Why We Just Don’t Get It

In an article called “The Neuroscience of Leadership” (free registration required*), from Strategy + Business a few years ago, the writers explain how new understanding about how the brain works helps us see why it’s so hard for us to fully comprehend new ideas. I keep cycling back to this article since I read it just a few months ago, because it helps me put a lot of things that have perpetually bedeviled me in a better perspective.

One particularly salient bit:

Attention continually reshapes the patterns of the brain. Among the implications: People who practice a specialty every day literally think differently, through different sets of connections, than do people who don’t practice the specialty. In business, professionals in different functions — finance, operations, legal, research an development, marketing, design, and human resources — have physiological differences that prevent them from seeing the world the same way.

Note the word “physiological.” We tend to assume that people’s differences of opinion or perspective are more like software — something with a switch that the person could just flip to the other side, if they simply weren’t so stubborn. The problem is, the brain grows hardware based on repeated patterns of experience. So, while stubbornness may be a factor, it’s not so simple as we might hope to get another person to understand a different perspective.

Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues about why certain industries or professions seem stuck in a particular mode, unable to see the world changing so drastically around them. For example, why don’t most advertising and marketing professionals get that a website isn’t about getting eyeballs, it’s about creating useful, usable, delightful interactive experiences? And even if they nod along with that sentiment in the beginning, they seem clueless once the work starts?

Or why do some or coworkers just not seem to get a point you’re making about a project? Why is it so hard to collaborate on strategy with an engineer or code developer? Why is it so hard for managers to get those they manage to understand the priorities of the organization?

And in these conversations, it’s tempting — and fun! — to somewhat demonize the other crowd, and get pretty negative about our complaints.

While that may feel good (and while my typing this will probably not keep me from sometimes indulging in such a bitch-and-moan session), it doesn’t help us solve the problem. Because what’s at work here is a fundamental difference in how our brains process the world around us. Doing a certain kind of work in a particular culture of others that work creates a particular architecture in our brains, and continually reinforces it. If your brain grows a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if it grows a set of jumper cables, everything looks like a car battery.

Now … add this understanding to the work Jonathan Haidt and others have done showing that we’re already predisposed toward deep assumptions about fundamental morals and values. Suddenly it’s pretty clear why some of our biggest problems in politics, religion, bigotry and the rest are so damned intractable.

But even if we’re not trying to solve world hunger and political turmoil, even if we’re just trying to get a coworker or client to understand a different way of seeing something, it’s evident that bridging the gap in understanding is not just a peripheral challenge for doing great design work — it may be the most important design problem we face.

I don’t have a ready remedy, by the way. But I do know that one way to start building bridges over these chasms of understanding is to look at ourselves, and be brutally honest about our own limitations.

I almost titled this post “Why Some People Just Don’t Get It” — but I realized that sets the wrong tone right away. “Some People” becomes an easy way to turn others into objects of ridicule, which I’ve done myself even on this blog. It’s easy, and it feels good for a while, but it doesn’t help the situation get better.

As a designer, have you imagined what it’s like to see the world from the other person’s experience? Isn’t that what we mean when we say the “experience” part of “user experience design” — that we design based on an understanding of the experience of the other? What if we treated these differences in point of view as design problems? Are we up to the challenge?

Later Edit:

There have been some excellent comments, some of which have helped me see I could’ve been more clear on a couple of points.

I perhaps overstated the “hardware” point above. I neglected to mention the importance of ‘neuroplasticity‘ — and that the very fact we inadvertently carve grooves into the silly-putty of our brains also means we can make new grooves. This is something about the brain that we’ve only come to understand in the last 20-30 years (I grew up learning the brain was frozen at adulthood). The science speaks for itself much better than I can poorly summarize it here.

The concept has become very important to me lately, in my personal life, doing some hard psychological work to undo some of the “wiring” that’s been in my way for too long.

