In an increasingly metrics-driven business climate, UX practitioners face escalating pressures to deliver small-scale results. Is there a better way?
The past few years have seen a rhetorical bull market in the UX world about the need for more sustainable design practices. From industry-focused initiatives like the Sustainable UX movement and the Center for Humane Technology, to academic research programs like Stanford’s Ethical OS and the emerging field of Transition Design, there seems to be no shortage of well-intentioned exhortations for UX designers to think more deeply about the long-term and sometimes unintended consequences of their work.
All this high-minded rhetoric notwithstanding, many of these critiques suffer from a lack of perspective from practitioners working in industry. It’s easy enough to issue proscriptive advice from the safety of an op-ed page or Twitter feed—but how do real working designers and researchers navigate the tensions between delivering near-term business results and working towards more sustainable long-term outcomes? That’s the question I’ve been exploring in my doctoral research at CMU Design.
From September-December of 2019, I conducted a series of 1:1 interviews with UX practitioners at a range of organizations including Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Etsy, Vox Media, Medium, and Cisco, as well as a handful of independent UX consultants. Together, these practitioners have a combined 175 years of experience working on products used by billions of people around the world.
Here’s what I set out to learn:
- What barriers do UX practitioners face when trying to incorporate longer-term perspectives into their work?
- What strategies and tactics have they used to extend their team’s time horizons? When and how have these methods succeeded—or failed?
- To what extent does working on long term-focused projects shape their ability to find personal meaning in their work?
Here are a few emerging themes from this research in progress. Note that the informants’ identities and employer details have been anonymized to encourage candid responses.
Short-term pressures are real—and intensifying
While designers have contended with time and budget constraints since time immemorial, most participants felt that pressure to deliver short-term, incremental wins had escalated significantly over the past five years.
Commonly cited reasons for this growing sense of pressure included the rise of Agile software development, the growing sophistication of data analysis and A/B and multivariate testing tools, and organizational cultures that increasingly prioritize real-time feedback loops and short-term measurable outcomes over developing sustained long-term product visions.
As one informant put it: “There’s enormous pressure to make the boss happy, make the numbers, make the conversion rates go up. I see a lot of focus on metrics and data ‘in vitro.’”
Making matters more difficult, the widespread adoption of Agile software development methods and embedded, cross-functional design teams further mitigate against the possibility of designing and building commercial products with explicitly long-term time horizons. “[L]ong-term design doesn’t really have a place in Agile. Seeing the whole is difficult in Agile development.”
For some informants, these growing performative pressures pointed towards diminishing horizons for the larger field of UX practice.
“It feels like the ground we are standing on as research and design professionals is eroding. The problem spaces that researchers, IAs, and UX practitioners once had maybe five or ten years ago feels like it’s narrowing.”
Some went further, ascribing these challenges to the profit-seeking influence of working within an economic system rooted in industrial capitalism.
“[W]e are living in a time when we are seeing lots of negative externalities coming home to roost. We are seeing the negative externalities of the industrial era.”
As I have argued elsewhere, we may be nearing the cusp of an era of post-capitalist design. But for most of these practitioners, macro critiques of industrial capitalism fall short of providing a workable roadmap for shifting their practices towards more sustainable, long-term futures.
Is Design Futuring the Answer?
Given participants’ shared concerns about the corrosive effects of short-term business pressures on their work, it came as a surprise to discover that many of these same practitioners also voiced a deep skepticism about taking on explicitly long term-focused design projects.
Several participants reported having worked on ambitious, large-scale projects that failed to launch. Some of the reasons cited included organizational churn, changes in business strategy, loss of executive sponsorship, or the sheer complexity of engineering large-scale software systems.
One participant recalled his experience working with a client intent on building an elaborate suite of software applications. “I was trying to refocus them away from this software fantasy city they were trying to build in a kind of fever dream. And it was clear to me that the chances of actually building that were close to zero.”
Another participant described an experience in which her team kicked off a project with an explicitly long-term, multi-year horizon:
“The north star brainstorm was great. We came up with all these ideas. We all came out feeling empowered and excited. And then a month or two later… it was so diluted and different than where we had started. It felt thrashy and scary.”
One major barrier that emerged in this process was the difficulty of selling stakeholder teams on the value of preparing for the possibility of less-than-desirable futures. “One problem is that futures planning sometimes involves considering distinctly non-rosy futures,” she said. “It can be difficult for the team to go there because the team may not want to consider depressing or non-unrealistic futures.”
Another participant described trying to lead a design futures project using market forecasting and scenario planning techniques. This project, too, failed to move forward beyond the initial exploratory phase. “What we were doing was perceived to be a distraction from the near-term work. And it was. That was kind of the point of it! We needed people to care about that work in order to take it forward. And there just didn’t seem to be emotional, spiritual, or mental bandwidth to get excited about it.”
