No, We Aren't All Designers

 Photo by bobech (bobech) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 ) or GFDL ( http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html )], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by bobech (bobech) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a UX researcher. I work with designers on every project I have. I talk about design all day long. I make research based recommendations to the designers I work with. I study designs. I study how people interact with designs. I’ve written about my view that designers are not, and should not be, researchers. I’m equally strongly opinionated that designer is a unique role within a product team.

Every now and then, a tweet comes across my feed saying something along the lines of Everyone is a designer. I usually disagree in my head and keep scrolling. I’m someone, but I’m definitely not a designer. Recently, I saw a Tweet from Jared Spool stating essentially that anyone involved with the creation of a product is a designer. That would mean PMs, Devs, Lawyers, and more would all be designers. The tweet had stimulated great feedback, with folks falling on both sides of the fence in term of agreement. I wanted to use this post to add my voice to the disagree column.

I suppose we can all be designers. In the same sense that anyone can be a firefighter or an electrical engineer - it requires training and dedication. There is a huge difference between the person impacting the design and someone who actually has the tools and techniques of a designer. Here are some reasons I don’t agree everyone touching the process is a designer.

 

Everyone is a designer fails to respect the craft of design

Taking the statement to its full conclusion, almost everyone is a designer. Particularly if you practice UX design and gather user input. Your usability testing participants would be considered designers. Many designers work as freelance or for studios with clients. Everyone influencing the design is a designer would mean the person paying for the work is the designer. They ultimately have the final decision and the budget to make the work happen. This idea is counter to the purpose a designer has been hired to serve – creating a design. If you pay for someone to design your product, it’s your design and your product, but you are not the designer.

Designers have training, both formal and informal, using specific tools and processes. The person sticking their head into a design review convincing you move the location of the “Submit Form” button is not a designer. At least, not simply because they were able to present their argument and impact the design.

Saying everyone is a designer is code for everyone has an opinion that we should consider valid. That isn’t true either. Again, designers have experience and training others don’t. Designers (if they are trusted) should ultimately make the final call on when we can say the design is ready for the next step in our process. We need designers to feel valued and allow them to use their tools and talent to create the best product possible. Deputizing everyone on the team as a designer diminishes the importance of the role, and potentially waters down the expectations and accountability for the role.

The logic that everyone contributing to a design is a designer doesn’t transfer to other roles, either. I’ve scheduled plenty of meetings for the projects I’ve been on. I’ve given team members tasks and dates I want them completed by. This doesn’t make me a project manager. It means I’ve taken on roles to help make sure the project is successfully completed. I don’t see a difference when we talk about others contributing to design. They are facilitating the process, and being contributing members of a team.

Business analysts play a huge role in determining the functions and features of a design. They provide the business requirements of a product and ensure they are met. However, this doesn’t make them designers. A designer uses their skill and expertise to interpret the business requirements through their design. A business analyst might review a design and demand a change due to an existing requirement not being met, but this doesn’t make them a designer.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to be both a PM and a designer, or a business analyst and a designer. You can be an astronaut and a designer. I’m saying you aren’t automatically a designer if contribute to a design. Many roles contribute to the outcome of a design. We still need designers.

An Analogy

Saying anyone influencing the design is a designer is like saying anyone influencing the meal at a restaurant is a cook. Let’s say I go to a restaurant and order a hamburger. I am vegetarian, so I ask to substitute a veggie patty for the meat patty. I’ve impacted the meal (design), but that doesn’t make me anymore the person who actually cooked the meal (designer). The wait staff will influence how the meal turns out: am I served a hot burger immediately, or do they let it sit until it gets cold before I’m served? That still doesn’t make them the cook (designer). The produce supplier might have delivered fresh vegetables the morning of my meal. That impacts the outcome of the food, but does not make the produce supplier also a cook (designer). There are many roles that need filled to get the meal (design) to my table. Each role is critical. Unlike the rest of the staff, the cook is also responsible for translating their vision into the meal, incorporating all of the required ingredients, and meeting any modifications or customizations I request. I, as the customer (user), get to decide if the meal meets my expectations, and whether I will eat it or send it back.

To what end

I think the conversation around what makes a designer is an important conversation. There might not be a one-size fits all definition. It is easier to say if someone is a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or other field requiring some type of certification. There is not an equivalent widely accepted and acknowledged certificate in design. Designer job descriptions are broad and inconsistent across firms and studios hiring designers. This leaves the door open to broad interpretation and confusion. Am I a designer because I’m on a design team?

I don’t think everyone influencing the outcome of a design is a designer. What do we gain from thinking this way? If the purpose is to create team cohesion and better buy-in for design, there are better ways to accomplish this. If the purpose is to acknowledge there is more to design than just designer, that’s a messaging problem we need to solve. Most people would say it is obvious that many roles and factors contribute to a design. We benefit from having a variety of roles and titles we are proud of. We risk losing the role of designer when we consider everyone a designer. Yes, many roles influence the outcome of a design. We still need good designers, proud of their craft, the same way we need good cooks, proud of what they create. We don’t need everyone in the kitchen calling themselves the cook.

