Holistic Thinking on Transitioning to a New Practice Framework

By Daniel Szuc and Josephine Wong

Published: November 11, 2013

“UX-maturity diagrams … showed how, at one end of the spectrum, businesses completely misunderstand User Experience; at the other end of the spectrum, fully integrate User Experience into their business; and everything else in between.”

When Dan attended a UX conference in China at the end of 2012, the conference opened with some UX-maturity diagrams that showed how, at one end of the spectrum, businesses completely misunderstand User Experience; at the other end of the spectrum, fully integrate User Experience into their business; and everything else in between. These diagrams were useful, but seemed to lack connected elements or dimensions that would enable us to holistically describe what it takes to design and deliver good user experiences for people. Perhaps Dan was wanting more after having just completed Global UX with Whitney Quesenbery and feeling the need to explore practice boundaries beyond User Experience.

In this article, we’ll discuss this question: What should you do when you are frustrated professionally? In thinking about this question, a number of quick fixes presented themselves, including considering postgraduate study, finding new mentors, taking a leave from our business, trying out a completely new profession, seeking other events where we could hear more satisfying answers, reading more to nudge ourselves out of a rut, or perhaps all of the above—or perhaps stopping and taking a deep breath to restore reason.

Transitioning

Dan left the conference in China feeling a little sad and communicated his feelings to Jo on their return to Hong Kong. He felt the need for a clear plan on how we could help ourselves get unstuck. Was it that Dan was no longer interested in User Experience or that our conversations about User Experience had all started to sound the same? Or did we need to seek new horizons on our journey ahead? We continued reading—referring back to our books, articles, and project learnings from the past 20 years to see where we might find any clues that would help clarify our path ahead—but this did not seem to be enough. So we started considering how UX professionals in general might handle such professional angst.

Answers

“Without realizing it,  you may stay fixed on the same path too long and not keep your eyes and ears open to new ideas and interesting opportunities.”

One option is to keep doing what you have been doing until you encounter new opportunities on your current path that shed some light on your dilemma. But the problem with this approach is that, without realizing it,  you may stay fixed on the same path too long and not keep your eyes and ears open to new ideas and interesting opportunities. You may also go down that same path so quickly that you find yourself repeating the same patterns, making the same mistakes, and listening to the same ideas—and find yourself unable to appreciate new opportunities that are right in front of you and would let you change course safely. This reminded us of the “great tragedy of speed”:

“The great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities and responsibilities of existence is that very soon we cannot recognize anything or anyone who is not traveling at the same velocity as we are. We see only those moving in the same whirling orbit and only those moving with the same urgency. Soon we begin to suffer a form of amnesia, caused by the blurred vision of velocity itself, where those germane to our humanity are dropped from our minds one by one. We start to lose sight of any colleagues who are moving at a slower pace, and we start to lose sight of the bigger, slower cycles that underlie our work. We especially lose sight of the big, unfolding waveform passing through our lives that is indicative of our central character.”

Finding Healthy Alternatives: Paida and Lajin

“It seemed that going faster and doing more of the same was not going to help us, so we definitely needed to seek help from outside our community of practice.”

It seemed that going faster and doing more of the same was not going to help us, so we definitely needed to seek help from outside our community of practice. Perhaps we could learn something from Chinese medicine? Jo found a book, Paida and Lajin Self-Healing, which describes a simple technique of “carpet-bombing” your body to cleanse its 14 meridians or energy channels from all directions at once—thus, helping to eliminate all of your known and unknown diseases holistically instead of treating them according to the different divisions of medicine.

The learnings from this book seemed to resonate with our thinking as it pertains to our consulting, working for businesses that also seemed be stuck when it came to delivering great user experiences. Obstacles to holistic thinking in businesses include, but are not limited to the following:

  • silos—creating divisions between people who should be speaking to each other
  • management structures—in which people feel that they cannot speak to other people because a manager is blocking their path
  • no time to think or plan—in situations where people are working so hard to meet their short-term goals and implement their solutions so quickly—see “the great tragedy of speed”— that they have no time to lift their heads to see the path ahead or plan what they should really be working on
  • no customer truth—where siloed businesses are creating different versions of customer truth, leading to false assumptions about how to meet customers’ needs and unconnected customer data that prevents businesses from looking at these so-called truths holistically
  • too much rational thinking—people spending so much energy on being business people that they forget how to communicate as human beings and instead speak in numbers—because they think that’s the language of business—or are unable to express themselves openly and connect with new and better ideas

We decided to try out Paida on ourselves, patting and slapping different areas of the body, as well as Lajin, stretching our tendons to help our flow of thinking and enabling us to be open to new ideas. This also gave us some surprising clues about how businesses get stuck, resulting in toxic systems and cultures that are not receptive to new thinking. Perhaps we needed to answer the following questions:

  • How could we help businesses to get rid of toxins and prevent disease in their systems?
  • What should we consider in evolving our practice framework to encourage healthier business behaviors?
  • What UX or other methods would help?

