This is the job

To say this past month has been a whirlwind would be an understatement.

On Monday, January 6th, I had barely said goodbye to 2013 and was just getting ready to launch my postgraduate search for a job. Two days later, I found myself interviewing unexpectedly for a freelance position, and by the following Monday, I was working on an enterprise-level website redesign as the project’s information architect.

That certainly wasn’t how I planned it ... but hey, I’ll take it. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have this job opportunity, and so far, it’s been tremendous and challenging.

This is a reflection on the last 30 days or so, a collection of thoughts, observations, and lessons learned:

Deliverables are seductive

Early in the first season of “The Wire,” there’s a scene where the show’s detectives are setting up the very wiretap they’ll use to take on West Baltimore’s drug dealers. Lester Freamon — a veteran officer and “natural police,” as they say — explains to his team that they can’t listen to the calls unless they’re certain one of their targets is on the phone. Hearing this, another officer bemoans all the hours they’ll have to spend doing surveillance. His conclusion: “It’s more bullshit.”

“Detective,” Lester replies, “This right here, this is the job. Now, when you came downtown to CID, what kind of work were you expecting?”

Here’s what this has to do with user experience design. About two weeks into the project I was hired for, I was uncertain in my process and stressed that I wasn’t working quickly enough. I wanted to prove myself and show both the clients and my new employers that I was doing my job. Problem is, though, that UX work doesn’t always lend itself to something visible you can really show. I was reading a lot, doing research, strategizing, trying to understand our domain, our clients, our audience … and I anxiously felt like I was spending too much time on these things. After all, I was hired to architect a website, gosh darn it, and clearly that meant I needed to show something for my time and start architecting ASAP.

And that’s when I remembered Lester: “This right here, this is the job.” The research, the legwork, the planning, the understanding — this is what I was hired to do. It isn’t bullshit, and it isn’t fluff. Deliverables are seductive. If you’re an IA, and at the very end of a project you’re expected to deliver a content outline or a sitemap, it’s easy to get pulled in by the gravity of that object and confuse it for the job. My work is not deliverables. Deliverables are a result of my work — they’re important, but they’re just one piece of a bigger process.

Give yourself permission to relax and do your job. You'll thank yourself ... and your clients will, too.

Observation No. 1

Nothing beats doing your own research and discovery.

Observation No. 2

I have a lot to learn. I mean, I knew that already. But now I really know it.

Easier said than done

It’s one thing to say that as UX professionals we need to be empathetic. But empathy in practice isn’t so simple.

Case in point: Early in this project, I was on a conference call with my new agency team and our clients, who were pushing back and questioning designs that we had suggested. I say “we,” but of course I’d known these people and been part of this project for all of a minute. And yet … that sense of “we” is powerful. As I sat there and listened, I felt incredibly defensive. I mean, how could these people even question this? How could they not realize how ridiculous they sounded? What a bunch of … whoa, whoa! Hold it.

I laughed at myself afterward for being so defensive over a design deliverable I had no hand in making, on a project I had barely been part of. But that’s our nature, isn’t it? When pushed, we push back. We take those questions from clients (or colleagues, even) as a confrontation, and we devolve into tribal thinking. It’s Us vs. Them. Me vs. You. Even in the most empathic individuals, these instincts lie in wait. Heck, I had recently written about the very meaning of empathy in etymology and in practice, and so the subject wasn’t far from the front of my mind. And still, I had to fight my impulses for better judgement.

It might sound obvious and natural that UXers need to be empathetic, but it’s not. And as long as it isn’t, we’ll need to keep talking about empathy and reinforcing ways to close that gap between us and the people we’re trying to help.

Observation No. 3

You have permission to think you’re good enough.”

And finally, Observation No. 4

Right here? This job? This work we call information architecture? This shit is fun!