Christian Manzella Rotating Header Image

July, 2012:

Finding the Zen in Giving a Sh*t

Warning: What follows is a rant where I repeatedly generalize about people who identify themselves with a “User Experience” or “Experience” label, but I’m typically referring to myself. I justify the generalization only by the fact that so many of the people who make up the community that is “User Experience” often share many of the same traits that I do, empathy foremost among them.

One of the hardest things I find about work in User Experience is balancing it. Not the work. Not the solutions. Not the lack of humanity dying for an overtly emotionally-supportive make-over. But the lack of balance inherent in what I get to directly do and when I get to do it.

You see, to be involved in any aspect of an experience-related field, means caring about how a human being, an actual, bona-fide 45-79% water human being (not a conversion unit), is not only going to interact with something, but how they will react to something. How it will impact them. How they will remember it. How they will use it to define some particular, seemingly nonsensical association for the rest of their life.

I had a story related to me today by a grown woman who saw a seemingly-harmless, made for kids take on a vampire show when she was a child. There was a scene in the show where the vampire fully opens the already ajar door by slipping his fingers through the space made between the door and its frame.

She can’t sleep with the door open. As an adult. It doesn’t matter what happened after that scene. That scene, that image, defined her nighttime ritual through to her adult life.

I see this quote a lot lately, and I love it now, like I loved it when I first heard it:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

- Maya Angelou

Truer words were never said. This is at the heart of those of us who try to design for positive experience. And why? The premise of a negative experience is torment to us.  We understand the lasting impression from minute details like a ghastly hand slipping into a dark crevice.  As a result, every bad experience tears your heart out.

Seeing the world in both pieces and as a whole; at micro and macro levels, you seem to pick up on the details that make you realize why people fidget in line when waiting at a particular coffee shop, where the display forces people to stand too close to the patrons at the tables.  You recognize why no one sits at the tables adjacent to the waiting aisle.  And it makes you tear your hair out that the coffee shop is more concerned with selling another latte than they are about understanding the fidget. Coming from. Every. Single. Person. In line.

This is the frustration that excites the neurons in an Experience Designer’s head every day.  Every day isn’t about avoiding or looking for a fight. It’s about which one you have the emotional energy to champion.

Professionally, doing this means focusing on fixing the things that the business needs say are important.  Or the thing that the client has you on retainer for.  Or the page that the agency sub-contracted you for.  And it can be maddening because it means you’re intentionally looking past the rest.  You touch it where you can, but you have to be reasonable in how you address it.  You have to make sure it fits, and keep yourself from including that tangent opportunity just because you know it needs to be fixed, also.  To do this would be to undermine your own efforts at making what you can (currently) impact, better.  And, the tangent opportunities abound. Keeping you awake. Adding to your list.

Sometimes I believe that despite what history says, we’re just now discovering what it means to be human.  To be civilized.  The human race has been play-pretending at being courteous to each other as living beings for a while now, while eradicating those outside of indigenous homogeneity or secretly wishing ill on those of different genders, creeds and colors.  Because we’re just discovering this humanity… a need to empathize, not just sympathize… we have so much to fix.  Eventually, fixing all the things will be everyone’s jobs.  We’ll all be experience designers.  But today, we have a small percentage of the workforce dedicated to making it better for consumers, patrons, passengers, employees, patients, and more… and we have to find the balance every day.  The balance to decide which thing we can better.  And every day that means we have to look past hundreds of other things.  That we really want to fix.

And then, we have to take solace in making things better in small increments.  Looking within, we find that same voice reminding us of the vampire’s hand, telling us that by making the small impact, we better that many.  The same process which defines how a small detail can so profoundly and negatively impact the roller coaster of emotions tumulting forth can have the reverse effect.   By focusing on that one detail that we can impact, today and now, we can make it so that someone never has to sleep with the door closed again.  We’re making our repairs, one detail at a time.  One nail at a time.  One piece of tape. Whatever it takes.  The more we do it… the more often we do it, the more people will join in.  And that provides peace, at least for a time, until the next challenge comes to bear.