This time I’m joined by Sheryl Cababa, whose recent book Closing The Loop is out now in Rosenfeld Media, Sheryl shares her reflections on moving from the practical or tactical UX design role into strategic mindsets, which is the basis of the book introducing systems Thinking for designers.

Show notes


Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Welcome to another UX Coach podcast episode. I’m Andy Parker, the UX coach. This time I’m joined by Sheryl Cababa, whose recent book Closing The Loop is out now in Rosenfeld Media, Sheryl shares her reflections on moving from the practical or tactical UX design role into strategic mindsets, which is the basis of the book introducing systems Thinking for designers. We’ll go to the conversation in a moment. I wanted to note before we do that, I’ve recently moved house and the studio is still under construction. The audio quality isn’t the greatest. I trust that it will not detract from the important things Cheryl has to share. I know that you’ll find this brief insight into systems thinking and how to broaden your mind as a designer. Invaluable, I’ll catch up with you at the end. Here’s Cheryl.

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, so currently I am the chief strategy officer for a small consultancy that’s primarily based in Seattle called Substantial. And we do design research and strategy all the way through software development. And so yeah, full service, but I run the research and strategy practice. We do a lot of work in education and so essentially kind of using design thinking methods to yeah, consider social impact. Like we do a lot of work in education with large philanthropy and I think a lot of that is, is part of why, you know, systems thinking has become a big part of my practice. Before that, I was at a variety of different consultancies including Frog Artefact, adaptive Path, when they still existed or I p, adaptive Path. And for the first half of my career I was a UX and product designer. So I worked at Microsoft as well as Phillips design. And so I really view myself as a multidisciplinary designer and, and now really focused on kind of how to use design thinking for strategic purposes and that kind of like systems decision making

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): You worked at Adaptive Path, Adaptive Path for people that aren’t aware of it, and were considered as being the parents of what we see as user experience design today. It was a shock I think to the community when this announcement comes out that adaptive path has allowed itself to be bought by a bank, right? Yes. And that’s, that’s very different cultural things, but a big part of what Adaptive Path was about was about culture and making that change in mindset. And I know that’s something that you think about quite a lot when you are looking at design and, and introducing this concept of systems thinking, which would explain a bit more. But tell me about what you took away from that and moved forward through your career with that cultural aspect of what makes good design. Has that informed your decisions on where you’ve gone to work next?

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, it’s really, really interesting. I mean I think in terms of Adaptive Path being acquired in some ways it makes a lot of sense because of what you’re, you know, referring to in terms of like their focus on sort of this intersection of organisations and how they work and how that has an impact on design and design output. Right? I think for me, I’ve tended to kind of jump from sort of small consultancy to small consultancy. I did a stint at Frog which was kind of interesting cuz I’d never been in a consultancy that big. I learned a lot there. But it does feel like a kind of a design factory, you know, and right. I think one of the things that I really like is having direct access to the leadership of an organisation, being able to kind of understand the decision making at the organisational level.

Sheryl Cababa: And I think that, you know, there’s definitely like a gap there when it comes to really huge, you know, corporate environments is oftentimes the decision making is happening and you’re not sure why it’s happening and that could affect everything from your role in the organisation, the cultures, the organisation’s culture as well as the kinds of things that you work on as a designer. So the decisions, around the business model of the products that you might be working on, et cetera. I think it is interesting being a consultant that works with a lot of big organisations because I do see the sort of systems at play within those organisations with an outside lens. And so you kind of see how people are incentivized for example and have done a lot of work in the sort of responsible design space. So you can see all the barriers at play like within the organisation.

