The Seven Sisters
Transcript of the closing plenary address delivered May 8, 2016 at IA Summit 2016 in Atlanta, Ga.
I’d like to say a couple of thank yous.
Thank you first of all to the conference chairs for inviting me to speak to you today. It is an honor and a delight to be here.
Secondly, I’d like to thank all of you here today for putting up with the fact that I am once again going to read to you without slides. It just turned out to be that kind of talk. I had a bunch of ideas and they seemed to fit together in a bunch of different ways that I wasn’t totally happy with. So instead of one long talk today I’m going to share with you seven little ones. Seven sisters from a common mother. Happy Mother’s Day! Hi mom.
Now: Where to start?
I want to start at the beginning — when we were young. Not when we were young as individuals — when we were young as a species. When we were young, before we had phones and cars and corporations and stuff — we evolved to live in a very different environment than what we have now. Our bodies, our minds, our faculties were all optimized for the natural world. Every experience we had was in some way a product of nature, all around us. For thousands of years, we were honed and refined by natural selection for a world of water, air, earth, and fire.
But then we learned to move beyond that. We learned to apply the remarkable power of our minds and bodies to reshape our world, and thus reshape our experience. We learned how to harness the elements and the laws of physics, and through science, technology, craft, and a whole lot of hard work, we created the world that you and I live in. A world created to accommodate humans, and the activities that further human life and prosperity.
So now we live embedded in these systems that we’ve created for ourselves, and the natural world is a distant place that has little bearing on the daily lives of many of us. But here’s the thing: We moved faster than evolution ever could. Over the course of a few thousand years, we went from contending with nature to living every moment in an environment where everything we encounter was created by humans to serve human needs.
But here’s the question: How much of that, the moment to moment fabric of our daily lives, happens on purpose? We use all these tools and systems that were made to accommodate us, but were they made for us? Did these experiences happen intentionally?
The patterns of our daily life are programmed by the products, services, and systems that make up our artificial human environment. From the muscle-memory movement of our fingers on phones; to our interactions with doorknobs, microwave ovens, or people in service roles; all the way up to the layout and zoning and traffic controls that shape how we move through our cities and towns — all of it channels and paces our individual experience of the world, in waves of friction and flow.
It’s fascinating to really start to notice just how much of our lives are or could be designed experiences. I once characterized the experience design mindset as an acquired condition for which there is no cure, meaning that few of us are equipped by our educational backgrounds or personal histories to see the world through the lens of designed experiences. But once we start there seems to be no way to stop. Simple awareness of the accumulation of small choices that add up to the partially invisible systems that shape our world changes the way we see and move through the world.
In this talk you’ll hear me talking a lot about humans and not much about users. This may seem curious to those of you who saw me defend the word ‘user’ as an important frame for our work at this event in 2009. I still believe in users; I still believe that use matters. But as I have looked more closely at the meaning of ‘use’, I have come to believe that use is only part of a larger story. Because not all experiences are user experiences.
The concept of ‘use’ seems so simple, so basic, but there’s a lot of gray area when separating user experiences from other designed experiences. So what’s the difference? It seems to come down to where the value of the experience comes from. Use means that the value of the experience is not in the experience itself; it’s in what the experience helps us to accomplish. When we use something, the experience we have using it is not actually the reason why we engage with it. The value of the experience is extrinsic to the experience.
But these experiences with extrinsic value — user experiences — are not the only kinds of experiences humans create. Many of our experiences have intrinsic value: That is to say that the value of the experience is having the experience. This is the experience of art, of music, of a million forms of human creative endeavor. These are cultural experiences, that have no value or purpose beyond their own existence.
Cultural experiences are no less designed than user experiences, even though their creators may not identify as designers. In fact, you could argue that cultural experiences are more designed, because the primacy of the task in user experiences is replaced by the primacy of the experience itself. The whole creation of the experience is an exercise in conscious intent, which can slip away when your only success criterion is utility.
So then the question is: Is there some discrete set of principles and practices that can apply to both kinds of experiences? What would it take to define such a set?
Do a thought experiment with me.
Imagine that Earth has been contacted by a race of benevolent aliens who travel the galaxy sharing their crazy advanced technology with other species. Now, this is not a Twilight Zone episode. There is no twist to this story. They genuinely want to help us. Their various technologies can be applied in every aspect of human life. By restructuring the systems of our world around this technology, we can end needless human suffering and live in joy and fulfillment.
