Disruptive UX: The Dirty Truth
UX designers have split personalities… well, at least most of us do. We are this rare mix of designers, psychologists, developers, writers, artists, and more. Lately I find myself leaning into the psychology realm. Learning about people from this stand point is really starting to cultivate my interests. I have begun to think somewhat whacky things due to this new found passion, and often find myself in heated debates with friends and colleagues around the topics that I have been diving into. It is with this frame of mind, that I settled in to hear Luke Williams speak at Interaction 12 about The Disruptive Age. The talk centers around, what Luke defines as the first of the step of disruption; that of crafting a disruptive hypothesis. During the talk, I couldn’t help but think about Luke’s ideas in relation to who we are as people as defined by psychology, and it was at this point that I realized that disruption, by its sheer definition, cannot be the norm.
Let me explain. You see disruption is defined as “an act of delaying or interrupting the continuity”. This means that when disrupting you are taking something from a state of plateau, certainty, and order and pushing it into another state that is no longer a comfortable one. We designers are trained to disrupt. We see it as our jobs to look beyond the plateau into the future of what could be if only we could break our businesses out of their normal routines. However what we don’t realize is that people do NOT like to be disrupted. Think about it… disruption is against our need to feel safe and consistent. Back in the day (I’m talking way back in the day… think cave man, saber tooth tiger days), comfortable was good because it meant there was no danger. That comfort could only be disrupted by one thing… danger! There is a huge piece of us that is stilled wired this way… to stay comfortable. Thus, the disruption that we seek to create is not really wanted, even when a business says they want it. More often than not, the first time they get an uncomfortable feeling (or that feeling of danger) they are going to want to stop the disruption.
Of course, this creates a huge problem for us designers. First being a disruptor becomes very difficult, close to impossible in some organizations, because it makes everyone feel so damn uncomfortable. We tend to look at the businesses that we are trying to make better as not “getting it” or not “valuing the user”, but in many cases they are just down right scared because they have that uncomfortable feeling in their stomach. Second, because all of this makes being a disruptor hard, we disrupt much less than we would like. This can make us pretty unsatisfied in our work. We begin to get disgruntled and unconfident, which leads to a lack of passion for what we do and a feeling of wanting to stop playing with the mean kids, and take our ball and go home.
But do not fear, there is a solution to what ails us. I think the first thing that we all need to come to grips with is the realization that mass disruption all at once, will probably not happen in 99% of situations. Disruptions like Luke points out in his talk (i.e. Apple and Google being in the cell phone business) are not everyday occurances. And most disruption will not be widespread. Second, we need to realize that, that fact is OK, in fact it is natural. Of course that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to distrupt, but it just means that we should be accepting of the fact that we probably won’t create large organizational changes (so if you really, really hate where you work you may want to look elsewhere). Third, in order to disrupt anything at all in the places we work, we need to make ourselves a part of our business partners comfort zone. Which means we need to make UX Design part of their plateau state, because it is only when they are comfortable with us in this state, that they’ll trust our ideas to disrupt (even a little).
Let me break it down even further. We humans like to have a constant, something to lead us to safety in all scenarios. Ever see Inception? Remember that spinny thimble thing Leonardo kept bringing out, that was his constant. The cup of coffee that you have every day, your constant. Picking up the mail after work every day… constant. Without these constants we start to anticipate things being “off” and thus we assume, you guessed it, danger! The businesses that you work in are the same way. They want a constant. That waterfall process they are holding onto… a constant. The huge requirements document they “need”… another constant. These constants make them feel comfortable, and slow their ability to be disrupted. Now you come in, and you show them how UX can help the business. You Learn the Business side of things and cement your value. You, UX in general, become a new constant. So when you start to try to disrupt something in the business with your amazing design ideas, what becomes the one thing that is present before, during, and after the disruption… that’s right… you!
Thus, once we shift our thinking around disruption and thus our businesses hesitation to be disrupted, we can start to think about how we can disrupt things more easily. We can see that once we become the new constant in the business’ world, that disruption becomes a lot less uncomfortable because there is always something constant… UX! They trust us to take them to the next level of creating experiences and become much more open to letting us help lead the process. We also become more successful at disrupting and thus have a lot more confidence in ourselves. At the same time we change the focus of measuring our success just on disruption to that of measuring our success on solving problems and making things better. By looking at disruption differently, we can successfully move our business partners away from their fear of disruption danger, and into the realization that disruption is needed in order to create a better business for all… and yes this includes increasing the value to our users.