Is your company using UX to offload their discomfort with ambiguity?
I recently stumbled across an article about Dark Matter with this absolute gem of an opener:
“In our search for cosmic signals of dark matter, we could be likened to drunkards looking for lost keys beneath lampposts, where the light shines the brightest…. What if instead we trained our sights on cosmic voids — vast reaches of mostly empty space?” (Ananthaswamy)
I am definitely not saying that astrophysicists are lazy. But I know I can be, so it made me think: As as product team, when we try to understand a project, a market, a pain point, what are the lampposts? And are there dark, empty spaces the team refuses to go?
User Experience Research is wonderful stuff. But I’ve noticed lately that some requests for research haven’t felt quite right. I NEVER thought I would hear myself say this — after fighting so hard for UX to be included in early stages — but these requests that feel a bit off are coming too soon. Sometimes in the first minutes of a project discussion, before we know what the project is or what the questions are, the UX researcher is sent out into the world and find answers. It occurred to me that UX is being hijacked to keep the team from those uncomfortable, dark spaces.
UX covers a lot of bases, and it is explicit in the role of UX that we explore new frontiers and return with more knowledge. But when UX is hijacked, it is used to relieve everyone else of their responsibility to look into the void, too. And projects lose a lot when that happens.
Every member of a project team has wonderful insights to offer. With an atmosphere of curiosity, and by not skipping or offloading the really uncomfortable stages where we don’t know much, we can harness the intellectual power of our team. As Dabney Hailey, a leader in discussion methods, says, “Take a moment to go slow in order to go fast.” (Rice)
Exploring the unknown means actively suspending judgement. It means being comfortable with not-doing and not-knowing for a time. It’s a skill a team can develop, but only if we don’t hijack UX to do it for us and pretend its a job well done.
“If we want people to think more deeply, be more innovative, hear each other, then we have to keep them looking and thinking and not landing yet.”— Dabney Hailey
Humans love certainty and knowing we are doing the right thing. A new project offers the opposite: lots of questions and more than one right answer to each of them…as well as lots of wrong answers.
But we can turn that challenge into an opportunity to more deeply understand the obstacles we are facing, identify what we already know (but perhaps forgot), and which unknowns only the customer or other sources can answer.
“the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusions, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur”— John Dewey
As Laura Parr says, “We’re all in the business of change.” (Di Sipio) It is part of our job to become comfortable with ambiguity, to allow ourselves to explore what we don’t know and leverage our own knowledge, experience, and empathy in quest of answers. We need to tame our fear and venture into the dark voids as a team instead of hijacking UX .
Hailey, Dabney, et al. “Understanding Visual Literacy: The Visual Thinking Strategies Approach.” Essentials of Teaching and Integrating Visual and Media Literacy, Springer International Publishing, 2015, pp. 49–73, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-05837-5_3.
Dewey, J. (1910/1997). How we think. Boston: DC Heath & Company.
Di Sipio, D. (Host). (2021, January 15). How to bring data to life and craft impactful insights with Laura Parr, Strategy and Insights Manager Google (№15)[Audio podcast episode]. In Designing Behavior. https://www.buzzsprout.com/1129946/7270918-how-to-bring-data-to-life-and-craft-impactful-insights-with-laura-parr-strategy-and-insights-manager-google
Rice, Meg. “How to Be a Facilitative Leader.” IDEO U, 12 Apr. 2022, https://www.ideou.com/blogs/inspiration/how-to-be-a-facilitative-leader.
Ananthaswamy, Anil. “Astronomers Might See Dark Matter by Staring into the Void — Scientific American.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 8 June 2022, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/astronomers-might-see-dark-matter-by-staring-into-the-void/.