What do you think? Please leave a comment and keep the conversation going.

The Power of an Analogy: My Conversation with Scott Hanselman

I recently spoke with Scott Hanselman for the Hanselminutes podcast. We discussed tech’s culture promoting alcohol use. I pitched the topic to Scott five months prior. He expressed interest and some hesitation. Scott wanted to make sure I could carry a 30-minute podcast without coming across as preachy. We had a few emails back and forth and ended up setting a date to chat.

Scott and I had a brief conversation before starting the recording of my episode. Scott shared with me he couldn’t relate to alcohol abuse. He said he was a tea-totaller. By choice, he never drank. He never had an issue with alcohol. I told Scott I was fine with that. I thought of him as my target audience. Someone who has no issue with alcohol is less likely to assume others might have issues with alcohol. I reinforced to him my mission is raising awareness. I don’t lecture people about their own use of alcohol.

We hit record and started our conversation.

Shortly in, Scott introduced an analogy. He compared being an insulin-dependent diabetic, to having an issues with alcohol use. Scott shared that he has insulin pumps and constantly monitors his insulin status. For him, the act of eating food is done for survival, not so much for enjoyment.

Scott shared a story about traveling with an overbearing colleague. They needed to figure out where to eat. Scott’s colleague wanted to eat somewhere more adventurous. Scott wanted to play it safe and eat at Subway. This would allow him to wake up and function at the workshop he was giving the next day. Scott knew eating something unfamiliar might throw off his insulin. Scott’s colleague displayed little understanding of Scott’s medical condition or his mindset towards food. He pestered Scott about where they would eat. Scott shared this type of situation occurs fairly often.

Scott’s analogy was spot on. I told him I wanted to disagree with him. But I couldn’t find anything to disagree with. His experience as an insulin-dependent diabetic had meaningful parallels with my experience abusing alcohol. There were at least three important parallels to Scott’s analogy:

1) Scott knew eating adventurously might negatively impact his performance at the workshop the next day.

Sober alcohol abusers know consuming alcohol is likely to negatively impact their performance the next day.

2) Scott’s colleague demonstrated little awareness or understanding of the reasons Scott didn’t want to eat adventurously.

Colleagues of those who are sober often display little awareness or understanding for not wanting to consume alcohol.

3) Scott’s colleague pressured him in an area Scott felt was personal and not something to negotiate.

Alcohol abusers who are sober often get asked why they aren’t drinking. Peers pressure them to discuss a personal topic they shouldn’t have to negotiate.

There are more parallels. But these are the most meaningful for this post. Scott and finished with a great conversation after he shared his analogy. I hope you will take a listen.

I wanted to write this post to share some insight I gained from reflecting on my conversation with Scott. I reflected on the experience. I was appreciative Scott made such a powerful analogy. I was also surprised at how impactful it was.

I started dissecting why Scott’s analogy was so powerful. I identified three factors making for a powerful and effective analogy.

A good analogy is:

Relevant — Scott’s analogy was relevant. If Scott used an example from video games or herpatology, it would have been less relevant. Sharing his condition as a human with my condition as a human was immediately relevant.

Relatable — The CDC estimates nearly 30 million Americans have diabetes. My grandmother was an insulin dependent diabetic. Scott didn’t know that, but it made the analogy much more impactful. I remember my grandmother giving herself insulin shots on many occasions. Scott suggesting a rare genetic disorder most people have never heard of as analogous with having alcohol issues would not have been effective. I would’ve had to look up the disorder, learn about the disorder, and understand how the parallels exist. Our interview would have ended before I did that.

Respectful — Scott’s analogy reflected a respect for me and my situation. Diabetes is a serious condition. So is alcohol abuse. If Scott would have compared having an alcohol issue with being a child with no self-control, that wouldn’t have reflected an attempt to respect where I’m coming from.

In short, a good analogy reflects empathy with a person or situation.

Talking with Scott was great. I felt he came away with a good understanding of why we need to consider how we promote alcohol use in tech. I am happy he let me share my experience with his listeners.

I also learned a lot from the conversation with Scott. You can create a shared understanding of an experience using an effective analogy. You need to have empathy to create a good analogy. I will look for future opportunities to create understanding through analogies. Not only when it comes to the topic of alcohol abuse.

What experiences have you had with analogies? Feel free to share a story in the comments.

Here’s the podcast. I hope you don’t find me preachy.

Subway Sub Photo Credit: SoHome Jacaranda Lilau (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

From Zoo-X to U-X: My UX Career Origin Story

Photo credit: Flickr user BurgersZoo 

 

 

I’m a UX Research Director. People contact me via email or LinkedIn asking how to break into UX. I’ve also spoken on a lot of podcasts. Often, podcasters ask me to share my career origin story with their audience. This article will explain how I found myself working in a UX career.

TLDR Summary – I went to school. I worked in a jail. I went to more school. I did research in museums and zoos. I went to more school. I worked more as a researcher. A colleague/friend referred me to a digital design firm. Intuitive Company hired me. I had the right work and education experiences. I knew the right people at the right time. You can do this too. But it isn't easy.

