Why designers can’t lose hope

The image above is of a tree with the bright red leaves of fall in afternoon of sunshine. The word hope appears prominently and words Redesign Everything appear below in a rainbow of colors.
Image by the author.

An article last year by Jesse James Garrett suggested that UX leaders are losing hope. He suggested that businesses have co-opted the tactical efforts of UX to fit them neatly into the Agile process. Here’s what he has to say:

Agile’s success at the expense of UX is just one manifestation of a deeper truth: Businesses want scaling. And foundational UX work doesn’t scale. It doesn’t lend itself to predictable, repeatable processes and generic cookie-cutter roles. It can’t because by definition it deals with the unknown, slippery, hard-to-define problems that characterize the leading edge of organically evolving business.

In another article on Commosense.news with the title Why Everyone Wants the Same Things, Luke Burgis says the following:

We live in destabilizing times. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called it “liquid modernity”— the unnerving feeling of “fragility, temporariness, vulnerability, and inclination to constant change.”

This was exacerbated by (or the cause of) the elections of people like Trump and Bolsonaro and occurs concurrently with the resurgence of a very necessary call for civil rights in the BLM movement in response to systemic racism. Not to mention, COVID. The last several years have seen a perfect storm of instability socially within the framework of liquid modernity.

For me, the California wildfires were a tipping point. I’m a visual person and on September 9th, 2020, the sky turned orange in the SF Bay Area because of the smoke from the fires. This was a visceral representation of climate change. To say that it sent me into a kind of depression is probably a mild way to describe it. Climate change has given way to climate crisis — wildfires in California, record flooding in Germany, and Micronesia sinking beneath the ocean — among many, many others.

So when Jesse talks about UX not living up to our earlier expectations, I think it behooves us to put it into the greater context of what all of us are going through. Perhaps underneath the conversations that Jesse has been having with UX leaders about the things they can control like the state of UX in their organizations, is this response to liquid modernity. Alicia Mattiazzi and Martin Villa-Petroff seem to suggest an aspect to this problem as it relates to the way that science is functioning in this article so it’s not just design.

Now we have had a recent rash of layoffs by our biggest brands (Meta, Amazon, etc) and the oncoming recession represents even greater instability.

For designers, as we adjust to everything that’s going on, we can’t lose hope.

Hope is a central tenet in design.

We are presented with a problem to solve and our modus operandi is to try and solve that problem to create a more perfect future version of whatever we’re working on. In addition to the hard work we put in to provide the best solution, this can’t be done without the addition of hope. Hope that our hard work provides a solid solution, that we’re able to collaborate effectively with our colleagues to achieve the desired outcome, and hope that the outcome has the desired impact.

I would argue that rather than abandon this principle in the face of organizational pressure to reduce what we do to practical deliverables, we double down on what we know will provide better outcomes. We return to the foundational aspects of user experience and find ways to incorporate those processes into the organizations where we’re employed.

Further, we apply our knowledge and skills to outcomes in organizations beyond business. We take that hope and apply it more broadly. We invest our time in an effort to increase our scope towards a more systemic set of societal changes by working in organizations that need design just as much as business.

We have to think past the specific user experiences we’ve been working on towards a Transition Design (or if you prefer Societal Centered Design, Humanity Centered Design). We can think of it in economic terms and move from a consumptive economy to a circular one. We, as usual, have many names for what is, in essence, a similar construct.

Regardless, of what it’s called, we can’t give up hope. Design is still, and will continue to be a powerful force as we move through liquid modernity and either learn to swim or reach some more solid future.

Categorized as UX

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