There’s only one problem. We can’t use this super alien tech as is. It’s way too advanced for us to comprehend, and after all, it was never created with us in mind. The aliens can build things with it, but they have never even seen a human before, never mind designed something for a human to experience. So the aliens offer us a solution: All we have to do is teach them how to create stuff for humans.
So the government or the UN or somebody suitably big and important convenes a sort of Manhattan Project. The goal is to write a book, probably a pretty fat book, to teach aliens how humans experience the world, so they can create stuff for us. Now, let’s say you’re the editor-in-chief for this project. Whom would you recruit to take on such a challenge?
What would you want to teach the aliens about human experience?
You’d want to teach them about human bodies. How tall we are, what temperatures we find comfortable, how much force we can apply toward, say, pushing a button or turning a steering wheel. You’d get doctors, sports trainers, specialists in anatomy.
You’d want to teach them about human senses. What wavelengths of light and sound we can perceive, our aesthetic sensibilities, how the different nerve systems throughout our bodies tell us about our environment through touch and our ability to sense our own bodies in space. You’d want neuroscientists, artists, and musicians.
You’d want to teach them about how humans think. How we derive meaning from our environments, apply logic, create models of ideas. You’d want psychologists, teachers, and communicators of all stripes.
You’d want to teach them about human emotions. You’d want to teach them about the endless shades and variations of fear or anger or surprise or joy, and how we rely on these to make choices about how we move through the world. You’d want still more psychologists, still more authors and artists.
And you’d want to teach them about how our experience of all of these is informed by our interactions with other humans. Our experiences are always influenced by other people, even when there’s nobody around. The sense of connection we have to the people around us, or the people in our lives, changes what we experience. Social psychologists, anthropologists, and even workshop facilitators have something to teach us here.
I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but we’ll come back around. But I want to talk a little more about the interpersonal dimension of experience.
Because we are wired for each other. A huge amount of our brains are given over to simply trying to sense, interpret, and make sense of what’s going on for other people. We can identify a vague silhouette moving on the horizon as a person walking, on the barest amount of visual information. We see faces in clouds and figures in trees because we are constantly attuned to the presence of other humans in our environment.
Have you ever been in a social situation where someone new entered the mix and the whole emotional dynamic changed? Maybe their high spirits became infectious and had people laughing and talking boisterously. Or maybe they just sort of dragged everybody down. There’s a word for that experience: buzzkill. That’s the result of interpersonal emotional attunement — human connection — shaping the experience each person is having, and humans can do it at scales ranging from one-on-one to groups of tens of thousands.
It’s not just something we can do, it’s something we have to do. We are always seeking connection. Books and movies tell us being stranded alone on a deserted island is a one-way ticket to madness. And the worst punishment our society has, short of killing someone, is isolation. Solitary confinement, simply being cut off from other people, is something that even the most hardened criminals are desperate to avoid.
We are not made for isolation. We are made for connection, each of us part of smaller and larger networks of human hearts and minds. We are units of the larger organism called humanity.
But when we design experiences for people, we rarely consider them as anything but solitary. We don’t really have good ways to talk about how interpersonal connection shapes experience. But it absolutely does, as anyone can attest who has been to Disneyland with co-workers they didn’t like that much.
So, back to the manual:
Look at all the expertise it took to write this thing! So many diverse perspectives, different lenses with which to view human experience. What would happen if you got them all together in one room? What new perspectives might emerge from the juxtaposition of these unique points of view? What might we learn about ourselves that we could not have seen before because everyone only had a piece of the puzzle?
Now, let’s take the aliens out of the equation. What if we wrote that book for ourselves? Not just one book, of course, but an entire encyclopedia of the nature of human experience.
What would we do with that knowledge? How would we put it to use?
The work of experience design doesn’t just thrive with diversity of perspectives; it necessitates it. Human experience is too diverse, too slippery and subjective and emergent to be encapsulated by any master framework. Each problem requires the combining of perspectives to gain a fuller view of the experience.
The perspectives that experience designers bring to problems aren’t limited to their knowledge of human phenomena or even their skill in their craft. They are also inherent: in their personalities, their personal histories, their experience of things such as gender, race, and sexual identity, and their cultural backgrounds. The richness that arises from this diversity of individuality is essential to understanding human experience, and thereby creating for it.
So we need that kind of diversity too. It has already served us well. As an example, I am personally grateful for this community’s history of female leadership, if only because I have gained so much knowledge and inspiration from the gifts the women of this community bring. But I know I’m not the only one. Our entire field has gained immeasurably from hearing and promoting women’s voices and leadership.