Despite their struggles with the short-term pressures of working in Agile development environments, most of these practitioners also acknowledged the satisfaction that comes with delivering “quick wins” that can yield positive affirmations from users of their products.
These practitioners had mixed feelings about designing in the pre-Agile era, in which designers would create fully formed mockups and detailed specs before handing off polished artifacts to engineers for implementation — often with disappointing outcomes. “We used to do long-term thinking, but most of it was a complete waste. So it’s probably good that we are not doing that. We have yet to replace the fantasy that we were doing with the reality of actually doing it.”
For practitioners working in mainstream product development teams, these kinds of speculative and provocative long-term projects seem to have acquired a bad reputation as little more than vaporware. Much as some might aspire to do this kind of work in principle, many participants felt the reality of working in for-profit environments severely limited the likelihood of explicitly long term-focused projects gaining meaningful traction in their organizations.
While the framing of “long term” seemed to carry conceptual baggage for many participants, most nonetheless aspired to redirect their practices towards project work shaped by more systemic, wider-angle concerns. “I like the big picture thinking. That’s what I love about UX. We have those muscles and skills in our wheelhouse to create that vision, more than any other discipline. We can inspire.”
Several participants felt less inspired by the prospect of trying to reach towards a particular time horizon, and more interested in simply widening the scope of their projects. “My theory about this is that designers don’t care about long-term work in the time sense of it,” said one participant. “Designers care in a holistic way about the thing they are trying to make. What you’re calling long-term thinking I think of as holistic thinking.”
Many participants highlighted the importance of individual agency and initiative — rather than organizational planning — in bringing wider-angle projects to life. “The way I’ve gotten people to care about the work is to not ask them to care about it until it’s done and the value is clear in retrospect,” said one participant. “People don’t know how to ask for this kind of research even if it can be beneficial to them. And so I do a lot of organizational listening, look for patterns, identify groups with shared interests, and then scope research I believe can answer a question no one has thought to ask.”
Doing work that matters
Finally, many participants also spoke about the centrality of personal values to the work they do, of the importance of “doing work that matters.” They reported feelings of intense professional dissatisfaction when their values felt threatened by extrinsic pressures to meet short-term business performance targets. “For me, one of my own central tensions is between the individual and the organization,” said one participant. “Can I be inside this large organization and feel that I’m able to live in alignment with my own values? That there’s a way to be an individual and a part of an organization?”
For many of these participants, they looked for ways to balance their desire for more holistic project work with the gratification they experienced when products actually shipped to customers. “If there’s not a clear line of sight to the customer reception of the product, then I get frustrated and feel like I’m laboring for nothing. For me job satisfaction is tied to a closed loop with the customer.”
Others saw a natural alignment between personal values, systems-level thinking and taking a longer-term perspective on the work they were doing. “To the extent you can have principles about what’s important and good for the world, then it becomes interesting to think about what happens in the future.”
When participants felt that business pressures put their ability to realize these values at risk, they reported declining job satisfaction and, in more than one case, were actively considering a change in careers. “I feel like I’ve peaked, and the arc is coming to a close,” said one.
Several practitioners reported feeling burned out in their current roles, leading them to formulate strategies for reinventing themselves professionally. Participants imagined themselves ultimately pursuing alternative careers as job coaches, brewmasters, surfers, artists, and ice cream parlor owners.
The frequency with with these practitioners voluntarily shared a lingering desire to do something else — while perhaps just a symptom of ordinary human restlessness — might also point towards deep level of dissatisfaction stemming from a perceived decline of personal agency in their current professional situations.
If so, then we might ask what kinds of interventions might be useful in helping practitioners activate their personal values more directly in their professional practices, and exploring the attendant relationship with job satisfaction and their ability to initiate and successfully execute more holistic, forward-looking design projects.
In 2020, I plan to continue conducting interviews with a broader sample of UX designers and researchers (If you’re interested in participating, let me know).
For now, here are a few preliminary conclusions from this early round of qualitative research that I hope to continue refining as I move towards fleshing out my hypotheses:
- There appears to be a close correlation between participants’ ability to conduct long-term focused design work and perceptions of meaningfulness and purpose in their professional lives.
- But many practitioners harbor deep misgivings about taking on explicitly long-term focused design work. While many aspire to do bigger-picture work in principle, they are also skeptical about the prospects for these kinds of projects ever shipping and making an impact in the world. It remains to be seen whether Design Futures and other speculative design practices can find secure footing within in-house UX teams.
- Most participants felt more drawn to the notion of holistic, systems-oriented design work rather than explicitly focusing on “the future.” For some, the term “long term” equates to hand-waving design exercises that never see the light of day.
Looking ahead, I hope to continue refining these hypotheses as I work towards developing a set of workshop-based training tools to help UX practitioners develop new methods and techniques for shifting their practices towards more sustainable long-term outcomes.