July 21-22, 2021 / Online

Conflict is the Key to Great UX

Written by Steve Fisher

September 1, 2015

Speaker - Steve Fisher


I'm going to kick things off with a really short talk about conflict and user experience and really about our experiences here. You've been sitting together some of you interacted at workshops yesterday. Who was in the workshops in wow, quite a few of you. Yeah, there were over 100 in workshops, I think, maybe a little bit more. But you don't all know each other yet so what I want us to do is play a game of rock, paper, scissors. Has anyone here not played rock, paper, scissors or not know what it is? OK, a couple so I'm going to explain it just in case you don't know the rules.

So rock beats scissors, scissors cuts paper and paper covers rock, OK, so rock beats scissors, scissors cuts paper and paper covers rock and we're going to do this on 3. So you're going to turn to someone next to you. It's on 3. Not after 3, OK? Don't try to -- oh, I was -- 1, 2, 3, or you can say rock, paper scissors and throw something. So go for it. Give it a try and see if you can win : ... ...

OK. OK. So. (pandemonium playing the game!)

How many of you feel like you won? You all actually won. We're from Canada, it's all nice here.

Who threw rock first? Raise your hand. You can put up a rock. Great. Who threw scissors? And who threw paper? So that was about 25 percent paper, 25 percent rock and a bunch of scissors, which I'm finding in the web community is what happens. Scissors isn't actually all that common, so nice work.

In the rock, paper, scissors association in the United States, which exists, it's aureoles thing. They say rock is for rookies and paper is for pros. So I don't know about most of you here, because you're scissors, but the reason is that rookie most times when you first play, your hand's already in rock. Actually most men will throw rock, because they feel it's powerful, it's going to win. If you know you're playing a rookie, you throw paper, because paper is for pros.

Yeah, it turns out I was awful, or maybe still am, and my brother he's 6 years older than me, he's a genius, literally. He would always beat me at these things. I was always struggling until I learned one thing about rock, paper, scissors.


I would blow it up. You know, a few complaints about that, but I don't care. From a very young age as a sibling, I was, whether it was intentional or not, creating conflict. Now, the interesting thing is, as my brother and I worked through these things, we got to know each other better. We got to appreciate each other. This is kind of a joke now.

We are a society of likes, we like things on Facebook, we spend time with like-minded people, we do things we like because we can and that seems like a pretty good system to get to know people and generally get along, but what if all we're seeing is everyone's highlight reel. What if being a society of likes is causing us to be further apart rather than closer together? What if it's creating more elephants in the room than we can handle?

Unless you're extraordinarily self aware, how can it not make you feel worse spending part of your time pretending to be happier than you are, and the other part of your time seeing others seeming happier than you are.

This is my experience in life where I'm in situations and I have clients, colleagues, friends, that seem to have it all together and that can be both inspiring and depressing. There's always a back story, we just don't always know about it.

I'm going to talk to you about a couple of things today. Myself, how I work and really big boats. Just these two things. They're related honestly.

I'm a user experience architect which at the border gets a lot of glazed over eyes and what does that mean and it means that I design experiences primarily for the web and a lot of time people see user experience as connecting with people's minds but it's really about connecting the head and the heart, right, you us as a whole person? Often for me this looks like asking four basic questions. In fact, I ask these questions on every single project that I work on -- and yes, Americans, it is PRO-ject.

What do you do? What is painful, what do you love and what you wish?

These four questions create space for people to open up. Everyone of us can talk about what we do. We're able to say I'm designer, content strategist, we can say our titles. We're often eager and keen to talk about our pain points to have that come out and what we love and our wishes and sometimes it can be tempting to jump forward to that positive and see, oh, what do you want over this? But it's important to stop and hear the struggles, to hear what is going on and what those pain points are. And to listen for the what if, not the what and. It's not about me at that point. It's about what they're saying.

Once they've shared their struggles, though, and we've had that come out, it's natural and good to talk about something that they love.

Usually there's something about their life, their job, their website, their organization that they love and I don't try to restrict that too much. If they start to talk to me about their cat and how their cat is dying, I'm going to listen for a while, and hear about their life, because how their life is happening is also impacting how they're using other things. Right? Then we're going to direct them on to the project that we're talking about. And then after that, they share their wishes. These are the dreams, maybe in this for our website, the organization, the blue-sky thinking and what emerges is a strangely random story line that starts us on our journey. People share their hearts and thoughts and we spend time listening for what if.