But in our role as designers, we don’t often get to do psychotherapy with clients and coworkers. So we have to design our way to a meeting of minds — and that means 1) fully understanding where the other is coming from, and 2) being sure we challenge our own presuppositions and blind spots. This is always better than just retreating to “those people don’t get it” and checking out on the challenge altogether, which happens a lot.

Thanks for the comments!

* Yet another note: the article is excellent; a shame registration is required, but it only takes a moment, and in this case I think it’s worth the trouble.

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  • http://bradsramblings.com/blog Brad Nunnally

    Hi Andrew, great post!

    Any time I run into someone that ‘doesn’t get it’ I look for the reason why. Sometimes when trying to answer this all important question, the finger ends up getting pointed at me. I’m the one missing some key piece of information. Other times, I can uncover what the true barrier is, and with this new understanding be able to bridge the gap between myself and the other.

    The same approach can be used when designing, determine why a person/user isn’t using doing (behaving) a certain way. Without trying to see the world from the other persons angle, it becomes too easy to just try and force our view onto them. It helps keep us honest as well, since we should be designing for how the other person/party view the world rather than how we view it.

  • http://www.inkblurt.com/ Andrew

    Agreed. Sometimes, though, it’s imperative that we figure out how to “hack” their understanding in some way — get them to shift their point of view. But as you allude, the best way to do that is to make sure we get them first. Otherwise we’re just speaking different languages.

  • Adam Polansky

    This is timely.
    I stress building relationships as being just about the most important thing we do as a UX team. Hard-skills can be learned. That IS just software but unless we can achieve the status of “trusted advisor”, it’s going to be hard to accomplish much because we’re never likely to be in a position to mandate sound usability practices – not when someone else is on the hook for product performance and revenue generation.

    Becoming a trusted advisor means being able to know the pain-points that others are experiencing and becoming an expert at couching your proposals as a way that says you can help make that pain go away.

    The hard-wiring you describe means that you’ll probably have to take more than one shot at it (more difficult if you’re an outside consultant) but hopefully you’ll be able to get past your counterpart’s propensity to retreat into old/bad behavior when the heat gets turned up and learn to rely on you.

    Great post. I’ll be circulating this one.

  • http://www.inkblurt.com/ Andrew

    @adam that trusted advisor status is indeed hard to reach, but worth the effort … and you’re right, it takes more than just putting on a good dog & pony show … if they see you feel their pain, and believe it, that gains a lot of ground. thanks for the comment!

  • http://www.fatdux.com Eric Reiss

    Interesting stuff. But I’m not at all convinced that any “hardware” we may grow is all that “hard”. And I don’t think “rewiring” is that difficult either. More like breaking bad habits – some behaviors are hard to change.

    I see three generic types of habit:

    1) a stupid mistake you keep repeating until someone points it out. This is easy to change
    2) stuff you really enjoy and don’t want to change, even though you know you should (smoking, for example)
    3) habits that you refuse to change because your personal needs outweigh those of the folks around you. Some call this stubbornness, which I guess it is.

    The idea that people in specialized industries “become” hardwired and thus view things similarly strikes me as odd. Rather, I think certain types of jobs attract certain types of people. Not surprisingly, many folks will therefore behave similarly when given similar professional tasks. Did their brain change during school? Or did they develop their innate talents? I tend to believe the latter. After all, if our jobs molded our psyche, one would expect folks with the same jobs to exhibit much more similar behavior when they are not at the office – which they clearly don’t.

    Also, some kinds of qualities, such as the ability to lead, seem to be innate, too. If you were class president in high school, the chances are you would do well as an army officer, and later as a C-level executive. People rarely get just one shot at leadership.

    Regarding the advertising industry, the basic problem as I see it is semantics: a “concept” offline is very much a matter of look and feel. But an online “concept” is a matter of function. And get a software engineer involved, and you’ve got a third idea of what a “concept” is.

