Myddelton co

Keywords: myddelton co
Description: User experience and information architecture from Will Myddelton

It’s a story I can only tell now, months after the events unfolded, because it’s taken that distance to work out what the hell was going on.

Rewind my life one year. I’d just survived the first 12 months of working for a proper UX agency. No one had found me out as an impostor. I’d done some good work and developed more as a user experience designer than I ever expected to in that time. In fact, almost exactly a year ago, I gave a talk at UX Lisbon to a group of designers about my approach to prototyping. It went down really well.

In short succession I started line managing people for the first time in my life, got promoted to lead the user experience designers in our London office, and began leading a project team of multiple designers on a huge, complicated, high profile, and interesting project.

This sequence of events propelled me onto the change curve. So let’s quickly explain what the change curve is and then we can get on with the story.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss-American psychiatrist who did a lot of influential work related to death and dying in the 1960s. She was all about helping people to confront the reality of terminal illness and death, which is pretty high on my list of worthwhile life missions.

You already know Kübler-Ross’s work because it’s the five stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. She unveiled these stages in 1969, but over time they’ve come to be used for much more than modelling the stages of grief.

These days the five stages have evolved into the change curve below, which is used as a method of helping people understand their reactions to significant change or upheaval.

Before I dropped into the change curve I’d spent five years improving my design and research skills with tangible results. As my performance increased over time, so did my confidence in my skills and my future ability to keep improving. A year ago I was confident, happy and hopeful about the future.

First came the shock. a major change that sent me hurtling into the change curve. In my case this was taking responsibility for other people’s output, their happiness at work, and their development as designers. Up until that point I’d only ever had to focus on my own output, happiness and development - but when I started focusing on supporting other people, the tools and methods I had used on myself were clearly insufficient and I had very little idea what to do.

The denial came next. The honest truth is I never even registered the shock at the time. For months and months I thought I was doing a wonderful job when in fact the quality of my project work was slipping and I was treating my colleagues like children. The thing about denial is that it’s incredibly, invisibly powerful - you would think you’d spot it in yourself but you don’t. In the end it took some very direct feedback from my colleagues and my girlfriend to help me realise just how much I was struggling.

Then flowed the anger. And boy did I get angry. With the job. With the project. With my colleagues. With my girlfriend. With the prototype I was building. And, on one unforgettable late night, with a web font that simply would not work when I uploaded it to the server. The thing about the angry stage is it’s happening right when your performance is falling off a cliff, so it’s a powerful front to avoid taking responsibility for the way things are going wrong. It’s the part of the change curve that I am most ashamed of when I look back.

The depression quickly followed. For me this set in once the crunch project was over, and it sat with me for a while because I went away to New Zealand for a month. It was not my happiest holiday ever. During that time I started to glimpse what had really been going on: I was out of my depth and didn’t know what to do about it. They say that the depression stage is a kind of early-acceptance but one where you are still emotionally attached to the things you are accepting, which is what makes it so fucking difficult. I kind of feel like I don’t need to tell you about depression. It’s the very bottom of the change curve for a reason.

And, eventually, the acceptance. After New Zealand, and after another painful four weeks on the project, I started to privately and publicly accept the scale of my failure and own up to the many things I had done wrong. Honestly, this all started from some brave, direct feedback from my colleagues in a sprint retrospective. I gradually saw the scale of the task ahead of me, which was that taking responsibility for more than my own work required a radical rethink about how I approach the act of work in general. I stopped being in denial. I stopped being angry. And although it sounds like this would make you more depressed, actually holding my hands up and saying these things are my fault was a huge relief, so I left the depression behind as well.

Finally, integration. This is where you experiment with new approaches and then adopt the ones that help you raise your performance in your new, changed, situation. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading, training, and experimenting in the art of leading teams. I’ve been doing a lot of listening too. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but my future feels interesting and hopeful again. It’s not the same future that I envisaged a year ago - lots more about working effectively with other people and lots less about interaction design patterns and research methods - but that’s the thing about change: it does involve making changes.

But I can pinpoint exactly when things turned around. At about 4.00pm on Thursday 16 April someone that I trust scribbled this change curve down on a piece of paper and said, look, Will, this is what you have been going through.

In an instant, my whole year made sense. I saw my life on that curve - shock, denial, anger, depression, acceptance - and it gave me a sudden burst of hope that there was a way forward.

I love a simple model that helps us understand a messy situation. I love being able to put the right words on complicated things in a way that brings a sudden clarity.

Thanks to everyone who went on this journey with me, but in particular to those who gave me the feedback I needed. You know who you are.

This feels heretical for a user experience designer to say, but it’s been bugging the hell out of me for a couple of years, so here goes…

We are not getting at The Truth when we do user interviews, usability tests and contextual enquiries. What we’re doing is trying to learn enough to Make Something Better. This is a slightly more ambitious version of making something happen. something I've written about before. a couple of times .

This doesn’t mean I don’t value design research. It’s hands-down the most important part of my job and will continue to be. It’s just that it’s not scientific research, or hard evidence, or proof, or reflective of some kind of universal truth.

Jaron Lanier has a great passage in his otherwise-flawed book Who Owns The Future? where he talks about the differences between the use of data in the scientific/academic world and in business.

I am going to grossly oversimplify here, but his point is that scientific research and business research seem superficially similar because they have attributes that you can easily map from one to the other:

  1. They are both done by ‘researchers’
  2. They both involve a methodology to eliminate biases
  3. They both involve collecting data, statistical and/or qualitative
  4. They end with a statement of truth.