Now, scolding about diversity quickly becomes a tiresome affair, so I’ll just say this: You all can look around this room and see how we’re out of balance. You know this stuff. We can do better, and our work demands that we do. A team of people with the same socioeconomic background, the same cultural background, the same training and the same best practices will never be able to see the possibilities available to a bunch of diverse weirdos. I think we could all stand to be a little more weird. As my weird friend Peter Merholz said yesterday, let your freak flag fly.
Our practice can seem boundless in its diversity, and that can be a little intimidating! The question we face is only which work does each of us want to be doing, in this rapidly expanding and diversifying space? Which work best serves our larger purpose, and the arcs of our own careers?
I’m at a point now where I can reflect on my choices and start to see my own patterns, in what questions spark my interest over time, and what those questions have in common. For me, one key question increasingly is, what are the boundaries of our work?
As we guided Adaptive Path through the ebbs and flows of the design consulting market for 13 years, it became clear that our purpose was to explore that question through applied craft. We had developed a broad set of tools and practices that could be used in a dizzying array of contexts. How far could we go?
We discovered that the farther we went, the more impact we had. First looking beyond web to mobile, then beyond products to services, then beyond digital to multi-channel experiences, we repeatedly found that the projects that went broader were the ones that made the most difference for our clients.
So this ever-shifting and expanding context has kept bringing me back around to these questions: What is the scope of our craft? What does it really mean for our world, and for each of us who does it? These questions inevitably lead us to matters of theory and practice.
Information architecture, and by extension experience design, has always been both an intellectual and an industrial endeavor. This was evident in the mix of library scientists and working designers who made up the very first IA Summit back in 2000, and it’s a duality that’s been built into the field ever since.
And that’s a good thing, because the dialogue between theory and practice is utterly essential to the growth of our work. Theory pursued in the absence of a dialogue with practice turns inward on itself, leading to the ever-circular systems of abstractions that lead only to other abstractions seen in many academic arenas. Practice without an inquiry into theory becomes a purely commercial activity, where the only value that gets assessed is value to the marketplace.
So we’ve gotta do both.
By inquiring into the philosophical underpinnings of our work, we can better understand where and how to apply it. We can get a clearer sense of what it can and cannot do. But the philosophy must be tested in practice in order to be valuable, and that’s a tricky business. It asks that we be more than craftspeople, but conscious shapers of the field itself, actively engaging with questions that may not have any answer at all.
Experience is fundamentally emergent, arising out of the interplay between the shifting patterns of consciousness and the unfolding moment-to-moment reality. This is why there is always a time dimension to our work. Even information architecture, which can seem static and timeless, has embedded within it an assumption of a pattern of use, unspooling over time.
Beyond that, you can’t really talk in depth about the nature of experience without wrestling with consciousness. Consciousness is the unknowable singularity at the center of experience. You don’t have one without the other because they are intertwined. Or intertwingled, if you prefer.
Consciousness is a messy business, as any former philosophy major in this room can attest, and certainly a hard thing to bring up in a wireframe review. But an ability to think and talk about it feels like a good trait for a designer of human experiences to have.
Our consciousness manifests as a pattern of awareness or attention across the emergent flow of experience. But it’s not uniform or static; consciousness is constantly in motion, with different aspects of the experience being the subject of anything from focused concentration down to subliminal awareness, rising and falling from moment to moment.
Those patterns are determined in no small part by the frames of meaning we give to our moment-to-moment experience. These frames are the true domain of information architecture. We internalize the architectures we encounter — indeed, that’s the entire point. And then, those architectures shape what we experience thereafter.
Experience flows through consciousness, sculpting it. Where your attention goes, what you draw into your conscious awareness, is determined by your past experiences, and the laws of human psychology and behavior. Familiar patterns get reinforced. And then experience, in turn, is shaped by consciousness, as our patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving, and perceiving influence what kinds of experiences we can have.
The nature of experience is that it is impossible to fully capture, and impossible to fully design. We can’t shape what we can’t model. And the subjective, intangible, ephemeral, and emergent nature of human experience makes it eminently unmodelable. I think this is the source of a lot of the unease about whether there even is such a thing as experience design. It doesn’t fit people’s models of what a design discipline looks like.
Jared Spool described design on Friday as rendering human intent, and I think that’s exactly right. But for a lot of people, design is not about intention, but prescription: the rigorous definition of a full, complete solution to a clearly defined problem. Intent is way too vague for many design disciplines, but it’s utterly necessary in ours. Constraining design to a particular set of tools, methods, traditions, or outputs — or defining it as only applicable to problems that can fully, definitively be solved — is something we’re just going to have to get over.
