Driving towards autonomy – A UXer’s perspective

Over the past 15+ years I’ve noticed a dissatisfaction with the day-to-day of working as UXer in corporate environments in essence the problem boils down into two main complaints.

  • Some people don’t know exactly what’s expected from them in the execution of their role, quite often people understand what they’re being asked to do but can’t understand how that fits into the high level company objectives.
  • Some people are frustrated their deliverables are mandated, and don’t have any control over then way they complete their task.

My view is that the wider system we’re participating is at fault i.e. UX isn’t being engaged early enough to help define the solution from the high level business objects. Obviously the long term goal must be to move UX higher up the delivery chain so we can help to shape the solution before they are handed down to be designed.

Here I’m choosing to accept the reality (that at the moment there is a mismatch between what the designer believes they should be designing to achieve what the business wants, and what they are being asked to ‘design’) rather than fall into a position of learned helplessness and frustration that I’m not doing the job I expect to be doing.

So I have been considering the impact that this mismatch has on the team and individual morale, as I worry that this mismatch erodes motivation, and limits a persons ability to become autonomous; causing frustration and dissatisfaction. After all how many times can an individual be told no, before they give up offering suggestions all together? While we can’t, at the moment, alter the nature of the tasks being handed down. We can create an environment of personal and team autonomy, where we can select the tools, approach and environment we complete our tasks in.

Why is autonomy important?

Autonomy, being able to choose how (and where) you achieve a task, is important as it is an innate precondition of psychological wellbeing and should be something every organisation supports. It is also a clear signifier of a teams maturity and that an individual’s skills and experiences are valued.

My view is that autonomy, in an environment where a persons’s ability to influence a solution is constrained, creates job satisfaction leading to higher quality output, loyalty and deeper engagement in their role.

Note: I appreciate that some individuals are already highly motivated, and we can all point to examples where they are autonomous but i’m considering a framework but which we create a environment to make all staff regardless of their skill level achieve the same level of autonomy and empowerment.

How then can we create and reinforce an autonomous environment to counteract the mismatch?

To achieve autonomy a person needs:

  • Purpose – to define, or understand an outcome and the ‘value’ of the outcome to which an individual can dedicate themselves to achieving.
  • Mastery – the continual pursuit to build the skills and capabilities to deploy in order to achieve a purpose.
  • To be Trusted – to utilise theirs skills and expertise in the best way that they can to achieve the tasks they are being asked to do.

The role of a responsible organisation is to:

  • Clarify purpose
  • Support the mastery of skills and tools
  • Trust the individual to execute their role to the best of their ability.

This doesn’t happen in a vacuum and an organisation has to have a mature attitude to exercising their responsibility.

Clarify purpose

Organisation base purpose

UXers move into the profession to do good, they want to use psychology, insights and design to make the world a better place. They want to adapt the world of business and technology to meet the needs of the individual.

Some UXers are lucky, they will work for a startup or research organisation who are designing novel, purely user focused systems, but most aren’t.

Most UXers are hired by businesses who wants to make sure that the product or service they’re offering is able to extract the most amount of value from the customer.

We need to honest about this, a lot of the time the work itself isn’t sexy, but as long as the work is valued by the organisation, and helps to relieve the pain of the customer somewhat then most people are happy to work hard to deliver these projects.

This is usually enough to give someone a sense of purpose about their work within the context of their role but the key is to be honest about the situation. You’re not going to get anywhere by enticing people in with all the wonders of the world, if the reality is quite different.

Career base purpose

However, In order to get the a person or team fully engage, we need to engender a culture of career base purpose. Career based purpose extends beyond a person’s employment. By fostering a culture of career based, purpose will have a massive impact on morale, and the value a person brings to their role. It’s my view that everyone regardless of their role or position wants to become the best they can be, so we need to ensure that we enable people to get on a path to mastery.

Mastery of tools and skills

So if the work isn’t living up to expectations then what will motivate the UXer to give their best your business?


If you create an environment where a UXer is supported in learning and using new tools and skills then you can help them towards a sense of mastery. This is essential for retaining senior members of the team but is mandatory for junior members of the team.

Most organisation have a self-development initiatives that will introduce them to the tools and activities they can use in their jobs but a mature organisation will provide a mentoring program that allows an individual to evaluate and select the tools they want use, in a supportive environment where mistakes are welcomed as a learning outcome.

It is the responsibility of senior members of the team to discuss the pros and cons and to create a base for learning. Their job is not to provide a dot to dot execution plan but to provide a framework by which the junior member of the team can self discover and master the requisite skills.