Sheryl Cababa: Like if for example you’re a large technology company that has a social platform and your success is dependent on something like daily active users, if you kind of make more thoughtful decisions that might affect those numbers, those are never going to be prioritised within an organisation. And so I think a lot of my work in the responsible design domain led me to kind of actually incorporate a lot of like systems thinking practice into my own practice because you kind of see that you can’t just like work directly with a team that is interested in doing this. You have to understand the repercussions of things like other parts of the system, other stakeholders, what they’re incentivized by and how that has an impact on what you’re trying to do.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Let’s go into a bit more detail with that cuz we’ve, we’ve got some terms that people might not be totally familiar with or have differing understandings of stakeholders I think is my one for the week cuz it can be used in many different ways and was just reflecting on some of the ways that you’ve described it in, in your book, you adapt it in a way that or have adopted a way of understanding stakeholders in several different lenses. So there’s those who are the people that are in your organisation that will be detrimental or vital to your success And then you start looking at some of these more what I would see as falling into that systems thinking approach. And, and we should probably define that a bit more, but let’s start with stakeholders and work our way up cuz I think it sort of builds that picture starting to understand the concept of things like value exchange and that a stakeholder is someone who benefits value, who gives or receives value within an ecosystem of some kind. Could you expand on that a little bit further as to building out and doing things like stakeholder mapping, how that can improve the way in which you think about a product that you design, for example?

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, so I think one of the most useful exercises that designers working on products can do is mapping their stakeholders. So you know, I’m, I’m a fan of Bron f Brenner’s logical framework, which is it’s, it sounds complicated, but basically all it is is a series of concentric circles where you have certain like stakeholders in the middle and then it just like kind of radiates out into like who are in the outer rings and what are their relationships to each other. So it kind of talks about how the individual is here and then there’s a micro system and then there’s a macro system and then there’s like exo exosystem and you can do this in different ways. I basically like to do it as a primary secondary, tertiary stakeholder mapping exercise. And I think it’s just like a good mindset shift for designers away from just thinking about an end user, an individual end user and kind of the direct benefit of use, which is I think something that I talk about in terms of like the shortcomings of user-centred design.

Sheryl Cababa: Because what that does is if you are just focused on the user and user advocacy, you might be kind of missing the mark on all these other people who have influence on the system as well as people who are influenced by and maybe even harmed by the system or the sort of solutions that you might be developing. So at the centre of a stakeholder mapping system, I might put users, so I do a lot of work in education. So like students might go there right? As well as probably educators. And then beyond that you have things like people who make policy decisions in education. You also have people who are decision makers within private industry that might be affected, that might affect the decisions you are making. Like let’s say you’re kind of designing an app for education, you’re going to have to kind of think about the systems at play in terms of like, are you kind of trying to integrate this into formalised education?

Sheryl Cababa: Then you’re going to be dealing with administrators, you’re going to be dealing with school districts, you’re going to be dealing with at least in the US like states or you know, policy makers at that level. These are the kinds of things that can make or break the use of a product, the success of a product, whether there are repercussions to its use. And so just kind of expanding who you think about as stakeholders within the system that will be affected by the thing that you’re doing or that will affect you, like the product that you’re creating, I think is really important. Even if you don’t feel like you have much control over who those stakeholders are, I think better yet it might encourage you to involve people outside or conduct research with folks who are kind of outside of who you might think of as like your primary user, which gives you lots of, lots of good context as far as problem solve goes. I do think like stakeholders tends to be used like in our industry to think about like, oh who are kind of like, who’s the direct like boss or decision maker that I need to kind of please with like whatever we’re doing with this work, the

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Reporting and all of that kind of thing. Yeah,

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I think of stakeholders just like a really broad set of like the people you should involve within the chorus of your project work as well as those who you should be thinking about beyond just like the users of, you know, whatever it is your design

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): That’s starting to expand out a little bit, giving you the appreciation of what it takes for you for wheels to spin in the thing that you work on. So if I think about career progression, something that I, I keep reflecting on, I think that there is a natural evolution of this. You may start out in a product role, so whether that is web design or app design, whatever it might be, and you are fixated on the beginning and the end of the experience within that touchpoint and within that product, right? And then there’s a certain point in time where you start looking at what happens over side of that. There’s a natural evolution in your thinking that then moves to that point. Is that relatable to you? Is that how you feel you ended up finding yourself in this space?

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, it’s a really good question because you know, as I mentioned before, I spent the first half of my career as a product designer and I think there was a point in time where, you know, I, it was feeling, and I know this doesn’t happen to everyone, this is just my personal experience, but like it was feeling kind of unsatisfying to me just kind of like the idea of designing features within a software product and then kind of like shipping it, right? Of course. Like there’s tons of problem solving involved in that. Like you’re trying to figure out how to make things work. What I was sort of growing more curious about is like why, why are certain decisions made outside of my purview? And also as a UX designer I was kind of feeling like a lot of dis a lot of understanding of how the problem space had been already determined before I’d be involved.

