Design Bliss, Even In A Down Economy
In the world of software interaction design we talk a lot about empathic design. That’s good, because designing well means understanding well the people we’re designing for. But can we have empathy without compassion? Empathy and compassion can not only make us and others feel good, they are practical, useful tools we can apply to our design craft.
Of course, we don’t only design for “users,” the people who finally want or have to use what we’ve designed. We design for the people who approve our work and sign our checks, and others work with to manage and produce interactive services, too. Providing “customer-centered” design services extends out in both directions from the designer, to the producing organization and end-users alike, even if we more often advocate for the user within our teams.
When we talk about empathic design we can not limit ourselves to “users.” We have to empathize with the needs and interests of the executives, product managers, business analysts, programmers and quality assurance people, too. This is not made easier when our role and potential to contribute as designers are not fully understood by our colleagues, and our best efforts are too seldom realized.1 But if we are to make a difference, we have to take responsibility for the difference we make.
When it comes to understanding people, including ourselves, Joseph Campbell can be a great inspiration. Having read many of his books, I keep A Joseph Campbell Companion around the house. You can open it any place and find something useful and interesting. In a real sense, when we undertake a career we’re passionate about, we take a journey not unlike most of the protagonists in the great mythic traditions Campbell devoted himself to learning about and teaching. Like them, we make our way past the initial entry barriers, leave the world behind as we once youthfully, or just naively, knew it, and delve in to the metaphorical “underworld” of deeper knowledge, understanding, and capacity for experience.
If we accept that compassion is necessary for empathy, and empathy provides designers a useful, perhaps even necessary, perspective on their work, here’s what Campbell has to say about the problem of how to bring our “boon,” our “gift” of knowledge, skill, and insight back to the work-a-day world, from the “underworld” we’d retrieved it from:
“Bringing back the gift to integrate it in to a rational life is very difficult. It is more difficult than going down in to the underworld. What you have to bring back is something the world lacks—which is why you went to get it—and lacking it, the world does not know that it needs it. And so, on return, when you come with your boon for the world and there is no reception, what are you going to do? There are three possible reactions.
“One answer is to say, ‘To hell with them. I’m going back in to the [metaphorical] woods.’ You buy yourself a dog and a pipe and let the weeds grow in the gate…. This is the refusal of the return.
“The second way is to say, ‘What do they want?’ You have a skill. You can give them what they want, the commercial way. Then you have created a whole pitch for your expressivity, and what you had before gets lost. You have a public career, and you have renounced the jewel [of your self-discovered gift].
“The third possibility is to try to find some aspect of the domain into which you have come that can receive a little portion of what you have to give. You to find a means to deliver what you have found as the life boon in terms and in proportions that are proper to the world’s ability to receive. It requires a good deal of compassion and patience. Look for cracks in the wall and give only to those who are ready for your jewel.”
In our case, as designers of things people use to work and socialize and live, the domain Campbell refers to can relate that in which we often operate; business. In essence, when we do not immediately find a perfectly receptive audience to all we’ve learned, he’s saying the choices are not simply to sell out or roll over, but also to persist in our inspirations, persevere, and patiently yet vigilantly seek out receptive people and circumstances, so that our contributions can improve people’s quality of life. That is, their experience of it.
This third response Campbell offers relates directly to what Luke Wroblewski calls being “response-able”. “You need to become response-able to factors in the organization so that you can begin to build up credibility and the wherewithal to actually make yourself part of strategic conversations.”
And the “means to deliver what you have” Campbell mentions relates to what Wroblewski is talking about when he says, “Designers can transfer their specialized skills from interaction design to the business domain.” Also, he says “…selling [ideas] is not as effective as actually applying your design skills to problems that matter.”
Campbell admonishes, “give only to those who are ready for your jewel.” The implied warning is that doing the opposite, trying to convert “non-believers” to a user experience design value system, is probably putting good energy to bad use. It may also be likened to the biblical admonition, not to “throw pearls before swine.” Strong words. But they can be seen as a matter of respecting your gifts. One way is not to waste them. And the fact is, ignorant authority exists. Sailing in to shallow waters is risky. Find a captain who values “design thinking.”
“If all else fails,” Campbell continues, “you can get a job teaching, and introduce your message to the people who are studying with you. If you can get one little hook into the given society, you find presently that you are able to deliver your message.” To this I can attest. Teaching Web Interface Design through the post-internet-boom era allowed me to work out the philosophical foundation my career continues to develop from. Though lower paying, teaching any subject well is a respectable living. Regardless, “You do not have a complete adventure unless you do get back,” asserts Campbell.
“When the world seems to be falling apart, the rule is to hang onto your own bliss. It’s that life that survives.”
Finally, let’s acknowledge that finding design-receptive opportunities may be rarer for the time being, due to economic challenges. But constraints can focus our creativity. Even economic constraints. The web, like much of the good that has come from it, did not originate with a business strategy or goal. Quite the contrary, business has merely capitalized (sometimes over-capitalized) on it. “Web 2-0” arose not from necessity or plan, but from the individual creativity of people liberated by the dot-com implosion of 2000. So whether we’re hanging on to the job we have, creating a job for ourselves with some new venture, or not sure what to do, let’s remember the third way, and why, regardless of opportunity, we chose to be designers: to make people’s lives—their experience of life—better.
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