Being Human

September 17, 2012

We’ve just returned home from an energizing and enjoyable time at UX Australia 2012 in Brisbane. It is always thrilling to connect with local UX communities around the world; to hear about the project work people are doing, the problems they face, their latest thinking, and the maturity of user experience in local markets; and to think about what this means for global UX practice. This is particularly the case in a community as active, passionate, and intelligent as the UX community in Australia.

Some of the presentations that we attended at UX Australia 2012 addressed the importance of taking time to better understand people as part of a design cycle—whether its goal is to improve the design of products, services, spaces, businesses, communities, or the world for a better future.

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Tim Horton spoke to this theme during his closing talk, “The Rise of the Design-Smart City: Emergent Hope in Adelaide’s 5000+,” sharing this quotation:

“The best way to predict the future is to design it.”—Buckminster Fuller

The idea of giving people the right environment to enable them to predict and move beyond current designs is an interesting one. As is moving beyond the idea of user research activities as a milestone in a project plan and advancing toward the important endeavor of having real conversations with the people for whom we design products and services. It was good to see a return to the basic importance of including people in our UX practice rather than getting caught up in a discussion of methodology or approaches and definitions. Perhaps this is a sign of a maturing global practice?

Bill DeRouchey started the conference beautifully, presenting his keynote, “The Power of ‘Why’.” He got us all thinking about the importance of empathy and compassion, while kindly challenging us to look at the bigger systemic problems that designers can help address in our world today.

Jake Causby spoke about “Potholes on the Journey to Design Transparency”—working more effectively with multidisciplinary teams and helping to remove the barriers that may exist between development and design teams. He also touched on the soft skills team members need— independent of their discipline—to work optimally, blending their collective brain power to come up with shared design improvements. Perhaps this is the beginning of a shared creative language that would let us move toward collaborative production?

Jeremy Yuille presented on “Performing Design: Taking the Stage and Acting a Role.” He spoke about the importance of performance in enabling our methods to come alive—a form of flow that moves our ideas forward and helps us to do our best work—and the creative spaces in which we can make this happen.

Stephen Cox spoke about “The Design Anthropologist’s Mindset,” asking deeper questions, making us think about what it means to human. He took us on a lovely whirlwind tour of the history of the world, the use of stories, observation, the language we use, and communication.

Note—These represent just a sampling of the many great presentations at UX Australia 2012 that got us thinking about our practice—and what being human is all about.

Reflections in Tangalooma

After UX Australia 2012, a few of us took a weekend trip to Tangalooma, giving us the rare opportunity to share a post-conference experience and a perfect environment in which to experience the joys of being human. We took a ferry ride to Tangalooma, walked on the beach, shared quiet and play times, enjoyed relaxing dinners by the beach, listened to the water, and fed the dolphins, while reflecting on our learnings from the conference. Our weekend discussions sparked some further questions:

  • What does being human mean?
  • What does it mean as it relates to UX practice?
  • Are we truly human in our practice?
  • Are there opportunities to improve how we treat people?
  • What does this mean for the methods we use?
  • Do we design environments that enable people to truly be themselves, so they can do their best work?
  • What are the attributes of an environment that fosters deep thinking and helps us to make great leaps in our thinking?
  • Are there good examples of businesses treating us as humans?
  • What does it feel like when a business truly cares for us?
  • Has big business forgotten what it means to treat people as individuals—moving from names to numbers?
  • How does being human play into both macro and micro design decisions?
  • Do we need to widen our sphere of knowledge into areas where being human is taught rigorously, such as nursing?
  • If we don’t need to speak to people outside of our sphere of knowledge, who should we be speaking to and learning from?

Unfortunately, we don’t have the full answers to all of these questions. But we wanted to share these questions with you as a way of broadening the discussion, with the goal of understanding how we can sharpen and blend our methods and approaches to improve our UX practice. However, there are a few thoughts we would like to share—in no particular order.


This speaks to the importance of understanding that how we behave impacts others—both positively and negatively. When people experience positive emotions, there may be opportunities to bridge them quickly to another positive moment and link up to this goodness through design. If people experience negative emotions, there may be opportunities to devise techniques to address them. We need to be able to assess people’s feelings, from moment to moment, and to understand the approaches that get the best from the people around us.

“Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.”—Gandhi


Caring for other people assumes that you care enough to look out for their best interests. It suggests that you have thought about the points at which people may face roadblocks in their journey and how to help guide them gently around those obstacles. It also assumes that people should have the flexibility to handle situations you may not necessarily have considered when devising a design solution and that you empower people to handle those situations well. Doing all of this ensures that, when people are impacted negatively, they’ll remember turning a challenging situation into positive one. These moments are rare.

Empathic Conversations

STBY, based in London and Amsterdam, describe empathic conversations as “a way to reach the deepest level of behavioral insight, structuring interactions with participants around real, empathic connections that can uncover practices and motivations.”

An article on GigaOM, “What Do Future Products Look Like? Personal, Sensual, Intimate,” says: “At a design level, I think we’re learning lots of new ways to foster intimacy before customers can even get their hands on the end result. We’re finding new ways to involve people.”

The article “What Data Can’t Tell You About Customers also mentions the importance of gaining deeper understanding of our customers: “To innovate for a future in which consumers’ desires and habits change as quickly as their mobile devices, businesses must be nimble in delivering emotional connections beyond just functional utility. That requires understanding customers as people—nuanced, dynamic, unpredictable—not just collections of data.”

All of these articles speak to the idea of spending quality time with people—not in rigid, separate components of a user-centered design process, but with the goal of understanding how the objects we design can converse with people in human ways.


If we care enough to have empathic conversations with the people who are our customers, so we can better and more deeply understand their lives, we’ll be able to uncover truths about their usage of our current products and gaps in functionality that we should explore further. This is not about leading people to get them to tell us what we want to hear, framing our discussions with people with constraints that guide them, or placing our primary focus on business goals or political benefits to our project team. It’s about how a design can truly match what people want now and perhaps in the future.


Getting to know people takes time. With every customer visit we make, we see how their lives have changed. Often, we get to hear from people only during brief, one- or two-hour blocks of time, when the main driver is meeting research goals or ensuring that a person matches recruitment criteria. Forming a relationship with a person means viewing that person as an equal in our research—a human being who can contribute actively to our conversations.


Recalling the first time we observed user research, we had to think about what parts of the conversation were important, what could we ignore, how to group our observations, and what were the best insights that we could bridge into the design of a product or service. Getting good at observation takes time and practice. During a conversation with Walt Buchanan, we talked about other professions outside of user experience from which we could learn to sharpen our observation skills.


Sometimes it feels like we are retrofitting our user research methods to squeeze them into project schedules, making it difficult for quality research to take place. Development methods such as agile may enforce unreasonable schedules. We see merit in pursuing whatever opportunities we have—within project constraints—to speak to people who can help us to improve our designs, but not at the expense of treating the people with whom we are speaking well.

Closing Thoughts

Stephen Cox quoted Genevieve Bell on the importance of sometimes being bored. We see real wisdom in this perspective. It embodies the idea of being able to stop, observe the world around us, the people interacting in it, and what it means, in moments of time, to help us all move outside the constraints and frameworks of project timelines and budgets. 

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally 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

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo 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

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