So the question for experience design is always: How far can we go? How close can we get to a full picture of a human experience, acknowledging that such a thing is fundamentally impossible? How much can we influence that experience through our work?
Even though we know we will always be creating incomplete solutions based on incomplete understanding of some unknowable truth, I think we have to try anyway. In other words: When confronted with the ineffable, just say “eff it”.
Now, where was I? Right: the fate of the human race.
The patterns of daily life, shaped by systems that are the result of countless small individual human decisions, in turn shape human experience and therefore human consciousness.
But these systems are not designed with human experience as an explicit outcome, and shape our patterns and ourselves in ways that don’t serve us. Because let’s face it, here in the 21st Century, despite all of our technological conveniences, daily life can take its toll.
We inhabit and are molded by a world we were not made for, and that was not made for us. There’s a sort of emotional RSI that sets in when you are continually interacting with a system that just strains you a little bit. We perpetually feel victimized, in ways small and large, by our artificial world, by having to move through this machinery that was never created with our experience in mind. We have all of these little interactions that are constantly chipping away at us. They get us down. They discourage us. They frustrate us. We feel dehumanized. We feel less in touch with what we are really capable of. We feel like less than our fullest selves.
But remember, this is what Jessica DuVerneay referred to on Friday as “the built world”. Built by humans, one decision at a time. If those decisions were made with experiential outcomes in mind, if systems and the human organizations that implement them could be aligned toward human experience, we might not feel so roughed up by daily life.
We get to decide, because we are already making the decisions. We just need to make those decisions differently.
But aligning toward experience requires something more than simply coordinating efforts across touchpoints. It requires an experiential lens on every upstream decision that influences the ultimate experience. It’s not an easy thing to do.
In the absence of systematic ways to make decisions aligned toward experiential outcomes, we have relied on the personal judgment of individual decision-makers. But many of them don’t know the experiential consequences of their choices. And some of them, frankly, don’t really care.
As Lisa Welchman reminded us in her opening keynote, organizations are made of people. Because they’re made of people, we expect organizations to act like people. But they’re not people. They’re monsters. Monsters made of people. People held together by systems and processes, incentives and hierarchy to work in coordination. But the monster only knows how to live for itself, and it optimizes for itself. It isn’t necessarily cruel or hurtful in its actions or intentions, but it isn’t always aware of the outcomes it creates for humans.
As experience designers, we are creating the tools by which we can teach the monsters to care. We are creating systematic ways by which human experience can be understood and therefore acted upon. We are changing the way organizations set priorities and allocate resources. We are showing them how to consider experience all the way up to the executive level.
That change doesn’t necessarily come easily, or quickly, or at the same pace for all of us. The organizational and operational models we’ve inherited from the 20th Century naturally resist change. People are deeply invested in them. So yeah, we end up fighting them, as they defend the only way of being they’ve ever known. Monsters have antibodies against viral infection.
What we are effectively trying to do is operationalize empathy. By defining methods for human-centered decision-making, we are turning these monsters made of people into something a little bit more like people.
I recognize that there are many deep, systemic problems in our world that all the experience design humanity can muster simply will not solve. But I do wonder if the people tackling those problems would benefit, too, if the practices of making decisions rooted in human empathy and understanding were to find their way into their processes.
We are warrior empaths and culture hackers, striving to change not just what organizations do but how they think. We are champions of compassion in the face of systems that neither know nor care about such a thing. We seek to honor and respect each person who encounters what we create, and we are bringing that mindset of honor and respect to the culture of every organization we work with.
Our aim must ultimately be to dismantle the dehumanizing machinery of the 20th Century, and forge from it something altogether new: a kind of organization built on compassion and respect, where there is a place for humanity and human experience in the decision-making calculus. I believe this is not simply our mandate, but our manifest destiny.
One last thing:
Imagine if we are successful. Imagine a time decades from now, when there is a generational cohort whose parents and whose parents’ parents have never known the dehumanizing treatment of the systems of our world. What would their childhood be like? What kind of adults would they grow into? And the people whose work made up those systems: What would they be like when they were off work, having had reinforced throughout their workday the importance, the necessity, of compassion, understanding, respect?
What kind of people would they be? How would they treat their friends, their lovers, the random stranger on the street? Would they embody those same principles in their lives?
What kind of world would they make?
None of us in this room will ever live to see that world. But that future is possible. If we decide we want it.
Thank you all very much.