“You are very brave.” That was the response that 49-year-old Rob Thorneycroft received from many when he closed the successful graphic design firm he had started 20 years ago in London and enrolled in a Masters Program in User Experience Design. Motivated by a combination of a desire for change, a new challenge, and a goal to provide value to clients in the most meaningful way possible, Rob took a year out to complete his MSc in User Experience Design at Kingston University.
A Time for Change
Rob is not alone in his decision to make a mid-life change in his career. The number of people changing careers and pursuing formal education later in life is on the rise. Yet, like others who chose the non-traditional career path – especially when they leave behind an already successful career to do something different – his decision elicited a mixture of responses from others. Ranging from “that sounds a bit scary” to “that sounds really exciting,” Rob heard an array of reactions to the risk and unpredictability that his career path was taking.
“I got to a point in my career where I just kind of felt [that] the sector we were involved in had reached a ceiling,” Rob explained in the interview. “Things were fine, but I wasn’t finding it as energizing as I had done in the past. As I looked into the future I didn’t feel there was as much potential as I once had.”
Beyond Having all the Answers
So was this a classic case of one’s clients demanding new products and services, forcing an adjustment in one’s business model to keep up with the times? Talking with Rob more deeply, I was struck that it was not Rob’s clients asking him to change – in fact, they were happy with his firm’s graphic design solutions. Rob reflected on his firm’s consultation with clients: “whatever you were asked to do, you kind of knew what the answer was. . . . You’ve been doing the same thing for a long time.” And his clients were happy.
So hold on.
Rob was not seeking to make a change in his career because he didn’t have the answers his clients were looking for. On the contrary, he was envisioning change in his career because he did consistently have the answers.
He was feeling as though he was providing the same solutions to the same types of problems that he had done for a long time. “When I thought about the future, I felt that there might be more potential in exploring other areas where some of the cherished thinking of the sectors I had been involved in may not be left quite so unexamined,” Rob explained.
Rob’s Career Choice: End User Design
Perhaps ironically, as Rob considered various options, he was drawn to the field of User Experience Design. Pivotal to its philosophy is the position that the designer of the product must consider the experience from the end user’s perspective rather than his own. In other words, the designer does not have the answer. Whether the product is a new app, new software, or virtually any product with which a user interacts, the designer must create an approach to working to uncover insights that may have been out of reach without the involvement of sufficient numbers of the very people who will ultimately use the product.
As design expert Jacob Gube describes in his article, What is User Experience Design?: Overview, Tools and Resources, “Before our clients (and we) understood the value of user-centered design, we made design decisions based on just two things: what we thought was awesome and what the client wanted to see.” Gube elaborates, “We built interaction based on what we thought worked — we designed for ourselves. The focus was on aesthetics and the brand, with little to no thought of how the people who would use the website would feel about it.” Rob echoes Gube’s perspective, “At the start of the design process, the designer simply does not have all the information needed to create the best solution. You are not the user, so it’s crucial to test your ideas to be sure your thinking is valid.”
A Global Shift Away from the Expert Consulting Model
Rob’s shift from a job role in which he was expected to have all the answers (the role of expert) to one in which he is supposed to partner or design a process to use with clients to gain insight and discover answers is in parallel with a shift that is happening in the world at large. In the industrial age, where the expert model presided, each specialist was expected to have all the answers to their clients’ problems. As the world changes due to globalization, technological advances, and increasing complexity, being an expert is no longer seen as the only or even the best way to provide value to clients.
Thought leader Edgar Schein defines the classic type of consulting, in which the consultant is expected to have all the answers, as “expert consulting” – “a set of activities by which the client purchases from the consultant some information or expert advice” (Schein, 1999, p. 7). While he acknowledges that there are situations in which this form of expert consulting is appropriate, he challenges consultants to expand their consulting capability in a way that does not have all the answers. He defines this capability as process consulting. Instead of providing the answers, the goal in process consulting is not to solve the problem for the client outright, but rather to engage clients in formulating diagnosis and solutions. End User Experience builds on Schein’s philosophy further to ensure that the focus of solutions truly addresses the needs of the ultimate client – the end user.
The responses were right. Rob Thorneycroft is very brave – and that’s a good thing. He needs to be. As he begins his new role as a User Experience Designer, Rob will combine his experience as a seasoned designer with his new knowledge of the principles of a User-Centered approach. Rob’s story is not a template that all designers and consultants must emulate, of course. Rather, he serves as inspiration for those who provide consulting and solutions for clients and who must evolve their consulting approach beyond the expert consulting model. As more and more consultants and other professionals accept that they do not have all the answers, they must find new ways to involve clients and end users in shaping creative solutions to new and complex problems. This will take guts. But in the long run, this is the direction that the world is headed. And people who are bold enough to make this shift – anticipating a need even before their clients require it – will be leading the way in which solutions are created for clients – and end users – well into the future.
Schein, E.H. (1999). Process Consultation Revisited: Building the Helping Relationship. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Tell Us Your Story:
This post is the first in the Telling Your Career Story series, focusing on sharing the career stories of those who embark on interesting and inspiring career paths. In today’s dynamic world, the notion that a person trains for one career and will hold that career throughout his or her lifetime is becoming obsolete. With the combination of globalization, technological advances, and an increasing number of people who want to bring more of who they really are to work, career journeys are becoming more complex – and more exciting – than ever. If you have your own career story to share, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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