Hello. Let’s talk about ego. I believe that many projects and orga­ni­za­tions today have too much of it, and that it hin­ders them from doing bet­ter design work on prod­ucts and ser­vices. That’s a bit of an accu­sa­tion, so let me talk you through what makes me say that.

One of my own strongest learn­ing expe­ri­ences in the past few years start­ed with a few lines of text on a blog. The blog was Creating Passionate Users by Kathy Sierra, and here’s what I read there:

Users should­n’t think about you.

Do you care what your users think of you?


Our best advice for cre­at­ing pas­sion­ate users is:
Care ONLY about what your users think of them­selves as a result of inter­act­ing with your creation. 

What she’s kind of say­ing is, stop try­ing to upgrade and brag about your prod­uct and start try­ing to upgrade your users. This might seem like a small dis­tinc­tion, but for me this was a pret­ty big facepalm moment. It was just kind of flush­worthi­ly embar­rass­ing because I looked at myself in the mir­ror and real­ized that a lot of projects, pret­ty much every project, I had been involved in real­ly was­n’t try­ing to do this. Even in projects where we used all the user expe­ri­ence meth­ods and per­sonas and user sto­ries and all of this stuff. We were pret­ty busy with our­selves, and we were think­ing about using these meth­ods for upgrad­ing our prod­uct, not upgrad­ing our users.

So when I had stopped facepalm­ing and try­ing to hide from my own embar­rass­ment, I start­ed reflect­ing and think­ing back to the dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions I had been involved in, and projects and so on. I start­ed think­ing about what kind of design focus they had had in light of this per­spec­tive shift. And I put togeth­er some pic­tures to talk about it.

The first kind of orga­ni­za­tion that I have a lot of expe­ri­ence with was one that was very focused on the thing that they were mak­ing. And the thing” here could be an insti­tu­tion, a library, an event even, but a lot of times of course projects were soft­ware or what­ev­er it was. You have some team that’s involved in mak­ing it, and typ­i­cal design ques­tions are stuff like, what fea­tures should it have? (Our soft­ware or what­ev­er it is.) What prob­lems does it solve? And how can we build it?


And of course the user focus is in there some­where, implic­it­ly. You’re not build­ing ran­dom things just because you like it. Some engi­neer­ing projects are like that, but you now. And when the user is not very present in the design process, I’m sure all of you have some fun expe­ri­ences with things that are built like this, when they meet real­i­ty and actu­al users, it can be pret­ty painful. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, a lot of users are on the suf­fer­ing end of sys­tems built like this. A lot of times when peo­ple are using stuff that they don’t real­ly choose whether they get to use it or not, like gov­ern­ment sys­tems or what­ev­er it is where the peo­ple at the bot­tom actu­al­ly inter­act­ing with them had no part in mak­ing them.

So user expe­ri­ence, design, and these kind of per­spec­tives have brought a huge­ly well-needed focus shift for design when it comes to mak­ing any­thing, real­ly, that brings the user into view, places the user at the core of the design process, and starts ask­ing design ques­tions that rather look like, what does the user want? What prob­lem does the user have? How can the thing” sup­port the user to achieve their goals?

For a lot of orga­ni­za­tions, this design focus shift still feels rad­i­cal and like some kind of strug­gle. A lot of peo­ple, espe­cial­ly in design and UX roles, they’re kind of alone in their orga­ni­za­tions some­times, try­ing to make peo­ple just see the light like, Can’t you see how if we make good user sto­ries, if we use all of these great meth­ods, our thing will be so much bet­ter?” And it’s real­ly about tak­ing that move to try and express stuff as what does the user actu­al­ly want or need, rather than some feature-based list of checkboxes.

I think due to the preva­lence of a lot of trends in the soft­ware devel­op­ment indus­try espe­cial­ly around lean and agile and so on, this kind of start­ing point is pret­ty com­mon now, at least when it comes to soft­ware prod­ucts. In my expe­ri­ence at least, over the last ten years or so, this has become a sort of new nor­mal. I hope this is not rad­i­cal to any­one in here, at least. I’m sure you have expe­ri­ence at home” wher­ev­er you’re work­ing where some peo­ple think this is a bit of a thing. 

