How to avoid a career buzz saw


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Increasingly, UX designers are being asked to extend their skill set beyond information architecture, interaction design, and graphic design to cultural analysis, applying to design problems techniques like ethnography and field research that are borrowed from anthropology and evolutionary psychology.

Point taken. Understanding the culture of your targeted user does result in better, more innovative design. Culture-focused methodologies—like Design Thinking—have enormous appeal.

Be warned, however. Culture-informed design involves risk taking, uncertainty, trial and error, model building, iteration and feedback. Your success as a designer depends as much on the culture of the corporation sponsoring your project as it does on the methodology the corporation is asking you to use.

Ignore corporate culture at your own risk.

So what is culture?

The typical UX design student does not spend much time studying the science of social behavior.

If a corporate culture fails to adapt to a change in its environment, then the corporation  becomes extinct.

Luminaries such as Charles Darwin, Bronisław Malinowski, Franz Boas, and Margaret Mead go unread. E.O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology are not part of the curriculum. So it is presumptuous to assume that all practicing UX designers have a useful understanding of the word culture. What follows is a very brief primer.

Culture is the set of roles, rules, norms, punishments, rewards, status hierarchies, artifacts, and so on adopted by a group to help it survive and master its environment. In our hunter-gatherer days, things were simple. You belonged to one tribe of between 30 and 150 people, and you lived in one and only one culture. Your tribe had a creation myth, a chief, a set of rules, norms, and taboos. Your tribe was the “most human.” The tribe across the valley, less so.

Cultures evolve. They are subject to the same Darwinian principles as are plants and animals. If a culture fails to adapt to a change in its environment, then it becomes extinct. The rate of cultural change is a matter of perspective. When compared to the pace of gene/environment evolution, cultures evolve very quickly. When compared to a human lifespan, cultures—inhabited by naturally territorial human beings—resist change.

Culture is complex. As human population expanded well beyond the 30 person tribe, cultures came to nest inside each other. Each of us today belongs to more than one tribe, or subculture. We are Westerners. Americans. Northerners. Southerners. Scientists. Christians. Red Sox fans. Yankee fans. City folk. Suburbanites. And so on. The parameters of the larger culture govern what is deemed acceptable by the subcultures nested inside it. It’s OK for Occupy Wall Street protestors to settle in Zuccotti Park, for example. But when sanitation issues become a threat to the city, peaceful protesters suddenly become “troublemakers” and bulldozers suddenly appear.

Corporate culture

Individual businesses, or corporations, have cultures, too. Like any other culture, corporate cultures are a system of survival. They nest inside the culture of the greater economic system: capital, stock price, investors, dividends, technology, profit, CEOs, and so forth.

In my experience, a given corporate culture adopts one of three possible survival strategies: 1) focus on efficiency, cost containment, profit margin, 2) focus on innovation, creativity, breakthroughs or 3) focus on both efficiency and innovation.

Hybrid corporate cultures—those that value both efficiency and innovation—tend to survive in the long-term, eclipsing cultures that focus exclusively on strategy over the other. Apple Inc. and Google, Inc. are good examples of culture #3. They know how to block and tackle, excelling at things like sales, marketing, cost containment, manufacturing efficiency. Yet they simultaneously nurture (and fund!) a parallel and ongoing creative culture, one that supports risk taking, uncertainty, intuition, and iteration.

Do your fieldwork

Flash-in-the-pan businesses and businesses in a steady decline usually belong to culture 1 or culture 2, those that focus exclusively on efficiency or on innovation.

Join the wrong company at the wrong time and you could be walking straight into a career buzz saw.

Their roles, rules, norms, territories, fiefdoms, punishments, and rewards of each of these cultures support one and only one adaptation strategy. Corporate cultures 1 and 2 are not friendly to designers or design methodologies.

  • Efficiency oriented cultures value predictability, on-time delivery, process, and clearly defined roles. Miss a design deadline or propose an idea that fails and you quickly become persona non grata.
  • Innovation oriented cultures, such as those found in the typical software startup, value action over deliberation. Suggest a design process that feels “linear” or waterfall and you are quickly ostracized, branded “out of touch” or an impediment.

Depending on where they are in their life cycle, culture 1 and culture 2 companies can be great places to work. Be very careful, however. Intolerance for people who don’t “fit in” increases very rapidly in any culture when the group feels threatened.

Before you join a company, investigate its culture with the same thoroughness with which you are being asked to investigate end-user culture. Be an ethnographer. Do your  field research. Ply your social network. Surf the Web. Ask questions about the company’s roles, rules, norms, incentives, punishments and rewards.  Learn as much as you can about the company’s culture.

  • What’s behind those glass doors: culture 1, culture 2, or culture 3?
  • How secure is the company? Do it have lots of cash? Does it  have patient investors with deep pockets?
  • How are reviews conducted? How are bonuses awarded?
  • Who invented the product? Is he or she still involved with the company?
  •  Where does design sit in the org chart? Under development? Under product management?
  • Is the c-suite segregated from the cube farm?  Etc…

Join the wrong company at the wrong time and you could be walking straight into a career buzz saw.

Four canaries. Four coal mines. One job board.

Researching every company to the level above takes a lot of work.  There are shortcuts, though.  You  can learn a lot about a company’s culture by reading between the lines of a job description.

In each of the next four posts, (U)XD Insights parses one job description, reverse engineering the culture of the corporation that posted it and offering tips on detecting as early as possible corporate culture/design culture mismatches.

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