23–Make UX truly human-centered by addressing trauma, power, and other necessary and uncomfortable realities (ft. Vivianne Castillo)

In which Peter and Jesse speak with UX researcher, educator, and humanity advocate Vivianne Castillo about what it takes to be truly human-centered, the necessity of addressing trauma, what UX can learn from human services professionals, and practices and rituals you and your teams can adopt.


Vivianne: It was kind of a culture shock, honestly, to the switch into UX, this field that raves about how human-centered they are, and how little they talked about doing the personal work required to actually be human-centered.

Peter: I’m Peter Merholz,

Jesse: And I’m Jesse James Garrett,

Together: And we’re Finding Our Way

Peter: …navigating the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership.

Jesse: On today’s show, in a conversation recorded two days after the 2020 US Presidential election, as the votes were still being counted and uncertainty hung heavy in the air, we’re joined by Vivianne Castillo, UX research leader and educator, to talk about, appropriately enough, trauma. Trauma in the workplace, trauma in our lives, and trauma in society.

We’ll talk about what UXers can learn from human services professionals, and we’ll talk about acknowledging the true power of designers to not just help people, but harm them as well.

Vivianne: I guess, a little bit of context, I come from a counseling and helping service professional background. So I made a career switch into UX probably about, I don’t know, four or five years ago now, time means nothing at the moment, but a few years ago, and initially when I broke into UX, I was really excited about how this industry talked about being human-centered and empathy and I remember winning a scholarship to go to the O’Reilly Design Conference in San Francisco and super excited to be listening to these leaders in the field talk about these topics. Talk about the role of diversity and inclusion in tech and design. And at the end of the conference, I was sitting in my hotel room, just kind of reflecting on what I had heard and I was like, “Wow, like this is bullshit,” when it came to how UX professionals were talking about empathy.

And I have a different take on it. And part of that is just from my training as a counselor and a therapist. But when I started to initially speak and write within the UX field, it was about diversity, equity, and inclusion, how the way we talk about it tends to be BS within the industry.

I talked a lot about the role of shame when it comes to research and design, and really, for me, there’s a time and place for personas, journey maps, et cetera, et cetera. Those things are important, but I’m more interested in that deeper human undercurrent when it comes to our work. And I think trauma especially is a topic that we need to be talking more about.

I think when we look at 2020 in and of itself, it’s just been a year of, not necessarily stress, it’s been a year of trauma. You have the trauma of COVID and the pandemic, which also just impacts folks in the majority versus minority employees very differently. Folks in the black and Latinx community were more likely to know folks who have passed away from COVID than their white colleagues. You have the trauma of June where Corporate America kind of realized, I guess, they’re racist. And so now you have this month of June where you’re having a lot of these companies, a lot of these well-meaning colleagues try and have these conversations. And, in many ways, often, deeper traumatizing their black colleagues and underrepresented minorities.

And then you have, political trauma of this election. And in America, specifically, politics is life or death for minorities. So, it’s been a very stressful time, a very traumatic time to say the least, and that impacts the workplace. And if there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, and has maybe reinforced probably more so for the majority, it’s that you can’t dichotomize our personal life from our professional life anymore.

Jesse: This question in my brain is being asked by Peter: What do you mean when you use the term “trauma” here?

Vivianne: In its very simplest form, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about big-T trauma, little-T trauma. So little-T trauma is things like, you’re moving away as a kid, or a sudden disruption in maybe like a major plan you had this year, like going to a wedding or having that really big birthday party. Whereas big-T trauma, think about, like, physical assault, think about the pandemic.

And there’s different types of trauma. You have acute trauma, again, these more, like, smaller moments of emotional responses to terrible events. You have chronic trauma. These are things that are dragged out over a period of time. And then you have something that’s called secondary or vicarious drama.

Vicarious trauma comes from being repeatedly exposed to other people’s trauma and their stories of traumatic events. I mean, 2020 in a nutshell, right? the way that vicarious trauma specifically plays out is things like frustration, anxiety, irritability, uh, disturbed sleep, or like nightmares, problems managing personal boundaries, loss of connection with self or others, or a loss of sense of your own identity and your values.

It definitely runs a spectrum.

Peter:  I’m wondering if you feel that all UX practice and practitioners warrant this level of depth, regardless of the problem space people are working within, or is this something that is more around, well, yeah, if you’re working in healthcare, sure, you need to understand these things, but if you’re trying to just help people listen to music, okay, you get a pass on matters of trauma. Like, how do we calibrate it, so we don’t feel like we have to be all trauma all the time, but that we are engaging appropriately with some of these deeper, heavier concerns, even in areas that might not seem like it warrants it.

Vivianne: Even if you’re designing a to-do list app, I think that if you’re going to profess to be human-centered, you need a more holistic approach to that. And part of having a more holistic approach to being human-centered is understanding things like trauma. And I get that, naturally, no one wakes up in the morning, they’re like, “Man, I really want to dive into trauma. I just want to, like, read about it all day. I want to sit in that.” That’s not the expectation nor is that the way that even folks who have to deal with these topics, how they handle it. I’ve been thinking a lot about how UX professionals in particular tend to align themselves with the product and tech industry, when in reality, I think we need to align ourselves more with the human service industry.

