2016 / 21 June

So what is it you actually do?

I get asked that question a lot. Over my career, I’ve found it harder and harder to describe in a few short sentences what I do because the various titles come with so many preconceived notions and usually don’t give the role justice. After work a couple of weeks ago, we were at the bar chatting to some random people and unsurprisingly, the question was raised. I felt a moment of hesitation, as if to ask myself “why bother going down this path again?”.

It struck me then how strange that is. We sit in front of our clients every day and talk about the value of the work we do, yet often we struggle to simply define the work in layman’s terms. I’ve battled with why that is and am yet to find the answer. Part of me believes it is because there isn’t an established value metric yet in our field, because it’s inventing and reinventing itself every day. The true value is more of an esoteric notion than someone like a doctor or a teacher. With more time, we can manage to articulate the value and when it becomes clearly defined and understood, our work is allowed to truly shine.

I definitely believe the key is educating the people around us (whether they’re clients or not) to think about things through the lens that we present. That the simplest view of our industry is not enough to really get the value we can provide. And that has always been the case.

When I was a designer, I wished the conversation would go: “let me show you all the ways I can bring your information to life, create beautiful and informative pieces of work that resonate and educate your audience.”

Instead, I was asked: “Can you make me a business card?”

When I worked in advertising, I wished the conversation would go: “let me show you all the ways we can connect with your audience on both an emotional and a functional level, and communicate all the things you do in a meaningful way.”

Instead, I was asked: “Can you make me a Facebook page?”

When I worked in brand strategy, I wished the conversation would go: “let me show you all the ways a real brand — its values, beliefs, actions and essence — should be a guiding force to transform every element of your business. Let me show you how you can find new ways to connect with your current audience and create more reasons for a new audience to care.”

Instead, I was asked: “Can you make me a logo?”

When I worked in tech development, I wished the conversation would go: “let me show you how we can leverage new technology and good design principles to produce beautiful products that make people want to keep coming back.”

Instead, I was asked: “Can you make me a website?”

When I worked in digital marketing, I wished the conversation would go: “let me show you how we can combine audience insights, data analysis, creative copywriting and design to help you sell your product and message. How we can help you build your database so you can continually engage with the people who want to hear from you.”

Instead, I was asked: “Can you make me a Facebook page?”

Now I work in digital product and service strategy. I wish the conversation would go: “let me show you how we can combine data insights, technology, user analysis, behavioural psychology, user experience, communications, beautiful design and great writing to create an entire experience for your audience that they love and want to keep using.”

Instead, I am often asked: “Can you make me a website?”

I’d love to pretend that the issue is with our audience and not with our industry. But I think we are largely to blame for being ill equipped to quickly and succinctly describe what we do and why it’s valuable. I really enjoy getting the chance to speak to people about their work and their industry (particularly health and education) who have never been exposed to our type of thinking before, and working with them to understand (on both sides) what it all means. But that takes time. It’s a commitment by both parties.

I am constantly overwhelmed by how responsive people are when I have the chance to sit down and go into detail about their world and look for opportunities to improve their work. Because ultimately I think we are problem solvers. Except often the problems we aim to solve are not clearly (or not at all) defined. The problems we face are not as overt as health, education or law. What we do is enable people to do their jobs in more efficient, effective and meaningful ways. And perhaps it’s difficult to succinctly describe what we do because what that is depends on who we’re speaking to.

A conversation I had recently is a perfect summation of this: “I guess I never really think too much about all the programs we use at work for things like medical records or drug prescriptions. All the innovation and background design work that goes into creating those programs, and maybe people like me take things a bit for granted that everything just “works” without really stopping to think about people who design and create the systems and environments we work in.”

Largely, this is true. When our work is successful, it just “works”. It isn’t flashy or loud. It is functional, beautiful and effortless. It leaves the audience with a positive feeling, no matter what they set out to achieve.

Maybe I struggle to answer the question of what I do because it’s less important what I do and more important what you do. With that in mind, the next time I’m asked what it is I do, instead I should pose a question back: “tell me what you do and then we can look for ways to help you enjoy your work even more.”

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