their decisions, or else it’s never going to come out truly user-centered, regardless of the design.

KG: Right. And I tend to take the word “design” out of that conversation sometimes, just because it hits a lot of buttons. There are a number of people who make comments like “everyone is a designer.” Which on one level is true, but on another level ticks people off. And that’s fair, lots of people don’t have “design skills”. But the truth in that statement is that everyone makes decisions, and a user experience is made of a lot of different decisions. So for example, the legal team of a company is making “design decisions,” not in the skill sense or profession sense, but they are making decisions. This is why we need to think about how we make user-centered values pervasive in an organization.

How much of our time do we want to spend worrying about how something ends up on a screen? And how much do we want to spend our time helping the early vision understand just how awful the terms of service are, or actually looking at whether advertising is the best business model for us to use.

There’s a lot of big stuff and it involves playing in spaces where we don’t have explicit permission to play. How do we carve out that space for ourselves? The first step is at least conceiving it as a space we should be in.

AH: What are some ways you have found to take on this challenge? How can we apply these ideas? What strategies can we use?

KG: There’s an old bit of wisdom in the field, but it’s true. More user interviews are better for everybody. The more time you spend having conversations with actual humans, the easier it is to make the case. Anytime I see a team where somebody says “oh, well the user researcher goes out and does all the research and sends us the report,” I want to pull my hair out. Because okay, that gets you maybe 5% of the value you could be getting from user research. It’s not about making a beautiful report. It’s about getting everyone out there in a way that helps them understand what humans are like and how they think and how they just are not how you think they are.

AH: Do you think part of the problem is a lack of empathy? I think the only way you can begin to understand how people work is either by watching them or trying to put yourself in their shoes to gain their perspective.

KG: I think empathy is a piece of it. I think we hang a lot on that word. It’s not just about empathy and how people feel. It’s about being able to make hard trade-offs. Let me give you an example.

I was working with a team a long time ago making a medical device for hospitals. One of the product team members had been a nurse for maybe 10 years before she moved in-house in this organization and was working on a product team for maybe 2 years. She had this idea that because the main purpose of this device was to get readings to doctors, that nurses should wear a printer around their waist, like people at car rentals do. You know, they’re like 10 pounds. And I said well, “Well, when I’ve observed nurses working in a hospital, they’re constantly squeezing in behind equipment, and lifting or moving patients, and dealing with messy things… and they actually don’t even keep pens in their pockets, they keep them on a lanyard on their neck. So I don’t know how well something around their waist would work.” She looked at me, and she said: “Oh my God, I have totally forgotten what it’s like to be a nurse, haven’t I?”

So this is a person who had been a nurse. But the reality distortion field that happens in product teams makes people get too focused on the technology. We imagine that our users are like us, or that they behave in ways that are convenient for what we want to build. So it’s empathy, but it’s also just being grounded.

AH: It’s such a daunting task. To think, “Okay how do I think about every type of person who may use this thing?” At least with some things you might have primary users, like nurses. But say for a commercial product where anyone could use it, how do you begin to give yourself that grounded perspective?

KG: On products where I’m trying to do serious culture change, one of the things I generally insist on is driving executives out to do at least 4 user interviews. Just because I think those are pretty powerful perception changers. Now, is every company going to maintain a culture where everybody sees users on a regular basis? No, probably not. Partly because if you’re a large company you’re going to exhaust your user base pretty quickly, especially if it’s an enterprise tool.

I think that you find the critical people who are the most influential in the decisions, and you get them regular exposure as often as you can. And when you can’t do that, it’s about how do you get as close as possible to that direct contact? Do you curate videos from user interviews and constantly play those? How do you make it real for people constantly? But understanding users is only half the equation.

I think the other half honestly comes down to values. Lots of companies plaster their values on posters and walls. It comes down to: what are you willing to sacrifice? We talk a ton about metrics. I think UX has matured in recent years regarding metrics, and that’s part of why we’ve come as far as we have. Because we’re able to show that we can move important metrics. But every metric has a limit. There’s only so much we should do, for example, to prolong one person’s life if you’re in healthcare, or promote engagement if you’re in social marketing. We’re always sacrificing something else to improve that metric.

So what are the things we’re not going to sacrifice? Every time a company has a conversation about metrics, if they’re not also talking about values, that’s when we start making bad decisions. That’s where I think working with product teams is just as important as working with UX teams, because product teams tend to own the metrics. It can’t be that UX holds the values and product holds the metrics — we both need to bring those together.

