Tuesday, September 23, 2008

To what extent does where we come from impact where we (can) go?

This past spring, Jim Leftwich, Chief Experience Officer at SeeqPod, was a guest speaker at my "User Experience Managers and Executives Speak" course, where he described the evolution of his career, beginning with his childhood encounter with a tractor throttle (see photo). What was striking was the extent to which Jim's approach and way of working was influenced by that encounter and has continued to reflect his experiences growing up on an Iowa farm.

According to Jim, his Dad was a businessman, a veternarian, a carpenter, an engineer, ... -- a little bit of everything. Well, Jim's approach has usually been one of doing most everything himself, and in college, he studied a little bit of everything, including engineering, economics, business, fine arts, photography, psychology, graphics, typology, and industrial design, all of which he continues to apply in his work. Jim told of how his Dad would say, "Let me know what you need, and I'll tell you how to get along without it," a philosophy -- an approach -- reflected in Jim's work throughout his careeer.

To what extent does our work, our approach, our thinking, ... continue to reflect our early experiences?

During the recent IDSA 2008 conference, a surprising number of speakers began their presentations by describing their early experiences and how those early experiences are reflected in their thinking and work today.

During BayCHI's program two weeks ago, Bill Verplank sketched numerous metaphors, including his definition of "interaction design," a term Bill is credited for having co-coined. Bill has made and presented this sketch before; indeed, you can watch him do so in a video that is available on the webpage corresponding to an interview of Bill that appeared in the book, "Designing Interactions." What was new this time was Bill's statement that he only recently realized his definition of "interaction design" reflected his early days as a controls engineer. And though his definition includes attending to how users feel, Bill stated that the focus of his work has never really moved on to "user experience," which includes an emotional component that was never the focus of his early work.

In the delightful book "Eat Pray Love," Elizabeth Gilbert writes:
"When you are walking down the road in Bali and you pass a stranger, the very first question he or she will ask you is, "Where are you going?" The second question is, "Where are you coming from?" To a Westerner, this can seem like a rather invasive inquiry from a perfect stranger, but they're just trying to get an orientation on you, trying to insert you into the grid for the purposes of security and comfort. If you tell them that you don't know where you're going, or that you're just wandering about randomly, you might instigate a bit of distress in the heart of your new Balinese friend. It's far better to pick some kind of specific direction -- anywhere -- just so everybody feels better."
In a more abstract sense than intended by Elizabeth, is the first question even necessary once you learn the answer to the second? The above stories about Jim, Bill, and several IDSA conference speakers suggest that the answer might be, "no." And it seems to me that most people think the answer is, "no." That is certainly the case of the historical analyst interviewed on National Public Radio recently who argued that the early experiences of the two major U.S. presidential candidates reveal exactly what kind of presidents they would be.

Why am I thinking and writing about this? Well, it was my birthday recently, and as I told a couple of friends, the occurrence of my birthday had led me to become excessively introspective. "Watch out," they wisely responded!

But I think I've long been a bit disturbed by the extent to which people get defined by "where they are coming from" -- that once people reveal that kind of information (whether it is about the geographic area in which they grew up or the profession or professional association in which they "grew up" or the "era" in which they grew up or...), others' preconceived notions of what it means about who they are and "where they are going" or where they can go kick in. Such "preconceived notions," as I described in a blog entry of that title, are very hard to change.

Yet, many of those preconceived notions may have been shaped by early experiences, perhaps explaining their resistance to change.

The relevance of all of this to this blog? Well, this blog is largely about achieving change, as I am certainly in the "change business," helping individuals and organizations change their work practice, management, and organizational strategy via my consulting, teaching, and co-chief-editorship of interactions magazine.

And many have argued that anyone working in this field is or should be in the same change business. For example, in an earlier blog entry about this, I quoted Secil Watson:
"Think of yourselves as change agents. If you like that role, then look at of yourselves as the people who can really change the culture of the organization you are a part of."
Mark Hurst has been arguing for years that changing the organization "is the most important part of user experience work." But he also argues that changing the organization is "the most difficult" part of user experience work.

Indeed, as you probably know, it is usually VERY difficult, which is why there are people like me available to provide guidance.

The huge response to "Eat Pray Love" reveals that Elizabeth Gilbert is in the "change business" as well. Though her "change business" is rather different from mine and yours, perhaps the end of the above quote from her book offers partial guidance regarding how to respond if you haven't yet formulated a good change strategy. In short, "pick some kind of specific direction -- anywhere -- just so everybody feels better."

But then get to work on developing a good change strategy.