Demystify Everything

As soon as we wedge the phrase “user experience” into a conversation, we make it sound like what we do is somehow exclusive and it’s interesting to watch how people respond to that. Many act like we’re trying to sell them a car with a broken speedometer. Trust us, they expect us to say, it was only driven by an old lady on Sundays.

That makes us defensive, right? So we start talking about the higher concepts of user-centered design, process and research and we start using even less familiar words. And they walk out of the meeting feeling like they just got lied to and we walk out even more determined to fight for a re-org where user experience becomes an explicit part of the organization. Geez, when are those other guys going to get a clue?

So we get the re-org and now user experience is in job titles and baked into performance reviews and part of job descriptions and we’re sitting in the same room again and meeting with the same people and they’re still acting like we’re trying to sell them the car with the busted speedometer.

I started my career in print newspapers and one of my early influences was a guy named Tony Majeri. He had various jobs over the years at the Chicago Tribune, but when he visited other Tribune Co. newspapers, like the Sun-Sentinel in Florida where I worked, Tony was a Design God. Not that you’d ever know it.

He limps in talking about his wobbly ankle and about his dreams as a kid to be a pro football player and pretty soon he’s talking about a toaster or something like that and it slowly dawns on you that he’s talking about design and not just that, he’s talking about your design and you just now realize that something you did is deeply flawed, but somehow, if you understand the thing about the toaster he mentioned earlier, it’ll be pretty simple to fix your work. Yeh, it all makes sense now.

Tony taught me plenty about design, but more importantly he taught me about the power of demystification. I started watching other designers more closely after I met Tony and I noticed that the more insecure the designer, the more complex the explanations of their work tended to be. I soon realized that when I could show that what I did wasn’t really all that complicated, I more quickly earned respect for my expertise.

Demystifying stuff requires a healthy self-confidence. For me, it’s less about the confidence that I’m right about something and more about my confidence that when I’m not right enough I will eventually find a way to get it more right. So I need to be able to hear what others say and I also need to learn from how they say what they’re saying.

When Tony talked about a toaster, there was much more that he wasn’t talking about. I think that’s an essential demystification skill. The user experience involves lots of factors and if you try to discuss them all, or even provide an overview of them all, you’re going to get that broken speedometer reaction from skeptics.

Effective communication is essential. Now Tony is a master communicator, but you can still be effective even if you aren’t an expert at saying what you’re thinking. When it comes to demystification, your audience wants you to succeed; they want to hear that user experience concepts aren’t inscrutable.

So if you’re highly selective about what you talk about, and if you break each topic down till it’s toaster-simple, and if you do your best to say what you’re thinking, your audience will likely meet you at least halfway.