“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.