“Sometimes I wonder where I’ve been/Who I am/Do I fit in”—Irene Cara, “Out Here on My Own”
While these lyrics may be a bit cliché, this is an existential question we all have struggled with at various points in our lives, myself included. In fact, this was true for me recently. Changes in organizational structure at work and challenges in my personal life in general had me asking exactly these questions not so long ago. But I’ve always been a pretty strong, resilient person. So I wondered why it felt so hard this time. I also wondered how I’d dig myself out of my quandary.
Participating in two recent events has unwittingly made a huge impact on me—and I think I understand why. These events helped me find my people again and, in doing so, to remember who I am, as well as my place and value in the world.
Finding My Confidence Again
The first event was my performing in a show—for the first time in a while. Admittedly, the first few rehearsals were awkward, as they always are. But we began on common ground because I already knew one person, and the director and a few others had gone to the same undergrad college as me—at different times, but still, there were some common experiences we shared. It was easy to start conversations with them when we had teachers and places in common that we could discuss.
As we worked, we bonded. It didn’t matter that we came from varied backgrounds and spanned different age groups. What mattered was that we had this current experience together. As we got closer to our opening performance, we started wanting to hang out after rehearsals and shows. The invitation was always open to everyone, so not going felt like missing out on something important. The show was a consuming part of our lives during this time, so sharing the entire experience together made sense.
What happened to me during this time was that I built back some confidence I had lost, and that allowed me to let loose, so I had more fun performing than I had in a long time. The last night of the show, we decided to play a game together. We challenged ourselves to find a line in which we could change a word to mustache. There was a running joke because a key character’s fake mustache was always in threat of falling off during the show.
We were being total theatre dorks, and we owned it. Our stage manager hated that game, but we did it anyway. We were in this together. But we could never have felt comfortable doing this without having the sense of belonging that our group had developed. This seemed to make us braver than we would have been individually and let us explore improvisation together. Because, of course, the best part was that we didn’t tell each other at what point we were going to do this. It was always a surprise, so the challenge was not to crack up on stage when someone dropped a mustache.
Finding Renewed Purpose at the IA Summit
The second event was my second time attending—and presenting at—the IA Summit—which is, without a doubt, one of the best experiences you can have at a conference. Nothing else has ever felt like such a community and a reunion or coming home to me. Everyone brings a positive and engaging attitude. You’d have to be antisocial not to enjoy this experience.
Everything about how this conference is structured promotes building a sense of community—from the wide range of social events—including first-timer dinners—to the setup of the venue and program. The organizers consider the total experience, from beginning to end.
The organizers of the IA Summit seem intentionally to have set up opportunities for attendees to step outside their comfort zone. Want to get a taste for presenting without the full-on pressure of giving a talk? Submit for poster night, which is a low-pressure way to get some experience. Are you a first time presenter? No worries, they’ll give you a mentor! Do you just want to break out of your shell a bit socially? Then sign up to sing at karaoke night. Everyone supports all attempts in this community.
One of the running themes across the content this year was even about inclusiveness in our work. Many presenters talked about making sure our designs are accessible to all—regardless of race, gender, location, disability, and so on. The topic hit home for me at that moment, given my own existential struggles.
In the end, the conference was an exhausting, but exhilarating weekend. I had found it hard to balance time with old friends and new. We all had so much to talk about and learn about each other. This renewed my feeling of purpose as a UX professional. And it sure didn’t hurt that one audience member’s tweet about my talk said, “Thanks for reminding me that my role as a designer is valued.” Reminding her helped me remind myself. The connectedness of spending three days with these people invigorated me. I no longer felt like I was the only one with doubts. The conference gave me a renewed desire and purpose to achieve my goals.
Why Having Your People Matters
What truly struck me from these experiences is that I finally understood the reason I had felt like a person alone and adrift at that moment in time. It was because I’d lost that very necessary connection to my people. I know. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? But sometimes disconnection happens at such a slow pace, you don’t even realize it’s happened.
What are the intrinsic values that make your people matter?
group mind—You can’t expect to know it all. That will never happen. When you do research to gain knowledge, if you do it on your own, you’ll lose the opportunity to gain the perspectives of other people and learn from them. Discovering with others opens your mind in a way that trying to accomplish the same goal on your own never can.
Plus, talking with other like-minded people is the best way to brainstorm and generate new ideas. Using the power of the group mind gives the best results because you can take advantage of a much wider scope of experience, inputs, and ideas.
boundary pushing—It is hard to keep pushing yourself when working on your own. It’s all too easy to let go of your goals when you try to make a go of it alone. This is why the support and encouragement of the group is so valuable.
When it comes to pushing myself, the best motivation I’ve ever known is the friendly competition of peers within my group. Having others with similar goals around you encourages and supports you to continue your pursuit of your own goals and lifts your spirits. You also have the support system that a group provides, which lends you some energy and drive when your own reserves are low.
community responsibility—When you are part of a group, it is very hard to disappoint or let down that group by not following through on your responsibilities. When you feel that you belong and are accountable to others beyond yourself, you are more likely not only to meet, but even to exceed their expectations.
The other benefit here is that, if you need help, there are others you can reach out to, who can help you shoulder the load. A sense of community responsibility helps you to be the best version of yourself, and you can accomplish so much more than you ever could on your own.
It had been the lack of such a support system and its benefits that had me singing that melancholy tune. We sometimes forget to value and appreciate just how much we gain from feeling included and being part of a group. But these relationships help ground us and enable us to move forward.
Let Your Freak Flag Fly
In my favorite presentation from IA Summit 2016, Peter Merholz reminded us to let our freak flags fly. For me, this was an important reminder. People definitely don’t do this enough. Remember that mustache game? That was the cast letting our freak flags fly—and was it ever fun. It becomes much more possible to feel confident and comfortable enough to let that flag fly with pride when you have the power of feeling like an included member of a group supporting you.
You may think that belonging means you are conforming. But when belonging is inclusive and the group is accepting, belonging actually has completely the opposite effect. It gives you the confidence and self-esteem you need to conquer the world. So go find your people, let your freak flag fly, and see how far this can take you! Maybe the Fame Coco was looking for will come to you.
With over fifteen years of experience as an interaction designer and user researcher, focusing on user-centered design methods, Traci has experienced a broad range of work practices. After ten years of consulting, Traci transitioned to working on staff with product teams at companies such as Avid and Oracle. Through her UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact, Traci shares how she infuses aspects of theatrical theory and practice into her design practice to bring a more empathetic, user-centered focus to her work. Traci holds an M.A. in Theater Education from Emerson and a B.S. in Communications Media from Fitchburg State College. She is a member of the Boston chapters of UXPA and IxDA and has spoken at conferences such as the IA Summit and Big Design. She is also a nominee for the 2016 New Hampshire Theatre Awards in the best supporting actress category. Read More