When we don’t listen this is what we get

Working in software design and management, the mantra of the day is user experience; the ecosystem of the interactions and interfaces presented to the user. Connected to the user experience is design thinking. Ideally this mode of thinking precedes UX design. However, what these terms mean often depends on whom you ask. A marketer may think that links to white papers and prominent demand generation forms constitutes a delightful UX (more likely meets their KPI’s for the quarter). A software engineer might think it’s something completely different. Product Managers are usually the keepers of these perspectives and we are often managing conflicting opinions. Understandably, team members who build a software product make generalizations and assumptions based on our own extensive experiences with the software.

Our world-view drives us to think we know what customers want and need from the software they depend on everyday. One concept that many can agree on is that UX and design thinking rely on empathizing with customers who have used, are using, or might use your software in the future. This is hard — and can cause cognitive dissonance among stakeholders. Mostly because customers’ needs and wants often conflict with policies, market research and ultimately what has already been designed and built.

This thinking extends well beyond the software world, and to me, these concepts failed in the 2016 presidential election.

It’s now clear that over 100 million registered voters did not exercise their right to vote in the 2016 presidential election. We can argue about whose fault it is that their favored candidate won or lost, but in the end, I believe it was due to a failure to listen. More importantly, a failure to hear.

I recently read an interview Vox did with sociology researcher Arlie Hochschild, who found that many conservative republican voters in red states, feel left out of the American dream. Regardless of what we think about that narrative, we have an obligation as a democracy to at the very least, listen. We all have a narrative that guides us, binds us and motivates us to act ethically. The narrative she discovered living and researching in a rural area and in a red state was largely ignored by both major parties.

So the deep story I felt operating in Louisiana was this: Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].”
Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.

While my personal beliefs hold that this is an absurd narrative that smacks of privilege and ignorance on so many levels, my personal beliefs prevent me from hearing their deep concerns. A great UX is not limited to the software we use everyday, it also includes the physical world and, I would argue, our civic world. This requires product managers, software engineers, marketers and political and economic leaders to listen to and hear all stakeholders. Even and especially if they are in direct conflict with our world-view. I would also argue that listening plus hearing opens the door to empathy. With empathy we can build better apps, payment systems, games and maybe a better email client. Hopefully, with empathy, we can build a better democracy for all Americans.