    In print, a headline is a tease, an enticement – it’s the hook needed to attract someone’s attention during the 1.7 seconds we have their awareness while they flip through a magazine. What we do on the web is called a “see n’ say” in the ad biz and it represents the very lowest form of advertising. That’s because on the web, a link is a promise – it tells you EXACTLY what you are going to get.

    Here’s a typical see ‘n say – an amateurish ad from the Australian Chamber of Commerce. The headline states, “Australia – ahead by leaps and bounds” No prizes for guessing what the visual was. This crap doesn’t win awards nor does it usually sell product. Other variants include “A strong partner” coupled with a visual of a bodybuilder’s bicep. A good creative team will never sink so low as to produce this kind of stuff – we leave that to amateurish clients who think they are violently creative.

    Here’s a thought – maybe really lousy ad agencies could become good web houses…

    When dealing with top-class agency creatives, in addition to semantics, some of the problem is simply convincing folks that it’s OK to change behaviors and violate rules that don’t apply to this particular medium.

    I did a talk about this at the IA Summit in Vegas a few years back. I think I’ll dust it off and suggest it for Interaction 10.

    In Brad N’s comment, he says he always asks himself “why” someone doesn’t “get it”. A very wise place to start…

  • http://davemalouf.com Dave Malouf

    I’m with Eric on the whole hardwiring thing. The mind is incredibly maleable and this talk of “pathways” is hoccus poccus at best. But we do learn to think based on our experience, and we also learn to take on traits of those around us to avoid discomfort.

    So funny b/c I thought this was going to be a piece about the value of learning something (anything) deeply as a way of gaining discipline and training your mind to look at things differently. That’s what I think is important about going deep in something.

    But back to what this is really about. Communicating with sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures have at a micro level the same issues as communicating with people on another planet. The fuzziness of metaphors (which all language is embedded with) even among people who live down the block from each other, is only as good (i.e. clearly communicated) as the shared experiences between the person speaking and the group listening.

    Metaphors are unavoidable.

    But as wielders of metaphor at a macro level we should be at the forefront of managing them at the micro level. When I was first an IA, I used to say what I did was play Rosetta Stone. I had to take the User, Business, and Developer in a room and figure out how to put in a lengthy waterfall document what they all said to each other using codes (language) that none of them use themselves (Design).

    I still think that is the crux of my job today (even as an educator).

    — dave

  • http://www.robfay.com Rob Fay

    Andrew,

    I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to train to become a marriage and family therapist. Although my career took a different turn, I find that there was a lot of training that is helpful today in my career, both with users and company stakeholders.

    First, when I was working with couples to help them with relationship issues, I had to assess a couple variables when they first came in for help:

    1. Are both persons committed to working on themselves and their marriage/relationship or has at least one of them “checked out”?
    2. Has one or both members of the couple come to therapy with the expectation that the other must change or be “fixed” in some way?

    There are a number of approaches to treatment, including:

    1. Cognitive Therapy – encourage persons to think about an issue differently can cause new changes in behavior; or
    2. Behavior Therapy – encourage persons to behave differently can cause new changes in cognition

    But most importantly, if both people were willing to work on themselves and the relationship, I found that oftentimes my job was to bridge the understanding gap between two people. I would teach each person to stop thinking about themselves and focus on what the other is saying. Really, I had to become the deliverer of empathy – teaching each person to understand what it’s like to be in the other’s shoes.

    Some of what you’re talking about involves convincing others to understand your position, and if your position is that of being the user-advocate, it means making stakeholders understand that what’s best for the user is best for the business rather than the other way around.

    One of the primary benefits for collecting user research and generating personas and all is so that we can communicate to these stakeholders what it’s like to walk in the shoes of our users. If we can sell that a happy customer = a thriving business, then hopefully there’s less to worry about.

