Shukhov Tower

Design in the Age of Anxiety

To create a better future, understand the now

Last weekend I gave a research workshop on a rainy Sunday in Prague. Following a tram ride across a bridge over the Vltava under grey skies, I walked up a cobblestoned alley to the shiny new Merck IT Innovation Center, with a view of at least 2 castles from its rooftop garden. Prague is like that.

During the discussion, one of the participants asked, “But how do you design for situations other than the one you are in? How do you design for wartime during peace?” Someone else handily pointed out that there is never really peace, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Czechs go deep fast.

That is a big question—the question rattling around at the bottom of all objections to evidence-based design. Why bother thinking about what exists when you want to create something new?

Design is exciting because it is the practice of shaping the future. Research requires the discipline of taking an honest look at the past and present. The present is a mess. It always is. But the present is the soil in which we grow our potential futures. Those who strive for innovation without inquiry will have trouble getting their ideas to thrive in the real world. This world includes every pesky human occupying the corporate kitchens and Slack teams inside, and every lagging technology still in use out there. Habits die hard.

The future spreads like cold butter

I think about this every single day as I reach for the out-the-door trinity: keys, wallet, phone. For most of the 20th century, it would have been keys, wallet, watch. Now my iPhone, having devoured dozens of other devices, is hungrily eying my wallet. The keys, an incremental update from ancient Mesopotamia, are losing ground, but still hanging on. I ride a bicycle dressed per Alexa’s weather advice, and most days I do wear an analog watch. The future spreads like cold butter.

My workshop—like all of my research preaching—is a bit of a bait and switch. I don’t want designers to do research for its own sake. In fact, I want the opposite of that. I want to help them get better design out in the world faster. I want meaningful products and services with a longer shelf life. Real change requires asking the right questions before rushing to come up with an answer. Innovation takes hold when a new idea fits into existing habits like a key into a lock.

Innovation without inquiry leads to trouble in the real world

As Jared Spool says so economically “Design is the rendering of intent.” Poor design often results from the distortion of good intentions. Few organizations set out to create, on purpose, products that harm or fail, information that confuses or distresses, or teams consumed by status concerns. These things happen because something happens along the way, often something as habitual as it is unintentional.

Nothing distorts intent like anxiety. Anxiety pulls focus from the goal and lets energy flow towards distractions and perceived threats. Anxiety flourishes in the absence of information.

Most of my time, I’m working directly with clients. My role as a designer is to not only to inform and articulate their intent, but also to help our clients stay the course and defend the process in order to meet the goals. This is the advantage of coming in from the outside. We can ask the questions that get to the heart of the concerns and redirect requests with evidence. And this doesn’t mean just laying out the data. It means explaining how our work will meet the specific needs and goals of the people we’re talking to.

With the right information, delivered with care, anxiety dissipates

The most well-known area of design research is ethnographic user research—understanding the behaviors and mindset of the intended users of a product, service, or system. While that is necessary, the most critical research we do often centers on the organization itself. Only by understanding the behaviors and mindset of the people with whom we’re collaborating can we define a process that leads to a successful outcome. This can take a anywhere from a couple of days of conversations to three months of intensive interviews. Whatever the investment, it always pays dividends.

We don’t use what we’ve learned to dismiss the inevitable anxieties that crop up, but we can counter them effectively by knowing where they originate, and minimize their pull. The capacity to innovate is fragile in the face of entrenched habits and unspoken fears. So, we get them all out on the table and consider them in our solutions.

Toxic politics? Legacy technology expertise? Resource constraints? Seemingly infinite stakeholders? Inexperienced team? Demanding executives? No amount of customer-centered design thinking can defeat these. Because we work in the real world, every project has something, and we embrace it. This mundane chafing of humans working together will persist long after we’ve donned our spandex jumpsuits and gone into space.

Leadership throughout a design project is a matter of maintaining clarity, rewarding trust, and encouraging the most effective participation from every stakeholder at every point. It is up to us to create the conditions that allow our clients to make the decisions that lead to the future they envision. While we’ve seen patterns over the years, every client has their own habits and concerns.

Removing anxiety from the design process can decrease the potential for anxiety in the world. A reactive process leads to me-too products, solutions for non-problems, feature-creep, and tone-deaf communication. Internal issues that pervert the intent of good design threaten to become the vexing material of daily experience for millions.

If we do our job right, our work together also gives our clients the tools they need in order to protect that intent from future anxieties, and to adapt the system to those changing scenarios. We can’t predict the future, but we can use information to give our part of it a nudge in the right direction.

(Pssst! Research Together is back in San Francisco on October 13. Tickets on sale now.)