UX is not a subset of CX

cx-uxUser Experience (UX) isn’t just about user interface design (though many conflate the two). Rather, the field is a convergence of art and science, including design, ergonomics and human factors engineering, the social sciences, and more.

As a domain, UX has matured rapidly. Undergraduates now can study in cross-disciplinary programs that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and in recent years, UX professionals have started thinking much more broadly about the types of problems that we can solve if we take a human-centered approach to business. We aren’t thinking about one interface or a set of interconnected interfaces anymore, though that certainly is part of what we do. Seasoned UX professionals are thinking about large-scale business transformation or even enterprise software. We’re thinking about measurable business impact and enterprise-wide task flows. In this way, we have much in common with our customer experience colleagues.

There has even been a shift, in many places, from the term “user experience,” which implies a singular relationship between an end user and an interface, to “experience design.” Don Norman, who coined the term “user experience” to describe his role at Apple in the early 1990s, now eschews the term, himself. In his current work, he’s focused well beyond the design and human factors aspects of software, and is working on how to apply a user-centered design approach to much broader problems such as the U.S. healthcare ecosystem. There are other wonderful examples, such as how user-centered design being used to transform the economy of Peru, as illustrated in a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled “Design for Action.”

It’s been interesting to see how some analysts at Cambridge, Mass.-based research and advisory firm Forrester have been attempting to define this space and to describe the relationship between UX and CX. For example, in a 2013 blog post by Kerry Bodine, UX is described as a subset of CX, and the post includes this diagram to illustrate her point:
a_UX Value

Bodine describes UX as a field that “primarily focuses on the design and development of digital interactions,” which is accurate but (in my opinion) woefully incomplete. As I described earlier, an experienced, capable UX professional—especially one working in the enterprise space—is thinking well beyond a set of digital interactions to the business goals and anticipated value, the context of use, how the solution fits into a broader set of business and user activities, and more. Bodine’s definition is like saying that the electrician works for the carpenter because electricity is integrated into the walls of a building. It’s convenient, but it’s not true.

CX professionals are not well served if they start from the (narrow) Forrester position that UX is a “design and usability” service provider. I would argue, instead, that all of these professionals are engaged in business transformation of some kind. Thus, I would revise Forrester’s diagram like this:

a_CX & UX

I would describe customer experience as a business domain with a specific set of tools, and CX professionals are seeking to borrow from UX. If CX is a business domain, then it makes sense for the CX professional to be driving the vision and strategy. The discipline of user experience, on the other hand, is a flexible set of skills, methods and ways of working that enable us to engage in a wide range of business transformation efforts. But the UX team, with a valued seat at the table, also can contribute in significant ways that some Forrester analysts fail to recognize in their most recent reports on this topic.

In a more recent Forrester article entitled “Bridging the CX/UX Divide,” Leah Buley states that “CX and UX professionals remain disconnected in many firms.”  I agree. In many organizations, the UX team often isn’t part of marketing. In those cases, the UX team might sit in a technology or strategy group. Or, if the team does originate in marketing, it might be called experience design, instead.

UX and CX professionals have a lot in common: They often consider the customer first; they are able to engage in big-picture thinking across silos and especially in the digital space; and they share many methods and ways of working that can make for a fantastic collaboration. If you consider the UX team to be a critical contributor to the success of your CX initiative, you’ll get the best possible outcome for your project team, for the business and, ultimately, for your customers.

UX job openings (various locations)

As some of you know, I lead a User Experience team at ZS Associates.  We’re a privately held, employed-owned professional services firm of about 4000 people, with offices around the world.  I joined ZS four years ago to build the User Experience (UX) team in our Software Development group.  We’ve made a good impact on our software solutions, and in the past few years I’ve expanded the team into our technology (consulting) practice.

The technology practice is an area of significant growth for us as a firm, and as a result, the UX consulting team is also growing rapidly.  ZS provides a range of technology solutions for our clients, including a significant amount of work in analytics and data visualization.  We are willing to invest in teaching the right candidates about data visualization, if we have evidence that other core UX skills are strong. We will also pay for relocation, if one of the locations below is enticing!