  • Adam Polansky

    Speaking of metaphors. Funny how the same ones come up again and again. The Rosetta Stone idea is how I used to describe my role in the print world as the baseline for my work as an IA – Sitting at a cross-section between cultures/disciplines/mindsets and communicating a single idea in a way that plays to different viewpoints and motivations so that everyone understands it.

    Riffing even further into education – Arguably, a successful educator teaches to a learning style rather expecting students to learn to a teaching style.

    Play that back into the business environment and you can probably recall easily the difference between the consensus-builder and the prima-donna.

  • http://www.robfay.com Rob Fay

    @Adam,

    Reminds me of some of the concepts that @dan_roam espouses in his ‘Back of the Napkin’ book – know your audience before you communicate with them on their level. Of course Roam focuses on visual communication, but your education example does successfully point out additional variables – visual-verbal, visual-nonverbal, auditory, kinesthetic learning.

    I think another distinction to point out here is that there may be different agendas at play. It’s one thing to argue your point so someone AGREES with what you’re trying to communicate; it’s quite another to get someone to UNDERSTAND what you’re trying to communicate. That involves different skill sets.

  • http://www.inkblurt.com/ Andrew

    @eric Your comment helped me see I’d overstated the “hardware” thing — I updated my post at the end to reflect this. I agree with what you say, there are many other factors at work. And of course, it’s true that nature & nurture have a complex interchange going on with these issues; people don’t start out as blank slates and become individuated strictly based on their career path. I just jumped on this one factor in particular because it keeps coming to my own mind when I’m wondering why some conversations and relationships seem stuck at such an impasse.
    Your example of how advertisers, UX designers and engineers understand “concept” is apt — and actually illustrates what I was trying to get across. Their experiences have shaped their understanding, and if it takes them a while to see where the other parties are coming from, it’s not because they’re bad people, lazy, or mysteriously blind … there are fascinating reasons why we all take a while to come around to another point of view.
    And please do “dust off” that presentation — I’d like to see it sometime!

    @dave It’s actually not “hocus pocus” but pretty solid science. I doubt I did it justice in my explanation, however, so please don’t judge the truth of it based on my articulation. Language is indeed a powerful factor in all this. But language doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it’s encoded in our neural structures, which are also shaped by experience, cultural patterns, and the people and problems we encounter in a huge percentage of our waking hours (that is, at work). But metaphor is certainly a powerful tool for bridging the gaps I mention. Good use of metaphor is good writing, which is good composition — and composition (at a higher level) is central to all good design, IMHO.

    @rob I’m glad you mention psychotherapy: I’ve been learning more about it lately (partly because I’ve been benefiting from it for a few years now) and it’s fascinating how various psychotherapeutic methods (CBT, etc) make use of these concepts to give us tools for changing our own behaviors. Even though a lot of this stuff was invented before the current revolution in neuroscience discovery, it’s amazing to see how one is validating the other in so many ways. Also, the marriage counseling example is very apt: and I have to wonder if there are things design professionals could learn from the psychology profession, about communicating, listening, collaborating.

  • Adam Polansky

    @rob.

    Agendas….yeah…I’m laughing as I’m reminded of something one my team members told me once (forgive me Margot Sayers if I don’t quote it exactly) “When you realize that what’s happening makes absolutely no sense, you’ve just uncovered the politics of the thing.”

    You definitively have to switch gears but that’s the point. That agenda will always track back to something that’s causing pain. Unfortunately, it may also have nothing to do with the problem you’ve been asked to address for example: “I want to push for quick release because looking aggressive will get me promoted.” I didn’t explicitly decide to sacrifice good business practice but by placing a higher priority on my career prospects as my real motivation, lesser priorities will suffer.

    Since you can’t (usually) call the guy out and say “Your ambition is keeping us from being effective!” You can couch solutions in a way that suggests that a different course of action will actually enhance their chances for advancement while the current approach may actually harm it.

