Frederick Winslow Taylor was a Quaker, so was repulsed by waste. With only a stopwatch and a clipboard, he set about inventing a productivity revolution. Using modular parts made it possible for laborers to specialize, and specialists were quicker to master competencies and to produce widgets at scale. We can trace the origins of scientific management, industrial engineering, and the lifelong pursuit of efficient returns on capital to Taylor. People often refer to these ways of working as Taylorism.
To this day, many do not question Taylorism, primarily because it was the foundation of many business, engineering, and marketing texts. All of these professions built their knowledge atop the same foundation—which is as old as the Harvard Business School, making it roughly the same age as game-changing innovations like the assembly line and incandescent light bulb.
For over a century, workers in most spheres—from manufacturing to the front lines of service counters to the back office—have been held captive by the idea that the division of labor is the right approach. The tacit acceptance of Taylorism by most business leaders has had a huge impact on the workforce. Has anyone ever asked you to critique this idea or propose an alternative?
Those who live by the aphorism “Anyone can have an idea, but only rock stars can implement them” might pause to reflect on the 115 years over which Taylorism has influenced everyone’s working lives.
The trouble with Taylorism—which was clearly once an engine of scalability—is that, whenever and wherever we divide labor, we create silos. As we have now learned, silos prevent social effectiveness. It’s axiomatic. Wherever we establish new boundaries, we establish new tribal identities. Wherever we construct a social identity for us, we also set in motion the social construction of them—the other. Sooner rather than later, people end up holding those they call others under suspicion. Consider Conway’s Law:
“Organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”—Melvin Conway
After a century of refinement, many have come to regard silos as a logical extension of specialization—almost without noticing—because it’s baked into broader notions of work and common sense. As a consequence, what we have experienced are increasing levels of corporate incompetence. Those among us who must function within organizations that are larger than 100 employees know how difficult it is to realize a novel intention to swim from one silo to another without getting euthanized on the journey.
Perhaps it is only natural to assume that specialization creates value for individuals—especially those who have invested in advanced degrees or developed social credentials from speaking engagements and published works. After all, scarcity enables us to charge more for our services. But problems occur when we find ourselves among disparate cohorts of specialists who increasingly feel the need to agree to disagree. Stalemates obstruct progress, and the value of our organizations consequently erodes, then falters. Ultimately, all hope of individual gain evaporates when a company closes or gets scrapped for parts, whether you’re part of the organization or working as an external consultant.
For UX professionals, our community of practice represents a host of groups who are collectively leading the chant “Adapt or die”—and many managers and executives have begun to listen. But mutual misunderstandings stubbornly persist because of siloed structures and rigid approaches to work, as well as toxic ways of reasoning. In our professional community, our cultural instinct is to study users—meaning people—looking at their patterns of behavior, mental models, constructions of identity, as well as social orders. Over the past 18 months, we have spoken to many UX researchers who feel hemmed in or under-appreciated. It has becomes clear that we sometimes forget to practice what we preach to our clients.
Few UX professionals have studied their organization’s internal work practices for decision making or allocating funds—or considered how the structure and culture of their organization might be unique. Is there a UX professional among us who would accept off-the-shelf qualitative research about users? Similarly, we should avoid generalizing about how organizations should function and, instead, observe and analyze the contexts in which we work.
Just imagine what we might learn if we used our UX research methods to study and interpret the socio-cultural context that surrounds us at work. The users and external contexts that we study for our clients are no more rich and mysterious than the human factors that surround us at work.
Decades ago, IDEO reinvented Alex Osborne’s rules of brainstorming and codified them as a set of rules to use when working. They designed project rooms to make the most of this social code. They printed out the rules and hung them around the perimeter of the room. Two of IDEO’s most interesting inventions:
Using a bell as a tool for the facilitator to indicate when the conversation had left the reservation or the stronger individuals were winning the conversation at the expense of the team.
Adding a rule that had never occurred to Osborne: One conversation at a time.
You don’t need to subscribe to brainstorming as an approach to realize what happened here: The team trumped silos every time. This example is not new.
Pause for a moment and ask yourself: Does my workplace welcome collaborative work habits? Or do you notice that the loudest person in the room has more sway than all other participants on your project combined?
