As a divergent thinker, I often rely on unfamiliar models to help me identify parallels and patterns that I may not see in models with which I am deeply familiar. One of the ways I do this is by reading anything I can get my hands on, and usually I learn something new and find new connections as long as the publication shows rigor in its subject matter and demonstrates a healthy intellectual curiosity.
So, as I was recently flipping through a copy of Science News, a book called Don’t Be Such A Scientist by Randy Olson caught my eye. The premise of Randy’s book argues that until scientists can temper their need for accuracy with the need for audience engagement, they will miss the opportunity to connect with the broader audiences that they need in order to affect positive, widespread change based on their research. Because I have recently been doing a lot of thinking about ways in which designers can better talk to business people without having to
sell out water down our processes, methods, and skills (so as to be a better fit with all of the control systems inherent in business processes), I was curious to see if there were strategies I could glean from Randy’s book that would help us cross the chasm we deal with all the time between what business does and what design does.
As Randy walks his readers through the pitfalls of being a science communicator, his messages include “Don’t be so cerebral,” “Don’t be so literal-minded,” and “Don’t be such a poor storyteller.” To counteract these tendencies, here is a short summary of his recommendations:
- Appeal to the four organs of mass communication. Randy writes: “When it comes to connecting with the entire audience, you have four bodily organs that are important: your head, your heart, your gut, and your sex organs. The object is to move the process down out of your head, into your heart with sincerity, into your gut with humor, and, ideally, if you’re sexy enough, into your lower organs with sex appeal.” To reach the broadest audience possible with your message, take advantage of each of these organ centers in every way you can. A message that contains these elements will appeal to everyone, from the brainiacs to those with little more than good ol’ fashioned sexual urges.
- Familiarize yourself with the tradition of Improv. Spontaneity is preferable to highly scripted interactions, if for no other reason than it brings excitement to the situation and reaches down into the lower organs (which means you and your message will connect with more people). Two goals of Improv are 1) to always make the other person look good (don’t negate, embarass, put down) and 2) to always build off of what the other characters are saying by starting off your comments with “Yes, and….” This creates a positive momentum to your message, and instead of alienating people, you are further engaging them.
- Use the Arouse and Fulfill strategy. When trying to communicate effectively, you must first hook your audience and get them interested in what you have to say (arouse) and then deliver on the promise of your message (fulfill). Randy’s recommendation for applying the “Arouse and Fulfill” strategy? Storytelling! Luckily, this is a topic we UXers are in no short-supply of these days.
I have to admit, when I started reading this book, I hoped that I could learn a thing or two about not being such a designer. But what I actually learned was…
…I am such a scientist. Maybe not a scientist in the purest sense (as in, I don’t have a Ph.D. in marine biology like Randy), but according to Randy’s description let’s just go with saying I definitely meet his criteria for being “science-minded.” I guess a decade of advocating the importance of user-centered research and synthesizing, coding, and presenting research findings will do that to you! His message hit so close to home that I literally found myself slapping my forehead more than once. As tough as it was to read, and see myself reflected in his words, it was exactly the message that I needed.
I walked away from the book with a new-found commitment to being more bilingual: to continue to talk both the art of user-advocacy as well as the science of business, but now start to do it being mindful of all four organs of mass communication. I also clearly need a crash-course in Improv. This book reminded me of the importance of making other people look good; not just the design and development team. Bringing the people who are holding the purse-strings for my projects along for the ride, and getting them positive attention based on the success of the UX of our projects, is clearly one of the best strategies we can employ to get UX into the bones of organizations.
As irony would have it, I read this book while on vacation in Key West with 20 of my friends. Yes, I caught some flack for it; but deservedly so! To me, the book was nerdy fun; to everyone else, it was just nerdy. I’ll find the right balance of substance and style one of these days!
Speaking of which, right now I am reading The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Sounds like more nerdy fun to me!