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Reconsidering the "Core" Knowledge of UX

DesignIt and UX Book Club Chicago's Sharon Bautista unpacks the importance of organizational learning cultures and interrogates whose perspectives inform our practice.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Allison Corr

Sharon Bautista went from an art history Ph.D. program (focusing on 15th and 16th century Netherlandish painting) to a role in educational program evaluation after 9/11 caused her to reevaluate her work and its impact on and for the community around her.

During that period of questioning, she worked with museums to transition to online exhibitions, giving her a front-row seat to the pain and confusion such a transition can have without user experience and human-centered principles.

After picking up a few technical skills like coding, Sharon began consulting with educators helping them identify and respond to the impacts of emergent technologies. Those conversations—about how to ensure student-centered teaching models online—thrust her into the UX and design spaces, where she has worked ever since.

Sharon recently joined Designit to lead their research practice, where she helps big brands make sense of still-shifting technological landscapes and how human-centered practices can help them anticipate and respond to customer needs.

We sat down with Sharon to discuss the throughline of education and teaching in her work, the importance of communities of practice to organizations and supporting its employees, and reflections on co-leading the UX Book Club of Chicago for a decade.

On skills that supported a career pivot to UX

Sharon: So many of the conversations I was having with instructors and educators—and certainly as one myself—were essentially human-centered design thinking.

Concepts like "student-centered" teaching and issues of accessibility and inclusion were long considered in education, even if technology wasn't necessarily the answer. Those challenges and opportunities foreshadowed a lot of what would become critical to folks in UX, even if I didn't know that to be a discipline...yet.

More specifically was the time in the classroom: teaching and the skills it takes to engage a diverse audience of folks with the goal of collective knowledge building. That's what I do every time I'm in a shareout meeting with teammates or clients.

Instructional design—thinking critically about the presentation of material and information for the goal of creating knowledge together—has helped me in just about every research problem I've faced. That combination: standing in front of folks with the goal of engaging them, and doing so in a way that considers their expertise and the material I'm leveraging, created a compelling package when I eventually transitioned to UX. Those skills are critical to the work my team and I do each and every day.

On the use (and overuse) of taxonomies in insight functions

I find myself in a unique position professionally right now, where I "identify as a user researcher," which is not always how I've identified. It has changed over the years as I've specialized, gotten more training, and been exposed to different kinds of organizations.

But ultimately, that's how I identify. I find myself currently in this consulting firm, leading a research and insights team within a customer experience practice. But this is just one way of situating each of these practices together.

How organizations create and enmesh these practices (design, CX, UX, insights) I really think it depends on the context in which you're working, the broader community that you're working.

In the organization that I am currently in, I think that there is value in some distance between research and design because our research capabilities are quite broad. I've been in organizations where research primarily informs design and therefore products and services. insights that stem from research in my current firm inform activities as diverse as brand strategy, business design, and even sustainability strategy.

It's also an input into more traditional functions like product design and digital marketing. So for me right now, "design" and "research" as the couplet is too limiting, but that hasn't always been the case. I may go to an organization one day where that kind of coupling as the primary one makes sense again.

Regardless of what we call these teams, we should be plugged into one another's practices, especially when design, product, or customer-facing decisions are concerned. Each team, group, or unit brings critical context that, together, help the business make better, smarter, more inclusive decisions.

So I'm less concerned right now with what the swim lanes of design might be vis-a-vie all these other functions; it's the cross-pollination, the habits of human-centeredness deliberately occurring that I want to provoke and mix.

On promoting a culture of support and learning organizationally

It's useful to ground my answer in a concept I've researched and written about: communities of practice. I'll get to what an organizational community of practice is in a second, but let's start with the basics.

A community of practice is basically a group of people who commit to learning together about topics that they agree upon. Membership can be fluid, it can be more informal or formal. And when I say organizational communities of practice, what I mean simply is, groups like that that exist within organizations or companies.

And so what my previous research on communities of practice looked at was basically, are communities of practice a real thing, or is it just jargon? And to what extent, if any, do they differ from work teams?

That question for me still persists, I feel like I still seek out answers to these questions as I learn about different organizations. This is especially true as more explicit attention gets paid to employee experience, including learning and development, and what that looks like in organizations?

Is that just money to go to conferences? Or can it be other things including support for groups like the ones I just described of employees gathering together to commit to learning outside of their kind of "work projects" or tasks.

There are a number of reasons why an organization should strive for such learning communities. It raises awareness of the many nuanced ways employees seek development and learning opportunities that fit their style and preferences: is that a Zoom webinar over lunch or is it reading a book one's manager has purchased for them?

These communities promote cross-departmental relationships (which I referenced earlier as a boon to innovation) because topics are broadly interesting to folks. It pushes us to think of learning outside of project-specific frames.

That means we don't have to be working on the same product, we don't have to be in the same discipline, and that creates spaces for meaningful conversation with people possibly far removed from you within the organization.

