Remake the World by Design

Jason Ulaszek, co-founder of UX for Good and head of user experience design at Manifest Digital, talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about how the project of design really never ends.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I often hear these stories from designers when they’re in some everyday situation, sitting on at a bus stop or whatever, and they think, “Oh, no, I’m redesigning this bus stop. I can’t stop designing!” Have you had moments like that?

Jason Ulaszek: Yeah, all the time. I have lists upon lists of things to re-design. It doesn’t turn off. You always find yourself saying, “There has got to be a better way,” whether it is a product or a service.

Here’s one example. I am a Cubs season ticket holder. The process of distributing season tickets among your family and friends can be so time-consuming, it’s almost like a part-time job. So I started tinkering with a system to manage that.

I’ve been thinking obsessively lately about how to design teams and organizations. How can you design a team in a way that maximizes everyone’s engagement with each other? It goes beyond wanting to improve products and services to re-designing all the experiences in your life.

So it seeps into all your other passions and interests. You always want things to be simpler, better. It never turns off.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And it seems worth calling out that it’s not just the top one percent of designers who are like this, right?

Jason Ulaszek: Yeah. I’m sure that other professions are this way too. I’m sure that chefs feel this way when they’re eating. I’m a big believer in the model where you move from a job to a career to a calling — something that defines you physically, emotionally, intellectually, all the time.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s assume that this does in fact exist in some other professions. Hopefully there are people who are deeply passionate about being clerks at CVS. But is there some additional quality present when it happens in designers? Because it seems as if they want to re-design everything, not just things that resemble their jobs.

Jason Ulaszek: I think it’s something about the ability of design to ask how anything might be different. Designers understand that there are probably some objective best practices built into many things. But they also have a subjective component, a point of view that they cultivate. An interaction designer may want the flow of every experience to be perfect, even if they understand why it is the way it is. A visual designer may want everything they see to be elegant. It comes out as an emotional response to the world.

For example, I align myself more closely to the role of an interaction designer. That means I want processes to have fewer steps or be easier. I want to remove things that are redundant. Think how many redundancies there are in everyday processes. Think about those times you call into a support center for something and you have to say your name three times even though they already had it when you called. That annoys me, each and every time. That’s me.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: For three years now, I’ve had the chance to participate in the annual event you and Jeff Leitner founded, UX for Good. We round up all these user-experience designers from all over the country and sic them on a big social problem. Every year, I’m impressed by the fact that you almost don’t need to hit the start button — they’re already thinking about the problem.

Now part of this is because they’re all smart, passionate people. But I think there’s something else that’s remarkable about it. Most of the time in design, there’s a client. You need to ask, “What does the client want?” In this case, the client is the common good, so you can’t ask that. But all these folks always hit the ground running. How do they do that if there is no client?

Jason Ulaszek: Sure — when you’re re-designing social and emotional learning with the Dalai Lama Center or figuring out a better system to support musicians in New Orleans, who is the “client”? Who could you target with new tools in order to have the greatest effect? I think designers are prepared to answer that question because they automatically ask, “Who is most impacted by what we’re doing?” Designers are filled with an empathetic quality and skill – they need a target to aim at.

But even when there is a client, this isn’t always black and white. There’s an entity paying the bills, sure, but as a part of our work we’ll become aware of all the various stakeholders with all of their own agendas and interests in the project. You will necessarily discover that one person is interested in the project being their personal legacy, another person is interested in helping people, another person is interested in making money, and so on.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I get it. When your actual job is to figure out the impact that changes to the system will have on people, of course that becomes what motivates you.

Jason Ulaszek: Yeah, totally.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So let’s flesh out the model. If you’re primarily motivated by making systems safe for people, how does it work when a client is involved? I remember a story where some UX designers did some research with an insurance company and the users literally compared the customer service process to being in prison. Presumably you can’t just go to the client shouting, “Set them free!”

Jason Ulaszek: It all becomes part of the greater vision. It’s actually a part of your job to present what you find to the stakeholders in a way where they can process and understand that vision over time. You might invite them along to observe a usability test. You might persuade them to try using the product themselves or actually take a call at their call center. You are ultimately building stories and experiences for the client to help them come to the same realizations you have as a designer. You don’t just drop it on them in a PowerPoint. You have to present it to them with empathy. Crafting a narrative, telling the story, in a way that resonates and hits them, is key.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: After having all these conversations with designers, I’m starting to think you guys are addicted to empathy. I mean, it’s unusual enough to develop this deep empathy with the people who use a product or service. But then you go back and develop this whole other kind of empathy with the folks who will have to change it.

Jason Ulaszek: But we have to. The way we solve problems is by creating new experiences. We’re not widgets you buy off the shelf. People hire us for our personal understanding and insight into a situation. We are the means for them getting it.

