Let’s Talk About Periods…and User Experience

No, gentlemen, I am not talking about grammar. I am talking about the necessary evil and paradoxically beautiful event necessary for creating life. But before you get your undies in a bunch, and run from this page as fast as you can grunt, “Super Bowl Sunday,” let me give you a little back story. This week, I was on Facebook when one of my favorite sites for girls empowerment, A Might Girl, featured a story about Arunachalam Muruganantham. A lower-middle class Indian man, Muruganantham was shocked one day to find that his wife was continually choosing between purchasing food for their family and purchasing sanitary pads.
https://i1.wp.com/news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/73331000/jpg/_73331692_muruga6.jpg

Rather than purchase sanitary devices, his wife and many other women globally resort to using rags, leaves, grass, hay, and even mud to prevent embarrassment. In many parts of the world, access to basic hygiene is a luxury, and specifically with regards to female health. These alternative methods lead to a host of UTIs and vaginal infections, all which are easily preventable. To add another layer of complexity, the lack in access to hygiene devices causes girls to routinely miss school, and makes it difficult for women to hold steady jobs.

Muruganantham, like many men, was shocked by this realization. He began tinkering with a host of low cost designs and prototypes, and at one point began wearing his inventions himself (with the aid of goats blood!) because finding women to were willing to test them was so difficult. Currently, Muruganantham’s products are manufactured in over 1,300 villages and 23 Indian states, as well as employing as many as 10 women in each village. In 2014, Time Magazine named him one of The 100 Most Influential People.

I took a step back, and thought about his work through the lens of the industrial designer. User experience is an increasingly important aspect of design. If we don’t understand how our client thinks, acts and what they experience, there will always be a disconnect no matter how strong the product is. Companies like IDEO have near-perfected this model, and countless others have provided supporting material. But what do we do when the user wont engage with the development process? In the case of Muruganantham, there was a very real and critical need. He had to bring “User Experience” to a whole new level, literally putting himself in the position of the client in order to bring a viable product to market.

I was also enamored by the idea of a man with no formal education or exposure to design methods using a principle that is still being explored in the design field to a whole new height. It reminded me of a similar story published in 2013 in which in Jorge Odón, an Argentinian car mechanic, invented a life saving device for emergency births.

While part of me reads these stories and thinks, “Why am I in design school again?” the other part of me is inspired by these inventors and further affirms my belief that to be a good designer you need to have a strong understanding of the world you want to design. Being able to wade through the endless sea of design methodologies and diagrams will only get you so far. You need to actually understand the problem you are addressing. This should be common sense, right, but I seem to be finding this isn’t always the case.

With this in mind, I leave you with a quote I heard from Dan Formose of Smart Design, New York in the documentary Objectified. He stated, “What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the fastest, or the strongest person. Because if we undersand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.” In the case of Muruganantham and Odón, they looked at the extreme. They saw a problem, learned about the user, and worked tirelessly to solve it. The rest, as Formose, stated, took care of itself.

What’s in a Name? That Which We Call and ENTJ

There seems to be an innately human fascination with the idea of putting ourselves into categories. From the time we are little, we take quizzes and assessment to justify our behaviors or bring clarity to problems. When we are in high school, we take career aptitude tests that are supposed to map out the rest of our professional lives. Buzzfeed is always there to tell you “What Famous Ginger is Your Secret Best Friend” or “What Beyonce Song are You?” Identity is so much of who we are, so taking 5 minutes to fill out a questionnaire that will put into words the traits we know we possess but are unable to articulate seems like a small price to pay for clarity and self actualization.

It comes as no surprise, then, that on the first day of my Professional Practice course, we were told to take personality assessments. The first was a Meyers Briggs personality assessment, and the second was a design skills assessment.

I had taken Meyers Briggs tests many times before and had always been told I was an ENTJ. I was proud of this. ENTJs were no nonsense, executive leaders. We were the bosses and the visionaries, and I enjoyed being held in the same esteem as Madeleine Albright, Bill Gates and Katherine Hepburn. But to my surprise, this quiz told me I was an ENTP. Talk about an identity crisis!

As I began to research the traits of an ENTP, however, I came to find an alarming amount of attributes which I had known to be true about myself prior to this test. For example, a common theme is the love of verbal sparring. We could debate about anything, and love to debate simply for the sake of debating. Words are our weapons, and we are constantly looking for ways to gain information in an attempts to better equip ourselves. ENTPs are also quick decision makers, processing a large amount of information in a short amount of time to make decisions based on logic and gut intuition. Because of this, many ENTPs are often politicians, comedians, and the hybrid political satirists such as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Knowing that I could now cozy up to Stephen Colbert made me rest a little easier.

What, then, does this knowledge have to do with my course work? The course is focused on contextualizing ourselves as designers in the current work force. What about our personality will be advantageous, and what will be detrimental. As positives, I was happy to know that the ENTP type validated my quick thinking, knowledge driven, and innovative approach to problem solving. All of these, as I have come to learn, will be hugely advantageous in a design setting. These same traits, however, can all contribute to the ENTPs downfall if left unchecked. Our overactive minds can be interpreted as scatter brained, our propensity to debate comes across as argumentative, and our passion for our ideas can come off as an inability to compromise or insensitivity. Just as with the positives, the negatives traits have also been common occurrences in my personal and professional life. To mitigate this, I have found it most affective to be (1) conscious of their existence and (2) constantly working to redirect these tendencies in a positive direction.

The second assessment was a self evaluation of our skills based on a list of core competencies outlined by IDSA. For each competency, we had to check if this was a strength or area for improvement. The items ranged from traditional design roles, such as “Physical model making” and “3D rendering,” to managerial roles, like “Is able to leverage networks” and “Advocates for teams’ recommendations.” With a few years of post college experience under my belt and a slew of part time jobs throughout my life, I was please with my assessment. I felt as though I possessed a large portion of the cognitive, communication, management and leadership skills. Those I selected as needing improvement I had either had a little exposure to or were familiar with the concept. Ironically, I found the highest percentage of my weaknesses lied in the creative boxes.

While I have a background in fine arts, I am quickly learning that an aptitude for oil paints is very different than being able to design a widget from start to finish. This assessment made me painfully aware of my novice level, and the skills that I still need to learn that will make me a marketable designer. Despite this, the assessment also served as a tool to push me to better these skills, and was motivating in a nagging mother sort of way.

So, what is in a name? How much weight should we give to assessments such as the above. We cannot view these results as absolute dogma and let them stifle our process, or give us license to rationalize poor decisions and continuous weakness. Yet, we also should not write them off completely, and rather respect their validity and use as a tool. So, like many things in life, we have to find the happy medium. We have to use these tools as guidelines, allowing them to add clarity to our decisions, but not let them dictate every choice we make. Because, people are not static, and we can always take actions to lessen our weaknesses and accentuate our strengths.

For a good resource on deciphering Meyers Briggs types, might I suggest 16Personalities.

images-4