Adopting Siloed Language Without Realizing It
To comprehend why our clients often diligently resist deriving full value from our services, we ought to study the antibodies that are present in our own nature. Some UX professionals have distorted the early inventions of distributed innovation and cross-functional teams and, instead, have forged ways to further silo our community: User Experience (UX), User-Interface (UI) Design, Customer Experience (CX), User-Centered Design (UCD), Service Design (SD), Information Architecture (IA), and some relatively new tribes in the corporate arena, UX Research and UX Strategy—of course, these are only sub-tribal. Nevertheless, all specializations represent boundaries and, thus, are fertile grounds for misunderstanding one another—and misunderstandings multiply when the outside silos of Sales, Marketing, Engineering, R&D, and so on come in contact with our message and our services.
Whether this explanation indicates that a revolution is in order or just that clients don’t seem to get what we do doesn’t seem to matter. All of us who work have a surprising degree of free agency in how we choose to work. So what really matters is how we demonstrate our adaptability and social competence. We can practice cultural change in our workplace as an interim step that will ultimately earn us merit badges and enable us to initiate deeper protocols of investigation. What we should acknowledge is that it costs us almost nothing to initiate changes in our own habits. This recognition is the basis of this article’s recommendations.
Comfort in Divisions of Labor
The vast majority of companies that we have studied—spanning Fortune 500s to early-stage startups—still seek comfort in the division of labor. Economists would describe the fact that—since the dawn of time-motion studies—we have all become captives of the doctrine of productivity as a form of cognitive capture. Habits that would enable us to break free of our captivity include welcoming discomfiting information, analyzing situations in rich detail, and reconceiving what we know or synthesizing new knowledge through dazzling collective insights.
So the primary question is: how might we reconceive our practice of work so it focuses on assembling knowledge rather than the division of labor?
Revolution Becomes Habit
When we enter any arena of work, team sports, or the arts—jazz, dance, theater, or symphony—only so much good can come of those habits that benefit each of us as individuals. Some habits are better for us than for others. Neutral habits include how we eat, exercise our imagination, spend money, and exercise our bodies—in the sense that we can practice habits that are either good or bad for us, as individuals.
But how can we identify and define a set of habits that increase our collective genius?
We take it for granted that there are analogous situations—for example, art studios, jam sessions, or running clubs—where all levels of competence and backgrounds are welcome, and the learner achieves mastery through practice and the adoption of deceptively simple work practices. We gain buy-in to the human-centered perspective by dramatically lowering the barriers to entry. Every researcher can benefit by engaging in three fundamental practices almost daily: observation, interpretation, and decoding assumptions. The same is true for anyone in your company who needs to share a deep understanding of your research findings.
These practical approaches should sound simple to both competent amateurs and masters of UX research. We draw upon the subjectivity that is characteristic of ethnographic research and expect people to develop an artful appreciation of the situations in which they find themselves and learn from them—just as we would for life drawing or yoga. It is not as much about where you start as how regularly you practice these abilities.
In time, repetition converts conscious acts into mental pathways and muscle memory—feeding the unself-conscious mind for the purpose of heightening creativity. This experiment that we’ve described is clearly an oversimplification, but it offers a powerful demonstration of how our work methods can result in surprising insights about human needs and reveal holes in the current thinking of any market.
We can either think about our work as an empty bargain or, preferably, take up habits that improve our lot in life, while deepening the effectiveness of the organization for which we work in achieving its mission. What matters most in driving this commonplace revolution is knowing what habits would be good for us to practice as a group. We can identify and describe a set of patterns that would improve our collective nature.
For some people, revolutions are about the cognitive fight for ideas, new technologies, and challenging the world with new ideas and frames of perception. (But innovation theory holds that change agents represent only about 2.5% of the total population.) For the rest of us, change can feel more ordinary. We call this the formation of new habits and know how to make habits routine in our lives.
