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.

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