So yeah, you start out as a designer with this tremendous amount of empathy for the end-users of everything. And then you design experiences that help you transfer some of your empathy and knowledge to the client or the stakeholders. You don’t do a bunch of brilliant research and then just leave it. If you really believe that you have the potential to transform behavior or transform thinking, you have to design the whole experience. You don’t transform people with a memo. There’s no magic pill.

This is one reason why it is so good for designers to also teach. You may be a master craftsman of some sort, but if you also teach, it helps you to internalize all the steps someone will have to go through so they can also reach your kind of understanding. It helps you communicate that in a way that other people will understand.

So we make products and tell stories and do all our design-y things. But we’re constantly aware that we’re not only doing them for the users or only doing them for the client. We’re doing it with all of them. We’re bringing them all along.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Okay, hold on a minute, this is more complicated than I thought.

Look, I’ve met a lot of you user-experience designers. And it’s no surprise that you spend most of your time talking about users. So I had assumed that users were to designers as patients were to physicians. Here’s what I mean. My dad is a transplant surgeon. To do his job, he has to interact with all sorts of systems — the nurses, the hospital management, the organ donor network. But there’s absolutely no doubt that the point of it all is saving patients’ lives. That’s the only measure of success.

So when I went down this road with you, I thought you were going to say something like, “Well, the only reason we engage clients is to set up situations where we can help users.” I thought there was a dichotomy. But you’re actually describing a world in which the physician treats the patients, but also the nurses and the hospital CEO and the organ procurement people. You’re more like a priest.

Jason Ulaszek: Awesome. Amen. Just kidding.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But look — you’re not a priest. You don’t just minister to anyone who comes along. In a world in which design can actually help anyone, how do you actually determine what work you’re going to do?

Jason Ulaszek: I have actually been working on this over the past few weeks. I’ve been working on a set of client evaluation criteria with my team. Start with the assumption that the smartest, most creative people in the field of design should be working on the toughest, most groundbreaking challenges. Those challenges aren’t just waiting out there to be picked up. Sometimes the least interesting problems are going to be the ones that pay the bills. So we’ve developed some criteria that look at whether the client is progressive or conservative within their field, whether that field as a whole is open to change or not, whether the client is a challenger or a top dog, and so forth.

So you can see why this is relevant. If you’re working with 90 percent conservative clients and 90 percent conservative industries and you’re not working with radical change agents within those client organizations… eventually, your design skills will start to go stagnant. Not only will you lose that trajectory of excitement, but you’ll also have fewer opportunities to experiment with new technologies or cutting-edge ideas in design. To get those opportunities, you may have to seek out more second-tier clients whose only option is to leapfrog the competition and totally disrupt the market.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Okay, I get it. It’s craft. Here’s what I mean. Back when I was a freelance writer, there were a couple of types of articles that I had totally optimized — I could literally write four or five pieces an hour. That meant more money. But over time I could see that working on that stuff all the time was bad for my career overall, because I wasn’t doing anything that actually demonstrated my chops. I needed to “spend” some of the money I wasn’t going to earn to maintain and improve my craft.

So the point is that even if you’ve got a cattle pen full of designers, you can’t just make these decisions based on a macroeconomic model. You can’t…

Jason Ulaszek: You can’t commoditize it.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And you can’t just maximize returns based on what clients think they want. I think it’s reasonable to say to a client, “Look, I can’t work with you all the time. I have to go do crazy things sometimes to keep delivering to you these easily executable ideas that make you so much money.”

Jason Ulaszek: Yeah. And you need an internal sense of how to balance that as an individual or as an organization or as a profession. That’s a large part of why we started UX for Good. It’s part of the reason why it has such excitement and energy. People geek out on getting to use the full power of all their skills. Strong design organizations also have programs or other ways for their people to reconnect with that passion and re-energize their skills.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Huh, so if the craft is applying empathy and creativity, designers taking on social challenges is almost like the Bonneville Salt Flats. You’re taking away all the restrictions and seeing how much empathy they can generate when the conditions are ideal.

I think this is really important. When you hear about, I don’t know, a charity golf tournament, you assume that there is some more real version of the golf tournament somewhere else that is not for charity. But if empathy is the core of designers’ craft, the “charitable” version would actually be the purest form. It would be the standard that everything else is judged by.

Jason Ulaszek: I don’t know, but in practice UX for Good feels like you’re compacting a year-long sabbatical into four days. There is all this pent-up energy that is freed when you apply design to something that really matters. It changes your sense of what is possible.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Do you think it would be possible to create this empathy-driven quality in other professions? What would the world look like if your accountant were an empathy addict?

