Blinded by Design

Note: This text is a loose transcript of my Ladies that UX Berlin meetup talk on Oct 23rd, 2018. It’s rather a piece of brain writing than a fixed theory.

At first, I wanted this to be a critique of personas. But that’s pretty easy and so I tried to understand why I struggle with them and Design Thinking so much. This sent me back to the 1960s. But let’s start in the middle — with the iPhone.


The iPhone changed everything. Really.

When it was introduced in 2007, I was just starting out as an intern in a digital agency. We mostly produced websites — with Flash — and video streaming services. UX designers were called Information Architects or „Conceptioners/Digital Media“, their main tool being Axure or Omnigraffle. UI designers were visual designers working with Photoshop. We built our projects page-by-page because of loading speed. If really advanced, there would be a mobile website with reduced functionality („People standing at the bus stop want quick information and have bad connection“). There was no 4G and few smartphones using WAP to connect to the internet.

Feel old yet?

Then came the iPhone and we were not just captivated by it’s simplicity. But also by the first glimpse of a feeling of seamlessness. It really felt new. And everyone knew immediately that it would become a game changer. Furthermore, it introduced the concept of user experience design to a broader audience.

The arrow shows the point in time when the iPhone was released. Give it 1.5 years more time and you can see how the relevance of UX design takes off.

The iPhone lead to the death of flash websites and the rise of user journey-based development of websites. At the same time, it lead to smartphones becoming mainstream and growing expectations of users over the past 10 years.

The UX/IA discipline had to get its shit together and grow up. We as UX designers were becoming more and more important for the User (Customer) Journey.

But UX was (is) a fiddly, nerdy thingy.

This is Kristen Wiig as Björk in this SNL sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJ0K99BAXYE

On the one hand, UX design requires to understand user needs (having a background in psychology and sociology helps a lot) but on the other hand it requires to understand basic programming to be able to specify your vision for developers. Additionally, marketing and design and economics and creative and analytical thinking is helpful, too. That’s a lot of knowledge to handle for just one person.

But still, all this appreciation for our knowledge didn’t lead to be taken serious by decision makers. „Those nerds and their complexity again…“, you know?


Along came Design Thinking.

And I’m kind of in awe what IDEO achieved. They introduced user-centered thinking to the management level. They promised that everyone is creative and can be a designer. The complexity that UX designers struggled to communicate was put into friendly-named process steps and dot voted decision-making. Why didn’t we come up with it earlier?

Additionally, from a German perspective the term „Design thinking“ is much less complicated than „user experience design“. So it’s no surprise that it took over UX in Germany.

(In contrast, internationally UX design is of larger interest. But still, it grows proportionally and is completely intertwined.)

Self-defining as an information architect at the early days — with a background in strategic planning, media theory and communication studies — I always struggled with supposedly being a designer the term „Design Thinking“. So, in preparation for this talk, I asked myself: How do I think?


1st — I gather all the information I can get.

About the user. The brand. The meta trends. The competition. The business model. Collecting all the studies. All the information.

2nd — I sleep and process everything that I learned.

I also go out for a walk, take a hot bath, go to the theatre or do anything else that helps me to take a step away and let my brain to the work.

3rd — Let patterns emerge.

There will be smaller and bigger „eureka“ moments and it all starts to make sense. I understand problems and get a hunch for how to approach their solution.

Most importantly, I realized that I’m more creative when I internalize.

This is where we go deeper down the rabbit hole to the 1960s. Let’s see what good old Marshall McLuhan had to say.

“Technologies are a way of translating one kind of knowledge to another mode.” (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964)

So I came up with 4 modes of knowledge.

(Note: It was late at night, the evening before my talk when I came up with this. If there are already established concepts, please let me know! I’m curious to dive deeper into this topic.)

At the bottom is the abyss of Raw Knowledge. Then, there’s a mode of pattern recognition. And Abstraction. Leading to a Communication mode where you try to find common understanding with all kinds of stakeholders.

I realized that I prefer to work my way up while Design Thinking and its approach to get everyone on board works on the surface.


Let’s go back to McLuhan. If we think of „technologies“ as frameworks that help us translate knowledge to one mode to another, then right now, as a UX community, we are stuck.

All the major frameworks and deliverables established within the past 5 to 10 years — Design Thinking, Journey Mapping, all the persona frameworks, etc. — are focussing on the Communication mode.

But this is also where we become blinded by design. Because the frameworks and deliverables and tools we use are not designed to help us gather and translate our knowledge bottom-up.

They are designed to make our knowledge and thinking accessible to others.

But where are the tools for the modes inbetween?
Those, that help us handle complexity?

During my talk I showed an example how I approach personas and complexity management. But since then, the Microsoft inclusion team published a Medium article that is essentially my thinking. So I’m happy to save me some time writing and just link to them:
https://medium.com/microsoft-design/kill-your-personas-1c332d4908cc

So, what’s your takeaway?

1. Think about how YOU think. Not how the process wants you to.
2. Talk to you colleagues. Figure out if you approach problems in a similar way or differently.
3. Ask yourself: Do the frameworks, deliverables, tools fit your thinking?
4. And if not: Then start developing your own tools.

Thank you!