Life is one BIG ASS UX

I am a user experience designer. I was a user experience designer before those words were put together – ‘user’ and ‘experience’. My goal in life and in most everything I do is to make things better – to make things good. I was probably a UX designer even as a small child. I had this obsession of rearranging my room a lot to get the ‘optimum layout’ and to change my perspective, something fresh. I don’t think I really knew why I did it at that time or even thought about why, I was just compelled to do it. I had the designer OCD and it was good.

A user experience life is tough. On most projects we start off full of excitement and passion for what can be done, the possible innovation that can occur, the happy customer (not the one paying to make the product, the one using it in the end). Images and dreams fill our brains with happy people thinking, and maybe even saying to other people, ‘Wow! This is great! I love it!’. We brainstorm, thumbnail, jot, scribble, doodle… in coffee shops, on the bus, and in the sketchbook next to your bed at 3 in the morning. We push ourselves as hard as we can to think of the very best that it could be…it could be amazing, it could be phenomenal…it could be…REVOLUTIONARY! Our excitement cannot be contained.

Then reality hits. The goal of this endeavor is not to be revolutionary. It is not to give the user the very best experience they could have – that would be ‘nice’. Those words ‘user experience’ are thrown out in project meetings and marketing materials, but it is just fluff. The goal of this endeavor is to make money.

O.M.G. we are thinking, how horrible! How could they? How could they just want to make money? (Those last words uttered as if spitting out some putrid tasting morsel). The fact is, fellow designers, it HAS to make money…that is the point…that is what keeps you in your nice little UX desk with your Cintiq and your Macbook Pro. It HAS to make money or you and the person next to you won’t be there in a year trying to contain your excitement.

There is a balance. It can be done. There is hope.

I love Steve Jobs. He was a genius. Bill Gates is also a genus. What Steve did, however, was to go straight for the UX to make him money, rather than make money so he could have a UX. It may sound stupid but I firmly believe that good brings money. It has been proven many, many times. When it is very good, people pay more, but it HAS to be very good, not just say that it is. That does not mean that not-so-good does not make money, it does. But then it becomes a very challenging battle between fractions of a cent. Cut the packaging costs to one dollar, use a cheaper material, degrade the quality of the camera (as the designers silently scream and gnash their teeth in frustration).

The common man has no idea of the struggle going on behind the scenes to get that thing to market. And in the end, the enthusiasm is gone and the designer (and everyone else) is just glad it made it out the door. I have worked in the corporate world for over a decade as a designer. I started off in print, taught myself HTML and moved into web, did a stint in television and ended up in mobile and consumer electronics. I have always done my very best to balance a world where money is not prioritized over creating good and to push for the good of the user. I am not only speaking of users of products, I am speaking of users as in all of humanity.

Somewhere in the history of our world we developed a philosophy that things are disposable and people are expendable. We learned that in order to be ‘a success’ at anything we must use whatever talents and resources at our disposal to climb to the top. We must manipulate others, be a political player, use those around you to support your rise to the top and get what you want.

I have worked on many projects, many of them very high profile. The last project broke me. It was the infotainment system for a high-end sports car. The client came to our company in the 4th quarter. They were behind by at least 3 touchdowns and possibly a field goal. They were launching there $300k+ sports car in just over 6 months. I didn’t want to take it. In fact, I outright refused to take it. It was a recipe for disaster and I knew I could not do another break-neck speed project when all I really wanted was just one good one to be proud of. I begged the other partners in our company not to take it but of course I did not win, the designer rarely does.

So we did it. We conceived the entire UI mostly from a cubicle in a clinical environment where no drinks were allowed and no posting on walls of any kind. It was like placing a sub-saharan species in the Artic. We did it and it looked good, but it killed me. When it was ready to launch I quit. I quit because it didn’t work, it wasn’t ready. People should not be using it. We all knew it but like I said – the designer rarely wins. And it had to make money. So there you go.

Then I started Tiny Ninja Cafe. A user experience dream. I actually speak to real people every day and have direct impact on their user experience and they have real impact on me. I am constantly fascinated by how humans think and behave. I used to design products in an office building far, far away from the people I was targeting. But here I have a chance to do good in simple ways that directly impact people. And here I can observe human behavior in such a pure way. It is not a room where X number of ‘subjects’ are brought in to try X product and give answers to X questions. It is merely observation and interaction – like a scientist would observe a subject and internalize information about how they perform in their natural habitat. Here I have a chance to share goodness and I do it through things I think will make a difference in the world – music, art, discussion, education.

What have I learned? Life is one BIG ASS UX. If we observe each other and ourselves with this mindset, things may not make perfect sense but insights happen routinely – almost every minute. We are fascinating and a tiny interaction impacts us in ways we would never imagine. If we can look at our impact on each other and our world in this way, we could do so much good.