AH: Yeah. think UXers tend to be pretty familiar with the types of metrics they can directly influence and collect. But you need the help of others for a lot of other important metrics. And you need time, and commitment from those other people. I think sometimes there’s not a full understanding of what that investment is worth.

KG: And in some places, yes in some cases UX still has to prove that they can affect those metrics. But there’s also deliberately putting some limits on that, and saying “yes we can move that metric, but what things are we not willing to do?”

There’s ton of conversations right now on Twitter about, should certain kinds of speech be tolerated there? And what are the policies for shutting people down? There’s a lot of discussion about where are the boundaries for free speech, for example. Those are the kinds of discussions we need to be having.

If you’re making cell phones, or whatever, you want to drive the sales of the phones. But at the same time, what’s the environmental impact of people buying a new phone every year? How much of that are we willing to accept? I think we need to look at the boundaries of metrics. Others may not agree with me on that.

AH: Anyone who creates things has to think about the ethics around the long-term implications of that thing. It’s more than “time on task.”

With the industrial revolution, there was this wave of prosperity and enlightenment. What if someone had been around at that time to ask “okay well what is the effect of all this coal that we’re burning?” Or what is the effect of all this glass and plastic that we’re making. Those are at least physical things that you can see with the human eye. But things like Twitter, or anything digital, it’s not as easy to literally see those effects, but there is still a type of pollution.

KG: It’s pollution, and it’s also things like how are you effecting people’s self-esteem? And their stability? How are you affecting democracy? As an example, I was looking at a housewares website. I as looking at their bedding. In the navigation, they have girls bedding, and boys bedding. And all the girls bedding is pink and flowery. All the boys bedding is Star Wars, trucks, airplanes, and sports. That’s a design decision that says certain things are for girls and certain things are not for girls. So we’re making lots of things that effect or reinforce social systems. That might seem like a trivial example, but if you add up a hundred of those examples, what is the message we’re sending to girls?

AH: I don’t think it’s trivial at all. I think it’s very important, especially what you just mentioned, because you cannot escape that particular message. Things like “girl” and “boy” permeate society, regardless of what site you happen to look at. They reach everybody in a population.

It’s easy to get caught up in your own niche world. You develop tunnel vision and maybe only look at the first link in the chain. But we have to look at how long those chains might actually be.

In design school, and I know not everyone who reads this will necessarily be a designer, but just as an example, in design school I don’t think these conversations are there yet. I don’t think it’s reached a level of ubiquity that we need to think long term and broadly, not just for the next several deadlines.

KG: It’s hard to do in practice. Someone’s always breathing down your neck and you have a deliverable in two weeks. And taking time off to think “is this undermining democracy?” or “am I hurting someone’s self-esteem?” or “adding to the plastic burden on the planet?” seems very abstract. I’m not saying that we’re all going to be perfect at it and that we should all go quit our jobs if our companies aren’t asking these questions either. But I do think that we need to bring up these conversations, because who else is going to do it? I hope others will, but probably not. So are we doing metric-centered design or are we doing human-centered design? I think we have to choose. So yes, it’s tricky.

AH: It’s almost like this compounding proliferation. Let’s say for example the people you’ve reached in your career with this message. Some people who listen to your talk at the conference or read this article won’t have thought about their job like this. And now they’ll have this idea with them when they go to their work, when they talk with their colleagues. I do think that these conversations are valid.

KG: You know, the first step in solving something is thinking about it and talking about it. I think that we have to recognize things as problems before we can work on them. None of us can be perfect at executing. I find a lot of people who are new to design leadership get frustrated because they’re not working on concrete deliverables anymore. There’s not as much at the end of the day where you can look at it and say, “I did that.” In design leadership or teaching, I think you have to learn to think of conversations as your design medium, and values as your deliverables. Have you influenced the way someone thinks about a problem? Have you helped them look at it from a different angle? Sometimes the lightbulb doesn’t go on right after that conversation. Sometimes it comes on a couple of weeks or a couple of years later. You don’t always get to see it. Sometimes the lightbulb doesn’t come on. But if you’re working on changing the way people think and not having your hands directly on the pixels, you can actually have much more impact. Of course, that’s not how we’re measured in our jobs, for the most part. It’s more like, “how many screens did you crank out?”

I think that people in design leadership roles in particular need to work on trying to get space to do that other work. And that’s all about having supportive allies, particularly in leadership positions elsewhere. Not every organization has that opportunity. But the more we can try to create that, the better.

