The Ancient Art of UX
What I learned about digital design from an HVAC expert
Summer 2020 has been heavy and hot. While an ongoing pandemic and impending U.S. presidential election would have been plenty enough, the East Coast also suffered an infernal heatwave. As in most heatwaves, this was when we would hold out hope that our HVAC systems would survive the unprecedented temperatures and keep our households perfectly climate controlled.
Of course, the summer is precisely when my household has HVAC issues. Our air conditioning never stops working in the picturesque Virginia fall; instead, it’s always in the dead heat of summer.
What does this have to do with user experience design? Great question.
In one of the many recent conversations I had with a heating and cooling expert, I had an epiphany: We speak the same language. And no, I’m not speaking about our regional dialect of mumbled English; I’m talking about design language.
Our HVAC expert, I’ll call him Bob, is an incredibly patient individual who takes an uncommon amount of time to explain to my uninformed ears what exactly he’s doing when he works on our system. Over time, what I’ve learned is that his job isn’t all that different from mine. Sure, there’s tons of nuance to designing HVAC systems and even more technical expertise required to practice the trade. However, when it comes to design, we’re both using the same nomenclature. In my most recent conversation with Bob, he even said the phrase, “From a user’s perspective…”
I could go on and on about the inherent similarities in designing residential heating and cooling systems and digital experiences, but the wisdom exists at a much more meta level.
User experience is not a new trade.
I’ve long griped about the tech industry’s love of claiming terms that existed long before their web servers. UX is very much one of them. Ancient craftsmen and craftswomen may not have used those exact words to describe their disciplines, but that doesn’t negate their congruency. I’ve come to believe that it is only when we look backward at age-old craftsmanship that we can truly think well about modern experiences.
This epiphany is something that has long formed in my mind over my career. It’s a truth I rediscover with each new project. Surprisingly, it comes up a lot in my work. Journey Group began in the early 1990’s designing magazines. We had our feet planted in a medium that a lot of digital designers hardly remember. Within this history, I’m often asked what it’s like collaborating across media-specific studios here at Journey. To the outsider, the worlds of print and digital seem lightyears apart. However, I’ve come to realize that they both speak the same language. Sure, there are important, vernacular distinctions, but our processes fundamentally center around someone’s experience of a tangible product.
With the proliferation of touchscreens, our mediums are even more similar now. Both print and digital designers are talking about things that people touch and interact with using their senses. Conversations of sustainability push the mediums even closer, with materials and digital processing each having unique ecological ramifications.
Our background here at Journey Group is just one small slice of the rich history of making things for humans. It’s a legacy that exists on a lengthy continuum. So let’s unpack how this cognitive shift can impact the way we design.
Here’s three practical ways we can discover this ancient wisdom in our work:
1. Search for common language
Learning from other designers is incredibly valuable; however, there’s just as much to learn from practitioners from a wide spectrum of disciplines. If your work serves humans, you’ve got common language. Rather than seeking out differences between your design practices, search for meaningful ways they are the same.
Practical Exercise #1: Learn a bit about a new craft. Read some articles or a book or watch some YouTube tutorials. Search for commonalities between this new process and your design discipline.
2. Discover common causes
This comes back to the common focus of serving humans well. On the surface, our goals for our work can feel quite different, but it only takes diving deeper to realize that the heart behind our missions may intertwine. Allow this new knowledge to form collaboration and shared innovation.
Practical Exercise #2: Meet with a practitioner outside of your design discipline. Hear about how they create the work they do and search for common causes.
3. Unearth unorthodox inspiration
Design inspiration is easy to find thanks to the internet. With this endless stream of influence can come a comfort in work that falls within your same discipline. Diversify the inspiration you consume. Challenge yourself to look for commonality in a wide body of work. Once you’ve discovered a common language and cause, the wealth of insight around you will multiply.
Practical Exercise #3: Look for inspiration in unexpected places. Appreciate a new craft. Look for beauty in something you’ve never spent much time with before. Allow yourself to be inspired by this new knowledge.
A better way is possible. It will take more effort. It may not be as efficient. It may even cost more money. However, it could lead to a more focused, rich collaboration with the people we are serving. Hopeful design teaches us that there are real people in real places in real time behind everything we create.
May we design with purpose.
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