Making a Better Table

In our last episode, I kind of left everyone hanging with this brilliantly-put sentiment:

Now it's time to make a better table.

It was never my intention to tell y'all to go out and make better tables and leave it at that.

While I don't know how to make The Best™ Table© Ever®, I feel like I have some ideas that are worth exploring and sharing. This article will be purposefully high-level. I think we have some foundation-laying to do first. I'll follow up with some practical perspective later.

What is a table?

This may sound like I am trying to recapture my literary criticism days1, but in some respects, as often as people use the idiom “seat at the table” it's worth exploring what this really means.

Setting some context first ... This article is from my perspective on UX, Usability, Information Architecture, Interaction Design, “Design”, and everything else related to those positions/professions who for so long, and even still, are often misunderstood by Business and the people they work with. Not having a seat at The Table has meant they are:

  • brought in too late into the process,
  • not given enough time,
  • struggling for budget,
  • struggling for enough knowledgeable people to do the work.

For decades, these people have longed for a seat at The Table.

The Table, in this case, is the Business Table. Or the Boardroom. Or whatever type of table is used to develop a Product Roadmap. Basically, it's a metaphorical place where the real decisions about the Whats, the Whys, and the Hows are made. Having a seat at this table means you get to help drive direction rather than living in the space where your job is to “just make the screens work good.”2

The Current State of Tables and Their Available Seatage

Read around enough on the internet, talk to enough people, and you start to get a sense that the current state of things is entirely your-mileage-may-vary. There's plenty of people living out their Design Sprint dreams, impacting the core of what a business even is. There's also plenty of people who struggle still to do more than move pixels around the screen in a Sisyphean effort to make A/B testing a relevant thing and to have some impact on the organization.3

I don't think the Design Sprint is The Table we want to do more than rest at for a moment. It's a good thing, to be sure, and there are a lot of people doing these jobs who'd kill to be at that table. The thing about Design Sprints (and about Agile and, and, and) is really more about When (and How) the work gets done.

Any way of working can be efficient and effective. Right up to the point people get involved. People misinterpret, aren't knowledgeable or experienced enough, focus too much on internal politics, etc, etc. This means that the When and How of any way of working will likely be applied incorrectly and terribly because everyone's focus is elsewhere and few work together, or at all, with much intentionality.

Where is the best place for The Table?

There are a lot of methods available to us to elicit deep understanding of the problems and opportunities humans have and how best to support/solve for them. A Design Sprint is one. Contextual Inquiry4 is another. Design Research, Stand-alone Discovery5, and even “Lean”, also qualify.

The best place for The Table is at every stage of the process.

But the best place for The Table is squarely in front of the door Business wants to run through at full-speed6 to ship The Thing! We should be acting as Threshold Guardians for ideas and Business should demand that we stand in their way saying, “Are you sure about this, Gary?”

Once we vet the idea, and determine it is worthwhile, we can then be Helpers and Mentors throughout the journey of creation.7

Whatever the shape and quality of The Table you want or have a seat at, know that, on an individual level, there are people waiting there for you to show up and help. The problem with getting a seat, or doing much with it once you get a seat, is when those individuals come together as a group. Everyone is fidgeting at The Table hoping not to lose their seat and are so focused on staying there, they miss out on relatively easy ways to move things forward.

Upcoming articles will address some of the ways we might get everyone's attention and interest. And, spoiler alert, it's going to be messy, difficult, and a lot of y'all won't want to do it.

Walls > Tables

But enough about Tables. I'd like to take a moment to talk about how Walls are way better.

Fourteen years ago, in a conference room at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Marc Rettig was giving a talk at the About, With, and For conference. The talk, titled Atoms Are Better Than Bits, was about breaking down research findings to make better sense of things. In a lot of ways, basic Design Research stuff. But he had a few slides on the importance of walls that have stuck with me since.

screenshot of a slide in Marc's deck from the 2004 talk

The summary of that section of the talk he gave reads:

Make things together. Make work, ideas, and conversations concrete, tangible. Put them up on the walls for everyone to see. The stuff on the walls will provide a common language for your team.

That's real talk, y'all.

As much as we've talked for so long about getting a seat at The Table, one of the better ways we can be of service to people is to stand up from The Table (metaphorically and literally) and start talking about how we can share space in front of The Wall (metaphorically and literally).

The Wall is where we get our cross-functional, collaborative, interdisciplinary, necessary work done together. The Table is for the sometimes necessary work we need to do on our own. If you, like me, have had a seat at The Table for a while now, I hope that you, like me, know that's not where the right work gets done well.

The Table is where we sit to listen and consult. The Wall is where we stand to lead and create.


1 I can still recall my professor saying, “There's the table, then there's the idea of the table, then there's the idea of the space the table exists in both before and after its conception.” Somehow it related to deconstructing the text we were reviewing at the time. Likely Ezra “Calling Them Cantos Will Sound Cooler” Pound.
2 Actual sentence said to me once. Last week. smh. Also, it's work well, not work good.
3 Stop A/B testing.
4 Sorry, I meant Ethnography. Get with it on what the trend is to give new names to old things, Matthew!
5 My current passion. Call me and we can chat about it.
6 Or, at least, Riker-walk. Google it.
7 Okay, okay ... maybe I am trying to reclaim my lit-crit roots. I could not help myself, apparently.