Seeking a Culture of Integrated Practice
Design researchers face a complex problem within companies today. Our clients consider empathic inquiries to be slow. Some clients fail to distinguish exploratory studies from usability studies, validation surveys, or even A/B tests. Other clients fear that the insights we discover will feel vague, academic, or otherwise inaccessible to them. They yearn for actionable outcomes. Altogether, these objections form an argument against which we cannot win: “Research would just cost too much for this project”—and are often the kiss of death for research. Such objections gain strength when research is considered to be the work of one particular silo, team, or perhaps even one embedded member of a team, who feels like an outsider who needs to canvas the rest of the division for its legitimacy. We have observed this phenomenon from both sides of the boundary.
The project manager has little time to wait before executives require results, so the lead-time necessary for an empathic inquiry alone can disqualify its use. The research lead may object to assumptions about users or patterns of behavior and caution the product manager, “Maybe we ought to step back for a minute.” The belief that the cost of research would be too high and the development of a new product or service could move forward without it is reckless and based on the erroneous assumption that research would add no value.
Showing and Binding
In our own habits, we notice that cautioning and scolding are never as effective as providing service and making discoveries in real-time, working within existing social conventions. Forming this habit may come at the cost of creating deep protocols in advance of signoff, but this loss would be temporary. Innovation theory holds that early adopters need ways to try out new technologies or approaches, so they can discuss them with peers before committing fully to an innovation. An experimental approach enables those who are resistant to try-before-they-buy, so to speak. But the habit-forming approach that we’re proposing is more about showing than telling.
In exchange for introducing evidence-based reasoning to analysis and synthesis, UX research could become known as the thread that binds all disciplines together.
Climbing the Right Mountain
People commonly use the phrase “climbing the right mountain” as a metaphor for effectiveness—and by extension, getting to the summit faster is a serviceable way of thinking about efficiency.
Remember Taylor? His doctrine assumes that we know which mountain to climb. The problem is that, over time, mountains can become open-pit mines—and workers, in effect, trade their climbing axes for shovels, for digging rather than climbing. When assembling knowledge, the efficiency doctrine works only to accelerate a race to the bottom—when we were, in actuality, hoping to reach a new summit.
One of the more encouraging aspects of working in this era is that technological change is accelerating at rates that humanity has witnessed only a few times in human history. The dizzying pace of change makes most business organizations uneasy and anxious. Organizations and their cultures respond by collectively trying to place big bets on the next new thing—where the thing is what we expect the next technology to be. When these bets fail nine and a half times out of ten, as they do, we can observe the scope of corporate recklessness across business arenas, industries, and corporations. Gambling is ultimately a reckless way in which to invest capital, when the goal is to receive a return on investment.
Observing Context and Behavioral Change
Before we go any further, we should acknowledge that design research offers reminders that human behavior changes far more gradually than technology does. While the research findings that we might gather—for example, about how people commute to work, decorate a home, or do grocery shopping for a household—will certainly evolve over time, in comparison to the hype curve of a new technology, the pace of human change seems glacial, if not stubborn.
What if all you needed to create the conditions for success were right in front of you? If you have a video camera and some editing software, you can try behavioral change for free and practice it with the teams around you.
Mastering how to write a research plan, an interview protocol, or create stimulus is arcane and difficult for others to understand. But, quite likely, behavioral change is rather natural for the people reading this article. So experiment with it—iterating rapidly. Find participants in your organization or recruit some folks for a control group. You can do either in a matter of hours. Before you know it, you’ll be collecting evidence to study. See STBY’s Design Documentaries, which hold the power to surprise and inform. Create your own video clips, which should be no longer than a couple of minutes in length and focus on a single situation for a user at a time.
Rather than waiting for the ideal conditions for presenting your final report or extensive PowerPoint deck, call a workshop for the first available Monday morning. Invite all of the stakeholders to whom you would normally report your findings—from Engineering, Design, Marketing, Sales, Project Management, and so on. Put them cheerfully to work analyzing a series of surprising and memorable documentaries. Give them simple tools for describing what they notice in each video clip.
Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects, and Users, or AEIOU
AEIOU is a framework that Ric Robinson developed informally. It provides UX research practitioners with five lenses for singling out Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects, and Users and generating what anthropologists call a thick-description of any situation. Because this research is based on users’ personal accounts, this practice alone can feel mind blowing to the uninitiated. It’s easy for anyone to get started learning how to analyze this data, but can take years to master. Mastery arises from more and more precise explanations of the events a researcher witnesses.