We expect prior experience in a comparable business setting, and a high degree of business acumen.  At the Lead level, we expect candidates to be able to speak articulately about user-centered designs and a wide range of research and design services.  You need to be able to scope and estimate projects, oversee both research and design efforts, and execute the work.  If successful, there is significant opportunity to grow and manage a small team over time.  If you are a researcher, you must be willing to engage deeply in the design work.  Specifically, you must have experience translating user insights into interface requirements and design concepts; we would prefer a candidate who has experience bringing research through to information architecture and wireframes.

If this sounds of interest, please consider applying for one of the seven positions we have open at the moment.  Note that Lead / Consultant level positions require 10+ years of experience, Associate Consultants require 3-8 years of experience, and the Associate positions are entry level (1-2 years of experience).

  • In Northern California (San Mateo), we are hiring one Lead and one Associate Consultant.
  • We are also hiring in Thousand Oaks (near LA, in Southern California) at the Associate Consultant level.
  • We have two Associate Consultant level positions open in Philadelphia.
  • We do also have one opening at the Lead level in our Software Development group, which is based in Evanston, Illinois (just north of Chicago).
  • We also have two Associate (entry-level) roles in Pune, India. For those you can contact me and I will put you in touch with our recruiter.

The job descriptions are available here:
Senior User Experience Designer (Associate Consultant level)
User Experience Lead (Consultant level)

If you are interested in one of these positions, I’m happy to answer questions you may have about the roles or your qualifications before you apply.  If you are ready to apply you can send an email to me (natalie dot hanson at zsassociates dot com) and I will forward it to the appropriate recruiter.

I hope to hear from a few of you soon!

The Moment of Clarity

Last week I had the great pleasure of speaking with Christian Madsbjerg, co-author of The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems.  In their book, Christian and Mikkel share case studies from their consulting work at Lego, Adidas, Coloplast (a medical device company), and others.  The wonderful, rich examples show the ways in which research methods from the social sciences can help troubled companies transform themselves.

I don’t think it makes sense to recap the book when it’s such an accessible read, so here are two examples that Christian shared with me that are not in the book:

  • One of their clients is large pharmaceutical company.  ReD Associates was engaged to help with the salesforce – which is a project very similar to one we might do at my current employer! One of the big pressures pharma reps are facing today is rapidly diminishing access to physicians and healthcare providers.  The average sales call now lasts only 90 seconds.  This  makes the role of reps increasingly challenging, and, frankly, discouraging.  Not surprisingly, at the start of their research,  reps were describing their frustration, and they were focused specifically on the lack of understanding on the part of the doctors.  Over and over again, the research team heard from headquarters and the reps being interviewed that doctors only have 8 hours of training in this disease, and as a result of their ignorance the reps are unable to gain meaningful access.  But the reality is that physicians have thousands of hours of experience!  So it’s not ignorance, but rather something else going on.  In talking with the physicians, the researchers learned that their patients have a terrible time convincing people to change their routines to achieve better health. So, what if the reps started providing relevant materials, and building sales calls around information that is helpful and relevant to the physician?  In doing so, the call went from 90 seconds to 9 minutes, just by changing the introductory statements!  Further changes led to an average of 18 minutes’ dialogue with the physician.  A real reciprocity emerged, which in turn improved reps’ access to physicians.
  • In a very different example, Christian described the challenge of working with a company that makes grooming products for men.  In meetings with his client, they heard a lot of internal discussion about their ‘franchises’ or brands.  Unfortunately, those internal distinctions were irrelevant to their customers; no men choose between original or sensitive version of a brand – it doesn’t register!  Men believe that shaving is about skill, not about having the right products.  So the way that the shelf was organized was based on the brand managers’ understanding of how women shop – where packaging and color influence decision making.  But the approach didn’t work at all for men (and the brand managers presumed it would).  In fact, it was so bewildering that many men got lost in the process and ended up not buying anything!  The ‘take rate’ was 8-10%.  What men were interested in, as it turns out, is what products to use, and in what order – a very practical approach.  So without any changes to the packaging, ReD helped their client reorganize the shelf consistent with how men think about shaving – put oil on the beard, then apply shaving cream, then apply aftershave.  From that change alone, the take rate rose to 23%, simply by organizing the retail shelves in a way that is aligned with how men think about grooming and related retail products.