And when I think about what a human service professional is, I think that human service professionals are individuals who uniquely approach the objective of meeting human needs through an interdisciplinary knowledge base, focusing on prevention as well as remediation of problems, and maintaining a commitment to improving the overall quality of life of people. And so, that’s social workers, that’s counselors, public administrators, but that sounds a lot like UX professionals.

And so, when it comes to trauma, for me, it’s not even necessarily all about, How can I make sure that we aren’t making product decisions that are causing trauma? I do think that’s important topic as well, but it’s also about understanding how does trauma impact you and your work and your ability to collaborate with people, your ability to be innovative, your ability to be vulnerable enough, to know when to ask for help with your teammates and your colleagues.

So, it’s a part of just understanding how to work within a work environment that’s collaborative and it’s bringing out the best of your work as well.

Peter: If you look at the history of UX and HCI, the way that we choose to understand humans emerged from trying to figure out how people use tools. It was essentially applying that to software interfaces. So, a lot of, like, cognitive psychology was the primary means of understanding people so that we could design software that they could understand and manipulate and use.

Something that I hadn’t thought of, until you just mentioned it, is how because of the degree to which software is shot through, infuses literally every aspect of our lives now, that simple information processing approach to user research, which, again, is the foundation upon which most UX research is understood, is no longer sufficient. This is now a social, societal concern. How do we evolve this practice of UX to recognize it’s not just about behavior with software interfaces, but something deeper and more fundamental that these software interfaces are now enabling everywhere?

Vivianne: I think a part of it is just recognizing that in the beginning of UX and the development of it, if you’re looking at the founding UX forefathers, a lot of them are white able-bodied men. And so a lot of these decisions that they’ve been making, when it comes to software and products, has always been affecting, and oftentimes excluding, folks who are in marginalized communities or folks who are minorities.

So I think it’s moreso recently the reason why we’re having more conversations about this is because now you have four generations in the workplace. And Millennials and Gen Z, we’re more diverse generations, where we also grew up being able to talk more freely about these topics in the workplace and in school settings.

And so, you’re looking at what I think is a clash of different generations and different points of view on the importance and the urgency of talking about these things. And so when it comes to, how do we start to signal to the rest of the UX community, that there are deeper elements and even just consequences to our design decisions and our ability to apply our awareness of depth of humanity to our work streams, I think a couple of things need to happen.

I think, one, we need to elevate more voices within UX leadership that aren’t from the majority. I mean, my greatest fear is that there will be certain leaders in UX who will attempt to rebrand themselves for the sake of being relevant and talking on things and issues that really, they have no level of expertise or business talking about when they could be pulling a seat to the table and bringing other voices to the conversation.

And then the other thing is, I think it’s just reminding the UX community that we are not special snowflakes. There are industries, there are professions who have done very deep work on actually being holistically human-centered.

I think about the American Counseling Association and they have a code of ethics and even in their code of ethics, they talk about the importance of self-care and it being an ethical imperative. And, the importance of understanding when you are physically, emotionally, spiritually even, burnt out and it’s affecting your ability to perform. And reason why they even call that out in their code of ethics is because they recognize the ability to cause harm to people if you aren’t operating at your best self.

We need to really lean into what human service professionals are talking about, and even what they’re training their professions in school. I think UX professionals, we pride ourselves on all things empathy and advocating for people, and I think that’s right. But I also think that what comes often with roles where extending empathy is a key part of your responsibilities is compassion fatigue. And compassion fatigue, this is not a new or sexy, like, phrase or word. Again, this is something that is commonly talked about among human service professionals.

Even teachers experience this, nurses experience this, but compassion fatigue is always going to be experienced by people where extending empathy is a core aspect of what they do. And really, compassion fatigue is the profound, like, emotional and physical erosion that takes place when folks are unable to refuel and regenerate.

So imagine if UX professionals actually understood that at some point in their career, they’re going to experience compassion fatigue. This isn’t, “Oh, I’m never going to experience it.” It’s a question of when and being able to recognize those symptoms: difficulty concentrating, increase likelihood of you isolating yourself, insomnia, overeating, excessive use of alcohol and drugs.

What would our approach to being human-centered be like to other people, if we could actually be more human-centered and conscientious of ourselves.

Jesse: As you were talking about the need for UX professionals to start looking to other models for their profession and for their practices, to what human service professionals are already doing and already understand around these things, I noticed that this very much goes against what seems to be the trend in UX these days, which is toward increasing quantification, and people building these elaborate systems of metrics to support design decisions, and the whole set of issues that you’re talking about are things that can’t be captured by those quantitative methods.

