Exposure

I’ve worked in UX for just over ten years now, the web industry as a whole for roughly 18, and computers as a whole since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

I’ve never worked for an agency.

I just gave my first talk outside the company walls on Saturday, for World IA Day Philadelphia. (By the way, World IA Day everywhere else is the 24th, so go find an event near you.)

And the thing I’ve noticed the most about speaking — outside of the sheer terror and exhaustion of it — is that for some people it appears to be required and for others it doesn’t. And it seems to be about exposure.

Exposure is that thing where you want to give people who don’t work with you on a daily basis, or even frequently, enough of a good experience when they do work with you that they remember you as one of the good ones. Generally you need exposure to people with authority, whether that’s the authority to hire and fire you or the authority to choose you for a specific project. But exposure to peers in your field (or even those your junior) as well as peers in fields adjacent to your own, is never bad. You never know when those folks might actually turn out to be one of those people in authority.

My first eight+ years of UX were in-house at a company whose UX staff, if you included the writers, averaged around 200 people.

My entire career at that location, I did not give a damn about exposure, in fact, I did my best to avoid it. If my peers and my chain of command knew I was doing good work, that was good enough for me. If I sought exposure for anything, it was my ideas; I didn’t care if you remembered anne gibson, but I did care if you remembered that Information Architecture can make or break a website, and that when you worked with me you learned a little bit about how to lean on the “make” side of that equation.

Some might say that I was naive. Some might even say that my lack of exposure explains why my career growth stalled for a few years. They would be wrong.

It’s been my experience, as an innie, and talking to other innies, that visibility to the outside world is  a bonus to the company more than it is a path to career growth. The people you need to impress are your peers and your boss (and your boss’s boss), because they control both the day-to-day of your working experience and the overall impression the company has of your skills and value. You can be published and write talks and do things that make you better-known in the industry if you want to, but it’s not required of your job. (In fact, a few of my managers have thought it was detrimental, because that was time I could’ve been spending on the year’s Project Death March instead.)

At best, innies give back because it’s ethically the right thing to do to ensure we can share our knowledge and learn from each other. At worst, we give back because we’ve worked with a lot of outies who haven’t a clue and we’d really like some better-trained prospective employees please.

On the other hand, I’m working and talking to more people with “outie” (aka “consulting” or “agency” or “freelance”) experience than I’ve had a chance to do in earlier parts of my career, and I’m beginning to get an appreciation for the value that comes with it for those careers. Having an industry-recognized member of the team can help the agency find customers, and is even more powerful for the consultant, or the freelancer. Keeping one’s name in the social media feeds or magazines for good work can accelerate that process. Being [big name person] is significantly more valuable than being “the next [big name person]” both in credibility and in monetary reward.

This isn’t to say that an outie’s messages in a talk are any less valuable than an innie, or that an outie’s morals and values about contributing to the community are any different. Both an innie and an outie can choose to write a talk, submit it, get accepted, rehearse, and present it, all because the message they’re bringing is valuable to the community and they want to change the community with their words. Similarly, both can wish to work with n00bs who have more knowledge, and choose to educate for that reason 😉

But whereas the outies I talk to often say things like “If I don’t get more exposure this year, people are going to forget my name,” or “I’m not going to be as big as [big-name person here] if I don’t get more speaking gigs”, my mindset is mostly “If I don’t get more exposure this year, I might actually get my shit done.”

For a while, I thought that outies were a bit arrogant, always worried about their ego and their community rank. But I’ve come to realize that most of them are terrified that without name recognition they’ll be unemployable. My security as an in-house designer for two solid and growing companies has provided me the privilege of never worrying about the next contract or the next gig unless I wanted to move on. And while I don’t write to forward my career, my writing here in other places certainly assisted me in getting a better position than I may have gotten as a no-name designer churned out from the innie world.

So this is me, learning a little late that there’s no shame in garnering exposure, and maybe even some advantage in doing so. But also this is me, recognizing that if I had to pound the pavement to bring in work, I’m woefully unprepared both to handle the work of doing so, and to handle the anxiety that comes with it.

To all my outie friends, I wish you smooth submission processes, many acceptance letters, and nods of recognition whenever your names are mentioned. May your roads be paved with success, and should your soles wear down, may you find a nice department at an innie where you can pound the pavement a little less.

Measuring morality

I probably remember the lesson more because of the circumstances than the content.