    Certainly, it’s not as easy in practice as it sounds here in a comment box but again, if you can build that trust so that Mr. Agenda knows when you’re talking about color palettes and drop-down boxes you’re ultimately talking about speed, efficiency, cost savings, revenue generation, etc., you create the ability to have those discussions.

    That’s what occurred to me when @Andrew suggested approaching these circumstances as a design problem. You’re “creating” a functional relationship by taking the draftsman’s approach to understanding the framework of a situation whether it’s the micro-biological assembly of neurons, your grasp of physiological associations, organizational behavior or cognitive psychology.

    This is a fun thread. Thanks guys.

  • http://www.fatdux.com Eric Reiss

    Hi Andrew,

    People can change and adapt – even well into middle age, perhaps beyond. Having worked as a copywriter in advertising from 1985 to date, and as a content provider for interactive media from 1979 to date, I know that writing can be a truly skizophrenic experience if you’re expected to switch from one discipline to the other on a regular basis (like from hour to hour, as I did when I worked for an advertising agency that was pioneering multimedia).

    Perhaps one of the generic problems leading to a fixed mindset is that if two tasks “look” similar, the tendency is to choose a single set of rules. Websites used to look like brochures. And all writing involves wordsmithing, a dictionary, and a style guide. Maybe a keyboard…

    But there are a LOT of different writing disciplines. And “twains” don’t always meet. “Good” writing one place may be crap somewhere else.

    For example, I’ve written a couple of non-fiction books, but I can’t crack fiction – it’s a different discipline entirely. Nor do I write poetry, although I’ve written hundreds of song lyrics, which one would think was more similar than it is.

    Unless you are willing to take a long hard look at your abilities, it may not be possible to see that two things are more “different” than they are “similar”. Maybe creatives at ad agencies are too ego-driven to see this.

  • http://www.robfay.com Rob Fay

    @Eric,

    Just wanted to say ‘hi’ – met you when we toured Elvis’ airplanes back at IAS09 Memphis in March :)

  • Adam Polansky

    @elreiss

    So here’s a question.

    It’s not unusual for many of us in this environment to have had multiple careers in our lifetimes. You played piano for the sportin’ girls. I put in commodes and we both spent a fair amount of time in advertising (We could read any number of things into that particular cross-section of professions).

    Could it be that we’ve learned the propensity for adapting simply because we had to over 20-30 yrs (70-80 in your case) – that the hardness of the die depends on how long it spent being cast? That’s not to say it still can’t be broken but don’t you think time and experience with adaptation makes a difference when it comes to accepting, embracing and participating in change?

    Along another line of inquiry regarding the distinction between two things. I agree with your last point but it seems to me that there is a tendency to manufacture a distinction where none exists (another advertising staple).

    Real distinctions do exist but I don’t think you can know that until you have made the comparison for similarity and genuinely observed the differences – which as you point out, requires the willingness to take the hard look and by extension, the honesty to acknowledge what you see.

    I’ve seen creatives in ad agencies (and web firms) fall into two extremes: Everything needs to be done in the mold of their biggest success or everything needs to be a one-off; special and unique. Why is this? Ego (definitely) fear, laziness, boredom, jadedness, the awful reality that this person may actually lack imagination – pick one. The fact is that in some cases either approach might be prudent – just not ALL the time.

  • http://www.inkblurt.com/ Andrew

    @eric @adam

    I’m glad you guys brought up this idea of having a variety of career paths in one’s background. I almost mentioned it in the post, but didn’t want to clutter the point too much.

    I myself have gone through several professional identities (both in grad school and in my job life), and I do absolutely think can enhance the ability to shift gears, see things from other perspectives. As opposed to professionals who started out as graphic design majors, for example, and have done that their entire professional lives. Nothing against that, by the way: doing graphic design at a very high professional level (and many other things, like programming, musicianship, etc) requires a great deal of concentrated effort over time.

    Of course, this is just a general observation and there are certainly outliers.