Scientists, the people searching for The Truth, spend decades working on incredibly specific problems. It is not unusual for them to throw away years of research because of a tiny error in their methodology.

Their methodologies are designed to carefully isolate single variables (if they’re lucky enough to be physicists) or to compare small groups of variables (if they’re lucky enough to be biologists) or to attempt comparisons between huge groups of variables (if they have the misfortune to be economists). Go and read how Daniel Kahneman set up the experiments to find out the truths we all misrepresent from Thinking Fast and Slow. Meticulous.

Their collection of evidence is even more painstaking. I don’t know what you know about statistics, but statistical significance is only the tip of the iceberg. Scientists deal in measures of statistical validity that we have never heard of. Every measurement is understood in terms of error bars. When did you last see an error bar?

Finally, it comes to stating The Truth. This cannot happen without publishing everything - the hypotheses, the meticulous details of the methodologies, the raw data collected during all the experiments, even the calculations used to process the data.

And still it will be attacked and probed and questioned by experts from all over world. In fact, the very premise of being The Truth requires you to accept it always remains a hypothesis waiting to be 'falsified’ by another, better-designed experiment.

That’s how scientific research finds The Truth. It literally takes centuries of painstaking specific detail being added to painstaking specific detail. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that.

Design research is about fighting to Make Something Better. Because if we don’t fight, nothing will happen, and it’s all a waste of time.

Designers, the people fighting to Make Something Better, do not just work on one incredibly specific thing. We definitely do not have years and decades to Make Something Better. If you’re lucky you’ll have months, but usually it’s weeks or days.

Our methodologies are designed to fit inside a few months (if you’ve got an enormous budget), a few weeks (if you work at a user-centred design consultancy) or wherever the hell they can among the chaos that is working in a business (most of the rest of the world). They are not designed to isolate variables beyond cursory attempts to eliminate the biggest biases and leading questions. When was the last time you threw away your research because of a methodological error?

Our collection of evidence is haphazard. Where statistics are used, the sample sizes are incredibly small, there is almost never any use of error bars or confidence intervals. Where we go qualitative, interesting quotes are cherry picked to make specific points. Patterns are detected and amplified into stories because that’s what you need to Make Something Happen. In all honesty, our research is rarely subjected to even social science levels of rigour.

Finally it comes time to Make Something Better. We might summarise our goals (changed many times throughout the project), show a high level outline of methodologies (usually in bullet points), publish a tiny fraction of the raw data to a tiny audience (some quotes and video clips) and make some massive generalisations (like design principles).

And still the likelihood is it will be glanced over, forgotten and nothing will happen. Because it’s a messy world and there are people.

That’s how design research gets to Make Something Better. It’s a desperate search for answers to too many questions followed by a headlong dash to assemble them into something as convincing as you can possibly muster.

So, scientific research and design research sound similar when you talk about the nouns (researchers, methodology, evidence, data, analysis, conclusion) but they are actually very different when you fill in all the verbs (share/summarise, publish/present, prove/convince).

None of this is to say that one method is better or worse than the other. They are different. They have different goals.

If you want to find The Truth, don’t use design research because it will be falsified by a high school student in minutes. She’ll tear apart your methodology ruthlessly.

If you want to Make Something Better, don’t use the scientific method because you’ll still be working on the first premise long after your company goes bust.

The correct response to this is NOT to try and make design research 'more scientific’. Yes, we should attempt to eliminate biases but we must never lost sight of the fact that we are here to Make Something Better. Finding The Truth just takes more time than we have available, and is mostly unnecessary in any case.

If you want a stark reminder of the differences between our two different worlds, remember that it’s OK for scientists to use Comic Sans. When physicists at CERN found the Higgs’ Boson their choice of typeface was mocked in the design world, but it didn’t invalidate their work. Because they had found The Truth and history doesn’t care about the typeface that the The Truth is written in.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do research. I’m definitely not saying we shouldn’t try to avoid biases. I’m just saying we need to be aware of the differences between these two superficially-similar methods. They are both types of 'research’, yes, but you shouldn’t be using language from one method if you’re actually deploying the other.

For example, I get sick of hearing designers saying they have 'proved’ something with user research. For designers, research is about action, not proof. Tell me how your design research led to something better happening in the world, not what you think you 'proved’. All our proofs are subject to change. Times change. Contexts change.

This kind of lazy talk leads to something else that I am growing weary of, which is hearing clients demand that we find out The Truth. We should come clean: we don’t have access to The Truth and we should stop talking as if we do.

What we need is a bunch of design research tools to Make Something Better. Because design is usually a wicked problem. not a simple equation, and 'better’ is the best you can do with wicked problems. There is never a 'right’ answer. The Truth is an expensive mirage.

And actually, for most businesses (and charities, and governments, and in fact nearly everyone) even just being able to Make Something Happen is the most precious thing imaginable, because it’s in the doing of new things that people learn how to do newer and better things themselves in the future. Teach a woman to fish and all that…

I just finished an amazing project. The reason it worked so well was that it was the closest I have come to truly creating a collaborative design environment with my client.

I was embedded in their organisation with a small team of people from all sections of their corporate structure and we created a concept prototype that exceeded all their (and, frankly, my own) expectations.

Collaborative design is one of those things that many people talk about but few people do. If you fancy having a go (do it!) here are 12 things I learned about turning a group of non-designers into designers:

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