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At the recent MX Conference in San Francisco, I was fortunate to hear Dr Genevieve Bell share stories and lessons learnt from her 13 years working in User Experience for Intel.  A social scientist and anthropologist, she seemed intimidatingly intelligent. As a bunch of 13 syllable words flew over my head, I was drawn into her anecdotes and quips of wisdom.

In a familiar American/Australian accent, her story began with “I met a guy in a bar…”. That guy was from Intel and not long after she was tasked to figure out “Women” and “Rest of World” in order to “reinvent computing”. As a team of 1, she set out on this small mission. Now she runs a lab of more than 100 plus UXers.

Genevieve provides her definition of UX. And I love it.

UX is a point of view. It is an assemblage, a collection of ideas, not just a method. It is one third design, one third engineering and one third social science. With these three forces combining, it is important to remember that UX is like an intervention: it is disruptive by nature.

This really rings true for me and reminds me that UX isn’t easy. It is the road less travelled and we are usually asking people to change, to slow down, to reconsider, to test, to hypothesise, to look beyond the bottom line, to listen, to dream, to imagine, to workshop, to collaborate, to stop… all the things that really don’t fit with business goals and project methodologies.

When asked “What does UX do?”, Genevieve has a wonderfully simple response: “We bring stories from people outside the building inside the building.”

Genevieve’s 8 things…

Turning our tools on ourselves

An ethnographic study of Intel to understand how it functioned and what things meant was vital to her and her team’s success.

“Knowing it was endogamous mattered”. Endogamous is an anthropological term that describes an insular group, distrusting of outsiders (apologies Social Scientists if I have overly or incorrectly simplified the concept!). Genevieve realised that she needed to find “daddies” for UX. Without someone to sponsor, to vouch for her, life on the inside would be very difficult.

Break the rules

“Even though they want UX, the will get in the way of you getting what you need.”

UX is not traditional; it is not well understood within the corporate context. Property will battle you when you want to cover the walls in paper. Project Managers and business sponsors will be reluctant to give you the time and budget for iterative design. People will want you to prove that ‘learning stuff about people’ has an ROI.

Be interdisciplinary until it hurts

Build varied, interesting teams. The Intel UX team employs fine artists, scientists, filmmakers and poets. Know that growing the team and making it work will take time but know that “if it isn’t painful, you aren’t doing it right!”

It is also important to remember the context and ecosystem in which you exist. Genevieve acknowledges that a UX team of 100 is big. Very big. But when you consider that Intel employs over 100,000 people, it is only logical that you need to constantly accommodate. She makes a nice point of always treating UX involvement as an invitation, not a right.

“Get ahead of the duck [not shoot the duck]”

Not everything is in your toolkit and you should often do things ‘just because’. She told a story of her team brainstorming about how much technology exists in our vehicles. So they decided to excavate cars. The team didn’t immediately share their findings from pouring through people’s stuff but knew that one day it would be useful. Sure enough, several months later an actual project involving technology in motor vehicles emerged.  Her advice: “do stuff and keep it off the books until it will be more interesting”.

Theory counts

“UX is not about writing down what people say”. Hallelujah!

What people say is not necessarily what they do. What they don’t say is important.

As UX people, it is a skill to interpret, to stitch together, to discover meaning, to understand what is symbolic, to give it sense.

I love this point. UX is not about right and wrong. It isn’t about having the answers, it’s about having the questions.

New conceptual models and methods

Interactions are important. Relationships are important. And the two are very different.

Genevieve illustrated this with Apple’s Siri as an example. The success of Siri is not that it responds to voice commands, it is that she listens.

Getting from vision to stuff

It is good to have a process that supports customer insights, but it is better to have a process that demands them. Build checkpoints into processes to ensure their use.

Have fun

Build fun into your UX team to “counter oppression”. UX can be tough as you are often telling [business] people what they don’t want to hear. The work you do will often be compromised for countless reasons. Keep the dream alive, keep things in perspective and enjoy the ride.