What does it mean to be radically human-centered? This question, posed by Andrew Hinton in his workshop on "Understanding Context," set the tone for me at my first trip to CanUX.
It was an inspiring—and challenging—theme that nearly every speaker touched in in some way or another. In his opening keynote, Jesse James Garrett talked about how to foster "human-centered creativity." He proposed cultivating practices and habits that opened our eyes to the "adjacent possible." Designers, he argued, should recognize that we are all parts of connected systems and need to broaden our perspectives beyond ourselves. We need to be flexible and our ideas need to be flexible, living up to an ethos of "strong opinions weakly held."
Vivianne Castillo, meanwhile, challenged UXers to move past a hollow practice of empathy. Drawing on her background in trauma counselling, she described the ethical and professional responsibilities that researchers owe to their participants. Castillo argued for a more mindful UX research practice that emerges from greater awareness of ourselves and others. Researchers need to recognize what they are bringing into a session, and also be willing to recognize their participants not as subjects but as humans. They moreover need to be vulnerable and choose courage over comfort, and play an active role in practicing real empathy.
These themes were picked up in Nuff's presentation on his experiences working on an art installation, a crystal that reacted to its conditions. Nuff spoke honestly and transparently about his desire to push himself into the "discomfort zone" between what he can do and what he wants to do as well as his questioning of his contributions to a team that included fabricators and electrical engineers who produced more tangible outputs. As a strategist, it was a an anxiety I'm all too familiar with. But, as Nuff demonstrated, pushing through that discomfort and embracing different perspectives and approaches can be productive as well as fulfilling.
The most powerful talk for me on the first day was Jim Kalbach's "Peace is Waged with Sticky Notes." He opened by telling the audience about an uncomfortable user interview he conducted with a former white supremacist. This led to an overview of work Kalbach had done with Hedayah, an organization that works helps extract individuals from radical movements. Working with “formers,” individuals who had left extremist movements including white supremacist groups, ISIS, and Al Qaeda, Kalbach mapped their journeys from guilt to atonement. His work will help empower others to speak out, too, and “wage peace” against violence and extremism around the world.
Mike Monteiro wove these threads together in his closing keynote, provocatively entitled "How to Build and Atomic Bomb." Monteiro traced how companies like Facebook and Twitter literally put bodies and lives at risk due to their blindness to the lived experiences of others, and called them out for protecting profits instead of people. Monteiro pulled no punches, taking shots not only at Mark Zuckerburg, Jack Dorsey, and Donald Trump but at the industry as a whole. He presented a code of ethics for designers that calls on everyone involved in designing or building products to take responsibility for the work they put into the world and the good or ill it causes.
The other presentations at CanUX were great, as well. Alberta Soranzo's meditation on our persistent digital afterlives suggested that we put as much thought into off-boarding as we do on-boarding, and that we provide better support for "people who want to go away." Dalia El-Shimy offered a glimpse into how Shopify's mixed methods leverages the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative approaches. In a similar vein, Simon King looked at three approaches to decision-making—creativity, design thinking, and A/B testing—and cautioned against relying too heavily on a testing culture that only ever looks backward. "What works best in an A/B test is not what we want or need as a society," he argued, driving home the importance of ethics to research and design.
And that, really, was the big message I took away from CanUX. Ethics matter. And people matter. When we say, as a profession, that UX is "human-centered," that means more than providing a more frictionless way to sign up for a service or access a piece of information. It means considering the holistic context of your user, as well as the potential implications of the choices we make on every possible user. Being human-centered means, as Hinton put it, doing what is good for all of us.