Sheryl Cababa: Like somebody would do research and then this is like, here’s how we come up with ideas for solving some of those problems. And I think I wanted to spend more time in the problem space. One of the metaphors that I really like is Carl Popper had this sort of framework in which he talked about how there are cloud problems and there are clock problems. So a cloud problem is really nebulous, like you don’t really kind of know there’s no one direction that will kind of fix things. You know, I would put the things that we call wicked problems into that space and then there’s clock problems which are kind of like how we take an engineering approach to things and he calls it clock problems because the idea is like, you know, you need to build a clock. What you need to determine is how to make it work.

Sheryl Cababa: You are very, you’re directional, you kind of like problem solving on a very specific level. And I think that’s what a lot of UX design is, is just like you are kind of problem solving at a very specific level. You’re working with software developers to kind of make a thing work. I think I wanted to spend more time in the cloud space, which is kind of weird and ambiguous and like you don’t really know what direction solutions might take, especially as you conduct a lot of research in a problem space. And so a lot of my work ended up being oriented in spaces like healthcare and education because these are like complicated systems where yeah, there’s a lot of stakeholders, there’s a lot of ways that things could go wrong, you know, doing work that was oriented around service design, which is just like, it is really like orchestrating and kind of understanding like multiple touchpoints and how might they might intersect together and having a good understanding of how pieces kind of work together. So I think like service design in some ways is like, this is the word calcification of like

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): The

Sheryl Cababa: Cloud problem. You know, like you’re putting pieces together in order to figure out how they work together and like you, I think it is some sort of version of adding definition to that clock space or sorry, the cloud space that I was talking about. Hmm. Now I work kind of in the design strategy space and that is really thinking, really living in the problem space a lot more. And just kind of thinking about this notion which I write about in the book of multi-functionality, this idea that in order to really have impact there are multiple ways of addressing problems or navigating problems. It’s not always going to be through the execution of a design process. Like you need to facilitate other people’s expertise as well. So I kind of think of myself in that way too, which is like I moved into this role of design as designer, as facilitator rather than designer as producer.

Sheryl Cababa: Like that’s been definitely sort of like a mindset shift for me in my career. I don’t think everybody has to go through that. I think that’s why like you see online every now and then like conversation about like, like director versus principal or what have you, like principal designer, like that kind of pops up because there are people who want to kind of really live in like the space of being really, really good at the creation of like artefacts, right? Hmm. And that’s not the worst type of design we need. We need both. I think like where systems thinking is really super useful is in that sort of, yeah, director side of things or like where you’re kind of like spending a lot of time in the problem space and kind of determining what shape solutions might take.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): I think that there’s a change as some of that design process for digital has become commoditized. We’ve gone from dream weaver being the closest thing to something that is accessible to everyone and is a wysiwyg editor now we’ve got things like Squarespace where anyone can make something that aesthetically works really well. That doesn’t mean that the other things that have value in that discipline of design are also being commoditized in the same way, but it’s not far off. So do you think that this is like a forking point where we can start enabling people to have careers in that cloud space rather than being a manufacturer or a builder of things?

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, that’s such a good observation because I know it’s been a running joke now that we’ve all been playing with like chat G B T, that we’re like, this thing is coming for our job. It’s like this thing is coming for our job. So it’s getting to the point, and I can’t remember which system is actually starting to do this, but where you can submit a sketch of a website and be like, oh here’s the sketch for the front page. There’s like the sketch for like the navigation or whatever. Can you like to create this and it should be like these colours and here’s some like points of inspiration and it’ll just be like, you know, boom, create it for you. Yeah. Part of that is that it’s relatively easy for computing systems to execute on that kind of thing. I remember reading this article that said like, you know, a lot of things in the space of robotics, like it’s easier for a machine to read and create legal texts than it is to pick a blueberry.

