Design Is Never About the Designer and Other Lessons From UX Designer Liam Thurston

Header image via Anabel Leva

“All of this begins and ends with human beings,” said UX designer Liam Oscar Thurston in the opening remarks of his talk at the Toronto edition of the FITC conference in late April.

Thurston serves as creative director at the Working Group, a company that builds custom software solutions for clients like TSN, Google and Shopify, and he’s deeply interested in the psychological motivators that drive users to do what they do.

After Thurston felt he had mastered aspects of his own hard design skills, he felt like something was missing and he wanted something more meaningful in his work. He began looking into how to motivate himself and it was here where he discovered the work of Dan Pink, whose exploration into intrinsic motivation informed much of Thurston’s presentation.

In his talk Design Is Never About the Designer, Thurston explored design as a tool for understanding a user’s deepest drives and motivations. Here are some of the takeaways designers can adopt to begin understanding their users on a deeper level and to remember that no matter what it is you’re designing, it’s not about you or your design, it’s about how the design impacts your users.

1. Get Your Hands Greasy In A Big Bucket of KYC

While Thurston joked that the popular acronym KYC is short for “Kentucky young chicken,” it actually stands for know your customer and it’s a crucial part of a balanced design strategy.

“The point is this shit isn’t about you; it’s about your audience. Shed the ego as quickly as possible,” Thurston said.

2. Order a Side of Emotional Intelligence

The best way to do this, Thurston continued, is by way of emotional intelligence — a concept rooted in psychology that was popularized by Daniel Goleman in the New York Times bestselling book of the same name back in 1996.

Emotional intelligence (EQ or EI) is an alternative way of measuring one’s abilities often compared to IQ, though the two are different. Emotional intelligence looks at one’s ability to recognize his own emotions as well as the emotions of other people and the relationship these emotions have to things like thinking and behavior. It can be an invaluable tool for designers to better understand the emotional intelligence of their users as EI has a direct impact on the decisions we as humans make.

Thurston argues that the best way to enhance your understanding of your user’s EI is by improving your understanding of your own emotional intelligence. This means asking your self a lot of tough questions, and asking them often. Things like:

  • How am I feeling right now? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What is my purposed? (Self-awareness)
  • Am I able to manage my emotions? How do my emotions affect my work, job and relationships? How long does it take me to control my emotions? (Self-regulation)
  • How do my motivations manifest themselves in action? (Motivation)

But remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about understanding your own thought processes and patterns so you can develop greater empathy and compassion for your users.

3. Listen For Emotional Intelligence in the Way Your User’s Tell Stories

The way we manifest our emotional intelligence to the outside world is through storytelling, Thurston said.

“Everybody tells their own story by way of other people,” he continued. We share our stories with other people, look for insight and guidance from our mentors and other external support networks, and as such are able to meaningfully manifest emotional intelligence in our own lives.

This is the key to human centered design, Thurston argues. This is a sort of reverse practice where designers look at a problem a user is experiencing and then work backward to design a meaningful solution. It follows a design process like this:

  • Understand the user
  • Define the problem
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

And there’s a secret to making this easier and more authentic from a design perspective.

“The way you understand peoples’ needs throughout their day is by way of listening to them carefully,” he said.

Storytelling vs. Storymaking

This includes not just listening to how your users tell stories, but also paying attention to the tools they use that help them make their own stories. For example, something as simple as a user using Uber because they were running late, or finding out about something on Twitter, or ordering food from Ritual, these tools that help users make stories also provide insight into their emotional intelligence and the things that drive them.

These insights can help you understand the tools your users are already using, their motivations for accessing these tools and how technology already plays a role in the way they find solutions to their everyday problems.

But at the end of the day, Thurston said, design is often about empowering your users to make their own stories.

4. Are Your Users Intrinsically or Extrinsically Motivated?

Back to Dan Pink, who we mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Pink’s work is instrumental to Thurston’s way of looking at a user’s motivations. There are two ways that humans are motivated:

  1. Intrinsic motivation: I am personally motivated to do something for myself (More nuanced, heart-driven)
  2. Extrinsic motivation: Someone will reward me for doing a task (cut and dry, easy to define)

While many solutions that designers create are extrinsically driven, Thurston challenges designers to look at using intrinsic motivation to reward users. Thurston described three intrinsic motivators:

  • Autonomy — Our desire to be self-directed. It increases engagement over compliance. We want free range and to be trusted that we’re making the right decisions.
  • Mastery — The urge to be the best at whatever skill we’ve chosen to master.
  • Purpose — The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Defining your purpose and striving to do work that aligns with it.

An audience member brought up a fourth motivator after the talk, which is the drive to complete a task you have been challenged or dared to complete, a sort of internal desire to prove others wrong. Thurston felt this motivator could fall in the category of mastery, and encouraged designers and audience members to think about which of these intrinsic motivations you align with, or perhaps you need to do more of, and then consider these motivators again when designing for user.

“As we empower others to be storymakers, think about which of these intrinsic motivations are you solving for your customers? We can only help people make stories by understanding how they make stories,” Thurston said.

5. Ask The 7 Questions

Everything Thurston talked about above is in relation to understanding your user by way of user research. But before you jump ahead and start digging into your users’ psyches through things like ethnographic research and surveys, Thurston says you’ve got to ask the 7 questions. These questions were presented by Intercom in a recent blog post and summarized in a Research Message Cheat Sheet that designers can reference.

The questions are:

  • Do we have a plan?
  • What do we want to learn?
  • Who do we want to ask?
  • How should we ask the question?
  • When is the right time to ask the question?
  • Who will write back to the customers?
  • What will we do with the answers?

By answering these questions, designers can begin to develop a framework for truly beginning to understand what motivates a user in a way that is also beneficial to the overall design process.

6. Be a Karma Chameleon

As Thurston would down his talk, he encouraged designers to be “karma chameleons,” to shift their understanding and perspectives when dealing with different problems and populations since different people (users) are motivated by different things. The main motivator for designers, however, remains the same.

“A designer’s purpose,” Thurston reminded the audience in closing, “is to design for people.”


Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based writer, editor and digital specialist. She works in content marketing by day, studies digital strategy by night, and practices yoga somewhere in between. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.

Originally published at blogs.adobe.com.


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