The Beginning

I didn’t grow up interested in design. I wasn’t skilled at creating things. I never built Lego castles. I didn’t draw up blueprints time machines. What I have always been, is curious. I love to learn. I love to read. I love to understand things and make sense of the world around me.

My mother encouraged me to read and write. She bought me journals and scrap books. She told me I should record my experiences. I didn’t do a great job of this. Eventually I realized a passion for writing. I wrote short stories and poetry in high school. Sometimes I shared what I wrote with others. I always held high regard for published authors. I wrongly assumed they were rich and famous.

I wanted to own a business, be a journalist, and write a book when I grew up. I knew I’d be filthy rich.

My Education and Work Experience

I can’t separate my work and education experience. I had three children during the course of earning my bachelor’s degree. I worked throughout college.

I Went to School

I didn’t take any art or design courses in high school. I didn’t take any art or design courses in college. I studied people and learning. I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Education from The Ohio State University (OSU). You have to use the word “The”. It’s part of The name. I intended to teach middle school language arts or social studies.

My course load focused on people, communication, and learning. I took classes in anthropology, education, psychology, and sociology. I also took courses in comparative studies, history, human development, and social work. I learned how people tick, from a textbook perspective.

I Worked In a Jail

I worked at county jails as a jailer for a total of three years. I had other jobs, but jailer is the most relevant. Why’s that? I learned how people tick, from a real life perspective.

As a jailer I learned and practiced:

  • Observation – my job required me to observe and record my surroundings. I conducted inmate head counts hourly. I searched bunks and rooms. I watched common spaces for signs of trouble. I kept a written log of all activity during my shift.
  •  Interviewing – I was a booking officer. I interviewed each person committed to jail during my shift. I had to learn why the person was arrested. I evaluated their personal and health information. I told them how things went in general population. I also interviewed inmates on a daily basis. Inmate insight was key to running a smooth experience.
  • UX – I didn’t know it at the time, but I was responsible for the UX of the inmates. As a jailer, I determined the frequency of outdoor activities. I scheduled trips to the library. I coordinated other activities we engaged in. I made sure everyone ate and received medical care when needed. I helped maintain a safe and clean environment. Bad UX meant trouble. Bad UX might mean violence.
  • Respecting others – I learned the easiest way to receive respect is to give respect. Inmates were still people. Their punishment was to serve time. I was not responsible for inflicting more punishment. I was responsible for making sure they served their sentence. (Apply this to UX – your job is to respect users, not inflict extra punishment.

I got a PhD and did a lot of Research

I developed a passion to learn more about how the natural environment impacts learning. I knew I wanted to continue in school. I wanted to research how people communicate about the environment. OSU accepted me into a PhD program as I completed my master’s degree.

I enjoyed getting my PhD. I studied how people interpret communication about the environment and environmental issues. I had a hands-on PhD program. I conducted dozens of studies in settings like natural history museums, science centers, and zoos. I took courses in psychology, public policy, organizational studies, and many research methods courses.

Literature reviews are a critical piece of PhD-level research papers. I conducted many literature reviews on psychological topics. I became familiar with research on influence, persuasion, and behavior change. Three key areas of psychology.

I studied people visiting informal learning settings for my PhD research. I worked with visitors to natural history museums, science centers, and zoos. I conducted interviews. I administered pen and paper surveys. I observed and tracked people interacting with exhibits. I analyzed qualitative and quantitative data.

I took on side projects with my PhD advisor. We worked with local informal learning organizations to study their visitors. The Columbus Museum of Art hired me as a visitor services researcher while I was in school. I conducted dozens of studies for the Museum.

These experiences taught me to go beyond research and data analysis. I had to make the findings relevant to people uninterested in the academic aspect of research. I learned to translate the application of research findings to practitioners. I loved doing this.

I did more work as a researcher

I took a job as a researcher with the Institute for Learning innovation (ILI). ILI no longer exists. ILI was a leader in research and evaluation in informal learning settings. I was conducting research with people for my job and my PhD program.

I graduated with proficiency in common social science research methods: content analysis, focus groups, interviewing, surveying, observation, and tracking. I was skilled at key components of research projects:

  • Working with clients and other researchers
  • Identifying research questions
  • Identifying methods to answer research questions
  • Developing the research protocol
  • Gaining Institutional Review Board approval of research
  • Recruiting participants (often in public spaces)
  • Collecting data
  • Analyzing data
  • Making recommendations
  • Reporting findings and recommendations to academics, clients, and peers

I had four years of studying and conducting research when I earned my PhD. I also had four years of work experience as a researcher. I knew how to interact with clients, colleagues, and research participants.

I Kept Working as a Researcher

I continued with ILI after graduating. Later, I left to take a job as a Social Sciences Researcher for the State of Ohio. I conducted research and evaluation on federally funded traffic safety and criminal justice programs. I continued gaining experience in key research methods. I evaluated the effectiveness of programs designed for people. I wrote reports for an audience of policy makers and practitioners.

I met People and Stayed in Touch

During college I made connections with people who would be my research peers for the rest of my career. I met Jes Koepfler while working at ILI. She was a super star with ambition, talent, and intelligence. Jes left ILI, but she made a great impact on me. Jes started her own research consultancy in Philadelphia. We stayed in touch over time.

