Traditional, Formal Speech

Traditional, Formal Speech

By Jerrod Larson, PhD
HCDE 2017 Commencement Address

You have selected the traditional, formal speech for your 2017 HCDE Commencement Address.

Great choice. A classic befitting this regal occasion. I’d like to now offer you some advice based on themes you’ve doubtless heard many times in the program. Consider it a final lecture before you get your diplomas tomorrow.

Human centered design is a relatively young field.

This is not the end of your learning. For some of you this may be the end of your formal education, but the human-centered design field is growing so rapidly that you’ll remain forever in a learning mode. Embrace it. The field is being invented as it’s being practiced, and you’ll help shape it. If you find yourself in uncharted territory, you may need to invent some new method, some new deliverable. Personas, for example, seem like such obvious design tools, but they were invented in the 80s (that may seem like forever ago to some of you, but trust me, it’s not.). This field is ripe for invention.

But while the discipline is ready for invention, it’s also ready for mistakes. You will make mistakes, you will feel like you’re onto something when you’re not. You will make judgment calls when you should have relied on data. Have faith that we’ve all been there before.  Try new things, share your successes, and be transparent about what didn’t work.

Human-centered design provides a means of making sense of the world.

On that note, another bit of advice: Try not to be intimidated when you don’t know something. It’s hard, I know. I am constantly confronted with new challenges, new things I do not understand, and the worst: discovering I am not the expert in something I once thought I was. [Isn’t that the worst?] But there’s a subtle but profound benefit of your education: Human-centered design is a process for learning, not just a process for creating. Many graduates aren’t given the broad toolset to learn about the world that you have been. Conducting field observations. Interviewing. Reading research studies. Conducting experiments. These are UX tactics for sure, but they are also good ways to learn about the world beyond engineering.  Approach new situations as would a researcher, for in a way, you are and always will be. (And if something remains confusing after you research it extensively, you can always just blame bad design.)

Human centered design requires empathy.

I know I don’t need to remind you about the need to empathize with users — but the empathy you extend to your eventual users ought to be shared with your colleagues too. While I believe just as you do in the superiority of the human-centered approach, it is important to recognize not everyone you work with will have a similar perspective or training or belief system. You may be dropped into organizations that don’t naturally approach work in a human-centered way. Here’s a lesson I learned the hard way: The best way to affect change is to demonstrate value, not to preach. You won’t be successful preaching to people the error of their ways and the superiority of yours. Don’t joust with windmills like Don Quixote — build partnerships. Empathizing with the goals, motivations, and interests of your coworkers: this will certainly create a richer experience for everyone.

Human-centered design assumes collaboration.

Now, hopefully this is not a shock, but you are also not done with interdisciplinary group projects. It may be the end of late night group work at a coffee shop or Allen Library, but not the end of group projects.  Life is, in fact, a giant series of interdisciplinary group projects. The smart faculty of this department established a curriculum to prepare you for this reality. You’ll find it familiar in many ways (yes, including that one person in a group who never seems to do his share of work). Use the collaboration skills afforded to you by the program to negotiate those projects--work, relationships, politics, whatever. Here’s the thing: Your individual projects will no longer be graded by professors (or TAs); rather, you’ll be measured by the overall impact you make on people, organizations, and the world around you. And perhaps the most significant factor in that will be your ability to collaborate.

Human-centered design is committed to people.

With regard to collaboration, support your community and those around you. Use your skills and training for your livelihood for sure, but also use it to help society. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the world is an imperfect place. Don’t just comment on it, try to fix it. Design it. This is a message a lot of graduates will be hearing this weekend, but again, you’ve been uniquely trained in how to approach this kind of thing. Further, you’ve had excellent professors who can serve as role models. The women and men on stage behind me have demonstrated what it means to help the world through teaching and through their scholarly pursuits. People did not grant your faculty a mandate to make a difference, they chose to. You too have a choice in what you’ll do for your world, your community.

Human centered design is not just a process, it’s a philosophical viewpoint that prioritizes the importance of people and is biased toward improving their lives. Embrace that philosophy.

And finally, let me offer a shameless plug: Support your department and its future students. The truth is people need each other, and your support has value. The human-centered design community is astonishingly small, and your individual actions can have an outsized impact on it.

With that, congratulations graduates on your accomplishment.  I’m honored to have you as a fellow alum, and I’m excited to see what impact you make on our discipline and our world. Do good work, and stay human-centered.

Thank you.