Paul McAleer is designing a better life for himself.
As a UX strategist at Centralis, Paul spends his days making products and technology easier to use. He’s a prolific writer, and co-host of Designing Yourself, a popular podcast that talks about architecting your own life and “designing the person you truly are – the pursuit of you.”
But he’s also got another project – one that is arguably bigger than any other – to work on. He’s been using all he knows about UX and applying those processes and tools to his own life. And it seems to be working.
Paul presents “Better Living Through Design” at WebVisions Chicago next month. In his session he’ll offer tips and tricks on understanding your own needs, encouraging good critique of yourself from others, and “other practical tools that can get you started on designing your life and yourself.”
In his Five Questions below, Paul goes in-depth about his session, his work and living a better life.
Q: OK, without giving too much away, what DOES happen when you apply product design UX theory to real life? Is there a natural corollary between the two?
A: I’ll spoil part of the talk by saying, yes, there is a surprising corollary between the two. I found that the core principles of good design – which I think of as research, strategy, execution, and gathering feedback – are good principles for actively designing one’s life, too.
You mention gathering input from stakeholders… That would be your friends, family, coworkers… How do you explain your ‘project’ to them? It can’t be easy to say, “Yeah, I’m applying what I know as a UX designer to my personal life…” Explain what you do, and what you’re learning, to people who might not have the same sort of frame of reference. In other words, tell it like you’re talking to a plumber.
Hah! Well, here’s the thing: I didn’t go around to my pals and my family and start saying, “Guys, I’m in sprint 3 of this project now and I want you to join my retrospective!” I could imagine I’d get a few eye rolls for that.
Instead, I simply started the project. When it came to “stakeholder” interviews, that really meant heart-to-heart talks and deep questions with the people closest to me. It was challenging to ask what people really perceived when they saw me, and it was even more difficult to not become defensive at that feedback… at least, initially.
So for a plumber, whom we’ll call Luigi, I would describe my project as such: “I’ve started to really take a good, hard look at who I am, who you see me as, and what that means to me. I want your help on this. Then I’m going to carefully change myself, because I’ve felt a lot of pressure to be someone that I’m not sure I really am.”
Projects, like life, have milestones where critiques are necessary. Yet, critiques can also be minefields where egos, emotion, ownership and ideas can easily explode – do you have any secrets on the art of the critique?
Every time you talk with someone you love about yourself, you’re inviting a critique. Thinking from the vantage point of the person being critiqued, the first thing to do is prepare yourself for it mentally and emotionally. You need to set your ego aside and listen intently in order to empathize with what the other person is experiencing. That’s really hard, because then you also need to permit whatever emotions you’re feeling to come out at the appropriate time… which might not be right at that moment!
Beyond all that, maintaining a presence in the moment and an open heart has yet to fail me. That means I set aside my distractions, sit in a comfortable and safe place, and let the feedback digest a bit before responding.
You say that, as a UX designer, it’s your job to relate to users through empathy and understanding. But most people not involved with UX design wouldn’t think about UX in those terms. They’d probably describe good UX as comfortable and natural – tools that, at the very least, don’t distract. But empathy and understanding is a much deeper (and in a way, more beautiful) way of describing it. Can you expand on that?
It’s funny. 11 years ago I was new to UX as a practice and said, “The invisible computer is what I want to help create.” What I meant by that was that I wanted to make a computer that didn’t distract, didn’t offend, and was just a good tool one didn’t have to think about.
I wrote that, at the time, without understanding the importance of empathy. It shows in my own words: how can you understand how people define “comfortable and natural” without really getting to know them? That’s where research, empathy, understanding, and – let’s be honest – care comes in. A good interface is part of a caring experience, a respectful one.
Project managers tend to think of projects in terms of time, budget, resources and quality. That’s actually a pretty good framework for living. How close is that framework to what you’ve learned in applying UX theory to your own life?
It’s surprisingly close! In project terms, life is filled with restraints and requirements. Some can be worked around and some cannot.
While I can’t expand my overall timeline, I can definitely adjust the quality of the time I have. I can work with the resources I have… and I can also discover new resources, both inside of me and around me. Some of them may go away, like my ability to see reasonably well… that’s already a big restraint. Some of them can grow, like my circle of friends.
When it comes to budgets, it’s worth noting that beyond money, I need to budget my energy and attention too. Those are all limited, so it’s important that I focus on what matters most to me and the people I love.
Bonus Question: In your WebVisions bio you state: “(Paul) believes that design can solve problems, both big and small, that affect all of us.” It’s very true. What’s an example from past history that resonates with you? And if you could, project out and think of a way design could solve a problem — either a big, international problem or a small neighborhood issue or anywhere in between — that people are facing at this point in time.
An example I come back to often is the US highway system, probably because I drive to work each day. But it’s changed this country over the past 90 years: it’s increased mobility, ushered in entire new industries, and made road travel consistent and understandable. It’s definitely one of those less visible designs… until something goes wrong, like the problems that same highway system has created. I’m thinking about the massive environmental impact and our car-focused culture. But, I’m confident people can make those better as well.
Still, there are ways design can help even more people, and these are the things that weigh on my heart. I think of the fact that people on our planet starve, and people on our planet go without water. I think about domestic violence and the ways women are disrespected and abused. I don’t envision designers swooping in and fixing this arrogantly or independently… I see this as a bigger effort. But using our tools and resources to help address these serious problems is a start. And it starts with each of us being here, being present, and ready to help.