2018 Masters in HCI+Design commencement speech: design, values, and organizations

The 2018 class of MHCI+D graduates.

Today I graduated nearly three dozen outstanding masters students from our Masters in HCI+Design program. The students nominated me to speak at their graduation ceremony. I decided to incubate on the speech until the very last minute and trust that I’d have a burst of inspiration the day before, on my flight back from Helsinki. I don’t know if it’s good, but it’s definitely a snapshot of my current thinking about design, technology, and the role of professionals in shaping the world. Enjoy!

Thank you Jeff, thank you Michael, and thanks to you, the graduates, for asking me to speak.

We live in a time of incredible feats. Yesterday, I was 5,000 miles away in Finland looking out at the Baltic Sea, wondering what I should say to you. Twenty four hours later, I’m here, in this beautiful building, saying it. How did we get to a point where this kind of travel is possible? What drove us to create it? And what does it mean for your role in building our future?

I’ll start by telling you about last week. I was in Denmark with my mother and daughter, visiting the small farming village my ancestors left one hundred years ago to make a life in America. Even after a century of technological change, the village is still a place of horses, wheat, church, and silence. It’s as if those few hundred people saw the change of the 20th century coming and simply said no. They notion of progress was preservation of a lifestyle. And they were in a country that supported that choice.

I spent this week in Helsinki, Finland at a conference talked about the next century of learning and teaching about computers, computer science, and information technology. We debated: what should future generations know about software? Should they learn how to create it? Or how to critique it? And how will the knowledge we teach them shape the world in the next century? Just a week after seeing a part of the world that rejects change, I spent a week planning the very change that community rejects.

These two weeks have been a juxtaposition of life and work, our past and future. But it was also a juxtaposition of Northern European culture the culture of the United States. Immersing myself in Danish and Finnish life for two weeks revealed just how different their values are from America’s. They put design before engineering. Life before work. Humanity before profit. Community before self. People before technology. America makes the exact opposite choice on these dimensions. This was a reminder that technology doesn’t change society, values do, and values, in turn, shape the technology we create.

The reality, however, is that it’s not values alone that shape technology. Values by themselves are inert. It takes people expressing those values for them to shape the world. The Danes and Finns built the society they wanted to live in over the last 150 years. In the U.S., we’re building the society we want to live in, according to different values. And the technologies we create reflect these differences values and amplifies them.

While everyone is the recipient of these technologies, a much smaller group designs them, expressing their values. And specifically, it’s designers and engineers like you who will shape people’s experiences. You will go into the world, influence which problems businesses solve. You will decide how to solve them. You will decide who’s problems we solve. And it will be your values shaping these decisions. No matter how many youth learn about technology in school, it will be the much smaller group of professionals with your education shaping the technology that shapes our world.

I’ll be honest: you’re not prepared for this role. Expressing your values through design in school is not the same as expressing them in work. We don’t know how to build businesses that are responsive to diverse values. We don’t know how to create platforms that serve diverse values. We don’t really know how to reconcile profit with other values. The daily news about Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others struggling to decide which values to emphasize should be proof. We’ve prepared you to do the work of interaction design, but the work of expressing values through design is a skill you’ll have to practice for your entire careers.

While I can’t teach this skill to you now, I can teach you what you need to learn. So I’ll leave you with three learning goals and some ideas about how to approach them.

First, recognize that what you need, what your organization needs, and what the world needs are often in tension. What you know is right for the the world might harm your business. What might be right for your career might harm the world. What might be good for your business might harm you. Never stop searching for ways to resolve these tensions. And recognize that sometimes this isn’t possible, and move on to the next problem and try again.

Second, learn to express your values through organizations. Rarely will you make decisions alone. You’ll make them with other people, through other people, for other people. Learn how to bring ideas to your leadership in a way that lets leaders embrace them as their own. And hone you become a leader, learn how to make decisions with your team, not for your team. These skills are rarely about good design. It’s about what’s possible, who believes its possible, and who can be persuaded, whether you’re the leader ultimately deciding or the new hire on your first job. If you master the art of deciding together, you’ll not only have greater success in expressing your values, you’ll also have greater impact, and likely find your way into leadership positions where you can make even greater change.

Third, and finally, expertise on how to express values is scarce; always be building that capacity in yourself and others. Keep learning, encourage your coworkers to keep learning, and create a work culture that incentives and rewards learning. And as you learn to express your own values, and reconcile them with the competing needs of business and the world, teach others to do so as well. Problems aren’t solved by what you know, but by what you learn, and your capacity to teach it to others.

None of these skills are about computers. None of them are about interaction. And none are about design. They’re about people, working together, to express their values. So go into the world, decide what you value, and learn to manifest those values in your work everyday. We’re counting on you.

Congratulations MHCID class of 2018, and good luck!