XXXI.1 January - February 2024
Page: 14
Digital Citation

Time to Get Back to Work

Daria Loi, Morgan Miller, Jeanine Spence, Kent Sullivan

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Nothing will work unless you do.
    — Maya Angelou

In a prior column, I discussed how the tech industry's obsession with answering questions has resulted in its inability to remember what questions should be answered and how to tackle them. In such tech milieus, the criteria to measure success rarely has to do with humanity's advancement and our planet's thriving, as "greed and power have become the key drivers and we seem incapable to stop, breathe, reflect, and fix the mess we created" [1].

More recently, I explored the complex relationship we all have with advanced technologies such as GenAI, elaborating on humans' lack of clarity and knowledge in relation to such technologies, the vagueness of the why surrounding this relationship, and the urgent need to "take some time to observe, learn, and understand" [2].

The time has come for those working in tech companies as well as those benefiting from and leveraging their output to wake up and be better. It's time for us to recall why we are here and what our individual yet entwined roles and responsibilities are. Time to "start thinking beyond personal interests and beyond the sole interests of our own species" [3].

We all dream to thrive as coinhabitants of this planet we call home, yet seem to have forgotten who has agency in making those dreams reality: us. We have been collectively arrogant, careless, and distracted from what really matters. So it's time to get back to work and start designing technologies that advance humanity and the thriving of our planet, and ourselves [3].

Sparked by these thoughts, I recently connected with a group of user experience (UX) and design peers who wish to make a difference. While they all operate in diverse tech sectors, they share similar preoccupations with how products are envisioned, designed, and produced—and with the role that their discipline is playing in that.

I posed the same two questions to them:

  • Where did we go wrong?
  • What shall we do about it?

I share their voices in the following sections.

Jeanine Spence (Principal, Be Curious with Us). It all starts with a focus on purpose: how we design and build, for whom we design and build, and what we design and build are all tied to purpose. As I reflect on these questions, I wonder how our purpose shifted as work sped up and teams shrank in the rush to ROI. In particular, how that has affected both our methods of working as designers and researchers and what we produce. It has become much harder to take the time to examine both how we work and for whom we work. To open up questions for ourselves and take time to be deliberate, we need to step back and examine our practices through a lens of how we think about our relationship to our "whom." As we examine our practices, let's focus on how we relate to the whom we are designing for, that space of relationship between the "I" as designer or researcher and the "you" of our customer, user, or client. To explore the dynamic in that space, I propose a to-for-with framework, to examine how our methods reinforce or disrupt it.

The time has come for those working in tech companies to wake up and be better.

Let's consider a fast-paced project with pressure to deliver a return: We naturally rely on experience and methods that get us there quickly (we've all been on that project). Here, the approach tends to be designing to. Design to makes assumptions about needs and prioritizes the authority of the designer or researcher. If we were to switch to a designing for approach, we would bring in more dialogue and allow for more understanding and opportunity for feedback (often as validation balanced by expertise). This approach provides confidence that what's being produced is going to deliver value. However, it also allows for a narrow scoping of what those needs are, and can result in dark patterns where feedback is used to fine-tune user-manipulation tactics.

By comparison, designing with challenges us to allow space for discovery of emerging solutions in a cooperative approach to design and research. There is a wide range of ways to create that space and engagement, each of which deserves its own discussion. The intent among those approaches is shared: to call us to examine our methods and how they reinforce diverse methods of engagement, by providing a framework to ask, Which way am I showing up? Am I embracing a to, for, or with perspective? What is pushing me into one or the other? Which one do I want to take? Am I choosing methods that help or hinder being in a "with" dialogue? Am I, as a professional, taking responsibility for creating that space and providing the tools and guidance for equal engagement?


In summary, let's all examine the approaches we find ourselves taking, often by default, and challenge ourselves to strive for working with.

Kent Sullivan (Principal, Be Curious with Us). I want to highlight the long-term (although not necessarily premeditated) disinvestment in UX research, especially of the generative variety. The days of organizations hiring one researcher for every designer have sadly receded into the mists of history. Lately, a ratio of one researcher per five designers is considered adequate, even desirable, and a ratio of 1:10 is not unheard of and increasingly a common practice. Additionally, generative UX research is often the first "luxury" to be cut because the few researchers on staff have to spend all of their time on evaluative work.

The broad adoption of agile development methodologies by engineering teams has intensified the pressure on engineering teams to jump to solutions very quickly. The sadly too true phrase "ready, fire, aim" comes to mind. In such cases, teams not only don't want to wait for generative insights (even if clever methods are used to slipstream them into the product cycle) but are also in the wrong headspace to listen, absorb, and reflect on what such insights might mean for product direction and planning.

UX Research was caught off guard by these dramatic changes, and many of us responded slowly and inadequately. For example, some maintained a "teams can't possibly operate without research" stance, to then watch that very thing unfold. Collectively stuck in the denial stage of grief first and then in later grief stages then, it took us too long to get to acceptance and focus on productive responses.

Another disturbing pattern is what I call "insights illiteracy"—mistaking data for information and information for insights. A root of this illiteracy is a bias for voluminous quantitative customer data. The enthusiasm for (and ownership of) such data unfortunately has resulted in a "thousand ad hoc analyses blooming."

There's such an obsession with building that we have lost sight of the expense associated with building the wrong thing.

