Hi, Kevin here.
I recently stumbled upon an article which aims to tackle the value of UX and the worth of designers through the metaphor of water.
As the author explains in a community post:
As professionals in the UX field, our work significantly impacts businesses and users alike. By acknowledging our worth and effectively communicating our value, we can shape the industry and foster a culture of appreciation and growth.
Here are my thoughts on the morals and the philosophy proposed to designers in this piece.
A metaphor with no affordances
Frankly, I find interesting the use of water as a metaphor but I see some issues with how the author uses it, the perspective this elicits and the conclusions drawn from it.
First, the core idea of the metaphor is used in contradicting ways, at different levels, and to mean different things.
Imagine the countless situations where water embodies different values. At the airport, a bottle is a luxury; in a desert, a lifesaver. It’s taken for granted in a waterpark, while at a packed concert, it’s gold. At your home faucet, you might let it slip down the drain without a second thought. Yet, despite all these fluctuations in value and perception, water remains simply that — water. This brings us to the first point about professional appreciation — perception of value. So let’s reflect for a while on that.
Water does not embody values but rather is subject to desires in relation to its context –this is the case the article is making with its contextualization through examples. Water has factually no agency over this objectification (it’s external) nor does it care, feel or desire –unlike humans.
Still, this works as long as the author uses this metaphor at the level of UX design as a field because one could argue that, similarly, UX design as a field has no agency over its objectification in a business setup nor does it care, feel or desire –unlike designers.
In an organization that doesn’t quite grasp the value of UX, we might feel like water in a desert — scarce yet indispensable.
The issue comes when the author switches the level of granularity from an abstract assemblage (the UX field) to individuals and goes back and forth throughout the entire piece:
Much like water, a UX designer adapts to the needs of various circumstances while not losing their essence. [...]
Some companies perceive User Experience as an added luxury, like bottled water at the airport. […]
Employers may even recognize a skilled staff member’s intrinsic worth in professional relationships from time to time. […]
The lack of understanding or familiarity with the field leads to low compensation. […]
This is problematic because, aside from the questionable essentialism and dualism present in this article, the implications are quite different depending on the level of granularity, and the case made at the beginning applies poorly to individuals for reasons explained above: even if there is a relationship between UX as a field and its practitioners (designers), little is made to warrant the conclusions made at an individual level.
In short, we could ask: So what water tells about your personal worth in a company? Nothing, really, because it does not have agency nor does it care, feel or desire.
But we could also say that water flows wherever it can.
Then, perhaps acknowledging water’s total dependency on its environment to actually flow, and the mutual relationship in action –flows of water shape the environment, leaving profound change to the landscape, impacting back how water flows– should elicit more profound inter-personal realisation to the individual working in organisations. That one’s ability to act is co-dependent to its environmental constraints (fitness landscape, autopoiesis, affordance, etc.). This might hint toward some form of Stoicism or Daoism (for better or for worse).
But, what are the lessons drawn out from the metaphor in this article? Well if I synthesise it: we adapt (like water), but if we are undervalued (like water sometimes), we should let (the water) flow for new paths.
Or in other unambiguous terms: when jerk employers do not recognise your worth, go to companies that already value what you do 🤔
This feels kinda simplistic and does not make justice to the diversity of individuals and the complexity of their own context. And it does not hold to the article's premise either:
By acknowledging our worth and effectively communicating our value, we can shape the industry and foster a culture of appreciation and growth.
Isn’t a culture of appreciation and growth more like a mutual relationship rather than a self-centred seek-only-approbation endeavour? If so, there are no shortcuts or recipes to personal experimentation and meaning-finding.
Now despite those issues, I sense this metaphor could have been something else if the author would have used it to express value itself as an object in relation to something else (context, people, etc.) and only that. Using the physical states of water (solid, liquid, gas) to express a change in relationships (and the energy input necessary to do so), and therefore a change of perception of value could have helped draw out some interesting principles rather than superficial advice.
Thanks for reading!