So it feels like there’s this two-fold kind of thing. At first, you’ve got to pull people’s attention away from the numbers toward the qualitative and holistic view of what’s going on. And then even beyond that, then you’ve got to educate them about trauma or the potential for trauma or the potential for harm that’s created there.

And all of that is just within a product design and development process, which is separate from the whole other side of the equation for leaders, which is how do they manage their organization and how do they structure their teams? How do they work with their teams and create cultures that are aware of these issues? To your point, you can’t really separate how trauma affects us as practitioners from the role that trauma plays in product design anymore. And I am wondering, How leaders can improve their awareness of how these issues play out within their team?

Vivianne: I do think you can quantify this. In my current role, I work with C-level executives of Fortune 500 companies, so I’m often having a lot of these types of conversations where I’m leveraging primary and secondary research, both qual and quant, in order to help them be more holistically human-centered in their approach to business development and strategy and how technology and product can power that. And so, I remember one time talking to an executive and they’re like, “Yeah, all of this stuff is good, but at the end of the day, this is about data, this is about numbers.”

He’s like, “I think the whole, human-centered thing is cute. but this is about data and numbers.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s cool.”

So, like, people create data and data comes from people. So you need to talk about people and understand that it’s about both to quantify it a little bit, even, to some of the comments you’re saying.

Well, think about when it comes to trauma, and, like, burnout, when it comes to compassion fatigue. Think about the way that this impacts the business on a dollar-sign level. So for example, I am fully anticipating a spike in FMLA leave between now and probably January as well as in the summer. I think this whole year, a lot of companies, teams, UX teams have been talking about stress and burnout and they have really missed the ball by not talking about trauma. think about what that means when it comes to, now you have to spend time hopefully finding a contractor to fill in an aspect of work, because one of your employees is taking an absence of leave.

Think about the increased amount of time people are spending off, and what does that mean when it comes to workflow and production? Think about folks who are, realizing, “Hey, like, actually my workplace is… this is not conducive to my mental or emotional wellbeing. This is toxic. And I’m leaving.”

Think about the amount of money, now, these companies are spending, having to recruit to interview, and to find someone else to replace that person. So for me, a trauma-informed workplace and team is also just a part of good business when it comes to having a sustainable workforce. I’m blanking on the other question that you asked, but…

Jesse: Yeah, so my other question was, given that those things are all these untracked or relatively invisible costs to these organizations, how do leaders bring the awareness up of those impacts? How do they improve their own awareness of those impacts in order to be able to take action on it?

Vivianne: I mean first and foremost, it starts with education. It’s hard to actually understand the impact that it’s having on your team if you aren’t aware of the complexity of this and how it’s playing out, within not only the workplace, but just in general, how trauma operates.

So, one thing that I’ve been doing is really just educating leaders on trauma and the difference, too, between trauma and burnout. Also assessing their confidence level and being able to talk about these topics and lead your team through difficult times, whether that is an election, whether that is protests and riots that are happening in June, and being able to really, in many ways, do a self-assessment to understand not only your ability to talk about things like trauma, but the undercurrent things that are also driving those conversations, like racial injustice and inequity.

Especially with this election, you can’t necessarily lead your teams, and hopefully they are diverse teams, you can’t necessarily lead them without being able to talk about race and racism and hatred. That’s very much a part of that conversation. So, when I’m teaching and equipping leaders how to have these conversations, I’m also teaching them about the difference between shame and guilt, because more times than not, when you’re talking about things like racism or politics and trauma, shame and guilt are often triggered.

Guilt is, “I made a mistake,” whereas shame is, “I am the mistake.” And more times than not, especially for folks in the majority, they tend to experience shame in these conversations, these messages of, “Oh, you’re saying I’m the mistake. You’re saying that I’m the problem.” And then that’s where the defensiveness comes in. That’s where that fight-flight-or-freeze comes in when it comes to these conversations.

So, I’m often equipping people as, “Hey, physiologically, here’s what’s happening to you if you’re starting to experience shame.” And I’m also giving them tools of how do you ground yourself in that moment, so you can still be present and listen to your colleagues, listen to your team members as they’re processing and working through what’s happening, not only outside of the four walls, but within the four walls of work.

Because the other thing, too, that I’ve been teaching people about trauma is that often trauma agitates and triggers old trauma. So, I’m talking to a lot of folks right now who, yes, like, the world is a trash fire right now. But it’s also triggering former workplace trauma that people have experienced, right?

Where they may be at an old job they didn’t feel safe, where they didn’t feel heard. I didn’t feel like they could take care of themselves. And so, it’s kind of bringing up some of those old experiences and those old feelings, and people are feeling frazzled. They don’t really know what to do with it.

A lot of it is equipping people with grounding tools. How to recognize this within yourself versus other people, how to have language that you can use when confronting someone on some of these difficult topics, or if someone is saying something that is triggering, how do you actually have a productive conversation with that person?