    In my research & obsessions on ‘communities of practice’ I’ve run across some great stuff talking about professional identity, and how deeply our work life (culture, history, education, social circle, etc) affects us as people. I’m not sure it’s possible to overestimate how much this shapes us. We like to think we’re totally autonomous agents, but we’re just not — we’re very much constructed of the memories formed from our accrued experience. Knowing this about ourselves can be unnerving, sure, but I think it can be liberating because it shows us we have the ability to revise and recompose that stuff, if we can see it clearly for what it is. And we can better grasp where others are coming from, because we’re more likely to look beyond the present moment to try understanding their own history, background, personal context.

    Understanding, for example, the philosophical bent of the garden-variety MBA program, and the culture of management professionals, can do wonders for finding the right way to explain a new idea to a VP. Same goes for advertising, marketing, engineering, etc.

    Teabaggers, though … that could be a lost cause ;-)

  • http://www.fatdux.com Eric Reiss

    @rob fay – Hi yourself! I certainly remember Memphis. (And thanks to Andrew for letting us turn his blog into a chat forum :)

    @adam – I think successful folks working in the UX arena need to be culturally literate. For my own part, I simply won’t hire people who have tunnel vision. Curiosity is also high on the list of talents I look for. Often, changing jobs provides this depth of knowledge. And experience from several different areas helps a lot (although I’m still not sure how playing piano in a whorehouse has helped me professionally).

    The last couple of paragraphs in your post intrigue me. And I do agree with you. Perhaps the key is to get folks to wonder. The act of “wondering” is essential when shifting from a left-brain to a right-brain thought process. If someone is unwilling to consider that alternatives exist, then, for them, the alternatives will never exist.

    And thanks for the 70-80 years of experience remark. Proof that I can multi-task :)

    @andrew – Yes, certainly, our professional life shapes us tremendously. I had a horrible “work” experience as an 18-year-old that continues to shape my decision-making process, my politics, and many other things. But I like to think that the broader our range of experience, the greater the nuances we bring to our jobs. I would hate to think that I could never change or was permanently scarred by past events.

  • Adam Polansky

    @elreiss

    RE: The ability to wonder

    So…maybe…(crackpot psychology disclaimer)…the problem ISN’T that there are people who don’t get it because with the right amount of reason, practical example or subterfuge, they could get it. I know this is true because I’ve seen it work even at an organizational level. It’s a glacially slow process and if I didn’t have a 6 year timeline to stand back and observe it, I probably wouldn’t have seen it.

    The problem is that there are those who flat-out CAN’T see it and never will due to an inability to shift gears back & forth between wonder (conceptualizing) and execution. This then is why practitioners have to run to managers, directors or execs like a teary school-kid trying to get the bully to stop messing up the game or should I say; “get an escalated ruling” because…after all, we are professionals.

    It’s this whole-brain creature that can:

    …suspend belief, fear or prejudice long enough to wonder and (with further apologies to Dr. Thompson) are willing to “buy the ticket – take the ride”.
    …put their practical suit back on to analyze what the experience yielded
    …wonder again what they might do with that information
    …get practical again in order to execute an idea.

    Not to boil it down to chemistry but I think this might explain the number of adults ADHD sufferers who gravitate to this arena and, by logical extension, why I’ve been doing this longer than any other career choice.

  • http://cbaum.blogspot.com Chris Baum

    Andrew,

    I gotta hand it to you. You have a way with cutting into things that I find illuminating. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us.

    @Eric

    I do have one comment to make about your types of habit.

    The list doesn’t include things that, at some point in your life, have become innate. Sometimes, even if you KNOW it exists, the pattern repeats. It’s not easy to change these patterns; you have to reprogram yourself.

    This means that, in some ways, we have an internal organization that, in order to implement a new strategy, includes many stakeholder “habits” that must collectively buy in. That’s why it’s so helpful to get outside perspective.

    (Thanks to @Rob for his comment as well.)

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