But I also had expe­ri­ence from orga­ni­za­tions that were work­ing on things that were very participation-heavy. Some of these things include the game that I work on now, but also huge live-action role play­ing game projects where hun­dreds of peo­ple have to all play togeth­er and take action inde­pen­dent­ly for the thing to even exist. Those projects actu­al­ly had a pret­ty dif­fer­ent design focus. They were real­ly busy with think­ing about the agency of their par­tic­i­pa­tion, and com­mon design ques­tions would be more stuff like look­ing at both groups an indi­vid­u­als, and ask­ing or rather mak­ing sure that those groups and indi­vid­u­als had answers to ques­tions such as, what can I do? And, what can oth­ers do? And then, my actions if I do them, how will they look to oth­ers? How will they be per­ceived? And will they affect some­body else?

And what we’ve learned in this kind of design focus is that if you don’t have answers to these ques­tions for peo­ple, they’re very like­ly to remain pas­sive. If you don’t under­stand what you say or the effects of your action, you’re like­ly to just not do any­thing. And I think some of the most pow­er­ful ser­vices out there today, they gave peo­ple good answers to these questions. 

Twitter, for exam­ple. What can I do? Well, I can put 140-characters in this box. What can oth­ers do? Okay, they can do the same. How will we see each oth­er? There’s this feed. And the moment Twitter start­ed mess­ing with the prop­er­ties of this very sim­ple set­up, they get push­back from users and so on. Most of those changes I think have been good, eventually.

But the role of orga­niz­ers or mak­ers with this kind of design focus is real­ly to equip par­tic­i­pants with what they need to act in ways that in com­bi­na­tion with every­one become inter­est­ing or enjoy­able sit­u­a­tions. I think that this kind of design focus bet­ter describes the needs for a lot of ser­vices and prod­ucts today. And in this kind of focus, the thing,” what­ev­er it is that you’re mak­ing, takes even more of a back seat.

If you’re inter­est­ed in this kind of design focus, which is used in a cou­ple of places that I have a lot of expe­ri­ence with but not nec­es­sar­i­ly applic­a­ble, I’ll give you a few tips, if you’re inter­est­ed in going more in this direction.

Agency is real­ly a key word, as in what can I do?” a user/participant/person of your thing, what is it that I can do? That becomes a key design word that I don’t feel is very present in a lot of oth­er design think­ing today. A sim­ple thing you can do is to work with par­tic­i­pant sto­ries. This is not a rad­i­cal shift, but if you work a lot with user sto­ries, it does some­thing to your think­ing to switch them out for par­tic­i­pant stories.

Another tool that I per­son­al­ly use a lot is the con­cept that I call The Reality Stack.” This is real­ly some­thing to explore what is already shap­ing the agency of those peo­ple you’re want­i­ng to work with, what­ev­er area you’re in. There’s not one true Reality Stack. This is a per­spec­tive that you pick for what­ev­er you’re work­ing with. But at the bot­tom you might say this phys­i­cal real­i­ty might be dif­fi­cult to change, but not always. Infrastructure, legal sys­tems, all of these cul­ture norms, all of these things are already there, influ­enc­ing the agency of who­ev­er you’re deal­ing with. Then you prob­a­bly zoom in and get more area-specific. If you’re work­ing in some par­tic­u­lar busi­ness where com­pa­nies are buy­ing soft­ware for X and you would want them to buy your soft­ware instead. You have some more zoomed-in lay­ers where your busi­ness skills for your par­tic­u­lar area start mattering.

But once you start with agency and then you start think­ing what are all the things that influ­ence the agency of the per­son I’m design­ing for?, you can start think­ing about ques­tions like, how can I equip peo­ple with new and inter­est­ing agency? And, do I active­ly need to replace some­thing that’s already shap­ing agency for peo­ple? And maybe then, what can peo­ple do now that they could­n’t do with­out your thing, what­ev­er it is.

So if we’re going to put these three things togeth­er, we have a sort of three-phased design focus pic­ture that we can also think of as a lit­tle bit of a diag­nos­tic tool for our orga­ni­za­tion. Where is your design focus, the peo­ple you’re work­ing with? What type of design ques­tions are you most­ly busy with? Is it about the fea­tures, is it about the peo­ple in rela­tion to your thing, of being users? Or, are you think­ing about peo­ple in actu­al rela­tion to each other? 

