July 21-22, 2021 / Online

An interview with Sheryl Cababa

Written by Steve Fisher

July 2, 2020

We can't wait to hear Sheryl's talk this summer on designing backwards, using outcomes to avoid unintended consequences. In this week's interview we dive into some of the key points from that.


Steve Well, welcome to the next episode of the Design and Content Conference podcast. And I'm here with Sheryl Cababa from Seattle. Welcome Sheryl.

Sheryl Thank you, thanks for having me.

Steve Oh, we're so glad you're here. And Sheryl is a multidisciplinary VP with more than two decades of experience. She grew her craft as executive creative director at Artifact, and prior to that was a designer at Frog and Adaptive Path. At Substantial, she works with all sorts of interesting people and companies, conducting design strategy and research. She believes the practice of design needs to be more outcomes-focused, and designers and technologists need to take greater responsibility for their work by considering unintended consequences. She pushes for design to be more transparent, meaningful, and ethical. That is part of why we're so excited to have you here, Sheryl. And I can't wait to hear your talk this summer on designing backwards, using outcomes to avoid unintended consequences. So why don't we dive a little bit into that. If you could give us some of the key points from that, I'd love to hear about those.

Sheryl Yeah, so I've been a design practitioner now, as you mentioned, for more than two decades. And so I'm a big, I've been a big proponent of user-centered design, just as somebody who's worked in the interaction design field and user experience design. I think there is an element of user advocacy that we all engage in when we are considering ourselves UX designers. I think we've seen, especially in the past five years, kind of the shortcomings of the approach of being user-centered. Meaning oftentimes when we're designing products and services, we're designing with an individual end user in mind, their discrete experiences as they're using our products, and the benefits that they experience as they're experiencing our products. And oftentimes it's shortsighted in the way that we're not thinking more broadly, necessarily, about societal outcomes. And so we've been caught off guard, you know, especially in the tech industry, in terms of, like, what we're designing, actually having harmful impacts at scale. And oftentimes this is related as well to things like business models of the company that people are working for in tech. And so two of the things that I really try to engage in with my clients and with design practitioners is the idea of using systems thinking as a way of understanding, kind of the status quo and why things are the way they are, and then the potential impact that your product might have, and then using outcomes to consider what are the societal outcomes you want in the world first? And then kind of designing in ways that would lead to that, and not just the direct benefit of use.

Steve I know at work, we talk about outcomes of our outputs when we're working with our different teams. What do you think are some of the struggles that designers in particular go through when, when learning outcome-based design, when really starting to think that way, if they hadn't before?

Sheryl Yeah. I think one of the benefits that I've had is being able to work with a lot of clients in the social impact space, you know, whether it's foundations or governments, and oftentimes those kinds of organizations incorporate theory of change. So the idea that you're designing for a certain impact that you're seeking really broadly. And what that means is that you might be able, you might have to implement different types of interventions in order to get there. Oftentimes in the tech and design process, the way that we problem solve is we kind of think discreetly about, well, also a lot of tech organizations are huge. So you have designers working in different siloed spaces, and they're solving for kind of like a discreet feature, and, or a discreet product. And they don't, and they're basically working out the interactions they're in without kind of connecting it to kind of the broader, the broader needs or the broader potential outcomes of the work that they're doing. So you might be working for example, in, I don't know, like trying to figure out if you're working, let's say, on a social network and the way, like, people interact with it, right? So you're working on Facebook's news feed or something like that, or the way people interact with Twitter, you might be designing something like how people post things, how people scroll through the content, and what happens is you get lost in this, like, level of problem-solving to make things easier and more direct. And I don't think you you're actually allowed the time or the energy to connect it to the ways that it could go wrong, or the ways that you might be facilitating, you know, broader unintended consequences as a result of your discreet work.

Steve Yeah, well, in your session description, you talk a little bit about some cautionary tales, where decisions led to unintended consequences. Now we don't want to give away your talk, but is there any kind of teaser you can give around that?

