Unconventional, Informal Speech

Unconventional, Informal Speech

By Jerrod Larson, PhD
HCDE 2017 Commencement Address

You have selected the unconventional, informal speech for your 2017 HCDE Commencement Address.

I thought you might choose the unconventional speech. I trust the wisdom of the crowd. At the end of this we’ll see if you do too.

Let me give you some background before I proceed. When I was asked to give this speech I knew my role: I’m supposed to be wise and scholarly — after all, I’m dressed like Medieval clergy. So naturally I thought “I should convey some sage advice.” Here’s the thing: Everyone gives advice in a speech. How can I innovate? Then it came to me: I can provide you expressly, deliberately bad advice! Nobody ever does that in a graduation speech. I mean, certainly people do give bad advice all the time, but they don’t mean to. So this is my innovation, my gift to graduation speeches everywhere: deliberately bad advice. (I’ll bet you wish you chose differently earlier on, don’t you?) Let’s proceed!

Bad advice: Treat everyone as if you know more than they do.

My first piece of bad advice: It’s best to approach every colleague and work situation as if the only rational, acceptable way to do work is the way you’ve been taught.  Moreover, it’s best to marry that with a lot of preaching. After all, empathy is for end users, not those with whom you work. If a developer has a different approach or creates a user interface without customer input, publicly shame her. Similarly, if a coworker prioritizes a business objective over a user need, he is clearly unqualified for the job and could care less about people. 

Essentially, the best way to ingratiate yourself to colleagues and prove your mettle is to make them feel inferior.

Bad advice: Stop learning. Rest on your laurels.

Another piece of bad advice is based on an unavoidable, regrettable reality: Being in a constant state of learning is hard work. It’s tiring. It is not always confidence building. It really stinks to not know something, and it stinks way worse to think you know something and have someone — maybe even someone more junior than you — point out that you were wrong. What’s one way around that? Effectively avoid trying new things. Stop experimenting. Keep relying on the same kinds of research methods you learned in school, the same kinds of approaches to design. Try to ride it out to retirement. It’s only 30 or 40 years away, right? After all, trying new things is a sure way to make mistakes, and who wants that?

You got this.

Bad advice: Go it alone.

OK, now that you’re graduating, let’s admit it: Group work can be exasperating. There are a lot of different personalities and approaches to accommodate. And let’s admit it publicly: there’s always that one person on the team who never does their fair share of work (by the way, if you never had that person on your team it’s best not look into that any further — you are just fantastically lucky and there’s no possible other explanation). My bad advice? Just try to do everything by yourself. Be the hero who fills every role on a project, and anticipates every viewpoint herself. Eschew help. Be a unicorn. And if someone is working on something and they aren’t doing a great job, just grab the reins from them and do it yourself.

Remember, Superman didn’t do group work. You shouldn’t either.

Bad advice: a job that isn't always fun is a job not worth doing.

I’ve had plenty of tough jobs, plenty of tricky situations, and plenty of teams that didn’t function perfectly well. Sure, some of the hardest, most unpleasant experiences I had in the workplace caused me to be better at my work, but ultimately I like to have fun. Fun is fun. It’s right there in the word. So my bad advice is to actively seek out fun and relentlessly pursue it, even if it means slowing professional growth. If you’re not having fun, run. Run far away. You’re entitled to fun and the only way to determine if you’re in the right job is whether you’re constantly overjoyed.

Run to fun.

Bad advice: Comment on problems, but don’t try to solve them.

The world is an imperfect place. We’re awash in opportunities for improving the world. It can be pretty darn tiring. I open my Facebook newsfeed and I’m flooded by the world’s issues; I drive in Seattle and I’m wildly confused by bad signage and poor driver-centered design; I open Twitter, get confused by its user experience, and leave again.  So my here’s my bad advice: Notice issues in society, issues in products, issues at work, and loudly point them out to everyone. Then, here’s the trick: quietly walk away and let someone else try to solve those issues. After all, commenting on a problem is pretty much offering a solution, right?

“Fixing” problems is for people who have nothing better to do. You’ve got better things to do. 

Bad advice: look forward, don't reflect on mistakes.

The last piece of bad advice I have for you is this: look forward, never look back, or even worse: inward. Being reflective takes time and effort, and discovering things you want to change in your approach smells like learning and hard work to me, and you remember my bad advice around those subjects. Introspection is for philosophers.

With that, my bad advice is over. Let me say that this speech has been cathartic. It’s been cathartic in that I have lived that bad advice in one form or another through my HCD career. Only with the benefit of time did the previous insights become obviously ridiculous. Your own careers will be fun and frustrating and exciting and at times discouraging. You’ll have a ton of wins and a ton of losses. So my only good advice for you today is this: be comfortable making mistakes, evolving, improving, and keeping a sense of humor about who you are and where you’ve been.

Anyway, I hope you feel happy with your choice as to this speech’s direction. I promised you unconventional, right?

With all kidding and bad advice aside, in closing I want to congratulate you all on your accomplishment today. It is serious and momentous. 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.