In talking with Christian about their work at ReD Associates, I realized that what is most compelling about their work is that – while their focus is helping companies make significant, lasting change – they are not doing so by simply looking at their clients’ customers and the context in which they work, play, sleep … or make purchasing decisions.  In fact, what I found so compelling in the book was the commitment to understand the underlying discourse and culture at the client.  Only by deeply understanding both can they help make a bridge between the challenges their client is facing, and the outcome they’re ultimately seeking in the market.

Looking inside

In retrospect it is so obvious!  Deeply experiencing both the client and their customers becomes a critical success factor.  This was really interesting to me, because at ZS we do have rich, longstanding relationships with our clients, so we are capable of those kinds of insights.  Today we talk about the culture at our clients and how it might enable or prevent success in the endeavors we’re undertaking with them, but we’re not looking at their internal discourse in this way.  My conversation with Christian got me thinking about how we could do more of that, to enable us to achieve more meaningful change both within and on behalf of our clients.

Both in the book and in our conversation, Christian described the work of Genevieve Bell at Intel.  She is a living legend in my intellectual circles due to the work she’s done there!  (You can read more about her here, and watch a YouTube video too, if you like.)  At Intel, Genevieve built a centralized research team whose goal was to provide the human and cultural understanding needed to imagine a future generation of micro-processors.   Over time, as the executive commitment to her approach grew, her team expanded and dispersed into the different divisions of the company.  They continue to play a significant role in shaping both technological futures at Intel, and social sciences’ understanding of technology and human behavior.  (There is, for example, a small team devoted to the study of the Quantified Self movement.)  What I have found the most interesting about Genevieve’s work is that she continues to reflect as a researcher about the culture of Intel, what makes it so, and what she and her team need to do to overcome or reshape that culture in order to drive change.

In a similar fashion, in my dissertation I described my observations and experiences at a software company (SAP).  Over a number of years, I observed this massive (70K people), engineering-centric company try to shift to a more client-centric way of thinking and working.  I chronicled the ways in which employees became a locus for control to achieve those business goals, and how those changes affected the lives of employees (including myself).  In retrospect, I think that cultural backdrop played a significant role in enabling me to grow the User Experience team as quickly as I did. We were working on large scale business transformation and technology projects, so understanding employees and their needs was obvious to us – but was also consistent with the prevalent internal discourse at the time.


Since leaving SAP, I’ve spent the past four years getting to know ZS Associates.  I wrote about my initial impressions of ZS when I started.  Since my arrival, the company has continued to grow (from 2000 to 4000 people in four years), evolve, and change in ways that I was not sure were possible.  It’s easier to have a sense of a company as an organic, living, breathing thing when it is not so large!  And yet, even a small company gets stuck in it’s ways of thinking.

I also discussed with Christian how many of his clients don’t want to change, or they fail to realize the full benefits of the insights brought to them by ReD.  I have had similar experiences.  Clients want our help, but when it comes time to let go of their deeply held beliefs, there are many times that they would prefer to do things in a way that is familiar, comfortable, safe … and wrong!

ZS has been through a really interesting, self-reflexive period in the past year or so, and I hope it continues.  We’ve researched how we’re perceived in the market, and reflected on how we would like to be perceived.  And we’re gradually changing how we talk about ourselves – and even the kind of work we want to do – based on what we’ve learned.

Christian said that one of the biggest challenges are companies who think of themselves as experts.  This is often the case in management consultancies, and ZS is no exception.  We are terrific at what we do in part because we have staff that are deeply knowledgeable about the healthcare ecosystem and its many players, disease states and related patient experiences, and even the intricacies of the data that drive those companies’ operations.  But Christian said to me that “expertise is the devil”.  Christian is relatively soft-spoken, so it was a pretty strongly worded opinion – I was shocked at first! But he went on to say that the only way to do this this work effectively is with a level of epistemological humility that is often hard to find in a management consulting context.

And now that he said it and I see it, I can’t unsee it!  There are so many conversations around me where people are emphasizing their expertise to justify their perspective on one thing or another.  I admire and respect all the crazy smart and talented people I work with – it is part of what makes ZS great, after all!  But it also makes true dialogue a challenge, sometimes.  I find so many conversations are about building walls – “I’m an expert and this is my space, so let me tell you how it should be”, rather than bridges – “Oh wow, interesting, if we did this and that together, imagine how much more we could do for our client!”.  I do find it discouraging at times, especially in contrast to conversations with other social scientists and designers, who are so much more inherently curious and open and generative … and ultimately interested in a dialogue, rather than protecting a territory or an intellectual stance.  And I find myself justifying our unique value and expertise in the same way – explaining the scientific nature of UX through the ISO9241, our understanding of cognitive science, and more.

