Hibernation and Innovation

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
January 4, 2021

“Hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.”—Ralph Ellison.

In his 1953 book The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison explores a number of social and intellectual issues of the African-American community of that time period. The book is as relevant today as it was in 1953. The quotation at the beginning of this column has transfixed me for a long time now—especially given that we are coming up on almost a year of relative hibernation because of the global pandemic. How can you write something that is interesting and compelling in a time when people just want to hibernate until it is all over?

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We are seemingly going through the motions of our regular lives, yearning for a return to a sense of normalcy, where getting together with people doesn’t seem so weird. Yet, as incredible as that sounds, we are also undergoing an incredible period of innovation. The most obvious area of innovation is the creation, manufacturing, and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine in record time—but this has not yet produced as much insight into how it was done. I am looking forward to learning as much as possible about the innovation that has gone into this vaccine. One thing is for certain: it was the result of lots of people working toward a common purpose, which was about saving people’s lives, but also about saving humanity’s way of life. This innovation required the ability to experiment, but was also driven by the absolutely necessity of being successful. Such innovation will provide lessons for not only our own UX design community but for many other communities over the years to come.

Whether innovation happens in medicine or in figuring out how to entertain young children who are held within the confines of home all day long, the essence of innovation is the same. What is at the heart of innovation? Solving a problem. Now, in business, many don’t like using the word problem and may prefer challenge or opportunity. But let’s be honest and call it what it is: a problem to solve. Even if we’re just improving something that works well to see if we could make it work better, that’s still a problem to solve. For example, how might we make something even faster, better, and more complete?

When we innovate during a crisis, this also really kickstarts our empathy. When there’s a health crisis, we want to help other people. When disruption touches our lives—whether it’s the fact that we can no longer just walk into a grocery store and get whatever we want or the relative helplessness that COVID-19 has left all of us feeling to some degree—we naturally want to help solve the problem. Some of our motivation comes from the need to take control, some of it is altruistic, and some of it is our desire to achieve a semblance of normalcy.

While our innovations during times of crisis often have some ethereal driving force behind them, the desire to fix something that would better our overall lives drives most successful innovations. An incredible outpouring of empathy that fosters innovation is key to success. If you want great design, you need to start with people and what they do, what they need, and most importantly, what they experience when trying to do things. The same holds true for innovation. To innovate, we need to understand people’s struggles, but also what they actually like about an experience. Empathy lets us create something that no one really even knew people needed. Ultimately, we want innovation to have a positive impact on people and the communities of which they are a part. Innovation can align disparate groups. The advantages of a crisis are that it aligns people in a common cause. We see this not just during health crises but also during times of war, political turmoil, or overall upheaval.

In addition to empathy, innovating in times of crisis requires having a strong will that is informed by empathy. To innovate effectively, we must harness the ability to fail fast. Some within the UX design community talk a lot about the concept of failing fast—and a lot of other communities have embraced the ability to fail fast. But I have seen that this idea often does not resonate with other parts of an organization or business. This relates to the same reason businesspeople never want to talk about problems, just opportunities.

The perception that we cannot fail or that failure is a bad thing is incredibly damaging to our ability to innovate. I have long worried about the impact that the perceived inability to fail could have on up-and-coming UX designers. However, in such times of crisis, there is a perceptible shift toward embracing the ability to experiment again. To resolve a crisis, taking action is necessary. If that action is not successful, the crisis still remains, so we have no choice but to try again and again and again, until the crisis is resolved.

The need to keep trying until you are successful should provide a safe harbor for the concept of failing fast, making it more widely accepted as part of the overall design process. The end result of failing fast is to be successful. We should normalize this as part of the overall process of accomplishing anything great in life.

In addition to using hibernation to recharge and reconnect, we should all be leveraging this time to prepare for the future. This is the time to recognize toxicity and how it clouds our ability to be innovative. What do I mean by that?

I am talking about people who, instead of focusing on what they should be doing, focus on building a perception regarding what others are not doing? That is toxic and gets in the way of empathy and innovation. Those who cannot focus on change and innovation see only the deficiencies in what people are doing. Might that be because something was never done that way before?

Take advantage of this hibernation period that COVID-19 has imposed upon us. In the next few years, we’ll see the successes we’ve initiated today, and the world will be a better place for it. 

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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