And once that foundation is set, we have an opportunity to see the real story, where they're actually wanting to head.

I believe that the key to every project and to finding deeper connections is uncovering and addressing the conflict that runs through our stories, that's in every project in all of our lives, in some ways it's up to me and us to be design therapists, to join this team. For me this works best in workshop setting. We lock ourselves into a room for as long as we have to when I'm part of facilitating this. That could be one, two, three days, maybe more, and we kind of it out in one sense where we talk through all the tough issues and I ask tough questions and we interact through things so we can make good decisions about future content, design, or overall system to work on.

I'm going to tell you a little bit about what I do. I worked on with a government organization in 2010 while I was working at a company called Yellow Pencil, that was looking to improve their site. I arrive and start to ask those four questions. What do you do, what's painful, what do you love, what do you wish? And one of the first things that came out of a stakeholder's mouth to us was this.

We want to make it more difficult.

Yeah, hahaha, it's funny, right? [laughter]

I just thought, OK, then you must be kidding but then I realized, wait, what, you're being serious? Up until a minute ago you seemed like a good person to me.

I was mystified but I turned back to my training which is to ask why over and over and over, sure, about you why, why this, will in you get to the deeper answer.

Now unfortunately for me, this took a long time to uncover, and this went back and forth for longer than I was comfortable with and eventually someone said, “We want people to be successful”, and they started to see that usernames are people. They're reminded that everyone that they were building this site for was a real person with a cat that might be dying, things like that.

In that moment their hearts grew three sizes and then they said, “We want to tell the right story. We don't want to make it more difficult.”

We had to mine for that conflict and I felt like it had taken too long. I was a little bit embarrassed for myself there. This is key to uncovering things, but so is a safe place, a safe environment to do that. Without that it's difficult. If we didn't have a code of conduct for this event, it would be hard for me to describe to you what a safe environment is because you would have no framework. But if we do, you can have a good understanding of that.

I'm going to tell you a little bit about from framework that I work within. I see it as common sense. Let me quickly outline the four main sections of it.

First one is audiences. It's all about the people. We start there and keep them out in front of us as the primary thing hand we want to learn about real people, so this isn't based on my internal voices and personas, and my experience completely, although some of that does play in, it's talking to people. Taking an opportunity to look beyond our assumptions and find out what people really need and then prioritizing those audiences, saying who is going going to be the first one we reach out to and the second. We're not going to ignore people but prioritize.

Second thing is vision. This could be the user experience vision that tells us where we're trying to go, and that's that tension between the reality and the future vision, and so we agree to that based upon our audiences and their priorities. We meet the audience's needs, this is where we need to head, to help our organization be successful in its business goals. We agree to the vision based upon the audiences.

The third thing: Design principles, these are the guideposts or the signposts that direct us to making a good decision as we go along. Almost like values. Someone might say, well we need to implement this feature. There's content rotator on the home page, never heard of that, right? Everybody is laughing. But we can stop and say, does that align with our principles? Is that going to be accessible? Is it going to be light weight and fast? If it doesn't, then we need to shift or gears.

The fourth thing and the last thing: Goals. Now, in this workshop setting this is high level goals. We're not getting really detailed, but all of them are measurable. We look at this hand we say, OK, what are we trying to measure and how can we get our hands on that? And it's based upon the design principles the vision, and the audiences so we've got this cascade of agreement where we as a team are agreeing to things over and over. Each step should be harder but it's a little bit easier because we're removing us from some of those decisions and focusing on who we're building it for, why we're building it and then some of these measurable things. It's tempting to jump to goals first. Almost everyone wants to do this. You need to stop and pull yourself back as a team and answer the why.

We need this framework to feel safe. When we run this workshop, I lock our team into a room and for as much time as we have or need and we sketch out all of our ideas. We cover every white board and the wall in the room that we can, take pictures, do it again, over and over. We use active listening throughout this workshop and so whenever someone says something or maybe more importantly doesn't say something as a facilitator, I can stop and say OK, what's going on here? I see that there's a misunderstanding, what does that look like, let's talk about it, why is it important? So when we run into a situation like this, I can say Keri, I know you said this was priority 1, Graeme, you said it was priority 3. Why?

In every case were what we're looking for is agreement. We're not looking compromise, and I know that might sound a little bit like bullshit. I may not like the shape of that heart but if it's what our audiences need, I can agree to it. I can say yeah, OK, I'm on the team.