As we continue to grow our research and design capabilities at ZS, I asked Christian for his thoughts on team composition, on the kinds of design skills he felt were the most valuable, and any feedback he had around methods or engagement model.  His experience is that the best work is largely research – “95% research and only 5% design”.  The management consultancies refer to the creative and design teams that they’ve acquired as ‘the ponytails’ – they are dismissed for their lack of business acumen, and their inability to contribute in a meaningful way to the analysis and transformation at hand.
ux culture 2

Although I have been at ZS for four years, our consulting capability is still in it’s infancy – we hired our first offshore team members in 2014, and our first onshore team members joined this year.  So as I prepare my plans for 2016, I have been reflecting on how we’ve done (great – demand is through the roof!), evaluating what we’re doing well, and identifying things we could do better going forward.  I now feel increased urgency to make sure that the growing number of people in my User Experience team and in other design roles at ZS aren’t marginalized as ‘ponytails’ in the future.  When my team met for a global All Hands meeting in August, one of the major themes that emerged from our discussions was the urgent need to do more user research to inform our work.  We’ve made lots of progress since my arrival four years ago, but we still have a long way to go.
Through those conversations with my team, I realized that I didn’t face the same challenges at when I was building the UX team at SAP, perhaps because my first projects were research-based, and only later did I introduce design as a way to begin generating solutions.  In our projects today, ZS teams bring so much pre-existing knowledge to the problem space that it’s not clear to them how we could possibly discover anything new.  I have been working hard this year to educate about user-centered design in a way that will resonate … though with my new-found understanding about expertise, I’m not sure how successful I will be.  Our concern is that absent that empirical grounding, the user experience services are just well-executed design, informed only by our prior work in the space.  This is, frankly, not the work any of us want to be doing in the long run.

grounded in research 2Thus,  User Experience teams’ engagement today (both in product and in consulting) with project teams does sometimes leave us feeling like ‘ponytails’, until they realize that we do have that business knowledge, and that we do much more than ‘make it look nice’.  Our clients and our project teams want design, they just don’t understand that good design is user-centered design, which requires research, not just design best practices.  Once they can see past their own expertise, they get it, but it seems to be harder to overcome those objections – both internally and externally – than it should be.

In closing

Christian said the only way to make progress with clients is to deeply, deeply understand the problem space, and to ensure you arrive at a rich and nuanced understanding together.  Only then can you have those thoughtful – and thought provoking – conversations that really enable you to drive business transformation.  There is no need for walls of rainbow-colored stickies, which are often paraded as a tribute to innovation that never actually takes place!  (There is a tragically hilarious chapter in his book on this.)  A deep conversation grounded in research and shared understanding will allow that moment of clarity to come, and for the path forward to emerge.

The reality is that ethnographic methods are not impartial, and anyone who says they are impartial is doing it wrong!  When the research is done the right way and you effectively immerse yourself as a participant observer, you can’t help but develop empathy, and to feel some emotional investment in the outcomes of your work.  It is inherently messy.  As researchers, our own experience shapes what we say, hear, and reflect back into the analysis and synthesis process.  That is both the power and the challenge of the data collection and the work that follows.

I have this vague sense that I’m not truly able to do our conversation or his ideas justice!  For me it was a really powerful conversation that reminded me of the value of an anthropological perspective, and the deep personal belief I have in those methods as a means for making meaningful change in the business context.  Christian suggested that I should keep a notebook so that I can begin to collect stories and reflect on ZS as a participant observer, as I once did at SAP.  And perhaps I will.



It turns out that it’s been a big theme in my reading over the past few years – more so than I realized.  I just finished reading The Gratitude Diaries, and I wanted to share what I found most compelling about the books I’ve read on this topic, as well as some of the common threads that run through them for me.  Today is Worldwide Gratitude Day, so it seemed like a perfect time to finish off this post and share with all of you!


