What is a career in user experience really about?
Jan 15, 2013
In this new year it feels right to say something big, something about the meaning of life, and one's career, and everything. I guess it's been on my mind since last month, when I finished teaching a graduate class in user research. (It was here in New York, in SVA's MFA in Interaction Design. Great program.) The class gave me a chance to get to know some very talented young designers, most of whom are just beginning their journey into the user experience field.
My main message to the class was that good user research isn't a matter of learning the steps of some trendy methods, as though one were just following a cookbook. Instead, good UX work requires a genuine interest in observing, listening to, and learning from other people: primarily the customers themselves, but also the organization that owns the product. That observation, and that listening, must stem from a genuine human interest in people.
You might call it "care," or "integrity," or any number of things. This "genuine human interest" goes by different names, and it's certainly not exclusive to the fields of customer experience and interaction design. For example, have you heard of the teacher in Kentucky who teaches the same message? The New York Times recently profiled Jeffrey Wright, who gives an annual lecture to his high school physics students about the force that is "greater than energy... greater than entropy." I invite you to watch the short documentary, Wright's Law, to hear him explain it. This very important aspect of his career was born out of some particular challenges in his personal life.
If I teach the master's class again, I'd give my same message, perhaps adding an important fact of life, and work: namely, you are not defined by your career. Who you are, and what you are worth, are much greater than any professional accomplishment or failure, desire or pressure. In fact, if one can internalize this message, and see life through this lens, your career begins to take on a different shape. Paradoxically, as Mr. Wright shows, understanding that you are not defined by your career actually enables you to do better work.
If you subscribe to this guiding philosophy, you're more likely to care about the people involved in, and affected by, your work. And that means you're more likely to work toward their long-term benefit. For example, UX practitioners who want to improve people's lives will find it difficult to apply their skills to a product that harms or deceives customers. Unfortunately, this type of product is not uncommon.
For years I've been fascinated by the work of Natasha Dow Schüll, an MIT professor who has studied Las Vegas gambling for many years. She gave a great talk at Gel a few years back - here's the video - showing how UX methods are skillfully employed to make the slot machine experience easy and engaging... in service of removing as much money from the customer as possible. Her new book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas describes her findings. (See also the recent NYTimes piece.)
The question is unavoidable: if UX methods are effective in projects with a wide range of outcomes, which do you want to spend out your career on? Those that benefit the customer in the long term, or those that are in the long run harmful? And don't think the slot machine example is foreign to online business. Social-gaming company Zynga has been trying to enter the online gambling market (source). The company has always paid close attention to user behavior, and now they seek to maximize the profits from such a skill.
Personally I'd rather see more UX researchers follow Jeffrey Wright's path: showing genuine care for the people you create an experience for. Telling the truth to them, even about big topics. And never confusing your personal worth with the day-to-day details of your career. If you agree, I hope you'll share this message with someone who might benefit from hearing it.
Let's do some really good work in 2013. (And drop a line if Creative Good can help.)