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Jesse:  You mentioned giving leaders grounding tools to help them ride out whatever shame or other feelings of their own that might come up as they engage with these issues, because it’s much easier to run away from those things if you know, you’re going to have to face your own shit when they come up, right. What is, uh, simple way for people to get started with those grounding practices?

Vivianne: I’ve encouraged leaders to create an emotion journal. So, I have a print out of this emotion wheel. Most people can’t name, a lot of emotions, but, I’ll have them do an assignment where, hey, on Mondays, I want you to take note of the times when you felt happy, where you felt excited or exhilarated, whatever is within that slice of that emotion pie. Or Hey, Wednesday, I want you to reflect on the last 24 hours and think about the times where you felt frustrated or angry or defensive, and what caused that, what was the line of thought that led you there?

It’s an awareness exercise. I think a lot of people don’t pause long enough to learn about themselves, and so I have toolbox of different activities that I share with people of, here are some activities you can do, whether it’s a weekly or daily basis, to help you learn more about you, and help you to earn your PhD in you.

Another thing that I encourage people to do as well is, again, at the end of the day, to have time of reflection.

One particular activity I encourage someone to do was around power dynamics. And so I had them for a few days journal about the different people that they interacted with in their work and whether they had a perception of that person having more power or less power than them. In that conversation, in that relationship, and then talking about the impact that that has and how they talk to that person, their willingness to share ideas with that person and potential barriers to actually hearing from that person.

So yeah, I think some simple activities like that actually go a long, long, long way.

Jesse: It seems like just simply creating the space for reflection, regardless of what the practice is, is a key.

Vivianne: Yeah. And it, it sounds simple, but whew. I mean, even the way we’ve taught folks about UX, that’s not something we teach people. It’s, like, be human-centered, but that whole actually doing the personal work required to truly be human-centered, that’s just kind of, I guess it’s just going to happen.

It’s a given, but it’s something that we actually don’t prioritize and we don’t necessarily view as a part of our professional development or professional competencies. So I think that as a field, we could just do a lot better in recognizing that aspect and how this plays a part in our professional responsibility.

Again, something that I admire about human service professionals is that recognition that, the things that are happening from your personal life outside of the four walls from work impacts the way that you show up in your professional life. Even ethics. Within my master’s in counseling program, that was semester one of my program.

And every semester after that, we always talked about ethics. We always talked about what’s happening in our personal lives and how that impacts our relationship with our work, with our clients, with the experiences that we’re trying to craft and create. And we’re encouraged to be intentional—whether that’s accountability, whether as a counselor to go see another counselor, it’s just viewed as an ethical responsibility, as a professional imperative, actually within our work.

And so it was kind of a culture shock, honestly, to the switch into UX, this field that raves about how human-centered they are, and how little they talked about doing the personal work required to actually be human-centered.

Peter: Right. I mean, for UX it’s all around the methodologies. We learn tools to understand people that aren’t ourselves, to understand other people. I remember back, Jesse, to when you worked on Charmr, and Charmr was a kind of a vision project that Adaptive Path did around diabetes and managing your condition. And I remember the team who was trying to practice good human-centered design, coming back to the office after talking to Type 2 diabetics. And they were wrecked, hearing about the circumstances that these folks were in. And it was the first time I witnessed that, right.

Usually when you’re working in boring software context, trying to help SaaS companies SaaS better, you don’t get that kind of engagement when you’re doing user research. But, we were not set up to enable or support these folks in managing those challenges beyond kind of a generalized, humane awareness of like, “Oh, we should give that person some space to deal with this thing that they’re processing,” kind of separate almost from the work.

So I’m reflecting on how there’ve been moments in my career where I’ve seen it, but it felt like I could, I guess, isolate it on like, “Well, if you’re going to do something that obviously engages with the more challenging parts of human existence, yes. we can be more attuned to that.” And I think what you’re pointing out is, like, basically everything right now is kind of… I guess what I’m realizing is like the moment we encourage us as professionals to engage with people, customers, users, or whatever, there’s a line crossed that we haven’t been aware of where we’re inserting ourselves into somebody else’s context, if we’re doing it right, and are now exposing ourselves to all that stuff. And we have in no way equipped ourselves as a community, as a profession, to handle that even a little bit.

I mean, it’s just not even… I have never heard of… Maybe if you come at it from matters of sociology and anthropology, right? You see some people with user research backgrounds where they’re steeped in ethnography. I’m hoping that those professionals have some awareness. But if you’re coming at it from a interaction design or HCI background, not even, not even beginning to happen.

And what this leads me to wonder is, something we haven’t talked about for a while, but the sense of professionalism and certification for the kind of work we do, so that we are being responsible and making sure that when we’re asking someone to engage in these practices, that they’ve done the work to really ready themselves.

So, I guess I’m wondering, as you’ve shifted from counseling, which seems to have a degree of rigor around this understanding, to now UX and UX research, which clearly lacks it, how would you mature this profession and practice to account for this gap that you’re seeing between the world you came from to the world you’ve stepped into.