Of all the books on this topic, the one that has had the most staying power for me is Martin Seligman’s book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.  In his book, Seligman explains that psychology has typically focused on helping people to alleviate things that make us unhappy … but never about actually becoming happier.  His passion for the topic seems to have come in part from his extensive research on psychotherapy and drugs.  He says that through an extensive literature review on SSRIs:

for each you get a 65% relief rate, accompanied by a placebo effect that ranges from 45 percent to 55 percent … so high is the placebo response that in half the studies on which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) based its official approval of the antidepressant drugs, there was no difference between placebo and drug.

He felt the lack of focus on happiness was a significant gap in modern psychology that needed to be addressed, and he set out to do so over the course of his career.  He is now widely considered the founder of today’s positive psychology movement.  Seligman says that “well-being, not happiness, is the topic of positive psychology”.  Well-being has five measurable elements (PERMA – positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment or achievement).  No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it.  This is in contrast to Seligman’s earlier writing in Authentic Happiness, in which “happiness is the centerpiece”.

Through his research and applied work he learned that positive psychology has lasting effects, and that unfortunately, while we wish well-being for our children, schools focus on teaching them how to succeed in the workplace.  The studies and programs for children that he outlines in the book seek to address that gap.  Along with the other dimensions of PERMA (as summarized above), Seligman talks about the notion of resilience, and explores why some people have it and others don’t.  The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) teaches these basics to children, and has been proven to “prevent depression, anxiety, and conduct problems in young people”, in addition to teaching them how to recognize and capitalize on their strengths.  An amazing and humbling accomplishment, to establish a scientifically-grounded approach that both alleviates the bad and amplifies the good in people!  Seligman has conducted a huge range of studies with people from many different life experiences – from the army to schoolchildren.  The fact that he was able to establish this vision for the field as a whole, and then do applied research to make it realizable and practical in a variety of circumstances has enormous appeal to me.

Based on his research and its application with many different types of people in a variety of contexts, Seligman has some very practical recommendations about how to bring ideas about gratitude into everyday life.  Keeping a gratitude journal (an exercise he calls The Three Blessings) is a process of writing down three things you’re grateful for every day – it the single most effective way to bring a positive outlook to your life.   I learned this many years ago during my sessions with a life coach, and it was interesting for me to learn that what felt good and true at the time was also proven to be uplifting.  And a gratitude letter – writing a heartfelt letter and then delivering it in person – was by far the most impactful way to lift the spirits – the spirits of the author!

Stumbling on Happiness

Some time ago I had the opportunity to read Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness.  I enjoyed his summary of all the research on happiness, but since I already knew (from Seligman) about the distinction between happiness and well-being, I was disappointed to find that it was not explicitly addressed in Gilbert’s book.  In retrospect, I had two major takeaways from Gilbert:  (1) Humans don’t know what makes them happy. (2) Science confirms this to be true.

If you ask people to predict what will make them happy, what they thought beforehand and what does end up making them happy are not the same.  In my case, just knowing that has been beneficial.  I know now that my biggest life decisions were made without fully understanding the consequences or implications.  Those decisions turned out ok.  But I was a bit naive in assuming that the situation was under control or that I really understood the implications of the choices I was making.  It’s good to know as I make big decisions in the future, at least.

For the most part, Gilbert doesn’t talk about how to apply the ideas he shares and make them real – which he acknowledged towards the end of the book.   The only substantive advice he offered was to find someone who has made a similar decision recently and ask them about their experience, e.g. before relocating for a job, speak to someone who has just done so.  This can be a valuable way to understand the practical realities of the decision you have in front of you.

The other part of Gilbert that I continue to reflect on is the Happiness Curve:


This particular graphic is a collection of the data from several different studies.  The finding is, consistently, that we think that kids are going to make us happy, but the lowest point of happiness in our lives as a couple is when we have young children.  The happiest moments are when we get married, and after our kids move out of the house.  And yet, our social system and our biology continue to reinforce that we should reproduce.  And we do – even though the belief that it will make us happier is patently untrue!

We know now that having children brings a deeper sense of gratification and life satisfaction that runs much deeper than happiness.  Even if I prefer the concept of well-being and flourishing, it’s good to be reminded why raising kids is hard. And that we should enjoy it because it won’t last forever!

The Gratitude Diaries

The main impetus for writing this blog post was my completion of The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, by Janice Kaplan.  It was an impulse buy from Barnes & Noble when I was there a few weeks ago.  Perhaps because of Kaplan’s background in writing for magazines, I found that her summaries of research and the resulting insights were very accessible.  She draws on Seligman, Gilbert, and many others – and she does a nice job reflecting on how to bring these ideas into practice.