I reached out to Jes a few years later. I was looking for side projects. Jes told me she had a client that needed more researchers. She said it was a user-focused digital design firm. I had no idea what that meant. She was talking about Intuitive Company (IC).

I’m offered a job as a UX Researcher

Jes put me in touch with the right people at IC. IC took me on as a contractor. They offered me a full-time position a few months later. I still had no clue what UX was. But I knew damn-well what research was. I accepted the job. My fiancé and I moved from Columbus to Philadelphia.

I made sense of it all

I immediately realized how my experience was relevant to UX. I saw the connection between what I had studied in the physical world and what I was working on in the digital world. I didn’t understand the terminology of design and UX. But I quickly learned all that. I saw how psychology plays a role in design. I started writing about this. I also found sobriety. I wrote a lot more and published Design for the Mind. IC promoted me to my position as a director.

Words of Advice

What? You didn’t ask for my advice. I know. Here it is anyway.

Maintain bridges - My story highlights the importance of making and maintaining connections. I would have never known about IC if Jes hadn’t recommended them to me. IC wouldn’t have given me a chance if Jes hadn’t referred me. You never know where your colleagues are going to end up. Keep in touch.

Look for non-obvious opportunities – I had no idea how close visitor experience and user experience align. I wasn’t aware the principles of psychology I learned in school would apply to work in UX. Looking back, I see the relevance in projects I completed.

I worked with the Cincinnati Zoo. The National Science Foundation gave them money to add computer kiosks to some exhibit spaces. I tested design prototypes and did usability testing. But we called it front-end evaluation. Same tasks, different terms.

I worked with the Jacksonville Zoo. The National Science Foundation gave them money to develop a smartphone app. I stood in the Zoo and observed people interacting with the exhibits (contextual inquiry). I asked them to use a prototype of the app. I came up with design recommendations based on the research. At that time, I’d never heard the term user experience.

I set up a computer kiosk in the Columbus Museum of Art’s lobby. I asked visitors to navigate the Museum’s website to complete tasks. This is usability testing. At the time, I called it a website study.

I suggest looking at museums, zoos, and non-profit organizations for UX-type roles. They might call it something different like exhibit design or visitor research. Use this experience to hone your UX skills and create connections.

I see a lot of parallels between my past and present work. Apparently, others have also transitioned from museums to UX. I hope my experience provides insight into ways to get into UX. Please share any advice or experience you have with getting into a UX position.

How to Pitch a Podcast Appearance

Everyone benefits from some self-promotion. You should consider podcast appearances as a method of promoting yourself. I’ve been a guest on over 30 podcasts in 2016. None of them invited me to be a guest. I pitched my appearance to each one (and many more). I’ll share with you how to pitch a podcast appearance.

Why Podcasts

Podcasts are a good medium to share your message. You can build your personal and professional brand. You can raise awareness of a cause or product. You can find new opportunities and reach new people.

You shouldn’t be concerned about cold-pitching a podcast host or producer. They appreciate people reaching out. It helps reduce their effort of finding new guests for the show.

Here are some additional reasons to consider adding podcast appearances to any self-promotion/marketing effort you undertake:

Diversity - There are thousands of podcasts with varying formats, topics, and audiences.

Longevity – Your episode will be available online for years to come. You have the potential to reach new listeners at any given time.

Cost – You don’t invest time or money traveling to interview on a podcast. You can record remotely using Skype and an inexpensive headset with a microphone. I use a Logitech ClearChat headset (as recommended by Jason Ogle from the User Defenders podcast).

Reach – Podcasts have drastically different sized audiences. I’m unsure how to accurately estimate a podcast’s audience. I can tell you some podcasts appearances have driven quite a bit of traffic to my personal website, and others almost none.

Choosing a Podcast

First, you need to identify a podcast to pitch your appearance as a guest. I use iTunes to find relevant podcasts. iTunes lists podcasts in topic based categories. I select podcasts based on topics I have experience in: psychology and design, and alcohol abuse.

I often pick podcasts listed in the “New and Noteworthy” section of the categories I search. I assume these podcasts are still building their guest lineups. I read the podcast description and listen to an episode or two before pitching. It wouldn’t be good to pitch an interview appearance for a show that doesn’t have guests.

Finding Contact Information

Finding the correct contact information can be difficult. Sometimes you can find contact information listed in the podcast description on iTunes. iTunes also links to a website for each podcast. You can usually find a contact button, email address, or submission form on these sites. You can also try twitter or the Facebook page of the show. I've had no luck finding contact information for some of the podcasts I've wanted to pitch.

The Pitch

Your pitch should take this basic structure:

  • Introduction – Pitch your topic, and then yourself as a guest. I recommend that order. Get your foot in the door with a relevant topic, and then put yourself in the equation as the expert to discuss it. You need to convince the host your pitch topic is worthy of an episode.
  • Supporting information (if any) – What value do you add to the show? What experience do you bring that listeners will find insightful? How can you get the host excited you have offered them your voice?
  • Brief bio – What is your relevant background, titles, and accomplishments? Hosts often read this information during your intro, and include it in the show notes. So be accurate.
  • Close – Thank the person and be sure to provide your contact information.