While a large body of quantitative data may be a rich source of learning, analyzing and interpreting such data requires relatively uncommon data science skills and a highly attuned ability to avoid inferring user/customer intentionality, because that data is largely devoid of the why. Given that the underfunding of researchers makes it nearly impossible to lead (or at least keep an eye on) such ad hoc analyses, it's all too easy for teams to make poor decisions that appear authoritative yet are misleading, if not outright specious.

UX managers and leaders also bear significant responsibility for the current state of affairs. Far too few senior UX leaders can speak eloquently and advocate convincingly for the importance and value of research as compared with design. Over time, this has resulted in fewer approved research positions and a "new normal" where research is less important than, or secondary to, design.

There is hope, however. Given the many solutions to problems that customers don't care (enough) about, many are questioning whether there is a better way to plan and guide work—and those who embrace Lean Startup or Lean UX methods are getting very good value for time spent. Teams that are curious about their customers want to deeply understand them and this enables a new appreciation for the expertise, efficiency, and nuance that UX researchers bring.

I am encouraged by clever methodological UX research innovations where easy, fast, low-quality methods are supplemented by more-rigorous activities within short time frames. Christian Rohrer's Landscape of User Research Methods is a helpful framework for mapping out current practices to pinpoint where rigor needs to be added.

Morgan Miller (Morgan Miller UX, LLC). Many companies have lost long-term vision and meaningful planning, with management focused solely on quarterly growth and a mentality where everything must tie to short-term ROI. However, since a marathon is more than a series of sprints, large products are frequently reduced to a kit of parts that barely hang together.

I've seen some big thrashing around, with design teams asked to operate without sufficient parameters and consequent "analysis paralysis" mixed with demands for results with no process. Instead of distilling mounds of data into a rich, robust story, the push is to tell a popular story and only then find a few supporting data points. There's such an obsession with building that we have lost sight of the expense associated with building the wrong thing. As my colleague Jeannine Spence said during one of our meetings, "A/B testing might find you the very best apple, but it turned out nobody wanted an apple."

Additionally, given the focus on competition as a key value of capitalism, I think that we have entered an era where people are stuck. We're stuck with entrenched platforms that have an iron grip on the market, with products and content necessary to function as people and as a society (more or less). User-centered design principles don't have ROI when you don't have to attract users.

What shall we do about it?

In our companies, we need integrated UX research throughout product design and development. Much like security and safety, foundational principles like user experience cannot just be sprinkled on top. They need their own resourced workstream throughout the product life cycle. Companies that hire inexperienced or underresourced teams will continue to see short-changed results.

Looking at the big picture of product consolidation, we also need the government to play a key role. We need a government of the people, for the people, by the people, to act as a third party who is neither a seller nor a buyer. We need a government with its eye on public welfare and public will. We need normal people—like you—to run for office.

Reflections. While reading these contributions I had a number of powerful déjà vu experiences. Corporate meetings in which alienated UX researchers back from fieldwork would showcase a mostly green dashboard to reinforce what senior leaders wished to hear. Corridor conversations filled with frustration because other things were driving the bus, not data. (In)famous, damaging statements by large organizations such as "We do not need UX research…we A/B test everything." The systematic deprofessionalization and dangerous flattening of UX—courtesy of design thinking (moneymaking) boot camps. The ongoing superficiality camouflaged with democratization of UX innuendos. The relentless co-opting of UX by myopic collaborators with little understanding of what UX is and the depressing degradation of UX in service of marketing.

Yet, the déjà vu that hurts the most is observing our willingness to give up expertise.

So, what shall we do now? Jeanine, Kent, and Morgan provided great reflections on what to consider, and why. In an abbreviated manner, I suggest we first stop and do what we were trained to do: observe, reflect, analyze, and understand the mess we are in. Then, we swallow our pride to assume responsibility—because the truth is that our hands joined many others to feed that broken machine we so dislike, criticize, and fear.

And finally, the best part: We get to go back to work and fix it.

back to top  Acknowledgments

We would like to acknowledge Jenna Mikus (Eudae Group) and Shanae Chapman (Nerdy Diva) for their contributions to our discussions and reflections over the past few months. While time did not allow for them to coauthor this article, we wish to recognize their valuable input and voices in this important, ongoing conversation.

back to top  References

1. Loi, D. Diamonds of sadness: A story of high-tech greed, power, and hypocrisy. Interactions 30, 3 (May–Jun. 2023), 26–28;

2. Loi, D. Our liaison shall remain imperfect and complicated. Interactions 30, 5 (Sep.–Oct. 2023), 20–21;

3. Loi, D. Shared dream, shared responsibility. Diplomatic Courier. Sep. 23, 2023;

back to top  Authors

Daria Loi combines design strategy with experience research and innovation to enrich people's lives and humanize technology. She is vice president of UX and design at Fishtail, serves on the DemocracyLab board of directors, and is an honorary professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia. [email protected]

Morgan Miller brings 12 years of user experience research, product strategy, and design built alongside digital security expertise to technical and B2B industries. She believes a key part to a thriving society is democratizing security and technology through phenomenal user experience. [email protected]

Jeanine Spence is a UX leader and strategist with success designing and launching a dozen new products across femtech, fintech, healthtech, and DevOps. She conducts design research focused on inclusion and equity. [email protected]

Kent Sullivan believes strongly that integrating insights extracted from diverse data sources (design research, market research, telemetry, social networking, etc.) greatly increases the chances of those insights having impact. He has spent years fostering deep collaboration among team members and recognizes how hard this is to achieve. [email protected]

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