Books versus people

Recently I've realised that I'm not spending enough time talking through the problems I face at work. This has been a hard-won realisation for me.

I used to be able to solve work problems by reading things in books and articles and then practicing them on my own. This is how I learned to be a designer and a researcher. I learned how to interview people, make prototypes, do usability testing, give presentations, run workshops, and many other things like this. It felt like a superpower.

But as my work changed - from working on my own to leading teams - this superpower stopped working.

This showed up in a series of personal crises at work:

  • when I was designing an online supermarket and burned out because I couldn't work out how to share work with my team
  • when I jumped from managing no one to managing four people and struggled to do my job because I couldn't figure out how to let go of enough control
  • when I became paralysed at the thought of doing a product manager role on top of my role as lead user researcher because I didn't realise I could negotiate with my own managers to put some aspects of both roles on hold for a while.

I didn't get through these crises by reading books (although god knows I tried). I got through them by talking things through with other people.

I think this is because these crises were not about how to do specific things on my own. They were about how to act and behave in complex situations that involved many other actors and their own motives. Books can't ask questions to clarify context before they give advice. People can, and do, ask questions (or at least the best ones do). And it's this back and forth about the context that makes their advice so powerful.

I noticed something else too. The people that helped me most were not the kinds of people I'd talked to up to that point in my career. 

Previously, I would talk with other researchers and designers because the problems I was facing were practical problems about how to do specific things. But researchers and designers were often as clueless as I was about how to deal with this new class of problems. 

I had to find new people to talk to.

I solved the three crises using a mixture of counselling and coaching. It turns out that counsellors and coaches are experts at asking the right kinds of questions and then giving powerful, contextual advice.

But this is too expensive in the long run.

Now I talk through these problems with people I know at work who face similar problems themselves. These people are not just researchers and designers - they include product managers, content designers, delivery managers, and technologists. There are only two qualifications. Do I trust this person enough to share my problems? Does this person have experience of facing similar problems themselves?

These conversations are amazing. In the last two weeks alone I've realised that I'm not sharing enough of my work with my senior colleagues, that I'm sometimes too focused on building consensus and not making a decision myself, and that my work satisfaction doesn't depend on simply getting stuff done but also on the working culture.

These are wise things that I hadn't realised on my own. They're difficult to answer using books because they're specific to me and my personal work context. 

So that's what I am doing now. Or trying to, because it's a new thing for me and I keep forgetting to do it. My deep-grained habit is to go back to reading a book and shutting myself away to solve it on my own. But although it's taken me about three years to realise this, I'm finally clear that books don't hold all the answers for me.

If you are facing these kinds of problems then you should give this a go too...

Let me know what you think on @myddelton. Thank you to the people who have given up their time to talk things through with me. 

Facing things as they are

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin

I love this quote. For what it tells us about how to approach the world. For what it tells us about how to have relationships with others. And for how it gets at the root of what people struggle most with when it comes to user research.

User research is about starting by facing things as they are.

People worry that the things we learn might be impossible to do anything about. They worry that understanding these things is a waste of time. They worry that these things will mean rejecting the fundamentals behind the things we are working on.

Let’s be honest. All of these things can be true. Are often true.

Facing things as they are turns up things that we can’t do anything to solve. The problems we find are beyond our power. This happens all the time. That’s life.

Facing things as they are requires that we invest time in understanding things. Given that there will be things we can’t do anything to solve, with hindsight it can seem like what we did was a waste of time. Hindsight is a trickster though.

Facing things as they are often leads to a dawning realisation that the things we are working on are the wrong things. You can avoid this truth for a while. But in the long run there is no hiding from this. The things you poured your heart into don’t lead to changes in the world. If you care about change this kills you.

There's a final worry about facing things as they are. This one isn't true though.

People fear that facing things as they are means designing for things as they are, not designing for things as they could be. This is not how research works. It's not how design works. It's not how humans work. Once we face things as they are we are free to imagine new futures. This is our job. As Dan Saffer says, empathy is not enough.

I understand how difficult it is to face things as they are. I struggle with this on all sorts of levels. It’s easier, in the short term at least, to avoid facing things as they are in all areas of our lives. Our work. Our friends. Our selves. Our deaths. 

But, like James Baldwin said, nothing can be changed until it is faced.

I heard this quote on an episode of The Long Now called What the dying teach the living. Many of the things in that episode ring true for me and lessons I've learned in my life. Have a listen. And let me know what you think on @myddelton.