In short, through the book she does Seligman’s Three Blessings exercise, and reflects on how it changes her life.  It was a good reminder for me how powerful that exercise is – because I haven’t done it myself in many years now.  She describes how the process of looking for the positive helps her change her relationship with her husband, her children, her estranged sister, her body (including exercise), her personal finances and her work.  It was amazing to see the concept applied to so many life situations.  I found myself uplifted by the book as I followed her transformation  – I think she was buoyed by her experience, and the reader is too.

I was interested in the book at one level because I had stopped actively keeping a gratitude journal, but also because – in spite of some difficult circumstances at work and with my health – I have been more grateful in the past few years than I have been in my whole life.  Why is that the case?  And what are we doing differently in our family and in our home life that makes that kind of attitude shift possible?  It was gratifying (!) for me that we have naturally engaged in the activities that lead to a more positive attitude.

There is obvious value of practicing gratitude in every aspect of our lives, but there were a few that especially resonated with me.

  • One of the huge responsibilities I feel as a parent is to raise strong, independent, well-adjusted kids.  I worry that my kids – who are more privileged than I was as a child, and even more so than the generation before – will not appreciate what they have.  How to do we help them achieve that (to the extent that it’s possible) through parenting? Kaplan describes the research in that space, and provides some guideposts for helping other parents bringing those ways of thinking to their kids.  Among others, sharing with them the wider world, so that they have a better perspective on their own life.  And then, this idea (for small children especially) that there is no distinction between gratitude and reciprocity.  That reminds me of my earliest readings in classical anthropology – Mauss’ The Gift, which was ultimately about the importance of creating healthy tension and mutual obligation between people.
  • I also really liked her writing about exercise and appreciating our bodies.  She shares that exercising outdoors and being in nature causes us to reflect on our place in the world, and so that inherently helps to create a healthy perspective that we might not otherwise get at the gym.  My partner and I – in spite of the brutal Chicago winters – do everything we can to exercise outdoors.  It was interesting to read that there is research that reinforces that.
  • It’s been so very hard to be grateful for the body I’m in as I struggle with an autoimmune disease.  Remembering that I still have two legs, two arms, and more may help me focus on everything I do have, instead of the vibrant health that I have lost over the past few years.
  • There is very moving passage where she talks about many people who have lost loved ones, and how that has transformed their thinking on what is important.  As I have lost a number of dear family members during this past year and a half, that one really resonated with me, too.

All in all it was an easy read and an accessible introduction to a growing body of research in the field of applied positive psychology.


Earlier I described Seligman as the founder of today’s positive psychology movement.  I described him in that way because there are others who preceded him.  For me, one of the most notable authors on this topic is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  His is one of the most compelling books I read during my first Masters’ degree in Whole Systems Design, and the themes have stayed with me since I read it more than twenty years ago.  He describes optimal experience as

times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rate occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is  long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

Csikszentmihalyi says that we achieve that experience through flow, when people are

so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

He says that

When people try to achieve happiness on their own, without the support of a faith, they usually seek to maximize pleasures that are either biologically programmed in their genes or are … [considered] as attractive by the society in which they live … But the quality of life cannot be improved in this way. Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.

For me these ideas were particularly interesting and compelling because the idea of flow seemed natural and obvious in the context of being an artist or a musician. But what about for those of us working in a corporate setting every day?  Csikszentmihalyi believed that we could achieve a state of flow at work, and in fact provides some examples from subsistence farmers to surgeons.  At one point in my career I was told that I would need to ‘give up anthropology’ if I wanted to get ahead.  In other words, I could advance my career, or I could do what I loved and what I was passionate about, but not both.  I just didn’t believe that was the case, because I saw both my parents study and work on topics about which they were both curious and passionate.