Sheryl Cababa: And I think the parallel was like anything that, like a two year old, is kind of like learning to do is really hard for machines to learn how to do. But all of these sort of like what we think of as complex knowledge systems are actually really easy for machines and robots to pick up. This is why G P T four, so Chad, G B T, I’m like going on a tangent now about this, but Chad G P t got like a, the 10th percentile or something on the bar exam, you know, which is like the lawyers take in the US and then G P T four was in like the 90th percentile. My spouse is a lawyer and he was like, oh

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): I, I think with those kinds of things I expect it in, in exactly the same ways I expect what we’ve seen from that kind of technology emerging is that you can go onto open chat and say I’d like you to give me the code for a website that looks like this and does this. You can also get it to write the content for you or something to get you started with. And I think that a lot of people would be kind of happy with that, that would do what it is not good at is nuanced thinking. I cannot ask why. And I think that that’s the difference of, of where things happen. Especially if you start to break it down into that there’s the machinations of the thing, the clockwork. Yes, I give that to a robot. A robot has got a set of instructions and it knows how to do that and it knows if you say to it, I need you to optimise that clock, it will do it and it will do it to an atomic level.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): We might as well say that’s great, this is the problem we’ve been trying to solve for 24 years. Cool, let’s stop doing that. Now let’s actually start to look at the wicked problems. So oppose something to you because you’ve described it already of how you started looking at some of what we would term as wicked problem spaces, healthcare, government, things that should be in some cases a set of instructions but there’s more human factors to it. What happens there when it comes to capitalism for want of a better description? I think that, you know, the idea of systems thinking, wanting to scrutinise things and understand them at that level and saying that they’re really complex, does that actually appear outside of those big nebulous spaces? Could I still be working on the next Facebook equivalent or the next shopping cart experience and benefit from being able to look at things with this systems thinking approach?

Sheryl Cababa: This is a question I get a lot of, like, oh, do I have to be kind of like working in the same space as you are? Like I’m just like a lowly UX designer and I want to kind of think about how do I integrate some of this mindset into my own work? I have a couple of thoughts about that. One is even if you are, let’s say you’re like you’re designing buttons for a social platform. If you’re working for a social platform like Facebook, that’s going to affect literally billions of people, right? And their experience. So you have to be kind of thinking about just the fact that we are designing things at scale, you have to be taking like a systems lens to it. And part of that is expanding who you think about as your, just even your users, right? Like I think one of the pitfalls of like some of these large social platforms that have been kind of developed in the US is they end up getting used in, you know, places like Myanmar and there’s no one there to like navigate like how they’re being used because these companies haven’t been kind of like thinking about that or prioritising that. So I think in one way it is simply expanding who you think about not just your users but who might be affected by your products or whatever it is you’re designing for.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): So that’s like an unintended consequences model.

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. And not only that, but trying to figure out if you can serve a broader audience better, right? Like this is how a lot of my work, especially in education is oriented around designing for equity because there’s a lot of people who get left out in the system, like students who are severely underserved by, you know, like the US educational system tend to be black and brown students. Like they tend to be economically disadvantaged. But when you have ed tech developers developing products, what they’re doing is like they’re just conducting their research or testing their products with like let’s say like a wealthy suburban school that’s like right next to their offices and they’re not thinking more broadly about who they should be serving in terms of like just the user base of students.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): So who’s at the most risk if this wasn’t there,

