Regenerative UX

“Changing the Works in Ford Employees to Five-Day Movements.” The Labor Age, February 1927.

User experience (UX) practice stands at a crossroads.

As the recent tech industry downturn lays claim to untold thousands of UXers—designers, researchers, writers, and such—a pervasive sense of unease seems to be settling in across the industry (even among those fortunate enough to remain employed).

Sure, there are companies still hiring—and most of those recently laid-off will doubtless land on their feet. But for many UX practitioners, the recent unpleasantness seems to have amplified a deeper sense of unease: an unshakable sense that things aren’t quite going according to plan.

On the surface, UX would seem like a profession on the upswing. The field has grown rapidly over the past two decades, and the expansion of in-house design teams at many companies in recent years has given many designers a much-vaunted “seat at the table.” From a distance, it seems like UX has never had it this good.

But there’s trouble in the water.

As popular sentiment around the tech industry has shifted from the day-glo hype of the early dotcom era towards more dystopian views of the effects of the tech industry on society, so too many UX practitioners have started to question their role in the wider-angle effects of networked technologies on society at large. They are increasingly turning their attention to so-called wicked problems.

At the very moment when UX would seem poised to play a transformative role in reshaping businesses, governments, and non-profit organizations — leading the way towards more humane, empathic ways of doing business — instead the horizons of UX practice seem to be shrinking.

The past few years have seen a rhetorical bull market in the practitioner community for discussions of more ethical design practices: from industry-focused initiatives like the Sustainable UX movement, the Center for Humane Technology, and Ethical OS, to sustainability-minded academic programs like the School of Visual Arts’ Products of Design program and my own alma mater Carnegie Mellon’s Transition Design program, there seems to be no shortage of well-intentioned exhortations for UX practitioners to think more deeply about the long-term and sometimes unintended consequences of their work.

This outpouring of concerned rhetoric notwithstanding, most of these 50,000 foot-level critiques fall flat, insofar as they typically fail to provide usable prescriptions for effecting change that are accessible and usable by practitioners working in industry.

For the past seven years, I have been studying the challenges that UX practitioners face in their professional lives as part of my doctoral research at the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. Along the way, I have interviewed and run workshops with more than 150 practitioners from across a range of different organizations and industries (primarily in North America and Europe).

UXers come in all shapes and sizes, but I have been struck by the level of consensus that emerged around some of the core challenges that seem to face many practitioners.

Here’s some of what I learned:

  • Most participants felt that it has gotten harder to take on long-term focused work over the past 5–10 years
  • Participants also felt the scope of UX roles is narrowing, as multi-functional teams distribute responsibilities once considered the purview of designers
  • Some also felt that the contemporary experience of the Internet has moved towards a place of sameness and conformity, leaving less room for creativity

These challenges not only manifest as outward frustrations with the shape of and remit of their roles, but more importantly they seem to create deeper inner tensions out of a perceived conflict between practitioners’ personal values and the work they are sometimes asked to do.

One of the major hypotheses that emerged out of my research involves working with practitioners at an inner level through reflective practices, to help them find ways of exploring their values as a kind of fulcrum point for effecting change in the nature of their work.

Effecting a transition towards more sustainable ways of working will almost certainly require exploring new theories and methods drawn from outside the traditional toolkits of human-centered design methods. But the methods commonly in use today have remained remarkably stagnant for the past 10–15 years: qualitative user interviews, journey maps, personas, prototypes, usability tests, diary studies, and so forth. For such a young profession, the tools of the trade seem surprisingly stale.

In my research at CMU, I’ve been investigating the possible application of a range of different design tools and methods, drawn in part from the realms of futures studies, cybernetics, Transition Design, and the literature around how people find meaning in their work.

There’s no magic bullet here, but it seems clear enough that if the UX field is going to adapt and evolve, it’s going to need to expand its repertoire and vocabulary of methods. The old playbook feels tired, and not up to the more complex, systemic challenges at hand that may require us to go beyond the singular, deeply consumerist construct of the “user.”

As I searched for a way to frame this research, I gradually found my way to the term “regenerative.” One might well ask, why not to embrace more established terms like “sustainable” or “ethical” UX? These terms are all well and good, but they don’t quite fit the bill.

While concerns of sustainability and ethics bear closely on this work, mere harm reduction is not enough. The term “regenerative” promises not just risk mitigation but a more hopeful premise of renewal and rebirth.

Capitalism is ultimately a degenerative system, predicated on the extraction of incremental value from labor. Regenerative systems, by contrast, strive instead to develop healthy, resilient systems of work and civic engagement. Roland and Landua define regenerative enterprise as “a venture that pro-actively grows and cultivates the foundational pools of social, cultural, spiritual, and living capital by providing goods and services in a way that creates net positive gains for the system as a whole.”

There is also a spiritual dimension to the term “regeneration,” Spiritual regeneration is no mere metaphor; it suggests the possibility of a deeply personal process of change in which the practitioner discovers a source of inner renewal in the practice of work itself. While such a process might not rise to the level of religious awakening or reincarnation — and thus there is some level of metaphorical meaning at work — nonetheless the discovery of a sense of purpose and vocation in one’s life may lead to deep and lasting changes in practitioners’ inner lives that leads to more engaged and committed ways of working.

After wrapping up my dissertation last year, I have been pondering how best to share some of what I’ve learned and tailor it towards a broader/non-academic audience. This essay is intended as a first step in that direction (along with a companion talk planned for this year’s Interaction 23 conference).

Over the coming months, I’m going to make a more concerted effort to share some of the findings and observations from my research, here and elsewhere. Look for more occasional posts to come in the coming months.

This is very much work in progress, and feedback/constructive dialogue is more than welcome. You can find me on all the channels, or feel free to share any comments below.

Coming up next: Power, Position, and Privilege

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