This approach has the added benefit of creating a team culture where self discovery is a default behaviour, and the team will gel in a way that prescription doesn’t allow.

When an individual has a sense of purpose and is on the road to mastery it then that the organisation has to trust them to do their best without the need to micromanage them


It should be a given that if someone is good enough to get through their interview and probation period then they should be trusted to conduct their role as a thinking, trustworthy human being. It’s the mark of a mature organisation that people are treated like adults to discuss, disagree and find approaches to deliver without the need for a rigid delivery methodology.

There is, without question, the need to coordinate activities that overlap, and are delivered through a single mechanism but to require an individual to produce wireframes before designs, or to produce a specification document in a rigid format just to achieve a delivery checkpoint is senseless. it prevents the team from using intellegence and individual skills within the team in the most appropriate way and puts people in an ‘volume rather than value’ mentality.

If a UXer and a designer or developer can get an understanding of what needs to be achieved through sketching and a collaborative design sessions, then so be it. We have to remember that the purpose of any delivery activity is to achieve an outcome for the business, not to produce the largest volume of documentation.

There should be guidelines which model ‘best’ behaviour but any kind of dictatorial process beyond that will slow down delivery, dilute autonomy and kill motivation.

It’s an organisation’s role to create team principles and culture that supports and expects trust. It’s an individual’s responsibility to deliver against those principles in the best way they can. Checks and balances should and will exist through regular review session with mentors, and through measuring business value from the task delivery.

We should allow people to be free to deliver, to make mistakes and to take responsibility for those, to time shift their work if a personal commitment occurs in working hours. We should trust that people do things to the best of their abilities and in the best way they know how. We should trust that people won’t take the piss if you give them freedom over their time, or working practices.

If we create clarity of purpose, enable people to walk the path to mastery and trust them to be the best that they can be, then we will create an autonomous environment, where the people and business will move towards creating value and contentment.

After thoughts – for the UXer

Treating workers as adults, allowing them to be autonomous is a big step for a lot of organisations, but i believe it to be step well worth taking.

The other side of the coin, is that those of us who seek greater autonomy has to embrace the principles too. We have to want to become masters in our field, and sometimes the only way to do this is by doing those mundane tasks. Those task you don’t want to do, or don’t see any value in.

I was listening to an audio book the other day and was reminded that world class sports professionals become world class by purposeful practice. They kick hundreds of corners, or penalty kick. They shoot hundreds of hoops. They take responsibility for their careers and understand the path to mastery isn’t achieve in months.. it’s a continuum over a lifetime.

If we want to be treated like adults, and be offered autonomy then we must keep learning, keep practicing. We must treat every task as a learning opportunity to hone our skills to create value for the businesses we work for.

We must also be honest, and trustworthy. We can do this by being open about what we’re doing and why, we must not being afraid to show the steps to delivery and to make our work visible to our team; We must above all demonstrate value.

The future is nearer than you think, and it’s ‘not cool’

Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least 25 centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn 5,300 years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, discusses futurism – The future will not be cool

Thought: modern myth – teach our children how to code.


‘…teach kids: how to do regular expressions’

Cory Doctorow pens an elegant extension to a powerful modern myth. Teach children how to programme so they can understand the machines. In this variation he asks why aren’t we teaching children how to use regular expressions to parse textual content.

The sign of a great myth is the apparent obviousness of the argument. Our world is getting more technical, therefore everyone should understand the mechanics of technology to be ensured of a future in the modern world.

There is some truth to this, but it’s a truth that’s based upon our broken relationship with technology. Particularly our relationship to the PC (and its latest incarnation the smartphone). Despite almost 50 years of PC use and the creation and apparent maturation of the ‘user experience’ disciplines (an entire industry designed to put people at the centre of the design and development process) we still haven’t move very far from technology being at the centre of the universe.

Why should we teach our children to use obscure, unintuitive syntax to parse the output of a computer system?

If, In order to solve problems our children must learn advanced parsing syntax, such as Regular Expressions, the problem is with the output of computer systems; Not with our children’s apparent lack of knowledge.

The question we need to ask is why aren’t our machines giving us the information we need?

After all we don’t demand that our children learn how to strip down an internal combustion engine to understand how thier cars will work.

Writing an essay or creating a presentation is not at all like writing regular expressions. Essays and presentations are about communicating ideas from one person to another. Writing a regular expression is about extracting information from a machine to make it meaningful to a person. Why the extra step? Why not demand more from the machine we created to provide us with that information in the first place?

Yes, the knowledge is interesting. Yes, in some cases exposure to programming, can be rewarding and will spark an interest that will launch a career but why demand so much of our children as a whole, and so little of our machines.