Sheryl Cababa: Right? Right. Or who could you serve better? You know, if you take the philosophy of inclusive design, who could serve you better and like everybody could potentially benefit from that. And so that’s like, that’s definitely one way. Another way is like, I think i like taking a systems thinking lens is actually a potential source of innovation because you could be, yeah, let’s say you’re working on a courseware product or something like that, but kind of understanding what some of those like maybe systemic barriers are for your users or for any of the other stakeholders that might be affected by this courseware product, you can actually design features for them. So my team was working on a courseware product recently for higher education and like part of what was built in was sort of like a communication platform that wasn’t really about the courseware itself, it was about creating more scaffolding in terms of the relationship between an instructor and the student. That is like a good example of gaining this, like broader contextual understanding through system syncing might actually kind of help you in the detailed design work that you’re doing.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): So less of a fixation on that theoretical end user and understanding how to enrich the experience and the capability of the other people that are involved in it. I guess in a way what you’re describing is allowing yourself to actually be user-centred. And I know that this is one of the things that you have in like the, the introduction of your book is here’s where user-centred design has gone wrong. I don’t think anyone can read that and disagree with it because it’s just so spot on because it’s got too much of an obsession with like the great user experience and forgetting that actually behind all of these things somewhere along the line, it’s just humans, this is just a veneer over the top of humans. Every one of those needs to be considered in it. And the best one that I always think back to is like a case management system.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): We think about it from the person who’s gonna be, you know, applying for this thing and Yeah, yeah, yeah. So like the first release of this, we are just focused on a really good experience for the application thing. The person that’s actually in the office that’s got to process all of those applications, they’ll be in phase two. And as we all know as designers there is no phase two. That means that they get treated as second class citizens. If you can’t get them on board with using it, then they’re gonna be reluctant to the quality of that experience for the person that you’ve spent so long designing for. It falls down, if I’m understanding like what you’re describing, is your opportunity to look at where you can create interventions that are actually possible in organisations that are outside of the immediate business that you are in that will have a net benefit to you.

Sheryl Cababa: I mean that’s possibly part of it, right? Is like, and it might be kind of thinking just differently and more broadly about even just how incentives and decision making work. You know, I think for example, the way that schools purchase software, oftentimes EdTech developers are kind of thinking about who the buyers are because like that’s who they need to attract. But no one in, like, no one who’s a user in EdTech is the same as the buyer as far as I’m aware. Right? Like they’re, yeah,

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): I mean they’re lucky to even be asked if they’re right if you know, would you, you know, do you have a preference between these things?

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. So there are things that are prioritised and I see this over and over again. I’ve never met a teacher who likes the learning management systems that they’re using. Oftentimes those learning management systems look like that because they’re meant to appeal to the IT director in a school district. Mm. And so that IT director’s like what’s the easiest, how, what’s, what’s the easiest way that this can be installed? Does it work with things that we have that are existing? None of these things are the things that a teacher in the classroom is thinking about. And so they’re, they’re very likely ill served by these products cause they’re being purchased for different reasons. An IT director too is incentivized by different things. Like they might go with the cheapest thing because it fits within their budget but then it’s actually fairly useless for teachers in the classroom.

Sheryl Cababa: This happens over and over again. Especially like in spaces where yeah there’s these con complex systems in place. People are incentivized by different things that are not just like better outcomes for students, which is like, you know, ultimately the impact you want to have as a school. But all of those other incremental incentives kind of get in the way. Also, what are you measuring? Like what are they measuring? I touched on this a little bit in the book but I feel like in hindsight not enough is kind of like how the way we measure things can be detrimental to like the actual impact that we’re wanting to have.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): So kind of like the things that you were saying before about if you are, if you are fixated on the number of daily active users and the right amount of time they’ve spent on something rather than the, whether you have made a significant change to the environmental issue that you were trying to face. If we sort of play, you know, continue to play with that ecosystem mindset of this is, this is just something that helps complete a task but the task has a purpose behind it, right?

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. And I think it’s also, yeah you might be concerned as a designer about the health of our, of our users, right? Like if you’re working on a social platform and that they have a healthy relationship with this platform, which might mean they need to use it less but that’s never going to be considered because of the KPIs that you have in place. Yeah. Within your organisation there’s

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Always challenges around that, how do we describe them, like fantasy metrics and how can you mitigate that if you start to use that systems thinking approach and appreciating stuff. Is it, is it more about understanding longer term measurements? Is the challenge that you are looking at change over time? That’s gonna be a lot more than whether or not you can knock out that dashboard by the end of the month that says we had axe percent lift.