Maybe our current toolkits were not enough. Perhaps we needed to activate the system’s self-healing power naturally to enable us to see more clearly and holistically, so we could help our clients to design and deliver great user experiences. This line of thought was helping, but it seemed to be only a small step toward discovering our own new practice framework. We needed to speak to smarter and more experienced people and test out our ideas through ongoing conversations. We needed to read more.

Reaching Out to Friends

“We began to move away from our habitual ways of looking at our work and let go of the language that we had been using. We gave ourselves permission to pursue the freedom of thought that would enable us to see things anew.”

We decided to reach out to our friends Bas and Geke from STBY—who are founders of the Global Design Research Network and GOOD13—to take time away from their projects and join us in Hong Kong, as well as for a trip to Chengdu, in mainland China, over December 2012 and January 2013. During our time together, we enjoyed relaxed conversations about our work, unpacking opportunities, venting our shared frustrations, connecting related topics and perspectives from outside design, and touching on our toolkits and where we think our practice is going. And we met some pandas in Chengdu!

The natural flow of our conversations allowed us to share stories, helping us to reflect on and make sense of what our new thinking meant for our respective practices—both in the regions in which we each work and globally—and to better understand how each of us wanted to help our clients, now and in the future. We began to move away from our habitual ways of looking at our work and let go of the language that we had been using. We gave ourselves permission to pursue the freedom of thought that would enable us to see things anew. This felt refreshing.

Helping each other along the way, we came back to Apogee Studio overflowing with new energies, ideas, and stories that we transferred onto our wall. The poster on the wall became the canvas. When Bas and Geek returned home, we continued to add Post-its to our wall as our thinking matured further. Without our time together with Bas and Geek, we would not have had something tangible to work with—or the opportunity to move from disconnected ideas in our heads to looking at things holistically. This gave us permission to slow down, reflect, and look at the path ahead. The canvas started to show the impact that we wanted to have on the people we work with, and it provided just the inspiration and invigoration we needed to trigger more conversations, both locally and in our travels throughout 2013.

We were feeling less stuck!

Defining the Elements of a Practice Framework

“We recognized the need to study old ways to identify the root causes of unhealthy thinking and enable us to transition to new ways….”

Throughout our global travels over 2013, our conversations led us to a better understanding of the impacts of the Industrial Age, which resulted in a number of the barriers that we face in our work today. As we mentioned in “Designing the Future of Business”:

“We have also been inviting people from a range of work roles and domain backgrounds into our studio in Hong Kong to better understand the barriers that people face in business today, which prevent them from delivering better products and services. This has forced us to think more deeply about our own toolkit—the skills that we need to help people and projects in ways that stretch current approaches—and the future of business that we want to help lead and design.

“We are intrigued by businesses that are looking beyond the business world’s traditional models and measures of success; reassessing their own purpose, values, and meaning; and implementing new business approaches that impact the people who work for them, their customers, and their competitors. For example, Demitted research has recently identified a link between organizations’ instilling a sense of purpose and their long-term success.”

We recognized the need to study old ways to identify the root causes of unhealthy thinking and enable us to transition to new ways, as well as our need to design this new reality together. But this was not going to be an easy task.

What Would Help Us to Help Our Clients to Deliver Good?

“we outlined Practice Framework Elements to help us look at our work and the contexts in which we work more holistically.”

With the Canvas as our inspiration, over time, we outlined Practice Framework Elements to help us look at our work and the contexts in which we work more holistically. We’re sure there are some elements missing, and they lack categorization and priorities for now, but we’re hoping that people will consider these elements and help us to unpack, group, and connect them, bringing further clarity and impact to the work that we do. We believe that the following elements can help us to deliver good user experiences:

  • holistic and connected thinking—Nothing exists on its own, so we need to connect objects and understand their relationships and their impacts on each other. This is not unique to digital experiences.
  • maturity—We need to see what gaps exist in our learning about UX practice and find avenues for learning from domains outside our own to get where we really want to be.
  • conditions for success—People need healthy conditions in which to do their best work and grow beyond what they think is possible for themselves.
  • being human and expressing emotions—Recognizing our emotions, we need to connect with ourselves and the people around us to be able to care for both people and the environment.
  • presence—Being in the moment, without judgment, enables us to see the truths that exist.
  • listening and empathy—We need to listen and be open to discovering things that we may not have known before.
  • meaning and value—We need to look at unconnected bits of information and see whether, together, they hold meaning and value for people. In the longer term, we should constantly iterate around that value.
  • alignment—Connecting again, we need to align people around the core meaning and purpose of whatever we’re designing.
  • time to think and plan—Before jumping into the details of design, we need to lift our heads long enough to see the possibilities in what we’re working on and consider where we’re going. We cannot always be running pell-mell.
  • questioning assumptions—We must ask questions about the meaning in what we have created and see whether we can make it better.
  • core skills and habits—As we understand and design, we must consider what skills we possess and what gaps exist. We must look at the skills that we need to learn from others outside our domain.
  • practicing our skills and habits—We should give people time to practice their skills in safe zones, with teachers who nurture.
  • creativity and flow—We must give people the opportunity to explore and try new ideas.
  • behavior—We need to be conscious of both positive and negative behaviors, encourage people to be their best, and inculcate positive behaviors in our practice, now and in the future.
  • curiosity—We must question, going beyond our existing problem set to see what else exists.
  • immersion—We should spend time with and learn from the people for whom we’re designing solutions rather than just pushing our solutions on them.
  • creating spaces that encourage greatness—We should work in creative spaces that are full of light, share our observations, and give people the necessary tools and time to think and draw and imagine.
  • experimentation—We must experiment with ideas, then let go and see what really sticks.

What other practice elements are missing that would enable us to deliver good user experiences?

If we were to design a school whose purpose was to teach practice elements that enabled people to be their best, what would this school look and feel like?

Thank you all for the global conversations in 2012 and 2013.

Thank you to everybody who has contributed to this conversation over the last few years and helped us discover our Practice Framework Elements. The results of such reflections sometimes seem obvious, but they do not become clear without our first taking the time to consider. Our journeys in 2013 have taken us, in no particular order, to San Francisco, Toronto, Ottawa, Lisbon, Shanghai, Singapore, Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Melbourne. We now have the beginnings of a Practice Framework that we can hang our hat on, so we have a nice starting point, or campfire to gather around, for our ongoing conversations in 2014. We are always seeking people who can help us to expand on the elements of our Practice Framework, and we hope our travels will continue to lead us in the right direction and provide new opportunities that will benefit all UX professionals.

See you at UX Hong Kong 2014

User Experience Hong Kong (UXHK) is a learning event that is dedicated to bringing all product and service design disciplines together—from research, marketing, design, technology, and business. It is a gathering for all people who are interested in and passionate about designing great user experiences for people and businesses and creating a better world for all. Get inspired by experienced international speakers such as Bill DeRouchey, Kim Goodwin, Jim Hudson, Dave Malouf, Marc Rettig, and Samantha Soma. Register for UX Hong Kong.

3 Comments

Thanks, Dan and Jo.

You’re raising some interesting questions here. The ‘tragedy of speed’ idea is really useful. It helps to look and think about two problems that have been vexing me about user experience practice in the last couple of years:

  1. Divergent speeds within our practice. User experience is a discipline that is in the ascendant. That means there’s more demand than supply for UX people. New people need to develop skills, experience, and perspectives that will allow them to practice with confidence. I remember reading an article by a venerable UX guru about ten years ago that suggested you couldn’t call yourself a user experience professional until you’d been practicing for 10 years. (Not very helpful advice: are you supposed to do it for 10 years as a hobby before going professional?) In fact, I think the opposite is true: people who are new to the profession have different perspectives and experiences that can move the practice forward and also create a better interface between UX and other business domains. I’m sorry to say that I think some of the thinking at the heart of our domain is fossilizing—and that’s bad for a discipline that still has so much to do in the world.
  2. li>Divergent speeds between our practice and everyone else’s. This is the main point of your post, I think. UX people are brilliant at talking and sharing amongst themselves. But who else is invited to the conversation? And do we respect and understand their experience and what they are trying to do? (Asking a UX specialist what they think of Marketing people is a reliable litmus test of this.) The biggest threat to user experience in the near future is “being right, in the corner.” What we know isn’t valuable to the world unless we engage in conversation.

The practice framework you outline is useful, but thinking time is its oxygen. Lean UX is a useful new way of thinking about our craft and its place in the world. But sometimes I worry that it looks like appeasement rather than negotiation with those who see more speed as the answer to every problem.

Great insight. That enlightens me of some of the walls that I’m trying to break through. Thanks.

Hi Dan & Jo,

I’m clearly going to agree with Tom on the importance of thinking time in experience design, and I like how it’s positioned in the framework you propose here. Factoring thinking time into projects, particularly in an agency/practice model is critical for us to ensure we’re not just delivering on-time, first-time. The reflective nature of your framework and how that could evolve our practice is something I like very much. That, together with a clear focus on immersion, curiosity, and experimentation make for a sound holistic approach.

I mean, it might not be practically implementable in many cases, because organizational structure and operational models are so very hard to change, but the intent is a wonderful thing. :)

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