Vivianne: Yeah, that’s a great question. The rigor from counseling comes from, again, an understanding of how close we work with people and our ability to cause harm. And again, that’s just something that, when I switched into UX, I’m like, okay, like everyone’s talking about being human-centered, but do they really understand how much power they have in these relationships with people, especially as researchers.

I think that a lot of well-meaning researchers have unfortunately used empathy as a tool to exploit people. And so now, I think a silver lining to 2020, COVID, is people are having to encounter the complexity of people’s humanity, whether that’s within the workplace, outside of the workplace, society or not.

And so when it comes to, What does it look like for us to close this gap? Can I dream? I think that these HCI programs would partner more closely with the human service programs, ideally like counseling and social work.

There are practical ways to understand and increase your competencies when it comes to sensing and responding to people, like, what do you do when you are in a session with someone and they start to just cry. I’ve heard and have read materials from UX leaders who view those emotional outbursts as a badge of honor. And they viewed it as, “Oh, I’m so good at building rapport and empathy with this person. Man, like, I love those moments when participants cry with me.”

And for me, that’s, especially as someone from a counseling background, that’s a very dangerous mindset to have, or hope to affirm that you are really good at building empathy and rapport. And the reason why is, because for all you know, you have not only triggered someone into emotional distress, but you actually probably don’t have the tools or the training to usher them out of that, to ground them before they leave your presence and go back on with the rest of their day.

And we have an ethical responsibility to make sure that we are caring for our participants when they are with us and when we’re doing research sessions with them.

I do think we need to work more closely with human service professionals like counselors and social workers. I personally think that there should be some element of continuing education that comes from specifically, again, human service classes and courses around this.

I think unfortunately we do a lot of navel-gazing. We don’t lean as much on other industries and professions who have actually done deep work in being human-centered. And the other thing that can help close the gap is, especially from leaders who already have a level of recognition and sway in the industry, to step up and actually start asking those questions, do your own research, and take your own initiative and share what you’re learning.

And come from a place of humility, not a place of, “I’m a leader. And, I’m an expert in all these things,” but help us industry learn how to be humble again. ‘Cause we’re not a humble industry. I think pride is one of the greatest occupational hazards for UX professionals, because it really blinds us from doing the work that could prevent us from causing harm to other people.

Peter: You mentioned power and, power is a big factor here, something that you pointed out that I don’t think we understand is the power that we wield as designers. Because it’s a step removed, we’re like, “I don’t have power. I just make a thing.”

Human service industry folks recognize that power because they’re dealing with that person face to face, or maybe in a small group. It’s very in the moment. Maybe through user research, you have a little bit of that. You’re not actually trying to make a change, usually,  with user research, you’re there to observe and take in.

And so I don’t think we recognize, one, even that context, there’s a weird power dynamic going on that probably needs to be acknowledged. But then, two, the ultimate impact of the work that proceeds and how it is a reflection of the power dynamic between the organization producing the service the people who are receiving it. So there’s that part of the power dynamic.

Something else that I was wondering was in the internal work that’s happening, something I’m sensitive to, as a leader, is if I try to facilitate conversations, because I’m the one with power, I don’t think the conversations are going to be necessarily as open and honest and good, because I fear, as a leader, people will take cues from me, even if I’m trying to be the avuncular sweater-wearing groovy guy, who’s just, like, wants to rap with you about what we’re dealing with.

People know that I’m the VP and they’re not, and I can fire them or whatever those dynamics are. And so I’m wondering what counsel you have in terms of approaching these matters internally, so that power doesn’t overwhelm honesty and authenticity when, people are trying to engage in these conversations.

Vivianne: Yeah, that’s a great question. And before I get to that, you talked about power with the researcher-participant relationship, there’s so much power there that we should talk more about. I have power, in that I know exactly where this interview, where I want it to go and where I’m going to take you. That’s power.

I have power in the types of questions I want to ask, what emotional heartstrings, emotional responses I might want to hear from you. Some personal stories. My participant is unaware of the amount of emotional labor that I might be asking them to do in my session.

Something that I tell people, too, is, Hey, when you’re doing interviews with folks, don’t wear an Apple watch, don’t wear your, like, nice, expensive jewelry or, have your, what, like $20,000 piece of artwork in the back, whatever it is. Those are power signals, ‘cause you don’t know that person, their background, what they’ve been through. So if you’re having on a call with them, whether it’s remote or, back in the day, in person, and you roll up with your Starbucks cup, you have your Apple watch on, nd, you’re just dressed to the nines, that introduces a unique power dynamic between you and that person.

I have a checklist of things that I do before my interviews. I’ll jot down, What am I bringing into this interview? What assumptions may I already have about this person in this interview and how might that influence the way I’m going to interact with them? And what ways am I going to try and mitigate the power dynamic in this interview?

So I, mentally and emotionally, walk through that so that I can try and mitigate that, or at least be aware of it as much as possible in my time with that participant.

You asked a question about, the internal approach to power, specifically with leaders and how they show up with their teams. Easier said than done, but man, one of the quickest ways to mitigate that power is to be vulnerable.