Compromise is relatively easy, and it can get us somewhere but it allows the conflict to continue under the surface and someone may leave the workshop or the meeting and they'll say they have agreed and you'll get that e-mail later on and you'll realize we didn't actually agree. They'll change their minds. This leads to deteriorated experience or service to everyone. Which in this case was everyone in an entire city or a government. That is a big impact.

If we do our job and mine for conflict, we can see the higher peak, the one that we should be headed towards. If we don't do this, we miss out on being the best we can be. We also miss out on one other really key thing. Bonding as a team. When you go through conflict like I did with my brother, we actually came closer eventually.

I'm not going to say it always works out that way, but you have a better chance. It's magical, we move from being a team that's based on decisions of opinions and likes to what our audiences actually need.

As promised I wanted to tell you a little bit about big boats.

We're in Vancouver. There's a lot of boats around. And there are also lots of other ways to transport things around the world, planes, trains, automobiles, but one of the cheapest way and in some ways the most efficient is boats.

Did you know that 40% of the world's pollution is produced by boats? 40%. So don't worry about littering later. We'll just pick it up. No, don't do that.

If you took all the cars and the entire world, every single automobile, added up the pollution that they produce it's equal to that of the 15 largest shipping container boats in the world and there's hundreds of thousands of boats. Yeah, it's a what the fuck moment.

This used to be the largest boat in the world it's no longer because they keep building bigger and bigger ones. I heard about this at a TEDx event last year in Vancouver. The fuel that most of these boats use right now is just a grade above asphalt so you can imagine how much that pollutes. So I started to ask why, why are we shipping so much stuff such great distance?

Who here has been to Singapore? Anyone? Yeah, Singapore is this amazing place, roughly 5.4 million people crammed into a space the size of Vancouver, Richmond and Delta. It's the most densely populated country in the world and does not have enough food to feed its population. It imports 90% of its food from other countries in the world. So while there's better solutions coming in that architects and people are working on to bring that food closer, that is fair distance away. Shipping and saving lives. Keeping that country afloat, so to speak.

If we look closer to home, so this is where you are, right there. Vancouver and Canada in particular, we have a lot of trees. In fact, our country's forests, 1.2 million square miles of trees, have been dubbed the lungs of the planet. We have a responsibility here, but we do have a logging industry that brings in some wood called hemlock. Hemlock is a softwood and it's about 40% cheaper if you buy it at Home Depot if than if you were to buy something like oak hardwood. 40%. That's a big savings!

But our problem here is our mill technology is just too advanced so it rips it, shreds it apart. We ship it all the way across the Pacific ocean, typically to China for milling because their mill technology there can handle it, it's packaged back up and shipped all the way back so that we can have cheaper options to buy in stores like Home Depot or Lowes, so for us to save 40%. It's actually cheaper for us to ship it across the ocean and back than it is for us to do it here.

What if the problem isn't the boats, what if the problem is shipping and our business practices? What if we look at this problem not a web problem but a real-world problem through a framework like this.

Audiences, sure, people need their food shipped to them, but do I really need 40% cheaper wood in a store?

Is it better boats or better business practices that's the vision here? To accomplish this?

We need design principles, things to help us make good decisions and a couple of examples could be creating better business practices and then solving problems for now in the future, how would that guide our decisions?

Goals, we have to have something we can measure. But better boats will happen, that's a good goal, I think, but so is changing hearts and minds, or changing business practices. They're both important.

When we move through this framework, we go from being a team or a society of opinions and likes, to a team that listens to the hearts and thoughts of others. In fact, without this, we'll miss of opportunity of not only seeing better and better solutions, but perhaps the best.

You may have caught this, it's not really conflict that's the key, it's addressing and seeing that conflict and seeing beyond ourselves. Having the courage and vulnerability to go through this challenge is the key and allows us to become a team, a true team looking for the best solutions for our world.

I'm going to continue to do everything I can to find the elephants in my room, both in my personal life and my professional life and I want to challenge you to to do the same.

We're going to do something never done before in a conference. It's almost like we're going to have a group meditation. Does that sound a little weird? You're in Vancouver, so... I want you to just focus on your breathing for a minute and a half, and how you can connect to the messages you'll hear over the next two days and to each other. It may feel uncomfortable. But just focus on your breathing.

Focus on your breathing. In and out. You can close your eyes if you want. You can look at the screen. (Meditative music playing.) In. And out. Slowly let some of the things that don't belong to you here drift away.

We're better together. Thanks for being here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Woo! [applause]

Our sponsoring partners