Sheryl It's been like kind of an interesting time, because every time I give a talk, like, kind on this topic or something similar, I'm talking about systems thinking or outcome-centered design, it's, there's always like a more recent example as opposed to something that's, like, gone wrong. I think for example, you can kind of think about things that are going right now, going on right now during COVID. And if you think about tech companies, like let's say Door Dash or Uber Eats, or Instacart, like, these are all organizations that are facilitating kind of a connection between gig workers and customers. And in the middle of that are a lot of independent businesses that are not benefiting from kind of these relationships, and are in fact suffering from it, right? Like the margins are already low. And then you have an organization like Door Dash kind of taking huge fees from these businesses. And yet Door Dash is also not making money. Like, they lost 450 million last year. And you're kind of like, the system is so broken, like, what are we actually facilitating? Whether we making more efficient? Who is actually benefiting from this? And I think in the end, one of the pitfalls of people who are designing services like that, or the pitfalls that result, are that they are kind of designing for a certain type of efficiency for the customer. And aren't kind of looking at all of the other stakeholders along the way and making sure that they're benefiting as well. So I think if we were to kind of think about the systemic impact of our work, we naturally would want to design better for that. I think you also see this with organizations like Amazon, like, the way organizations scale up their services, there's always going to be, like, the way things play out now, some sort of layer of exploitation somewhere there that you might not be cognizant of as a designer within an organization, trying to make these products more efficient. And so part of what I want to be focusing on is helping designers make that connection, especially within the realm of their work within the realm of their day job. I think, you know, we see a lot of like, how do we improve society? Can I donate to organizations that are helping? That's all really great, but I think you also have to be cognizant about how your day job either has a negative or positive impact on the world. So if you're working for a big technology organization and you're worried that the fundamental work that your organization does is exploiting people, then that requires a good, hard look at how you might be contributing to that.

Steve Yeah, that's a really good point. I know I've had lots of friends and myself have been in situations where we are on a project and working towards something that we believe in, but the struggle is often the larger companies' output and outcomes that are being achieved too, and how complex those relationships can be. Which I feel like is even more highlighted right now, in seeing how companies respond to a pandemic, to Black Lives Matters, to just the things that are happening right now, that cause our world to feel a little bit like it's on fire. And I think it's great for people working in the digital space, in design, in content, to understand that they are some of the storytellers, they are some of the people with influence, even if they aren't necessarily creating the product itself from the start. Design is powerful, and understanding the outcomes you're working towards is so important. I'm very excited to have this talk at the event. I don't think we've actually had a talk that's focused specifically on this topic, at least not in this way. What's something that you're excited about about having virtual events now?

Sheryl I think I find it really interesting, as somebody who has been like running a lot of workshops in the virtual space, there are actually, like, pros and cons to it, in that one, it forces me to really tighten up the content of whatever it is we're going to focus on to make sure that it's really engaging. Like you can't just like rely on the casualness of personal interactions in a way that I felt like I've always kind of leaned on in in-person environments. Like, there's no, there's no leaning on your charm, 'cause all you are is like a face in a window, right? And so I have to make sure that there's just a lot of planning in place that ensures, like, the content is in a really good state to be able to facilitate the kinds of conversations we want to have. I have to be far more deliberate about that than feeling like I can kind of, like, just jump in and navigate people doing things. I think in terms of, you know, giving talks and things like that, I really suffer from the lack of audience feedback. I think I've mentioned that to you before, Steve. So I've, I am like really, I'm really excited about the way that you're going to be conducting this kind of interact while the talk is going, because I think that's, that's actually a really good way to have feedback in a different way that actually honors the way that we're doing this virtually rather than trying to recreate some in-person situation that we're missing now. So I love that kind of like inventive way of trying to encourage interaction. One thing I really struggle with is, I know you have somebody who, like, was in like the space of facilitation and that type of thing. Like I feel a little bit like I suffer from in between, the lack of in between moments. So it would always be when I'm like running a workshop or something like that, and I'm packing up our things, and people come by and then like we're having like a casual conversation about something, like maybe the things that we just did together, or talking about people we each know. And it's really hard to create that virtually. And so that's something I'm really kind of looking for now is like, how do we kind of recreate those casual instances of in between conversation? I don't know if you have an answer for that.

Steve Well no, we...

Sheryl I'm looking for ideas.

Steve So it isn't a super easy one, to be honest, but we've enabled video calls on Slack. We're going to be bringing in people on Slack a week in advance. And we're hoping that quite a bit of it can happen there. We're also going to be announcing a karaoke party and things like that, so that we get some of that social fun stuff. But I do know what you mean, that it will be different. And that is something that as soon as we knew we could not hold an in-person event, we embraced that this was different. Not good, nor bad, but different. And even shortening the days and setting them to start early on a Pacific time to make it the most accessible in North America, at least, time zones as we could. So someone on the east coast can still watch and participate without it being too late. And we couldn't stick to the physical structures and norms that we had. And yet we want to hang on to the ethos of the event. And that's kind of what you're describing here is around the, people do talk to each other in the hallway between talks or can take a breakout, even skip a talk. And so we're going to encourage people to set up those conversations through Slack, wherever possible, and then to really be able to enjoy the moments. I do love, though, that the talk will be streaming and that the speakers will be able to respond and see interactions during it as well. I think that's going to be something very special.

Sheryl Yeah, I agree.

Steve Thanks, Sheryl, for coming to talk with me today. Really looking forward to your talk at the event this summer.

Sheryl Thank you, I'm looking forward to it too. I'm excited.

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