Here’s a generic example of a pitch I would send:

Dear [Host or Producer],

I’m writing to pitch a show topic and ask to be a guest on [Podcast]. I would like to suggest having an episode on the application of principles of psychology to design. Psychology is inherent to everything we design for human use, particularly [topic of podcast e.g. web design or eLearning]. I would like to appear as a guest on this episode as well.

I am a UX research director, author, and speaker. I have recently completed a book on the topic I’m pitching, Design for the Mind, available now from Manning Publications - https://www.manning.com/books/design-for-the-mind My publisher would be willing to offer a discount code for your listeners to purchase the book.

Here is a little more info about me:

Victor frequently writes and speaks on the application of psychology to design. He has written for A List Apart, Smashing Magazine, UX Booth, User Experience Magazine (UXPA) and many more. He is the author of Design for the Mind, a book on the application of principles of psychology to design. He is giving workshops at the IA Summit and the annual UXPA conference and speaking at several design conferences in 2016.

Thank you for any consideration you give to my pitch. 

Please reply to this email (victoryocco@gmail.com) if you have any questions or would like to schedule a time to chat.

The Waiting Game

This is the toughest part. Response times will vary. You might never hear anything back. Your email or submission might go to a giant black hole. This is the worst case scenario – never knowing what could have been :) 

You might hear back within an hour or a few days. This is the best result. Knowing yes or no with certainty allows you to move on with your plans. If your pitch is accepted, the host will likely send you a link to schedule a time for an interview. Some shows provide preparation information and questions in advance. Others will confirm the appointment, give you the contact details, and you won’t hear anything again until the day of the interview.

I’ve had a few scenarios where I’ve hear back months later. Usually these were people stating they had been traveling or otherwise unavailable. Some were acceptances, others were not.

Dealing with Rejection

Rejection comes with the territory when you pitch ideas – books, movies, songs, podcast appearances. Doesn’t matter. Get used to it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been rejected. I don’t take it personally. In fact, I’ve often used the motivation a rejection provides to improve myself or my pitch. Don’t let a fear of rejection hold you back. Embrace it.

Go Forth and Pitch

Please let me know if this post inspires you to pitch any podcast interviews. Do you have any experience pitching ideas or interview appearances? Please share what you’ve tried and found successful or not with pitching podcast and other interview appearances.

Victor

The UX of Alcohol Abuse: Reflections on a Year of Sobriety — July 2016 Update

It has been one year since Model View Culture published my article critiquing the design/technology culture promoting alcohol use. A lot has changed in a year. A lot has stayed the same. This post contains the original article published July 2015, with an additional update to reflect on some of my growth and learning over the past year.

November 2013

I went back to the cooler to grab another ice-cold beer. If I hurried, I would be able to slam this down and then pump a cup of the higher ABV beer from the keg before the next speaker started. I was at a small event, but doubted anyone would notice I had gone back for sixths; or was it sevenths? Who cares? Hopefully other people were enjoying as much alcohol as I was. There was probably a 12-pack worth of beer for each person at the event. Plus, I had done such a good job not drinking all day at work. I showed up to the UX meetup sober! I deserved this.

April 2014

“My name is Victor, and I’m an alcoholic.”

I felt hollow as the words left my mouth. It was nothing like the profound moment of realization I had expected; no heavenly display of angels emerged to lift my heavy heart, no cheering from the throngs of other anonymous alcoholics. Just the same emptiness I felt seconds before making a claim I had only heard on TV shows and movies; a joke in group introductions.

I didn’t know if I was an alcoholic.

There were a lot of things I did know. I knew I drank until I blacked out up to four times a week, and had been doing so for the past year. I knew my relationship with my fiancé was a mess. I knew I had no money in savings, that I spent more money on alcohol than I did on clothes, food, or anything else. I knew I was suffering constant anxiety and heartburn. I knew I felt I was failing at life, personally and professionally. I knew I had seen the second counselor in as many days, the same response: “I can’t work with you until you agree to stop drinking.”

I knew if you asked me what was good in my life I would have only one thing to say: I was working with A List Apart to publish an article. I woke up everyday hoping for a status update from my editor. I loved writing. I obsessed over it in the rare moments when I wasn’t obsessing over when I could get drunk again. When I was drunk, I would think about how I was going to write a book someday. Maybe the next day.

I bought into the myth of alcohol-fueled creativity; I was fully invested in a refrigerator full of it, but greatness remained elusive. Where was the brilliant drunk author inside of me? I would feel inspired to create somewhere around drink two or three; not once did I stop there. At drink four and more I would feel angry, regretful, sad, sick, tired. None of those feelings conducive to creativity.

This happened almost every day.

There are far fewer drunks creating brilliant works than we are led to believe.

Sitting in front of the second counselor, a stern bald man a foot taller than me, I realized none of these assholes were going to give me what I was paying them for: to tell me I could keep drinking and find a way to make the rest of my life OK again.

I was done. I had to be.

I wanted the life I couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle.

