Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Preconceived notions

During his CONNECTING 07 World Design Congress plenary presentation, Richard Seymour (pictured at right) argued that the primary obstacle design and designers face is NOT ignorance regarding what design is and what designers do, but is instead "preconceived notions" regarding the same. As Richard put it, ignorance is easier to deal with; dealing with preconceived notions is very hard.

It was interesting to see how often some variation of this message was echoed throughout the conference.

Some examples...

Futurist Paul Saffo spoke of the great extent to which the future will be about "personal media," but he argued that even those in attendance at the conference couldn't really understand what he meant by that, because we all think we already know what it means.

Janine Benyus spoke of how carbon dioxide is viewed by most these days as a major problem in need of a solution, though in nature, carbon dioxide is often "a solution" (e.g., it is a building material for plants and for mollusks). As described by Janine, the world's focus is largely stuck on exploring and developing solution options that view carbon dioxide only as a problem, whereas biomimicry -- "the conscious emulation of nature's elegant, energy-sipping, non-toxic designs" -- offers very different, often superior options.

On the lighter side, Sir Ken Robinson polled the audience regarding the number of senses humans have. Most responded that humans have five senses, or five plus a spooky sixth sense. How many senses do humans actually have? According to Ken, scientists presently believe we have seventeen.

And Roger Martin, whom I referenced extensively in "'Designing in hostile territory'," explained how the common notion that risk needs to be minimized for a business to be successful is a hindrance to innovation and development of competitive advantage.

In my workshops and presentations, I often talk about how preconceived notions of the meaning of a lot of the terminology used by user experience personnel -- sometimes including the terms "user" and "user experience" -- can get in the way of the success of user experience personnel and the amount of influence they have in business. I've written a bit about this in past blog entries, including "Is 'user' the best word?" and "Words (and definitions) matter; however..."

I've often run into preconceived notions of multidisciplinary collaboration among user experience personnel. Reactions of "we already collaborate extensively" and "we've been doing that for years" have signalled that achieving change will be challenging.

I also often ask workshop or course participants what is "holding user experience back" where they work. The source of many of the answers? Constraining, preconceived notions of what "user experience" is and what user experience personnel do.

In our first issue of interactions magazine, Secil Watson, Senior VP Internet Channel Strategy at Wells Fargo, writes:
"Five years ago, when I told people I managed customer experience, they thought I ran a call center, as 'experience' was synonymous with servicing. ... When I told people I designed the website, they thought I was a graphic artist."
Secil and others have been doing a great job of changing those preconceived notions at Wells Fargo during the past five years, but many still encounter similar or related notions.

One of the tools used by Secil and her staff to change such notions was repeated presentations within the company about what her customer experience team does and why. Stephen Anderson has posted a delightful presentation of this nature, and such presentations are important.

But they only go so far.

John Seely Brown has explained part of why this is the case, in a presentation about "learning to unlearn."
"...a lot of us who are struggling in large corporations know first hand that the hardest task is to get the corporate mind to start to unlearn... It turns out that this learning to unlearn may be a lot trickier than a lot of us at first think."
John attributes this to the fact that so much of what we know is tacit knowledge, which is not as readily changed via such presentations.

In short, more is needed. And Secil and others have done much more at Wells Fargo, as she describes in her article.

What more is needed? Words attributed to Confucious and quoted by Bill Buxton in his 2007 book, "Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design," provide both a partial summary of this posting and a hint at the answer to that question:
"Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand."

Look for an article from Richard Seymour in our third issue of interactions magazine -- the May+June 2008 issue.