And, wow, leaders, like, it’s tough. It’s tough. And I get it, because there are written and unwritten rules of leadership, right? Things that we’ve been told of how we’re supposed to show up, how we’re supposed to lead, how we’re supposed to assure people that things are okay.

But some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in the workplace is… I remember being on a call with an executive. This was in June. A white man. And, they’re thinking about Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and they cried. And I was, like, Whoa. This is, like, it’s a reminder of, like, Oh, okay. Like, executives are people, too. Like, there’s something, there’s a commonality that we have between us, beyond we work at the same company. So moments of vulnerability.

There are moments to acknowledge and surface other moments of connection between you and people who have less power than you. So, I have been on calls with executives where I always ask people, “How are you doing today?” ‘Cause I know it’s a day-by-day thing. And then, “How are you doing in general?” Like, that’s how I always phrase up that question with people. And I remember talking to an executive and they’re like, “Honestly, not good, not good today. This is happening, this is happening, and I’m not going to lie—I just don’t want to be at work today.” And this is someone who has more power than me. And I just told them, “Hey, I really appreciate you sharing that.” It makes me feel like I can be more real and honest, not only with leaders, but even my other colleagues, right.

Because leaders are modeling how to show up to colleagues, that we have similar power dynamics, so it’s a trickle-down effect. So I say, one, I think vulnerability is really important. Two, I think, modeling behavior that, again, shows that you are aware of others and what others might be going through.

So, I had an executive, who maybe only gave a few days’ notice, but it was like, “Hey, I need time off.” And they took a week off. Family and your wellbeing comes first, and everything else comes together. Not second. And I was like, great. Like that, for me, is a moment of mitigating power because now I’m giving myself more permission to show up in a way that’s authentic, that’s real about how I’m doing and where I’m at. And even in the midst of a project, if I need to step aside for a little bit, that’s going to help me and my teammates figure out, where to pick up the slack.

How do we continue this momentum of collaboration instead of me just operating on E and it’s stifling the project that we’re working on together.

Music break 2

Jesse: You talked about bringing people together around these issues. And one thing I think that happens within teams is people experience their own individual traumas, and then had to take them home with them, or, at best, maybe it comes up in a one-on-one with their manager at some point. And I wonder if there are ways that teams can collectively create more resilience. We talk about creating a culture for design within organizations that is a little bit of a safe space for risk, a safe place for exploring creative possibility, those kinds of safety, and my thesis is that you don’t get those kinds of safety unless you also have these other kinds of safety.

Is it entirely on the manager and their individual relationships with team members to create that? Or is there some holistic way that it can be addressed almost at the organizational level?

Vivianne: I think it’s both, I think managers play a huge role and, creating that type of environment. And really, when we talk about safety, we talk about vulnerability, we’re really talking about trust, and extending trust because you can’t have safety, vulnerability, without it. Managers play a huge role in that, how they show up, how they address teams in trying times. Even right now, with everything that’s going on in America, if you’re a manager and you haven’t addressed it, you better believe that you are creating a less safe environment for your team to talk about real things that are impacting them and might be impacting their work and work productivity. So yes, managers have a huge part to play.

I think, too, there are certain things that you can do at a team level, where everyone is contributing to also creating that space. So, an activity that I’ve done on teams, this is something that I’ve also encouraged and done within Humanity Centered, which is our online course in community for folks in UX who want to do more of this deeper work, is we do something called a “check-in check-in.”

So for example, with Humanity Centered, we have folks who go through their own self-assessment on where they are, and comfort level talking about some of these topics that we’re talking about today, when it comes to being able to have human-centered conversations and profit-centric conversations, the ability to talk about white supremacy and privilege and design, et cetera, et cetera.

So, we ended up having these small groups that, through that self-assessment, we group people accordingly, and then we’ve had them doing this activity that we call the “check-in check-in.” So, “check-in check-in.” Basically, you have three minutes, and everyone goes in this small group. I’ve even done this with teams at work. And you start off the sentence with, “If you were to truly know me,” and then you just talk about what’s on your mind, whether that’s work stuff. It’s, “If you were to truly know me, this weekend was really great. I was able to go into social distance, walk with so-and-so,” or, “I’m actually not fully present because of A, B and C going on.”

And it just a time for people just to share what’s on their mind and what’s on their heart. And, there’s three minutes and it’s… let’s say that person only wants to talk for two, then that remaining one minute is, everyone just kind of sits in silence and waits for the timer to run out.

And then we give the group two minutes to respond. So, if you want to respond to that person, then you’d throw out the sentence with, “When I heard you say, blank blank blank. It made me think about,” or “made me feel” whatever it is. And so just an activity to help people, again, foster that element of safety and trust and vulnerability.

Some people will share more, so people will share less, but it’s about creating that mutual respect for where people are at. And even just knowing how to better check up on your colleague and to show up with each other in the workplace.

