Work Worth Doing
How do we facilitate meaningful experiences? It’s a question that many people might ask; religious officials, customer service companies, community organizers, startups, wedding planners, and designers. What does it even mean to be meaningful? Yes, we are diving right into the existential design realm here.
What does it take? Is it pure luck, careful planning, intention? What can you actually do to plan ahead for a meaningful experience? I recently came across a company that was hiring and was touting to their potential employees that they create meaningful experiences. Of course! Who wouldn’t want to work at a place with an in-house kegerator AND do meaningful work? That sounds fulfilling. It is certainly intriguing when someone claims to create meaningful experiences, but it is a bit vague, no? As a UX designer I’m guilty of including the phrase “meaningful experiences” in statements from time to time. So in an attempt to not be quite so vague myself, I’ve taken some time to further define how we design for a meaningful experience. Keep in mind, we can’t necessarily design every aspect of an experience. Humans are far too complex for that. We can however design the conditions that might lead to a particular experience.
Empathy and Identity
This one might be obvious, but we want our designs to be meaningful to the people who use them. There is no shortage of writing about how we can design with the user in mind. But how often do we think about how the user places meaning in their experiences?
We value products that seem to be designed specifically for us. But, how did this happen? Most likely a design team somewhere had a conversation about who they are designing for and about building empathy. When designers use empathy as a tool they are finding ways to connect to the user through their routines, emotions, and world view. IDEO brings empathy to the forefront of Human Centered Design as discussed on designkit.org. Emi Kolawole explains the empathy mindset: “Empathizing with the people you’re designing for is the best route to truly grasping the context and complexities of their lives. But most importantly, it keeps the people you’re designing for squarely grounded in the center of your work.” The designer’s challenge is to understand who the user is and build a connection in order to be sure that the design is well informed and will satisfy the user’s needs.
Is it possible to build empathy practices into your process and still design something meaningless to the user? Beyond habits, emotions, and behaviors, how can we really understand what matters to someone? This may be what Emi means when she says “the context and complexities of their lives”, because people are nothing if not complex. What if we brought values and identity into the conversation as a part of our exercises in empathy. Understanding identity is not separate from empathy but instead a subset that falls under the empathy umbrella. To create meaning for the user, we can’t overlook the deep and sometimes difficult conversations about what they value and how their values shape who they are.
Here’s an example. Let’s say we are designing a language learning app. We interview a set of potential users, we shadow them throughout the day to learn more about their lives and to build empathy. From these observations we gather information about how they might use a language learning service. We learn that they only have short amounts of time throughout the day to engage with the app. We learn that they believe connecting with friends would help in their journey to learning a new language. We learn that they have struggled with language learning in the past and feel some guilt or incompetence when it comes to this challenging task. But what did we miss? Why are they attempting to learn a language? What does that have to do with who they are? In many cases, this is not something that the user has even considered, but these factors can influence whether or not the experience has meaning, and often whether or not they stick with the product.
When we do take the time to explore topics like values, identity, and character in our empathy exercises we may find out the root of why this person is an ideal customer. For example, maybe they want to foster a growth mindset throughout life. Maybe, continual growth is a foundational pillar of who they are. Once we’ve unlocked this insight, the designer has a more complete view of the person and can potentially offer much more than a language app.
The Purpose-Driven Designer
If you've never tried it, write down what is important to you as a designer - in any format. If possible, try to approach this with non-judgement. Don’t think about what you have been working on recently but instead focus on an ideal situation for your future-self. What drives you as a designer? What do you care about? Of course these big questions sometimes don’t flow freely. Check out these resources to get started on defining your personal design ethics: Design Manifestos, Designer’s Oath, Ethics for Designers
When I was teaching design courses at The University of Kansas I had the students create a personal design manifesto. We called this project Work Worth Doing, the results were stunning. Some wrote about why they are designers, what type of change they would like to see in the world, and what promises they would like to make to themselves. One of my favorites was written as an honest and personal letter to her future-self. Whether in letter format or not, I believe a personal design manifesto can be a great way to check in with yourself. Take a quick pulse on whether your current work or upcoming decisions are aligned with what is meaningful to you. Reference and adapt your manifesto throughout your career to help you answer the question- What work is worth doing?
Finding your Work Worth Doing
After you have defined your own design purpose or manifesto, you can evaluate the mission of your employer or client. Are your values aligned? Does your design work contribute to a larger initiative that you care about? Is it part of a higher purpose, mission, movement, or social cause? What is the design working towards? How can you help steer your company towards a worthy purpose?
Most work worth doing involves like-minded people working towards something ambitious. If you are thinking about making a change, look for organizations and people whose values and mission are similar to your own. Go forth and find your purpose-driven people! For more inspiration check out the Center for Humane Tech and Co.Design’s “Designers: 2017 Is The Year to Find Your Purpose. I might have to email author Mark Wilson to ask him to republish every year with an updated title.
"Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."
Theodore Roosevelt, September 7, 1903