All of this fosters what is sometimes referred to as T-shaped learning or T-shaped teams, where specialization and expertise happen, of course, but so too does cross functional learning and collaboration. The t-shaped concept I believe originated in big consulting, but Paolo Freire’s thinking decades earlier that became Pedagogy of the Oppressed maybe gets even closer to the potential benefits of organizational communities of practice—reflection and action that happen in communion and for the purposes of world-making.

Whether t-shaped learning or praxis as Freire calls it, this makes whatever problem or question a team is tackling more likely to be responded to in a creative, innovative way. So it allows employees to come together to learn about topics that can be very broadly applicable to the business and to their individual work.

There are a number of reasons why an organization should strive for such learning communities. It raises awareness of the many nuanced ways employees seek development and learning opportunities that fit their style and preferences.

Sharon Bautista
Research Director at Designit

On leveraging learning as a manager of insights pros

There just needs to be a lot of fluidity when thinking about leading folks. I spend a lot of time thinking about learning, how organizations learn, and that for me means neuro-diversity is front and center.

There are a number of systemic considerations to make when I think about how I support people on my team. In practice, I'm trying to create and preserve that time and space for learning and reflection, and just really encourage the people on my team when I see them express interest in something.

I feel like growing up in this profession, I was in a lot of organizations that really made me make a business case for any learning and development I wanted to pursue. But linking how a course or conference might immediately apply to my organizational impact is a skill in and of itself...that's something that needs to be learned!

Especially for more junior people on my team, they just may not have yet cultivated this kind of professional imagination to be able to make that business case to me, and I don't want that to limit what they want to learn about.

So if a business case needs to be made, if I have to ask for budget from someone beyond me—I will do that on the behalf of my teammates, but I will not ask them to do that for me, just because there's so much bias there. I think that it limits just the world view and possibilities of learning.

So it's a balance of one, just creating time and space for learning and then, really the primary way, is foregrounding neuro-diversity and the options for learning.

On nearly a decade running the UX Book Club of Chicago

(laughing) Yeah I've been doing a lot of reflecting on this group and our bonds, our impact given the decade marker moment. I've never been in any job for this long!

It started as a monthly, in-person meeting with a diverse group of folks who were curious about user experience design and research. We would meet in a different company space each time to promote relationships between our members and the company; exposing group members to different structures, different ways of leveraging UX, and certainly job opportunities.

One of the things I'm really proud of is that the book club has always put front-and-center the question of what should UX folks (broadly defined: designers, researchers, technologists, etc.) be trained on? What resources should they turn to? How do we, as a field, learn?

In this way, the UX Book Club is a community of practice, sharing as we do each month for the last ten years. Over that time—not just because of the pandemic, though the remote-first world we're in now accelerated it—we expanded beyond Chicago, which is critical to learning and exposing folks to diverse standpoints on UX and its role, its practice.

Foregrounding non-traditional paths of knowledge, different geographic regions, and what might not get immediately categorized as "UX" has been most meaningful for our UX bookclub. Reading a book that might not—on its face—look like a book for UX researchers or designers, but that has value for the practice, is so enjoyable.

Sharon Bautista
Research Director at Designit

On themes or trends coming from a decade of conversation

There is a lot of opportunity for reform in how researchers and designers are trained—we've been seeing the conversations unfold around what kinds of books and what kinds of thinkers are cited as "foundational" or on a short list. To what extent should we continue citing a small group of books—and again, this is a conversation we at the Book Club have been having for some time.

When we started, we ran through that short list (of homogenous authors, mind you) pretty quickly and had to ask ourselves, "What's next?" in terms of learning, of exposure, of engagement. So we've been looking farther afield and trying to weave in unexpected or underrepresented perspectives as often as we can.

So instead of a specific topic, idea, or construct, what I can say has been bubbling for some time is the need to expand the aperture of whose ideas are included at the table, of who gets to be included in the "foundational" or "core" knowledge" of a UX practice or field.

Foregrounding non-traditional paths of knowledge, different geographic regions, and what might not get immediately categorized as "UX" has been most meaningful. Reading a book that might not—on its face—look like a book for UX researchers or designers, but that has value for the practice, is so enjoyable.

Blockchain Chicken Farm, by Xiaowei Wang draws on many ethnographic practices to unpack the current state of block chain AI in China. It is not only a perspective from outside the US, but it focuses on rural areas, the pastoral, which is also a critical polity to consider when building and designing experiences. Similarly, we've been reading about technology and innovation on the continent of Africa, as well as European origins of participatory design and common design approaches.

In short, we've been trying to expose ourselves to knowledge, craft, and practices of this thing we call "UX" and asking to what extent a core or common knowledge about this practice needs to include these perspectives. Who gets to be included in a "core?"

(Some of) Sharon's Favorite "UX" Books

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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