It was in June 2011.  I had defended my PhD seven years prior, and I was feeling restless about my lack of career growth and the fact that I was doing a lot of other things besides User Experience (which is how I brought my anthropological self to work).  I had a chance to hear Daniel Pink speak about his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.   The premise of the book is quite simple – we are motivated by three very specific things – autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • He said that we need autonomy because human beings don’t engage by being managed and controlled.  People thrive when they have control over time, the team (who), the tasks, and the technique (how).  This flexibility gives people a sense of  autonomy, and when they have that, they are more likely to be engaged – and more likely to do the creative, conceptual, breakthrough work.
  • People achieve mastery by giving them additional control over time (such as the Results Oriented Work Environment – ROWE), over team (such as Facebook’s model for letting new hires pick which team they want to work for- company picks the talent, but the talent picks the team), technique, and over tasks.
  • And purpose matters, Pink argues, because at a philosophical, existential level, we’re all wondering why we’re here.  Human beings deep down want to do things for a reason – particularly in work.  In his research for an earlier book, he travelled around the US talking to people who had left large organizations to work for themselves.  In those discussions, people often used the same word in telling their story.  They were willing to work, but they felt like they weren’t making a contribution.  The highest performing companies today combine a profit and a purpose motive.

You can watch a short video about Pink’s work on YouTube.

About a year later I had a chance to hear Barry Schwartz, author of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to do the Right Thing.  I wrote a blog post about it which you can read here.  In summary I said:

What makes people happy? What we now know with reasonable certainty is (1) meaningful engaged work and (2) close relationships with people. That means that if you can get organizations to change the mindset and cultivate wisdom, they will help business and customers … but they will also be happier. The reason for optimism is to imagine that it would be self-sustaining, and that all levels of the organization could operate with the same level of thoughtfulness and empathy …

So for me, these ideas about happiness (or preferably well being!), gratitude, and empathy are woven together, both in our personal lives, and in how we engage at work.

These findings are also consistent with research that has been done at Gallup.  Incidentally, Tom Rath (author of Gallup’s book Strengthsfinders) was a member of the first graduate program that Seligman taught on positive psychology.  The Strengthsfinder model provides a structured way for people to uncover what they are good at, so that they can bring those strengths to their work.  Employees that leverage their strengths are more engaged, and therefore more likely to stay.  I have used the program many times as a way for team members to get to know each other, and for me to get to know them so we can jointly identify opportunities in our project portfolio that are a good fit for them.  I find – consistent with the research – that my teams do their best work under those conditions.

In Conclusion

There was an interesting passage in Kaplan’s book about the relationship between gratitude, empathy, and emotional intelligence (EQ) … and what that means for raising kids.  She says:

It turns out that empathy is fundamental to gratitude – and to what psychologists now describe as ’emotional intelligence’.  Various studies in brain and behavior suggest that IQ accounts for only 20 percent of a child’s success in later life. A full 80 percent is determined by other factors that revolve around emotional style. When kids can step outside of themselves for a moment and imagine what it is to be someone else, they are better able to respond to other people’s emotions – and to recognize their own. They also start to appreciate both what they have and what others have done for them.

For me – perhaps because my work has such clear value and purpose to me – this way of thinking has profound implications.  I still identify as an anthropologist, and so in the work context, being a good researcher requires being empathetic.  Empathy requires the risk of opening ourselves up and being vulnerable so we can do our best work.  In the rest of our lives, being empathic also then makes space for gratitude to flow in.

Learn More

To celebrate Worldwide Gratitude Day, author Anne Lamott has a lovely piece on this topic that you might also enjoy.


I would just like to say, for the record, that whoever designed and engineered the ‘myEasyMatch’ code concept that’s in use at the NorthShore University HealthSystem should seriously ask their Product Marketing team to find a new name.  There is nothing easy or matching about it!

The scenario is that I needed to pay a hospital bill electronically, and (rather than sending me a link to the bill in their payment system), the HealthSystem sent me a letter with a code that I needed to type into the online form depicted below, so that I could pay the bill in question.  The screen layout itself is pretty clear:

myEasyMatch Code

But the damn code is nearly impossible to type correctly (see below):

myEasyMatch Code - not valid

It literally took me 3-4 tries to get it right so I could pay the bill.  Why couldn’t they just send me a direct link to my bill? Honestly a paper bill in the mail would have been easier.  And they still do that sometimes, so why EasyMatch in this case?  We’re a relatively healthy family of four, so I’m guessing that we’re not an atypical household.  Would it really be that hard to find my bill from a list of … one?!

In reality, what makes me so grumpy about this is that ‘Easy’Match makes it easier for the HealthSystem, not easier for the consumer.  I haven’t thought of a new name that doesn’t involve expletives, but if you have suggestions I’d be happy to read them in the comments!


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