Choices and Consequences

I gave this talk at User Research London last week.


I gave a longer version of this talk earlier this year and am happy to say that after I gave it, I got to hear from attendees how they were impacted by it. One attendee told me she thought she needed to quit her job.

Good for her.

Maybe that’s something you can keep in mind, too, while I talk today. Both telling me if and how you are impacted by it and that maybe you need to quit your job.

Keep in mind…

What I want, as an outcome of this talk, is that at least one of you, when you’re back at work, will think, “Is there something about this project, or my next project, that I can learn, or I can teach, or perhaps I can change some small thing that eventually will make it easier to change the big things?”

And then maybe, if instead of just one of you, it’s all of you thinking like that, we could change lots of small things that make it so much easier to change the big things.

And then we can do it again, and again, and again.

Basically, I want to hire all of you to help me make the world a better place. How are we going to do that?

Before we do anything, we start by being here. I mean that metaphorically and literally.

Metaphorically, in that we all need to “be here” in our work, in our life, to be sure we’re doing the right things well. If you are going to do the right things well, you’re going to need to be fully part of the process of doing it; fully here.

And I mean it literally, because I want you to be here, in this room, with me, with your fellow attendees. And I want to help that along with a brief meditation.

Meditation can happen anywhere, anytime, for any amount of time. Meditating even for 30 seconds can help bring the mind to the task at hand. You don’t even have to call it meditation. You can call it “taking a moment for yourself.”

So let’s do it.

Close your eyes or keep them open, either is fine.

Relax your shoulders.

Relax your face.

Breathe in through your nose and focus on the feeling of the air going in.

Breathe out and focus on the feeling of the air going out.

Breathe in and feel your chest and belly expand.

Breathe out and feel your chest and belly fall back to their resting positions.

Be here.

“Design” (with heaping great wodges of AIR QUOTES!) has power. We can argue about what Design means (and if you follow Twitter debates on the topic, you know we do argue about it!).

But for now I want you to think in terms of Choice. Design is Choice.

Design is important in organizations. But Design (or whatever we want to call it) is only half of what we need to be doing in order to do the right work well.

The other half of what we need to do is to convince those who pay us that their latest business venture, or app, or feature is pretty much bullshit and we need to start working on more important things that impact our lives and the lives of the people who interact with what we make.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are slowly driving people insane.

This person was trying to login to their bank and got caught in a password reset loop.

After several attempts, and many CAPTCHAs, they got frustrated and slammed their laptop shut. There was a thumb drive resting on the keyboard. Slamming it shut broke the screen.

Straight up: the bank did that. Whoever chose for it to be that way owes this person a new laptop. Not even kidding.

Projects will come up that bother you on some level. Is the project misguided? Focused on the wrong problem? Hurting or cheating people? The decision tree I’d like you to think about, each time you run into projects, companies, or ideas that bother you is:

Do I understand the issue? Because it's worth sitting down to intentionally think that through.

Can I get things on the right track?

If I can't get things back on track, can I walk away?

If I walk away, will someone get hurt?

The answer to these questions will be HIGHLY contextual. If you can stay and help guide the project to an outcome that helps people, it’s better than walking away. But if you have to walk away, for whatever the reason, can you still make an impact?

Can you work for a competitor, or become the competitor?

It isn’t enough anymore to design something well if the thing itself has no value or at worst contributes to the frustration, anxiety, or actual harm of another human.

About absolutely everything, we need to ask these questions.

We all, individually, need to consider that we’re making choices everyday that have consequences, and we need to decide the extent to which we’re willing to live with that.

You own your skills.

You take them with you from project to project, company to company. The more you practice, the better you get and the more value you can provide.

But it’s worth intentionally questioning: Who gets your skills? Who gets your time? Who gets your value?

What decisions can you make on a project, about a project, in a company, about a company, that improves your value AND the value for the people on the receiving end of your work?

You own your skills. You get to decide who gets your value.

Everything is up for negotiation.

In deciding who gets my time and value, I take a Yes, if… No, but… approach to most of my work.

Someone might ask me, “Can you help me with my presentation to the client?” Yes, if I can have more time to deliver this journey map. Or, no, but I can talk Gary into doing it.

You can make space for what you need by taking a Yes, if… No, but…approach to life. It doesn’t always work, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the more effective you are at it.

I have a friend who does UX work and says yes to everything. He super busy all the time. Too busy. Imagine that. He doesn't get the opportunity to take time for his own needs. I suspect that makes him less productive

Build Advocates.

You shouldn’t do any of this alone!

You can use Yes, if… No, but… to build advocates over time. Change the minds of your team with small nudges to get them to start questioning if there are better ways to work together. Better ways to push back on the work assigned. Better ways to figure out how to do the right work well.

Over time, your advocates will start to influence the culture around you.

Culture, at a company, is not ping pong tables and free, cold-pressed coffee. It’s the sum-total of all the people and their purpose in the company. Culture will, and should, change over time.

Within that culture are individuals who are making choices as they go through their day: what they work on, how they work on it. Who they work with, how they treat them. Who they work for, how they treat them.

As an individual, you have the power to alter the behavior of others. It means small nudges over time, but imagine being intentional about it.

Maybe you can get others to buy into the idea that there are better ways to work. Maybe you can convince your project team. Maybe that makes other project teams jealous and they want to work like you. You teach them. And they teach others.

Sometimes I wish I could yell at people and tell them to stop making shit products and services that no one will use and start working on things that matter, dammit.

But the right way is to go to where they’re at, metaphorically, and walk them, kindly, to the place they need to be.

It’s harder, but has much more rewarding and lasting effects.

Start now.

You don’t need to wait until you have 20 years of experience.

You don’t need to wait until you have gray in your hair.

You don’t need to wait until you’ve burned yourself out.

You don’t need to wait until you’re in the hospital due to a severe panic attack.

Make time to reflect on what you have. Make time to discover what you need to start working more intentionally.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this over the past 2 years. Most of the people “my age” as it were, are having similar thoughts. Thoughts we didn’t necessarily have toward the start of our career.

I’m here to request from everyone, “young” and “old” to start now. There’s a lot of things that only your direct experience will convince you of, but I want to ask of you a leap of faith: start now being intentional about ways you can better make meaningful work (tip of the hat to Dan & Jo). You’ll be better off and, I must believe, so will the world.

As I mentioned at the start, when I gave the longer version of this talk, someone told me she thought she needed to quit her job. Again, I invite you to think about that for yourselves. You own your skills; the ones you have now and the ones you will build in the future. Who is going to get your time? Who is going to get your value? What choices will you make? What will be the consequences?

It’s worth setting aside some time in the coming days and thinking about answers to those questions. The answers will help you do the right work well and make that work more meaningful.

I know this wasn’t a practical talk, and it wasn’t meant to be. This talk was meant to get you thinking. If it was successful in that goal, I’d love to hear about it.

Thank you.