This view, the par­tic­i­pa­tion view, you can of course take it just inside your own thing. You can talk about Twitter, for exam­ple, and think of just Twitter users in rela­tion to each oth­er. But very often, it’s inter­est­ing to zoom out and think about the per­son you’re design­ing for not just in rela­tion to oth­er users of your ser­vice, but in rela­tion to the rest of the peo­ple in their lives. And that’s where that real­i­ty stack becomes inter­est­ing. Because you real­ize that you’re not alone in the room with your user.

I believe that as we work with more and more com­plex prod­ucts, that more and more have to do with com­plex inter­ac­tions and peo­ple doing stuff togeth­er and ser­vices being plat­forms for peo­ple to meet and do things togeth­er, that it’s use­ful for a lot of projects and orga­ni­za­tions to move their design focus more in this direc­tion. All of these posi­tions are valid as main focus posi­tions, depend­ing on what you’re work­ing with. In some very well-known areas where there’s not a lot of uncer­tain­ty, being real­ly skilled at just the fea­tures of mak­ing some­thing is not a bad place to be. So it depends on what you’re doing. But I believe it’s use­ful for a lot of peo­ple today to get out of user mode and real­ly start think­ing about peo­ple in rela­tion to each oth­er and how you can equip them with agency in inter­est­ing ways.

But this is also where that ques­tion of ego comes in because I think that there is anoth­er nec­es­sary move­ment here, which is about drop­ping insti­tu­tion­al ego. Even with all of the user meth­ods, per­sonas, user sto­ries, all of this, I found (at least for myself and my projects) it was real­ly easy to still be stuck in being pret­ty self-obsessed. And the embar­rass­ing part for me was that I thought I was pret­ty good at that user stuff. I felt good about myself. I felt like, I’ve seen the light. Those stu­pid peo­ple who think it’s all about the tech. I’ve evolved. I’m smarter than that.” 

And then this lens that Kathy Sierra put up, this mir­ror, made me see that it was actu­al­ly easy for us to be extreme­ly busy with all of these user ques­tions and still be very self-obsessed. I can take a super-simple exam­ple for what the per­spec­tive shift did for us in terms of drop­ping ego on game that I work on, EVE Online. We have space­ships, they’re super cool. They’re visu­al­ly stun­ning, it looks amaz­ing. And we would do a lot of things with space­ships, pic­tures, all this kind of stuff where the idea was to make our game look cool. And I think a lot of brands spend a lot of time like this. How are we gonna make our brand look cool? What do we want it to com­mu­ni­cate? What do we want peo­ple to think about when they see our brand? What col­ors should it have? What should it look like? 

These ques­tions are things that many orga­ni­za­tions are very busy with, and I think there’s some stuff that we should just stop doing. Stop self-obsessing so much, because it hin­ders us. Not that it’s not need­ed to some degree. But it hin­ders us from trans­port­ing our design focus from peo­ple as they relat­ed to our thing and fur­ther towards that place where we think of peo­ple in rela­tion to each oth­er and in rela­tion to their world. 

So this is real­ly the ques­tion. Is your project or com­pa­ny kind of busy with mak­ing your­self look good (which we did, with our space­ships) or can you find a way to spend less ener­gy on that and more ener­gy on try­ing to actu­al­ly have your user be good? And this is what we did. We shift­ed from try­ing to make the game look cool to think­ing about how can we make the per­son who plays our game look cool. To them­selves, to oth­er play­ers, and to the rest of the world. And it pro­duces a dra­mat­ic shift in what type of objects like brand-building objects you cre­ate and so on.

So this is the ques­tion that I want to pose to all of you: Have you got insti­tu­tion­al ego? Are you a bit too pleased or hap­py with either your­self and your user-focus or your insti­tu­tion, your thing, your brand, your prod­uct? And what would hap­pen if you could drop it? 

This is an attempt to put the gist of this talk in one slide.

Thank you very much.

Further Reference

Description at The Conference’s site of the ses­sion this talk was part of.

The orig­i­nal video for this pre­sen­ta­tion can be found at The Conference’s site.