AH: I also think that spanning across multiple disciplines is essential. We can’t just have this conversation with a bunch of other UXers who probably already agree with us. How do we reach outside audiences and who should those audiences be?

KG: We have to work laterally and we also have to manage up. I think that product managers tend be metric-focused. So if they’re not on board then we can’t make some of the tradeoffs. And if engineers aren’t on board, then we can’t as easily affect the thing that ships. And many engineers are on board; they don’t want to ship things that are bad for the world any more than we do. I think in most cases bad decisions get made because of ill will or incompetence. Bad decisions get made because of internal bias and competing incentives that we just aren’t making conscious choices about. If we can help each other be our best selves, instead of our oblivious selves, I think that’s really what it comes down to.

AH: It’s also empowering others in the way that we can. With engineers, I totally agree with you that if something “doesn’t come out right,” it’s not ill intent or negligence, it’s often a constraint of time and stress. As a UXer on team you may not have a lot of power, but you probably have some power. What are ways we can empower those that we work with that ultimately helps the vision and the users. I’ve also noticed that you tend to use the term “human-centered design” over “user-centered design.” In a lot of instances those terms could be interchangeable, but what I’m noticing about your distinction between the two is that a user indicates a sub-set of people, almost like a gatekeeping of who we should care about. But everyone is a human, and that goes back to the longer-term, more outward-reaching effect of the things that we do.

KG: Yeah. The majority of the detailed work that we do is of course “user-centered.” Or customers, buyers, and that’s fine. But we also need to think about the impact on society as a whole. And I do think that that’s true. It’s really hard to get organizations to do that, and this is a long road. I don’t want to be out there telling people they’re doing a bad job if they’re not changing all of society starting tomorrow. Little drips wear away the stone, right?

But thinking about these topics more, you realize that some of these bad decisions are really easy to avoid. It might just be changing the words you use, or changing a workflow. I think in our profession there’s this idea that at some point in a design, early, you should make sure it’s accessible in all the ways it needs to be. And I’m not diluting the importance of accessibility, but what if we broaden the definition of accessibility to include people who don’t have access in other ways. If we think about future generations, there’s so much to consider. It all sounds very grand and ambitious. It’s just about thinking compassionately.

AH: And I think it’s great that we have accessibility to help us make sure we pay specific attention to special needs. But really, what it comes down to is accessibility is usability. Is this thing usable by people who use it? you can use different words to talk about different types of people, and if it helps that cause be more productive I think that’s okay. But it’s a distinction we have just to help us make sure we check all those boxes. Are there any areas or fields where you think some of these issues are being addressed?

KG: I think that for example in healthcare, there’s a lot of horrible issues, like the payment model for one thing. But there’s a lot that’s where, for example, people are trying to understand others not just as patients with a medical problem, but as humans who come from a certain neighborhood that might be a food desert. Or who have economic barriers to having A/C in a hot city, and the best treatment might be to just buy them an air conditioner instead of coming to the emergency room multiple times during the summer.

So I think healthcare is starting to look more broadly at those outcomes. To expand the boundaries a little bit. And it’s a very interdisciplinary practice. I think in a way, there are a lot of parallels between a healthcare provider and a designer. As a designer, we often have the expertise to fix a problem, but we need users to tell us where the pain is. They’re experts in their experience. Just as a good doctor, ideally we’re looking at the broader picture and not just what they’re coming in with today. Ideally, as a practice, we have “Do no harm” as the first tenant of our work.

AH: I really like that analogy. If there’s maybe a second tenant, it might be “don’t fix this thing only to cause more harm in another area or in the future.”

So do you think these kinds of changes start at the designer level?

KG: If you’re someone who actually cares about making products and services that are fit for humans, I think it can start with you. I don’t think necessarily that it has to be a designer, but it can be. Design happens to be both a role and a skill set that is focused on humans, so we’re often in a position to do it.

AH: The take away I think then, is just beginning the conversation of “how do we do the right thing?” And making sure others prioritize the right things as well.

So, is this your first time coming to Big Design?

KG: This is my first time at Big Design, yeah.

AH: Well we’re excited to have you. Where are you located?

KG: I’m in the San Francisco area, but I have some clients in Texas and I hang out there from time to time.

AH: Awesome. Well everyone is getting so excited for the conference, and I look forward to meeting you there.

KG: Looking forward to coming as well.

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