July 2015

I have over one full year of sobriety; not a single slip, not a drop of alcohol. I wake up confident. I signed a book deal, a life-long goal. I have published over 15 articles on UX research and strategy. I have presented at a number of professional conferences and UX organization events.

I have purchased a house and have a savings account deeper than it has been in a decade. Best of all, I have married the woman who was my fiancé when I was a drunk piece of shit, and we now have a beautiful daughter on her way towards shattering glass ceilings.

Am I an alcoholic? I still don’t know. I’m not interested in finding out.

Alcohol As Culture

I am sharing my story so others like me might be encouraged to seek help, and our field might better support those of us susceptible to abusing alcohol live a fuller and healthier life. Digital design and tech in general has a culture of promoting alcohol use, and we all stand to benefit from proactively addressing the issue of alcohol abuse.

I fully support those who are capable of having a drink or two and calling it quits having the right to do so. But the reason I am writing about this is to bring attention to the less pleasant side of a culture that includes easy access to alcohol, and encourages drinking as a means of socializing, staying later at work, and attending pseudo-leisure events where work is frequently discussed. There are a number of us (the CDC estimates 1 in 6 Americans binge drink 4 or more times a month) that are not very good at holding back once we choose to imbibe. For us, these opportunities to engage in drinking turn into obsessions that lead to self destruction, financially and physically, harming our family and friends, and relegating us to a shadowy world, keeping our drinking a guarded secret from all but our closest confidants… unless something terrible happens that makes it all public.

For us, there is nothing positive that comes from having easy access to a drink.

Should you (the you of digital design fields) care? I want to argue that the answer is yes. As a field, we should care about reducing the incidence of alcohol abuse so that we remain as productive and healthy a population as possible. When we highlight the availability of alcohol as a main attraction to our events, or as major workplace perks, we risk becoming a field of self-affirming caricatures — a flock of bearded white dudes holding our growlers of craft beer, getting cool points where our stuffy business or government clients tend to lose them. Doesn’t “Your work sounds just like Google!” simply translate to: “You have ping-pong tables and beer at your work! Wow!”?

As individuals, we should care about ourselves and the 1 in 6 individuals we work with that might be prone to binge drinking at any or every event they attend. These are the individuals we will have to pretend we didn’t see reaching for that 7th drink when we find out they drove home later that night and crashed their cars. These are the individuals we will be consoling when they lose their families due to drunken foolishness. If you don’t give a fuck about the human side of the equation, the CDC estimates excessive drinking costs America 225 billion dollars in crime, medical care, and lost productivity annually. And as alcohol is frequently used to facilitate sexual assault, we need to think critically about our culture of alcohol and its role in widespread harassment and abuse against marginalized people in our community.

I have seen acts of kindness from my colleagues that make my heart swell, so I know that many of you care deeply about the health and safety of your colleagues and their families. I’m not asking you to put a lock on the beer fridge at work, or to dump out the bottles of champagne kept on hand for a new client celebration.

I am saying that if you are going to have a culture that includes, and to some extent deifies alcohol, you need to take responsibility for the side effects that come with that culture. That includes providing a safe environment for all of your employees, and the family members greeting them when they will stagger home drunk.

I am asking you to keep an open mind, and engage in a healthy dialogue around reducing the number of individuals in our field that have or will suffer from situations similar to myself. I promise there are many others like me among our ranks, or that will be joining us in years to come.

Ways For Design Firms To Support Sobriety And Reduce The Occurrence Of Alcohol Abuse

There are many things that digital design focused firms (or all firms) can do to help staff members prone to abusing alcohol, and those who are alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, or sober, to have a safer, more supportive and more welcoming environment, with more choices and agency. I urge you to get creative with the opportunities and have fun with it. Much like what is said about including accessibility in your design, it doesn’t have to be extra work to make your culture sober-friendly, and it will improve everyone’s experience as a byproduct.

Hold events at places other than bars — consider venues that don’t serve alcohol, particularly if you are holding an event that is during work hours. When you focus on alcohol as the main activity, such as meeting in a bar, it becomes a barrier to participation for those hoping to refrain from alcohol. On the other hand, removing alcohol as the focal point presents opportunities for everyone — those who wish to stay sober and engage in the activity alone, and those wishing to participate in the activity and drink alcohol.

I have experienced some of the most meaningful connections with, and learning about, my coworkers at company sponsored events not held at bars:

  • Volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity site — side by side with my colleagues, we worked as a crew to assist with constructing homes. I learned more about teamwork and my colleagues’ talents and quirks than I ever would have sitting in a bar.
  • Softball — while alcohol is available to those who choose to drink, the focus of our team is to lose by as few runs as possible. I have learned a lot about the competitive nature of my colleagues, gotten moderate amounts of exercise, and gotten to recap experiences that never included hitting the beer cooler five times or more.