In the beginning of projects, encouraging folks to create what we call an alliance, where, before you kick off this project, let’s say it’s you, another researcher, and three designers, and you’re having a meeting where you’re talking about, What are the expectations for how we each think we should show up on this project? What are the things that you should know about me in order to get the best working experience with me? What’s our role, what are the roles that we’re going to agree to? If there’s disagreement? And, how do we want to figure out how much time do we want to spend on this or not?

So we’re not spinning endlessly, my team, we have a rule. It’s called the “fucks given” rule. So, basically, like, we find ourselves on this problem, and we’re like spinning in debating it. And then we put it to a vote: Out of fucks given, where are you at? You at a hundred? Are you at zero? So, we got to figure out, can we just move us on? Is it really like a life or death thing? I’ll always say things like, “Hey, this is something I’m not willing to die on the hill on, but I do think it’s important.” So just being able to quickly suss out and agree how we want to handle conflict before a project is huge.

And that is a part of creating safe spaces and a safe environment. So, there’s a lot of things, and even rituals, activities people can do.

Jesse: Having tried to implement some vulnerability rituals inside a design organization, I found the degree of buy-in to be widely varying in terms of people’s willingness to be a part of those kinds of things, or to engage with them at more than, a superficial level.

Vivianne: For some companies and teams, that’s a culture shift. What do you mean trust? What do you mean, like, actually being more human to each other? And so some of it takes time, and one of the biggest detriments to the teams, when it comes to this type of work, is they’re, like, “What’s the easy, simple thing I can do tomorrow and everyone will be bought in?” We’re complex people. So, this takes time for some teams, it means that there needs to actually be a deeper conversation about what are the barriers to trust or humility within the team and the culture.

I’ve had teams where they bring in a third-party person to help facilitate those conversations. And I think more teams honestly, should think about doing that.

Peter: Almost every team I work with is stretched too thin, not enough people to do the work that is expected of them.

If I were to bring some of this wisdom back to other folks, the response would likely be, “We just don’t have time for that. I don’t have time to do the things that are expected of me. And now you want me to make time to do these things as well.”

Rituals is probably a way to think about this. I think too often we do events. We’re going to do a two-day workshop. We’re going to get everybody in a room. We’re going to bring in a facilitator, who’s going to help you better understand trauma, self-care, whatever it is. We’re talking about emotional honesty, et cetera.

And then that person’s going to leave, and we’re never going to talk about it again. As opposed to, thinking about it less as an event, and more like, start small, What are rituals, like the check-in check-out, that you can intersperse, and after a while it won’t feel like extra, it’ll just be the work.

Vivianne: I agree. It’s, What are the small things that you can start to implement and build habits on? If the problem is, you’ve been eating like shit, the last six months you’ve gained the COVID 30, we’re going to bring in fitness instructor and do a half-day workout session, and then you’re going to go on with your life. That’s not gonna really cause change anywhere. It’s a Band-Aid on a much larger problem.

Especially now, ‘cause I’m thinking about the context of trauma, I’m thinking about the context of compassion fatigue. Especially when you’re thinking about things like creating equitable and inclusive experiences in design. And I’m thinking about what’s happened this year, I’m thinking about June.

And the reality is, just to be blunt, that white people aren’t used to sitting and suffering in pain this long about race and racism. And so white people are tired, you are tired when it comes to talking about race and racism and caring about people. And so I’m just aware, people are tired, people are traumatized.

So, I always encourage teams, think about one or two things that you can do that start to build this muscle, because this is a muscle, right? To your point, you can’t just have a one, two-day workshop and then you don’t talk about it ever again. It’s a muscle that you have to build.

And I encourage people to build it slow, but be intentional when you’re building it. So, I’m being intentional. Make sure that the habits that you’re implementing are life giving and are actually contributing to increasing an environment of trust and vulnerability. Resist the temptation to feel like you need to study and cram for this invisible exam that I guess everyone has to go through next week. This is something that takes time. I think people really get frustrated with that because they’re, like, “Well, I just want to do everything right now and get it over with.”

But this is a lifelong process and experience as well. You may start at this company and continue with at a different one.

Especially in Corporate America, where capitalism honestly depends on the system not fully acknowledging your humanity in order to make more money. So, you have to think about, what are small habits and rituals that can start to disrupt that, and have us move towards a more holistically human-centered approach to ourselves, so that we can apply that approach to other people as well.

Peter: One of the things we didn’t quite get to is: let’s say UX Research, the profession that you are now in, should that be certified? Should you need a certification to practice UX research? Should there be unions to support UX researchers? Should there be these professional structures to address some of the things we’re talking about, because right now, UX researchers, literally anyone can call themselves that.

Vivianne: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s in the form of certification. I don’t know if it’s in the form of committees, but I do definitely think there needs to be a level of accountability in the field. Less around accountability of personas and journey maps and jobs-to-be-done, and more of, like, do you know how to not cause harm to people when you’re with them?

Jesse: Right. Yeah.

