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Being a Responsible Consultant

Elephant in the Dark

As the design community continues its slow evolution from a craft-based industry to a powerful pivot across lateral, yet related disciplines—such as business strategy and technology—we are often reduced to being hired to create artifacts first and foremost, crossing off item after item on the list of required deliverables in the contract we duly executed a few weeks back.

This is professional practice, but it is not always responsible. Design may be a service industry, but that doesn't mean you should be a servant. You should be a responsible consultant.

These are a few traits I've observed from watching responsible consultants working in our design profession. Feel free to add more via the comments.


Exploring What Our Clients May Not Know, or Want to Hear

Designers bring a fresh, practiced eye to their client's stated business problems. We are oft informed by the tacit knowledge we've gained from our previous contact with other domain experts, as well as previous projects solving similar design problems. If we don't have that knowledge, we can often gain it quickly enough to have ground under our feet when we make a recommendation.

But we must extend our reach backwards from the most important task we're hired to provide—making meaningful things to effect change in the world, whether those things are physical, interactive, or immaterial in shape—to fulfill the work that happens before the work. By this, I mean constructing the appropriate frame to our efforts before we apply our craft to paint the appropriate picture, or web app, or chair, or training program for hospital staff, and so forth.

The framing of our efforts is the first and most important task for a responsible consultant, so that we can ensure that our work at the end of a project (and beyond) has the appropriate impact. The word "appropriate" is key here, because if we construct the frame out of the words our client provides us, the end result may be askew.

I'm not saying here that clients aren't knowledgeable. We don't know what they know, so it's important to gauge their perspective and plumb their insight into where their attention is focused. However, they don't know what we know, and even more importantly, they don't know what they don't know. By this, I mean over time they may have assembled the data they've collected about their customers, their business, and their competitors into patterns that obscure what problems truly bedevil their business.

Being a responsible consultant means seeing the world as it is, informed and armed with the right data to suggest the right decisions, from start to end of a project—and positing what future effort would be required to sustain the vision you've provided. S/he broadens the view of the client outside of their perceived need and encourages focus on where not only their money is best spent, but also where their time and labor beyond a current project.

This does not mean, "We can sell them more work because they'll like what we did for them on this current project." It means, "Suggest where they need to go, and what material effort is necessary to continue there, knowing that during the journey it's likely their course will change due to new information."

Defining possible futures is a measured responsibility that must be carried through the life of the project and beyond, as they will assume the onus of the decisions you recommend. This is a serious business.


Weighing the Human Impact of a Well-Considered Change

Being a responsible consultant requires dismantling myths and inefficiencies that stand in the way of stated business goals—or setting new, more reasonable goals. Such efforts may cause short-term problems and perceived threats to your client's vitality. People may lose their jobs, either within your client organization or within a competitor's organization, due to increased market advantage from their foes.

I find this hard to stomach, as I thought I should not cause pain to any people at all through what I create. When discussing this topic with my wife, however, she shared that the proper Buddhist perspective would be as follows:

"The least amount of pain for the longest period of time is the desired end result. If a man has gangrene in his foot and it can't be treated, the appropriate action would be to chop off his foot. Would you let him slowly die?"

Designers should not be ruthless purely for the sake of competitive advantage in a market. I think compassion is often (mistakenly) confused with inaction. Speaking up in a meeting about a design decision that could have a drastic negative impact to a wide swath of the country can be a form of compassion—as long as you have the data to support your decision beyond intuition. Delivering such a point of view is a delicate political dance.


Having a Seat at the Table, Yet Knowing Your Place in the Process

UX designers can gain a seat at the table with CEOs as a responsible consultant, but only if they understand what they don't know about business strategy, product fulfillment, manufacturing, organizational dynamics, and the billions of other tactical and strategic issues that come up on an hourly basis within any organization you advise.

There's been a lot of spirited dialogue recently about the value of designers-cum-UXers leading business efforts, whether at startups or large-scale companies. My point of view is that great UX serves as effective facilitation and alignment through the work you've been hired to fulfill. So if we're responsible consultants, we never confuse our point of view with our client's ask. We seek to align their view with ours, if our view is well-informed. Integrity for a responsible consultant comes from holding true to the needs of the customer through this negotiation, and often we meet closer towards the middle if we aren't competent at stating our case.

If you've been asked to inform the company's overall strategy with an engagement, than do so. If you've been asked to follow, then challenge what you're following if you feel that you're going down the wrong path. It's possible that the work you provide may create opportunities or leverage for organizational change within any company you engage with, but you can't expect that it will always be the outcome, or that you know better than your clients. In almost all cases, you have less information than your clients about the game they are playing in market, and if you do hold more knowledge, then you don't want to be the therapist who says on the first appointment with their new client, "You don't have to tell me any more. You've got an Oedipus complex, you should quit your job and go back to school, and your boyfriend is cheating on you, so move out now."

What value we integrate into that facilitation is editing and shaping a point of view—and in many cases, due to the body of knowledge that we've developed, creating a forum for your clients to decide to agree.

Don't forget that an effective experience strategy for any product or organization is a pairing of both UX strategy and business strategy. I think a number of UX designers without serious training and experience in running businesses profess to be able to lead both, or provide solutions that influence or lead business strategy in a competent manner. The latter can often be quite effective, but this does not mean you are a business strategist. I sure don't call myself one. I don't have an MBA. I've never run a corporation, outside of working on the business side of a few design firms. I've only had a bit of knowledge gleaned from my daily interactions with professionals in those disciplines. I try to partner as often as possible with experts in that domain as sounding boards. With their input, I am more comfortable in making claims via my work that influences business strategy independent of my design recommendations.


Effacing Your Ego, Collaborating with Humility

Being a responsible consultant means striking clean the need for ego. When working on a team, one must avoid placing a big fat thumbprint firmly across every artifact and client interaction. The team is the work, and the work is the result of the team. Always.

Besides, few will remember whom contributed directly to the end product. When the day is done, you can take off your coat and your mantle of responsibility, and return to being a person in the world—knowing that there are bazillions of other people just like you, trying to responsibly improve almost every aspect of the man-made world that surrounds you.


"Not Making" Is a Valuable Byproduct of Making

The center of gravity has shifted. The advantage for any designer may not be solely in making beautiful things. A designer working as a responsible consultant is invested in knowing all the things that should not be made. This past year, I've found more value in discussions about what can be taken away than in what could be made. Often, what's most innovative is just covered up by competing priorities, like a beautiful sapphire winking from the back of a cabinet of musty antiques.

Disposing of those heirlooms, all those possible futures, is a wearying task. But it is the only way we know to make forward progress for a society that, like a snake, continues to chase its own tail in the name of incremental progress. Responsible consultants must come at such situations from an oblique angle, disrupting this cycle of feature creep and constructing more virtuous ones.

This disruption comes with great risk for mature organizations. Cultivating a desire for focusing efforts, in tilting or chipping apart the status quo, is quite rare. Designers are often hired to help facilitate this task, as the really good ones take risks endlessly. We walk the tightrope on each project, hoping we won't fall into the water below, brimming with the sharks of mediocrity.

So a responsible consultant may appear, in the eyes of a client, to be irresponsible. It is our task to eloquently demonstrate that we are not.


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