Some other ideas for staff activities that remove the focus from alcohol include:

  • Everything other than sitting at a bar
  • Lunch or dinner at a restaurant known for more than their beer selection
  • Playing board games as teams
  • Staff curated and juried art shows
  • Video game tournaments
  • Trust falls, trust falls, trust falls

Talk responsibility — Make responsible things like having a designated driver a standard topic of conversation. Some individuals might find it easier to say they are a designated driver as a reason for not drinking at an event serving alcohol. Don’t harass the person choosing not to take a drink at an event; do the opposite and discourage anyone from driving. Holding an after hours drinking-focused event? Provide roundtrip cab, Lyft, Uber, bus, or train fare for every person attending. Yup, it is your responsibility.

Offer health insurance and EAPs — Offer insurance that covers substance abuse counseling and treatment and look into providing an employee assistance program for staff seeking help. Make sure your employees are aware of these benefits and how to use them. According to the LA Times, confidentiality and short term counseling are inherent parts of any EAP; however, only 4 to 6% of people with access to an EAP use their program due to lack of awareness of the associated benefits and the guarantee of confidentiality.

Support employees that express they have an issue — Consider allowing staff to have a flexible schedule if they come in late after a morning support group meeting, or want to attend a support meeting mid-day. There are support meetings throughout the day in most cities. If you know your employee is trying to do a meeting every day, make sure they prioritize that in their schedule. You benefit from having a productive and healthy workforce. Don’t treat staff differently if they choose not to attend an event held at a bar, and don’t expect a response to the question “Why aren’t you drinking?”

I did not make my employer aware of my issue. I did let some of my colleagues know that I was struggling personally and that I was seeking ways to improve myself. I knew that if I told my employer I would be supported, but I was afraid of having stigma attached to my potential to grow in the field. So, if someone on your staff tells you they have a problem, don’t ever assume it was easy for them to do so. I have a year of success and a stockpile of accomplishments under my belt, and writing this article with the knowledge my colleagues will read it causes mini-panic attacks with each keystroke. However, I know that celebrating my sobriety is worthless if I don’t turn around and try to give back to those suffering in silence.

Do not accept alcohol abuse as the norm — It isn’t a joke if Jenny is always drinking beer at noon and working on her fourth by the end of the day. It is sign of trouble. We often tell jokes and recount stories that seem to reflect the good times associated with getting shit-faced. These stories become company lore, and eventually take on a life of their own. Young, impressionable staff might see the smiles on senior staff faces as they recount “the guy that puked on the dancefloor” story, and misinterpret this as admiration for such an act. In reality, we all look back and say that guy was pretty embarrassing, and if we were that guy, we are thankful we are still here to recount the story.

It is OK to tell someone you think they’ve had enough to drink at a company event. It is OK to tell someone it is embarrassing to you and to your company when they act drunkenly foolish in public. It isn’t cutting loose or blowing off steam. Really. It isn’t. If you wouldn’t want your staff engaging in a behavior in front of the board of directors of your biggest client, you shouldn’t accept it in front of friends and family at the company picnic.

I’m not asking you to babysit your staff or to take away everyone’s fun because some of us can’t get with the program and have a good time. The above suggestions will help set the tone among your staff that we aren’t all cookie cutter in our ability to handle alcohol, and that is OK. We need to diversify our image of who we are in design and tech fields, and this includes looking at sobriety as a healthy option that is just as logical as vegetarianism.

Ways For The Field To Support Sobriety And Reduce The Occurrence Of Alcohol Abuse

I believe there are many ways our field can reduce alcohol abuse. I am keenly aware of the effort our conferences and professional groups go through to make it known drinking alcohol (usually for free) will be a part of an event. Unfortunately, as vice-chair of a local organization, I have not been practicing what I preach here. Many of our events include alcohol, though not copious amounts per capita. I have tweeted, even since being sober, that we offer free alcohol at our events. I take responsibility for this, and will not do so again in the future. I want to set a better example moving forward. I believe we only reduce the diversity we say we are striving to achieve when we host events and put out calls for folks to attend just because we have free alcohol.

Here are some tips for what I’d like to see more of in the future from design focused conferences, organizations, and publications:

Talk about it — Maybe as a part of Geek Mental Help Week. This year we saw a convergence of some of the major publications in UX and digital design to support increasing exposure of mental illness issues in our field. I think alcohol and other drug abuse are mental health issues that need to be part of the discussion. We should strive to make these topics a real part of the dialogue of our field. You’d be surprised who suffers from mental illness; you’d be surprised who abuses alcohol. Let’s learn more about each other in an atmosphere of safety and acceptance.

Support groups — We should have support meetings as options at conferences, rather than relegating issues of alcohol abuse to the shadows. If this isn’t an option, conferences should publish a list of venues and times for local AA and other support group meetings. I see that some conferences are doing this already, and I applaud that. I am also aware that onsite support is a standing practice among other fields where high stress and powerful positions often go hand in hand with excessive drinking. Proactively addressing the issue is not a sign of weakness.

Provide sober options — Follow the five tips Kara Sowles provides for including non-alcoholic drinks at events. Provide opportunities where alcohol is not the focus, or at least provide decent soft drinks at events. I’m a huge fan of ice-cold flavored seltzer water. Have some on hand if I’m going to be around.