You can expect some initial awkwardness among team members, but it will be short lived. If you do nothing more than replace people’s working assumptions with actual observations, the exercise will be well worth the effort. In our experience, when you introduce such new habits, coworkers who were suspicious of or hostile to research quickly find them useful. This gives us reason for optimism that continual inquiry will result in an expanded power base for researchers, within in a model of integrated practice.
Save the Heavy Lifting for Yourself
Aggregate themes and summarize patterns on your own time. Forward them to the team as soon as you can, along with an invitation to study other documentaries. Interpret the observations that you made the previous week. Your first Monday is complete. Without any further effort on your part, your new partners in analysis will gently distribute their new knowledge, in meetings that you may or may not attend. The key to this approach is to continue doing all of the other work that you do. Use this new habit as a lever to create a shared understanding of people.
What Might We Do Next Monday?
Once we discard the social habit of saying, “Well, let’s take a step back,” and instead adopt a let’s-take-a step-forward view of the same situations, we’re demonstrating the always-on model of observation. When we reassemble the broader team for a second workshop, there are two general paths forward:
Pursue breadth or depth of understanding.Breadth means doing more of the same. Depth refers to the interpretation of what you observed in rich detail on the prior Monday.
Use the 5 Human Factors framework. Co-developed by Patrick Whitney and Vijay Kumar, this framework provides UX researchers with five lenses for decoding the five types of harm that may affect the user of a product or service—that is, physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural harms. Through each of these lenses, re-examine any observation to consider why something is problematic for the user. UX researchers who make this a habit will extend their attention and response to a richer set of design factors, in favor of making tacit commitments to one design concept or another without any basis in research.
One of the fascinating side-effects of adopting a let’s-take-a-step-forward culture is how the uncertainties within an organization compel an integrated group to ask better questions. Have we studied enough situations yet? How do people of differing ages or genders behave in this situation? How might we understand what motivated a user to act this way? What would be some interesting ways to capture these moments for analysis?
These habits gradually build collective demand for empathy. Curiosity replaces resistance. To quote one member of the experiment: “Three minutes is not onerous. Anyone can pause and observe.” The following Monday mornings can alternate between observation and interpretation. With every session, the group constructs a clearer understanding of users’ needs. And, every week, you can continue to integrate the human factor in addressing new uncertainties that arise from silos that you are only beginning to understand yourself.
To set expectations properly, while no one’s learnings in six Mondays would approach the equivalent of earning a graduate degree in Anthropology or Sociology, they don’t need to. However, people do experience significant change toward integrating human experience into their work, along with plain speech and good reason. Let’s call that buy-in. Over time, repetition of such experiences converts their conscious acts into mental pathways and muscle memory. This feeds the unself-conscious mind and heightens creativity. While this experiment is clearly an oversimplification, it offers a powerful demonstration of integrating disciplines into actual practice. The aim of the experiment is to lower or even remove the barrier to entry from UX research.
While we refer to these methods as design practice, the usefulness of these methods is not confined to design. From the perspective of social human factors, people from all backgrounds and all disciplines can benefit from using the following plain reasoning:
All forms of logic are welcome because they inspire curiosity.
All reasoning and rhetoric is human centric.
Technology is a means to an end—never a purpose unto itself.
Originally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia. Read More
Jo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management. Read More
As a Product-Portfolio Manager at Nokia, Michael led design-research planning, portfolio studies, and work practice innovation projects, all of which represent boundary objects. Michael’s work introduces human-centered reasoning as a practical way to reorient profit-and-loss decision making and create value for people. His prior work in the domains of corporate strategy, design strategy, consumer insights, business-process design and concept making, and industrial design enabled each silo to reason more clearly with each other through design thinking. Prior to receiving a Masters in Design Methods from the Illinois Institute of Design, in Chicago, Michael was a Professor of Industrial Design at Humber College, in Toronto. Michael is particularly interested in the topic of mastery and the forces that confound it during innovation planning. Read More