Peter: Norms no longer work. Norms are done. Norms have just proven themselves too easy to exploit, and our practice, our industry is built on norms. And, how do we start turning norms into standards, into reasonable expectations, because of the influence, the power, that our work has.

Vivianne: I agree. And I think that the voices that need to be leading that conversation or should be at least helping to shape what those norms are, should be folks who are underrepresented or marginalized. Because if you’re able to design well for marginalized, underrepresented voices in communities everyone else is going to benefit.

So if there was new UX certification, and it was being led by a bunch of white men in UX, I’d be crushed. So, it’s understanding, too, does it look like for us to actually reflect the sentiment of being inclusive and human-centered, and even our approach to designing accountability, and especially now, I think if people were more aware of trauma, then you wouldn’t have people doing things like, I don’t know, scheduling user research interviews during election week. No one cares, why are people doing that?

Peter: The information you’re going to get is not going to be… yeah, what are you going to do with that?

Jesse: Believe me. I was doing a user research study in September of 2001. I know.

Vivianne: Or even just what if, instead of paying people the typical way we pay participants, we pay them based on the level of emotional labor that we’re going to be expecting them to give to us in this time, what would it look like to reevaluate how we compensate?

There’s a lot of room growth with that. I get a lot of DMs and messages from folks who just had never had the language for trauma, for compassion fatigue, for understanding the difference between stress and traumatic stress and how you treat them very differently.

And, I’ve had folks who have left UX and they’re like, “Wow, if I knew those things, I think I would have been able to get help and, you know, maybe we had more of a sustainable career.” So, this is also about, you want to have a sustainable and long career in UX. We have to start having more conversations about this.

Jesse: I’d love to, in our last couple of minutes, just hear a little bit about Humanity Centered because, I think you’re taking an interesting approach to how you’re structuring, getting this knowledge and these skills out into the world.

Vivianne: Yeah, so Humanity Centered, so we’re a community of what I feel are some of the most supportive, growth-oriented minds in the UX field. And these folks are coming together because we want to learn how to lean into new conversations with openness and courage, and really how to transform the status quo of what it means to be human-centered in our work, our industry, and our professional lives, by doing more of personal work required to do our best professional work.

So, the way that we’ve structured this is, oftentimes when it comes to conversations about creating equitable and inclusive experiences, or influencing power in the workplace, a lot of people tend to treat those conversations and that journey as a solo one. But in reality, this, we believe in our philosophy that growth is best experienced in a shared journey. We have a five-week course that’s taught live. And we also have people split into small groups. And that way, too, we give people time to meet with other people from different countries, different journeys in their UX experience, different companies. But we design those pods to make sure that people are getting the best experience possible from this community.

So, we have people do self-assessments to better understand where they are and their confidence and ability to have conversations about, inclusive and equitable design with their colleagues to influence stakeholders, to have more human-centered conversations.

And we’re grouping them together with other folks who are in not only similar places of their journey, but with folks that are going to help them grow in their goals that they want to achieve from being a part of this community and course.

So, in this, during the modules, we talked about things like barriers and resistances to cultural humility and competencies. We get super practical when it comes to, What does it mean to be ethical? Not even from a team standpoint, from an organizational standpoint.

And we start to question current conversations in the field, like, Should we be focused more on not causing harm or focus more on causing more good? And what is that mindset shift? How does that influence the way we approach product UX? So we had our first cohort that wrapped up actually on Sunday.

We’re having our second cohort start, end of January. We’ve been really excited to have some amazing corporate partners, and sponsors to help us with this work. And for us, any partnership and corporate sponsorship money we receive, we put it back in a hundred percent into scholarships.

We are convicted about the importance of having the most diverse and inclusive community within UX, and it’s been a really hot, awesome, awesome experience. We have folks, obviously, from the States, from Canada, we have folks from Costa Rica, from Ireland, from Kenya. We have folks from all over. We have, one student who literally wakes up at 2:00 AM their time to join us. And so, we’re working on how to make it more accessible, more global as well. And it’s been, honestly, just like a gift in such a chaotic year. So that’s what we’re about.

Peter: That’s awesome.

Jesse: Wow. That sounds really great.

Vivianne: Type in humanitycentered.com, whether that’s centered spelled from UK English, or American English, it will kick you to our website so you can learn more about the courses, learn more about the community and, I’ll see you there.

Jesse: Thank you so much for being with us.

Peter: This has definitely been, I’ll say mind opening, not even eye-opening, so thank you.

Vivianne: Thank you.

Jesse: And that concludes another episode of Finding Our Way. You can find Vivianne Castillo on LinkedIn, as well as on medium. She’s also on Twitter @vcastillo360. You can find Peter and myself on Twitter as well. He’s @peterme, I’m @jjg. Please feel free to yell at us in public. We love it. If you prefer to yell at us in private, you can do that too. Using the feedback form on the website for this podcast, at http://findingourway.design, where you’ll find every episode and transcripts.

We’ll see you next time.

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