Indi Young: “UX is about figuring out how to support people better”

Artur Kurasinski (CEO of Fokus — smarter analytics) — UX is more of an ideology, a science or maybe a common sense approach to design?

Indi Young — UX is not a natural science. It falls more under the social sciences, which are part of the artificial sciences. (Despite the word “artificial,” this phrase means the study and creation of things by humans. Natural science is about things humans didn’t make.)

But as your question implies, UX is not strictly an artificial science … parts of it fall there, and parts of it fall under common sense. We’re still exploring and inventing, so common sense has to play a role at the outer boundaries of what we hope to do. And some part of UX can be called “ideologic.”

Part of it is a way of thinking, a philosophy of approaching the things we make from a broader perspective than ourselves. My workshop about developing empathy will explore this last part.

Empathy is a mindset that you can learn. The more you practice dropping your own thoughts and assumptions, the more you can see how another person is reasoning.

You can use the empathy you develop with that person for several things, but I will focus on using it to support that person better with the things you make—and in how you interact with people in your work.

AK - Is it possible to make a good product out of a bad website thanks to interactive design with the user? Can UX be something like ‘Botox’ in the hands of a specialist?

IY — Botox! What a funny image! … an interface that is re-sculpted to look rounder and less wrinkly! Botox and the idea of trying to change the way your face looks reminds me of the phrase, “putting lipstick on a pig,” which we all know is the common foe we fight to dispel.

UX is not about making something prettier or friendlier, and we established that within our ranks a decade ago—but apparently we haven’t gotten the message out to everyone in the business world yet.

UX is about figuring out how to support people better, investigating these people to understand all their differences, and deciding how many different ways to support the same goal, based on affinities between the different perspectives of the people.

UX is about early-stage decisions, about asking whether an idea really makes sense for a certain group, about offering additional options when you’re asked to do one thing … and more. (See Dan Saffer’s, Peter Merholz’s and Jesse James Garret’s diagrams about this topic. e.g.

The way something looks is subject to fashion; the look of interfaces go through phases of popularity: skeuomorphism, rounded, flat … it’s just like clothing fashion. Styles come and go and come back again.

The style of a look is a part of UX, but only a small part. The more important decisions, when it comes to risk and conservation of resources so that your organization doesn’t have to keep re-inventing things, come at the beginning.

Going with your “great idea,” which happens to be based on your own experiences, means risk. What is great for you might only be great for 10% of the people you hope to support.

If your organization already has stuff out there, you can fix it, but again—basing it solely on your own design experience means you run the risk of having to fix it again and again, cyclically, until it becomes closer to what people embrace.

“Doing research up front about how people reason and what their differences are saves you a lot of this pain and this risk”

I personally advocate understanding people at a very deep level, then using your design expertise to bring together solutions that address different properties across groups.

Bringing in “users” for participatory design sessions only works if those “users” are of the same sub-type, and your management agrees to bring out a new branch of your offering for that specific sub-type. But if you don’t understand those “users” deeply during the sessions with them, you’re missing the point.

You can’t ask them to design—they’re not designers. You can ask for needs and frustrations, but that’s only half the picture. You need to add a deep level understanding of their reasoning in a generative (instead of evaluative) manner: take your offering out of the picture and find out what peoples’ intents are, and how they think their way around the multiplicity of items that are on their minds.

My upcoming book is all about this mindset of understanding people deeply in terms of their intent. This approach then goes into the mix at your organization, working side-by-side with evaluative research and design thinking.

AK — What is your new book (coming this year) going to be about?

IY — My new book is about defining a kind of empathy that you can use in your work. There are many kinds of empathy, so when you use the word in conversation, each participant may have a different conception of what you mean.

There is a type of empathy which is useful to apply in support of people. (Other uses of empathy include persuasion or to encourage personal growth.) In your work, you can support people better in the things you make, whether they are products, services, processes, policies, or written content.

You can also use in the ways you interact with others in your work. So the title of the book, “Practical Empathy,” really captures this essential message.

The book follows a case study from beginning to end. It introduces the skills needed for really deep listening, to develop empathy. It shows how to double your understanding of people, and how to look for patterns across what you hear from different people—enabling you to plan for specific groups of behavior.

The book also covers various applications for the developed empathy, mostly in terms of services and products, but also a little bit in terms of interacting with other people in your work. It also includes a section with persuasive techniques you can apply in your own workplace to make it more likely that empathy will be embraced.

The book is in editing in April and should be available for purchase by June 2014.

AK - You are coming to Poland for the UX Poland conference — what are you going to do there and what are you going to speak about?

IY — I am looking forward to the 2014 UX Poland conference. I will be giving an all-day workshop about developing and applying empathy—the biggest workshop yet!

I will introduce the various definitions of empathy and applications, then zero in on one that will help you in your work—both in what you make and how you interact with people.

I will cover how to listen deeply and how to make it a daily practice for yourself. You’ll get to practice until you feel confident in yourself. Then we’ll work on finding patterns across the people in the workshop itself. We’ll end the workshop with a little fun thinking up ideas to support these patterns better.

The topic of the exercises in the workshop is “Why did you decide to attend a performance?”

It is a project I’ve been working on for a few years for our local symphony, because symphonies everywhere are always worried about dwindling attendance.

Instead of focusing on symphonic performances, though, I have expanded the topic to include any performance—because the reasons underlying the decision to attend any performance are the same, no matter taste, style, or even medium.

A performance could be a dance or a comedy show, or even a movie!

Indi Young is a speaker at UXPoland conference, 9 — 11 April 2014, Muranów Convention Center, Warsaw, Poland.

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