2018 / 8 April

What being selfish taught me about user experience

Most days I have a conversation about personalisation. The conversation is usually within the context of health care transformation, but the notion of personalisation is all pervasive in my industry. Whether it’s programming advertising and marketing, the creation of experiences by brands, or the delivery of services, we use the term as though it’s the holy grail of our work, when at best, it is still nebulous.

These conversations got me thinking about the nature of personalisation and I realised that at its very core, it is selfish.

Personalisation makes the individual think about only themselves — what they want, when they want it and how they want it. It’s a strangely one dimensional interaction, despite how complex true personalisation is.

To explore this idea further, I decided to spend a week being completely selfish in my interactions with the world around me. I wanted to imagine how everything would be if it were truly personal to me. I wanted the world to act on my behalf.

In doing so, I started to notice little things. A train would be a minute late, or not stop right in line with where I was standing. Someone would get in the way when I was walking, or walk too slowly, or stop randomly (admittedly, I will never not be angry at these people). People were frustrating and irritating and by thinking through the lens of selfishness, everything was a problem.

A big takeaway for me is that being selfish is tiring. It is draining to be constantly frustrated or focused on little things that shouldn’t (but suddenly do) piss you off. It’s an absolutely unnecessary use of energy and it achieves nothing.

I recently had coffee with the fascinating and always insightful Chris Pattenden, who challenged me to spend a week doing the opposite, and trying to see what would happen if I spent a week being entirely selfless to see the difference between the two. Update to come.

Tiredness and frustrations aside, approaching the world entirely selfishly made me think about our approach to user experience. While I believe the ambitions of personalisation are correct (particularly related to the delivery of health care), that sole ambition may be at the detriment of others.

Instead, I have decided to start looking at user experience more holistically, and acknowledge that the delivery of something exceptional requires a lot more consideration of context. There are things outside of our control that impact our environment and how we engage with it. We can use these to our advantage where possible, but sometimes things will just happen that we have no say over. And that’s ok.

While the above observation is probably obvious to others, the week has taught me to re-frame how I approach work moving forward. But mostly, the one thing I learned is that being selfish requires a lot of energy. And that was only a week; I wonder what a lifetime of selfishness would take out of you. While I will consider the other end of the spectrum, I think it’s an interesting point in time to think more about where my energy is best spent.

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