This week features a series of posts endeavoring to draw themes from the Delight Conference 2014 in Portland, as well as Design Week Portland. I shall each day post some thoughts collected in categories of creativity, curiosity, meaning, community, and empathy.

Creativity and Innovation

“We are left alone, without excuse.” Jean-Paul Sartre

Delight 2014 prompted numerous insights into the nature of creativity and the role of user experience practitioners in either aiding or inhibiting innovation. The conference’s opening keynote was Intel’s Genevieve Bell. Among many fascinating points around those attributes of human nature that were constant and those that were shifting, Bell argued that a transitional feature of our experiencing the world is our need for boredom yet a desire for surprise. The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, suggested we need boredom because it intrinsically makes us aware of the passage of time and thus orients our awareness to the daunting nature of our existing. Confronting the fact of our existence is discomforting and induces anxiety, which is why we tend to shy away from moments of boredom and turn to any number of activities to distract us from it.

Like Bell, the closing day one keynote, Dave Gray, remarked upon the contradiction of our tendency towards the familiar while relishing the occasional surprise. Both Bell and Gray’s comments brought to mind the pioneering work of creativity analysts looking at where innovation sprung from. In the 1920s, Graham Wallas described a process of creativity that required progressive stages, including a period of incubation comprising a voluntary abstention from conscious thought. Similarly, in his 1939 essay A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young outlined four phases for this process, the third of which is unconscious processing. There is an overlap between existential boredom and this creative removal of distractions or our deliberate disregard for a problem at hand.

shishi_odoshiThe balance between the comforting familiarity of the status quo and the occasional delight of change reminded me of a sōzu bamboo water fountain I saw later that week at the Japanese Gardens in Portland. The work of those conceiving user experiences must include identifying the right pivot point so that restful periods of reflection and familiarity are sustained, and change happens at unexpected moments. As Bell and Gray each remarked, we (in America, at least) do not allow for “down time,” whether mentally or otherwise. One need only look at the conflation of busyness with meaningful productivity, and the obsessive rejection of vacation time in favor of working. This paradoxically results in more output with less breakthrough thinking or emotional well-being.

Forrester Research’s James McQuivey and Facebook’s Jonathon Colman built on these themes of familiarity and boredom pierced by the unexpected. McQuivey referenced Steven Johnson’s investigation of the creative process in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson adapts Stuart Kauffman’s work on the adjacent possible, recognizing that adaptive, incremental innovation is the more common way that good, new ideas are born. By considering a handful of known phenomena or a “collision of small hunches”, we can take a step into a new yet adjoining domain of insight and inspiration. Colman offered another lens of examination to creative practice through the organizational development theory of double loop learning. Content strategists should be unsatisfied with merely addressing an apparent problem, but should focus upon underlying systemic factors.

Throughout all these perspectives on the human need for rewarding surprise amidst an equally essential frame of familiarity or boredom runs opportunity for those responsible for conceiving delightful user experiences. Unfortunately, contemporary culture, abetted by user experience practitioners, has succumbed to the numbing that Heidegger bemoaned. Instead of confronting time, we opt for distractions in all their shiny, jingling, technological and addictive forms. The sociologist Brené Brown finds something similar in our attempts to avoid vulnerability and shame. User experience designers are, however, complicit in this avoidance. As Golden Krishna said in his Delight 2014 presentation, all too often our solutions to challenges or product development is to “slap a user interface on it,” adopting a distraction response instead of a deeper consideration to underlying symptoms or possibilities.

We do not have to design for a carbohydrate approach to user experience, whereby users achieve the experiential equivalent of a moment of short-term pleasure with no long term benefit. Instead, we can boldly engage our audience in the more creative outcomes accruing from experiences that demand more of us.


Tomorrow: The next post in this series reflecting on Delight 2014 looks at the theme of community…