4 Things I Learned in Argentina
Last week, Konrad+King was proud to sponsor and attend Interaction South America in Córdoba, Argentina. Interaction South America or ISA is a yearly, four-day regional conference of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). It brings together speakers and workshops from around the world, offering tracts in Spanish, English and Portuguese. Christopher and I liked the vibe and feel of the event so much that we hopped on a plane (or four) and in just twenty-two short hours found ourselves in the central Argentinian city known as La Docta.
When I am asked for career advice, I often respond “always be observing, always be learning”. That being said, I used this trip to put my money where my mouth is and do just that. Here are four things I learned from ISA 2015 (at least 2 of which pertain to design).
No.1 | We (the royal version) are making the language of design too damn confusing.
This is not a new idea in general; it is merely a new one for me that has been simmering just beneath my cognitive surface for the last couple of years and has found its voice thanks to ISA. The language we use as designers of [any] experience was a common thread with many of the talks at ISA, most notably those from Abby Covert, Scott Berkun, Celeste Olivieri, and Stephen Anderson. It was however the talk on Customer Experience (CX) from Cindy Chastain that put flesh to the bone of my opinion.
Cindy’s talk was a great introduction of CX to a crowd that, by a show of hands, was not too familiar with the field. The core of her talk was one I have heard before, differentiating the language and process of CX and UX, putting them in to more organized and defined boxes. My question is why do we keep creating and promoting a more complex design language?
One answer is because it sells more [books/experts/services/etc]. With every year, out of every conference, from every new agency that wants to brand experience, we expand our language. This creates new experts, new books, new conferences, new workshops, and new line items on the SOW that can be sold for profit. This is the nature of our business but constantly expanding our design language and muddling our message makes it harder to simply tell a compelling story about the importance of experience design…and hell, after 20 years, I am getting tired of having to learn all the new buzzwords and acronyms.
If you are dirt old like me, you remember that the process and language of CX and UX overlap, originating under one roof for many years. If you’re good at your job, you are probably also thinking of your job as business or strategy consulting rather than just design. Here at K+K, we move in and out of the “languages” of UX, CX Service Design, Strategy, Product Management, and Business Development based on the project needs of our clients rather than emphasizing a primary focus on one over the other. I suspect many of you do the same.
At our core, we in the UX field are good at discovering problems and creating design solutions, whether for people, systems, businesses or all of the above. Shouldn’t our language be simple enough to explain that?
No.2 | We (the US version) are shitty protestors.
There was a contested presidential runoff election going on in Argentina while we were at ISA. As the sun went down on day two, Christopher and I sat drinking ridiculously good G&Ts on one of the major squares of Córdoba. Across the square a large group of Scioli supporters amassed on one corner, while the opposing Macri supporters started up their chants near us. The crowd started growing; filled with the young, the old, families, other various Cause-heads – hell even the street dogs got into the mix.
I was fairly sure that I had had too many cocktails about the time I saw the first horse-drawn cart weave through rush-hour traffic, but soon it was followed by a parade of 50 more, with everyone in the square cheering them on. Since there was no signage on them I have to believe there is a cultural symbolism at play that I shall never understand.
Soon we heard the echoing of marching drums, voovoozalas, and fireworks that sounded like quarter sticks of dynamite going off as a throng of people marched into traffic in the square, sealing it off completely through critical mass. It was only then that I saw the police, but they seemed only to come in to reroute traffic. At no time did I feel unsafe and at no time the crowd become uncivilized or unruly. They merged together almost cheerfully into something that was more impromptu street party rather than protest.
Protests will be my best memories from Córdoba. Does that say more about me?
Here’s the kicker. In the US it would have taken 6 months to fill out the appropriate forms in triplicate to allow people to form a group, opposing sides would be yelling in each others face spewing some sort of hatred, and, as soon as the traffic got snarled, I guarantee our police would roll out their new, government-granted armored assault vehicle and start tuning up civilian heads with a wood shampoo.
No.3 | We (the royal version) can learn much from the South American design community
The South American speakers shared a tremendous amount of knowledge at the conference, including great insights into the the regional design business, but perhaps we can learn even more from their softer skills. Here are just a few I observed that we would do well to learn from.
Pride over ego. Argentina came across to me as a very prideful county and I mean that in the best way. It was refreshing (although sometimes challenging) to be in a city that unabashedly didn’t cater to English speakers…even the tourist attraction signs were in Spanish only. There was also a tremendous pride in the outcome of the election and future of Argentina that was bolstered by a strong sense for the rich history of the country. But none of this came across in an egocentric (let’s say Texan) kind of way.
The designers I met were the same way. They took pride in their work, no matter the nature. They sweated the details on unsexy projects which designers here would look down their noses upon. They championed uphill fights to push UX and design in companies not familiar or friendly to the practice without complaint. Yet not once, even amongst the most senior attendees, did I encounter anyone near the peacocks we see in our own US community. If anything, attendees where too humble and should share their voice more often on a global scale.
Camaraderie. I really enjoyed the camaraderie at ISA – there was a healthy competition on display between countries, cities, and even the companies of South America but there was also a sense of togetherness that you rarely see at en event this size. When was the last time you saw groups from San Francisco or New York even recognize other groups besides themselves?
Uninhibited expression. While I certainly saw this with the cabbies of Argentina, I was most impressed with how expressive the attendees of the conference were. There was no thought of asking any question or worrying how it would be received. There was no hesitance to express opinion regardless of perceived stature. Best of all there was no problem having fun in front of others. At one point four of the attendees performed an impromptu song “Soy de UX” or “I am UX” in front of the entire crowd. The performance brought the crowd roaring to its feet, singing along at the tops of their voices. It was one of my favorite moments, displaying an uninhibitedness that I have never seen anywhere else in the UX world. (Disclosure: my experience can only speak for 4 countries but, in typical fashion, I will make a blanket statement).
No.4 | We (the US version) need to lighten up.
In Córdoba, the body politic wear their laugh lines with pride – I can’t remember the last time I saw so many urban humans with smiles on their face as they went about their daily lives. Their “joie de vivre” or maybe “disfrute de la vida” was downright infectious, made everyone more attractive than me, and welcomed us throughout the city. Because I am an (US) American and they seemed happier than us, I feel the need to be pissed off because they are doing something better.
When I talked about this phenomenon with one of my friends at the conference, let’s call him Ross, he introduced me to a new term, Resting Bitchy Face or RBF. As I walk through New York, Seattle, San Diego, or [insert your city here] I see this face everywhere – the universal “leave me the fuck alone face”. It is part of our urban uniform to go along with our ridiculous man buns and norm-core high wasted pants. It did not exist in Argentina.
This cheerful attitude transferred over to the attendees of the conference as well. Smiles were ever-present and conversation was open and flowing for all. There was nothing cliquey or unapproachable about any of the people or groups I spoke with…and not one person told me they preferred to be an introvert.
When and why did we (the US version) forget to look and act like pleasant upright monkeys? Somebody feel free to send me some research links so I can understand this, create some new design language, and unleash myself across the speaking circuit.
There are many other things I learned from my time at ISA, like that grilled cow brain is not at all tasty, or that Argentinian Malbecs are frigging ridiculous, but I’ll leave it here for now. I do hope to see more of the friends I met at ISA out sharing their stories and experiences over the coming years. If you learned something you’d like to share, feel free to join the conversation.