Give recognition — Promote companies providing EAPs and decent mental health coverage for their employees. One way we can accomplish this is by publicly acknowledging the efforts of specific organizations making strides towards providing staff with access to these essential elements for reducing alcohol abuse. Perhaps we can create an award for the most inclusive organization or workplace that provides a holistically healthy experience for their staff, and include considerations for reducing alcohol abuse as part of the criteria.

My Clearly Placed Call To Action Button

 

Please don’t mistake this for a story about how I’ve overcome adversity and am now holier than thou. I’m not, or else I would have named this article “How I beat alcohol abuse and you can too.” If this article bothers you, you are reading it wrong. I’m not telling anyone that can handle it not to drink. I am telling you to stop drinking if you can’t handle it.

If you have a problem with that, I completely understand. I was in your position not that long ago.

I’m not perfect. I still think about drinking when I’m in a bar and catch a whiff of spilled beer, or while the lady sitting next to me on the plane as I type this is drinking her Baileys and coffee. And when I think about drinking, I’m still thinking about 10 beers or a bathtub full of Baileys. I, personally, cannot have just one drink. And that is one of my biggest takeaways from the AA meetings I attended: I’ll never have the second drink if I don’t take the first. I hold onto that dearly when I experience a craving.

Take this piece for what I want it to be, a cautionary tale to individuals and organizations, a call to action to be more proactive against alcohol abuse, and the start of a dialogue within our community. Alcohol (and other drug) abuse hurts our image, hurts our bottom line, and hurts our colleagues and their families. We need to address this issue as seriously as we tackle the functionality and usability of the products we design.

Finally, if you are struggling or think someone else is struggling with alcohol, but are afraid to start this conversation with your employer, feel free to pass this article along and let me do the initial talking for you. You won’t regret starting a responsible dialogue. Below I have listed some additional resources for help and for some facts on alcohol abuse. If all else fails, send me an email or tweet. Take care.

July 2017 Update

 I have continued growing in my thinking on the issue of tech’s culture promoting alcohol use. I have also maintained my sobriety for over two years.

Two New Takeaways

I have come to two major conclusions based on my experiences since the initial publication of The UX of Alcohol Abuse. When it comes to the culture of promoting alcohol use in tech:

  1. Those promoting alcohol use at work and events are not doing so with malicious intent. It’s about awareness. If you don’t have any issue with alcohol, you might not have an awareness others do. Once you learn that others feel excluded in cultures promoting alcohol, you have the obligation to respond in an appropriate way. We need to continue to work hard to raise awareness and move towards the most inclusive culture as possible in design and tech fields.
  2. If we are going to promote the use of alcohol at work and events, it is our obligation to ensure the safety of those choosing not to drink alcohol, as well as those choosing to drink alcohol. We do this through enforcing policies that prevent people from getting drunk and belligerent, by offering company paid rides home or hotel stays if someone over consumes, and by clearly communicating our expectations of appropriate behavior in our written and verbal communication.

Personal Growth

I wanted to share some personal updates since the initial publication of The UX of Alcohol abuse last July.

I was overwhelmed with the positive response I received to the article. Readers widely shared it over social media. The New York Times NYT NOW app picked up and distributed the article. I received a lot of reader email. Some folks told me they supported my effort and congratulated me on my sobriety. Others told me I had done a good job describing the situation. Someone suggested the article should be required reading for anyone accepting a position in Silicon Valley. Perhaps most exciting personally, an editor from Vox.com reached out to commission a follow up article on the same topic.

Many people reached out to tell me they too were unhappy with tech’s culture focusing on alcohol consumption. However, unlike me, these people were not alcohol abusers. These people had many other reasons to avoid situations where alcohol use was promoted. Personal reasons: medications that don’t mix with alcohol, pregnancy, past experiences of abuse at the hand of an alcoholic, and much more. I learned much more than I had anticipated. 

I realized with the many other reasons people stay away from alcohol I had to go beyond my focus of telling the story of an alcohol abuser. I needed to find and share solutions that would apply to anyone choosing not to drink. On that note, I wrote an article for a Philly tech news site expanding my thoughts on what we can do to make tech events more inclusive to all attendees. I continue to challenge myself to find ways to contribute not only awareness of the problem of a culture promoting alcohol use, but solutions.

I’ve started speaking at conferences and events about shifting the culture promoting alcohol use. I spoke at my workplace, Alterconf in Minneapolis, and Drexel university. I have been accepted to speak on at Big Design Dallas and will speak to the the DC UXPA group in September. I’m also on a panel that is a larger effort to raise awareness around issues of inclusion (or exclusion) in tech for PANMA, a local Philly organization.

Others are also spreading the message of alcohol creating a toxic culture in tech. Sarah Jane Coffey published a highly recommended article on the use of alcohol in startups, and the uncomfortable position workers who don’t drink are in. Tim Allen and others contribute with conference presentations on addressing the culture of alcohol in tech. I hope these and similar efforts are well received and we are able to keep moving the conversation forward.

Oh yeah - I also published, Design for the Mind, a book on applying principles of psychology to design. As one podcaster stated, the book is a physical manifestation of my success with sobriety. You can use the code 39yocco to get 39% off if you purchase the book through my publisher here.

Resources

Originally published at modelviewculture.com.