Jason Ulaszek: Oh my God. They’d see the problems more clearly. They wouldn’t give up. You’d have a world in which accountants were much less satisfied with the status quo. They’d want everything to be the best it could be. You’d have stronger solutions and stronger ideas because of that. You wouldn’t just be optimizing for the system that is. You’d be trying to invoke new ways of doing things, trying to guide everyone toward a new perspective.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So to be clear, is this kind of radical empathy an irreducible part of design?

Jason Ulaszek: Not everyone has it. But if you don’t have it, if you’re not taking the time to deeply connect with the situation or people you’re designing for, you’re missing out on the best chances for great design. Lots of people can create designs on paper and then argue with people in a room over whether they’re great or not. But to really create great design in the world, you have to connect with people, read people, listen to people, engage with people.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And all that work is a part of design for you?

Jason Ulaszek: Yeah, it’s all the “soft skills” of design.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Well hold on, I want to nail this down. If you had a friend who was a lawyer or an accountant and they came to you and said, “Man, I’m great at the technical part of my job, but I want to be able to do that thing you were just talking about, creating a narrative that my clients become a part of.” Let’s say you tried to teach them that. Are you teaching them “people skills” or are you teaching them design?

Jason Ulaszek: It’s design, because it comes from that ability to step back and see the whole picture.  You engage the client or the stakeholder as a part of that whole. That’s something designers are uniquely trained to do. I’m sure people do it in other professions, but for designers it’s always top of mind.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think this is really important. Lots of people go through life with this conflict between their hearts and their heads. They say, “Oh, I’m going to do this work that isn’t so important to me so I can make enough money to do the things that really matter.” It sounds as if designers are less conflicted in this area, because they have to reconcile their hearts and heads to do the work in the first place. A good designer isn’t going to just paint pretty pictures for the cigarette company until something better comes along. They’re going to somehow come up with some greater vision that they'll help move the client toward.

Am I right that designers have a special knack at staying in touch with that greater whole?

Jason Ulaszek: Yes — you have to stay in touch with it to design at all. That’s why you can’t “turn it off.” Of course you’re always struggling to get the right balance in your life, but design itself is about balance. So if you’re a great designer, you’re also always asking how you balance yourself as you go about your work.

So if you’re a lawyer, the problem set might be how you bill enough hours to pay for that expensive degree while also staying in touch with your passion. You would hope that they have their own way of finding that balance.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Earlier you talked about having a job versus having a calling. Well, in this conversation we’ve been treating design as a calling — rightly so, I think. You don’t get a choice about whether you’re an empathy addict or not. But if that thing is the source of all of your professional skills, you’d better figure out how to stay in touch with it. My point is that this isn’t just work-life balance.

Jason Ulaszek: The real problem is always how to make that passion a part of what you do.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But it’s not just about feeling good. This is how you maintain your chops.

I think this is a real problem. Most people don’t think this way. I mean, I guess musicians think this way. They realize that even if “Taps” is in demand, they’ve got to play something else every once in a while or else they won’t be a musician anymore. But I don’t think most people think of it as one of their responsibilities, even though it may be as essential to doing meaningful work as getting an oil change is for your car.

Jason Ulaszek: That seems sad. I would hope that I could have connected my passion in life to many different things, not just design. But I know that to do design I have to re-connect to that passion on a regular basis and keep the right balance with it. I see that as an innate quality of any person who is trying to learn and develop a craft. They’re thinking about how it fits in with their whole life, not just the next six months, even if they may have to take on a few boring projects to get through the next six months.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I want to get really clear about where this fits into our efforts to teach non-designers about design. We’ve got lots of neat tricks we can teach people about thinking with outliers and categories and prototypes. But if you’re not willing to follow this rabbit of creative passion down the rabbit hole, there’s really no point to it all. I don’t know if any of those mental tricks work if you’re not willing to take the risk that you’ll never stop thinking this way.

Jason Ulaszek: Yup. And the question is always how you find ways to work with other people who have that willingness. Or how you instill it in people who are capable of having it but don’t right now. Do you need to do some extra work to inspire them? It’s not just one individual’s personality or skills — it can be the whole culture or environment in which you are working. If you’ve created an environment in which no one can pursue their passion, doing good work will be pretty damn difficult.

Someone recently asked me how they can get into the kind of work that we’ve done with UX for Good. My reaction was that this wasn’t something we quit our previous jobs for. This was a plan and a model that we created over time. It didn’t magically appear. And it couldn’t have appeared from a culture in which everyone was only worried about the bottom line.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So in the end, you have to design your own opportunity to be a designer.

Jason Ulaszek: Right. It’s not just a hobby and it’s not just a job. It’s you. You have to embrace that. That’s a hard thing to do. And I couldn’t give someone else a process they could follow to do it. You have to listen to yourself. You have to analyze the patterns in your own life. You have to figure out the problems that excite you as well as the ones that leave you feeling burnt out. You have to play with different environments and cultures and activities to open your mind. All of that is a part of design.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.