Just watched a 2012 UX Week talk by Toi Valentine on the differences between the previous generation of UX designers (self-taught, all coming from different fields because there was no such thing as UX: explorers, definers, thinkers, evangelists) and the current generation (graduates of UX-specific programs, makers, prototypers, more worried about application of UX vs. “what is UX?”)
Definitely a tension I felt even back in 2011 at the Interaction Conference in Boulder — we were graduate students at AC4D: new to UX, young, and impatient with all the theoretical meta-conversations about how the field should define and position itself. We were craving more concrete, action-oriented talks about how to apply these skills to the problems we cared about.
The two points that Toi raises which I’ve been thinking about recently:
1) What do you lose when everyone in UX is trained in UX from the get-go? Cross-disciplinary, well-rounded, unicorn…these are all buzzwords for an intangible quality that we’re all naturally drawn to: interestingness. When you hear the bios of the most interesting people, their backgrounds are rarely a straight, linear path from point A to point B.* While of course there is tremendous value in having deep expertise and experience in SOMEthing, the ability to connect seemingly-disparate dots, ask crazy questions, and retain outsider perspective in field X because you’ve also been in field Y is key to not drinking the Kool-Aid.
2) How do we keep questioning and evolving our methods and approaches? I’m totally guilty of wanting to pre-define and over-codify our processes.** Of the two types of learners: those who jump in feet first to figure out how to play the game as they go and those who read the instructions while observing someone else try it out first to assess the risks before rolling up her sleeves…I’m definitely more in the latter camp.*** While having trusted processes can be extremely freeing, it can also lead down a dangerous path of complacency. On the one hand, relying on codified processes gives our teams the freedom, common language, and safe spaces in which to play, so that we can tackle more complex problems and take bigger risks in our work. If you’ve ever tried to get anything done while also defining the process at the same time (essentially parallel processing the what and the how), you know how much mindspace and time it takes up.
All that said, the danger is (again) in drinking the Kool-Aid. In consultancy-land, we should leave room for trying new processes and learning from project-to-project as we’re scoping future projects. (This is on my mind lately, as we experiment with lean UX and agile in more traditional settings.) Even more importantly, at the intersection of design + social impact, there are a TON of assumptions about the repercussions and impacts of applying our “tried-and-true” design methods to arenas that require as much thoughtfulness and long-term investment as they also require rapid experimentation and risk-taking for the sake of innovation.
SO…no conclusions today. Just curiosities about how differently the new generation of UX designers think having grown up with certain tech and never having had to evangelize the value of UX — they definitely bring new things to the table and push the envelope in different ways. I’ll also continue thinking personally about how to ward against the echo chamber of bubbles and confirmation biases and overly-curated social media streams. I want to keep setting the stage for divergent thinking by injecting surprise into my input channels and by immersing myself in other fields, skillsets, and areas of expertise.
* Ironically, when you’re young and in the midst of jumping from point D to point P back to point K with no rhyme or reason, you feel a lot of angst and anxiety about failing…but it’s okay young ones, it’s okay me-of-the-past: you’ll appreciate your quilt of experiences in the long run.
** This makes me hesitate to package things into Toolkits, especially prematurely, but for some reason, the Universe keeps giving me those kinds of projects. Maybe to give me space for reflection on this question specifically.
*** Shhhh, don’t tell anyone. Designers especially tend to judge if you’re uncomfortable with uncertainty…although “liking process” and “being comfortable with uncertainty” are not incompatible.