How about teaching our children to understand people, so that they can finally step out of our shadow and get the machines to work for us?

Sure, some of these children will have to learn Regular Expressions but they will be an exception rather than the rule.

These children will become programmers and engineers but they will be designing systems that support others to do better work, not to perpetuating a world that values the machine over a person.

Thought: The intuitive interface is a myth

The intuitive interface is a myth, intuition is the result of subconscious processing which can only happen when a system is learnt (through experience and practice).

An novel interface cannot be intuitive as the ‘user’ hasn’t learnt how to use it. This learning time can be reduced, to nearly nothing, by employing a good conceptual model and consistency with existing design approaches.

Thought: The enterprise is ill equipped to support working in modern world

Our lives have become more complex, this problem is both simultaneously accepted and ignore by the modern enterprise.

On one hand the enterprise has acknowledge the complexity of the modern world by enabling greater flexibility for the worker. Their human centred processes allows home working, flex-time, flexi-start, self selected holiday days, job sharing etc. They acknowledge their part in helping their workers to achieve a more harmonious work-life balance.

At the same time the enterprise ignores the impact technology has on the workers ability to perform. Our own adaptability and the relentless advancement of technology is, like most things, a blessing a curse. Consider the following:

Our work lives have become more complex because the technology we have access to allows us to perform beyond our natural abilities.

The enterprise has undoubtedly benefited from this coupling between human and technology, people are able to perform complex tasks with relative ease, tasks are automated and more revenue is generated with less effort (compared to a manual book keeping process for example).

However, people are people, we are not machines that exist solely for the utility of the companies we work for. We think about our work at home, and home at work. What we learn in one context can be used elsewhere. In short, we are beings of the world and our experience and our skills that make us valuable. To cope with the demands on our time and attention we use the same types of technology as the enterprise to support a diverse set of strategies and tools for learning, remembering, interpreting and managing the information available in the world.

One such strategy is to off-load some of our biological process to computer based systems. We off-load remembering to computers to alleviate the limitation of our own memories. Computers with their almost infinite capacity to store information frees us those restrictions.

In addition, we enhance our ability to access information by using technological aids (such as searching algorithms) which allows us to access and make sense of the vast amount of data available quickly and easily.

The natural by product of this technological coupling is that we personally distribute our remembering across multiple systems: books, the internet, notepads, our brains and in a work context the internal system; the list goes on.

This off-loading of memory carries two main problems for the enterprise 1) Information stored in computer systems are accessible to anyone who can use the retrieval mechanisms, thus creating intellectual property and privacy issues. 2) The controls implemented to protect the intellectual property and privacy hinder the information retrieval process.

The enterprise, rightly, take steps to protect access to their internal system but as part of the same measures they routinely restrict access to external, internet based, resources to prevent the leaking of information to the outside world.

This is counter productive for two reasons:

Firstly, If resources on the internet is an integrated part of someone’s remembering system our ability to retrieve that information is compromised. We are effectively being lobotomised, negatively effecting our ability to perform. Why not tie one of our hands behind our back when we arrive to work just to compound the problem. Of course, It’s possible to argue that unfettered internet access can lead to other performance issue and interruptions but, I would imagine that more time is lost due to the impact of the loss of cognative ability.

Secondly, People are brining their own laptops, tablets and smartphones to work. This demonstrates both a lack of appropriate tools (another issue) and the need to have access to information resources that exist externally to the ones provided by the enterprise. This flies in the face of the reasons behind the imposed restrictions to services. Using an internal email client (which is usually unrestricted) I can send myself any information I want. I can also use the data connection on my phone to have full access the internet.

Information is almost guaranteed to leak because in order for me to function properly I have to access the systems i rely on for remembering and retrieval.

People are part of a system, a system that enables the enterprise to flourish. The adaptable nature of our minds, and the technology at our disposal enable us to perform complex and advanced functions beyond our natural abilities. We readily accept the positive benefits of this union but this infers an acceptance of the negative, making it incumbent on us to understand the impact and limitations of the tools, infrastructure and systems we make available.

Thoughts: The location of knowledge

Knowledge in the head is subject to the limits posed by memory and attention (both limited).

Knowledge in the world plays an important role in reminding people of things: current state, tasks left to be done etc.

Good design provides knowledge in the world.

(Tbh. I’m not sure if i wrote this or if it’s a quote – possibly by Don Norman)

Thoughts: the design paradox

What makes good design?

‘Good design’ is disseminated through popular culture because it looks great, informing the wider population about how things should work.

Good usability practice is informed by convention and by using consistent input/manipulation and control mechanisms which leads to the entrenchment of ‘good design’.