I’d missed an honors class the previous week and when I came in for class this week I was told I couldn’t catch up until I had taken a test that the whole class had taken  the previous week.

I was told that there were no right answers to the test (which I didn’t believe) and that my score didn’t mean anything (which I also didn’t believe) but that the test would tell me something about myself.

I was highly suspicious.

The test had somewhere between ten and twenty questions maybe? They were each stories like the one below:

Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist, and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug, and this was much more than the Heinz could afford.

Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later.

The chemist refused, saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.

At the end of the story I was asked to choose why it was OK for Heinz to steal the drug. Answers included things like “Because the chemist was greedy” and “Because Heinz’s wife’s life was more important”.

I remember being furious because, in almost all of the stories, the actors took an action I believed was morally wrong, and the only choices I was given to answer the questions were to justify those wrong actions. It was a real-life Kobayashi Maru — a no-win situation where I couldn’t explain what I thought was right or choose the things I believed in, but I also found it abhorrent1)(If I could go back to talk to past me, I would give me such a lecture on morality.)  to choose things I didn’t believe in.

That might be why it’s stuck with me so long.

The test was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg as a study of how morality and values develop within people. Kohlberg tested boys ages 10-16 with these scenarios and open-ended questions, which he then analyzed to develop his “Stages of Moral Development”. Then he followed up with most of the boys at 3-year intervals for 20 years to see how their morality changed.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one furious at the test (and to be clear, a little bit at the teachers for putting me in the situation). It’s hard for seventeen-year-olds, especially those that excel in academic settings, to believe that “this test ranks your morality stage from 1-6” and “the people who scored four are not better than the people who scored two”. At the time the lesson I took away was that I somehow had to progress to a level five of morality in order to be a good person, which is probably exactly what a level-four rules-follower would think.

It also turned out that there were more problems with Kohlberg’s methods than you can shake a stick at. They appear to be biased toward a justice-based system (which itself tends to be biased toward how men are raised, thus making the system gender-biased), with hypothetical questions, a gender-biased sample (all boys), poor research design, and a host of other issues.

Which is all a fancy way of saying “When I was a teen, someone made me take a very poor psychological research study and I’m still pissed.”

So why tell you now?

Because there are a few lessons I did take from the lesson that have stuck with me.

The first is obvious, and yet not-obvious. There are a lot of ways to judge morality, but we have a tendency to believe that the one we’re currently using is the “right” one and the people using different methods are somehow suspect or (in the worst of cases) suspicious.

Sometimes that person you think is an asshole is an asshole specifically because you and they are using different measuring sticks. They probably think the same of you. Acknowledging that you’re using different measuring sticks can help both sides step down an argument. (Warning: it can also refocus the argument on the measuring sticks and that can rapidly escalate into a prick-waving dick-fight of epic proportions.)

The second is a tool: if we know how people measure what is right and wrong, then we can also find tools to negotiate with them on their terms. Someone who’s more concerned about the consequences of their actions based on personal punishment impacts (i.e. “If I do that I’ll get fired”) don’t listen to arguments that work on someone who’s more concerned about consequences to their reputation (i.e. “if I do that everyone will think I’m a jerk”) and vice versa. When we assume that everyone’s using the same toolset we are to make moral judgements, we hamstring our own ability to persuade others.

In other words, we have to figure out someone’s goals to figure out how we can reach goals together. In my experience as a User Experience Designer, we recognize that these differences exist between our personas (or between the different roles on our teams) but we don’t often explore it except by accident. It may be valuable to explore it explicitly on tough projects.

Finally, it’s critically important to recognize that Kohlberg was not the be-all and end-all of morality either. He had his own struggles, struggles that ultimately led to his suicide.

He also had a cis-male-centric system of measuring morality that doesn’t apply to everyone all of the time, even if it does more often than not shape the society we’re currently living in. Women are much more likely to be socialized into an ethics-of-caring system (at least in the US) than an ethics-of-justice system, which is what was being measured by Kohlberg’s tests. On Kohlberg’s system, the ethics applied to people most concerned about goodness and wellbeing of others, compassion and nonviolence, couldn’t climb “above” Level 4.

So I recommend awareness of different models of morality, and looking for places where your morality may differ from someone else’s. But I also recommend not ranking people as more or less moral, or even more or less mature, based on their model, because it doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

And I also recommend not pissing off teenagers with questionable research methods, because we’ll remember for years to come.

Notes   [ + ]

1.(If I could go back to talk to past me, I would give me such a lecture on morality.)