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, I mean I think using another domain’s awareness is the first step. So I think oftentimes people aren’t even really aware of how they’re being incentivized and what is driving like the various stakeholders in the system. And so I don’t think, yeah honestly like I don’t think any of the ideas in the book are like new ideas. It’s more around how do you integrate this mindset sort of holistically like in your approach And that means asking these kinds of questions and kind of using tools and frameworks to surface those things. So you might not be used to being a designer, kind of talking about incentives or even talking about what are the outcomes we want to see that are kind of beyond our control. Oftentimes like outcomes are conflated with outputs. Like this is what we want the thing to do rather than this is the thing we want to happen in the end. And I think orienting around those outcomes hopefully creates a bit of a shift in your mindset around how you’re problem solving and what you’re designing. And so yeah, I mean I think like the incentive story is is part of that is like if we’re not aware of what is driving people’s decision making and why even within like your own organisation it’s hard to make change if you don’t kind of like, if you’re not aware of like how this happening to begin with,

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): It’s kind of crazy isn’t it? Because it’s really what we’ve been documenting for ages, which is you know, we’ve called user needs having that understanding and I do wonder whether part of the reason why that’s been lost is because that concept of understanding user needs like cajoled into this really crappy framework to madlibs framework for basically building a task list of all of the shitty functions you’ve gotta build for your thing rather than these really core statements of like this is what’s important for this person.

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, I think one of the examples I talk about a lot is infinite scroll because I think it’s a good example of something that fulfils the user ‘s needs. Like the way we’ve interpreted that which is like

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): If the, if the user was a business

Sheryl Cababa: Right? Well the user is the business but we trick ourselves into thinking the user is the user. And so the user, the user as the user, what we tell ourselves is like they want to spend more time on this platform, they want to keep seeing new things and so we create this like perfectly curated and randomised experience that keeps them interested and keeps them on the platform longer. And we say that’s fulfilling user needs cuz user need is like I wanna go up onto Instagram and I want to see what’s going on. And so like we tell ourselves like really nice stories about that saying like we, that is successful design. If you look at sort of the in many some ways like the classic definitions of good design, I was just speaking the other day about, you know there’s Peter ROMs like 10 principles for good design and I think it was things like it should be unintrusive, it should be, I think I have a written down here, innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable and intrusive, honest, long lasting. You could probably argue that infinite scroll fulfils most of these things in the classic sense of like it’s giving somebody what they want in the moment but it’s not actually giving them what they need, which is like getting off the platform. Yeah,

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Yeah. It’s

Sheryl Cababa: Not good for you

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): That want and need is always an interesting dichotomy isn’t it? Just going back to what you were talking about career progression and that breaking up into the clock cloud mentality of that there’s a traditional career progression would say that over time elevates to a status where you are allowed to think about these things. Do you still think that’s the case? Do you have to have done your time in the trenches to be able to start working at that, at that kind of level of thinking?

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, I get asked this all the time, which is like, I’m just like, I’m just like a u I’m like a pixel pusher. Somebody will say that to me and be like, I don’t really know how to integrate this into my own work. I don’t know. One of the examples I was using for well was like an internet, one of the consultancies that I worked at, like she was working on this project where there was, you know, it was for like an emerging technology and she was kind of tasked at sort of creating a use case for, what do you call those? It’s like loyalty users, like hotel loyalty users or airline loyalty users. And these are, you know, basically wealthy travelling businessmen. Like we all, we all have a picture in our heads of who this person is who like

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): I can already see the corn blue shirt, sorry. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sheryl Cababa: They’re consultants.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Oh love it, love it.

Sheryl Cababa: Brown person. Yep. Yeah exactly. And she was just, I don’t know, she was, she was, she was really opposed to this idea. She’s like these people have the world designed around them, right? Like it’s just do I want to spend my time designing this thing that makes their lives easier? No, their lives are pretty easy and privileged and so she actually pitched our client on like this idea of orienting around certain people with disabilities and convinced them that this was the case study or this was like the use case they should be focused on and she got to do it. And I think I find that example really inspiring because not only was she like what you would argue like the lowest member of our consulting practice, she has an intern but probably the lowest person in the entire client relationship.

Sheryl Cababa: Which is like, you know, we’re working with our clients who are execs and it’s like what is more removed from them than an intern at the consultancy. But the fact that she kind of made that happen cuz she was kind of thinking conceptually about some of these things which is like are they thinking about their user base in a way that actually is expansive and maybe serves some people differently? And I think part of it was that she was making a business case for it too. And I don’t always argue for business cases because I’m kind of like I’m on the mind that sometimes businesses have to do something that might be bad for business to be better for society. So I’m very reluctant to say like, you always have to have like a, an airtight r o i for something. But that said, I think part of it her success was being able to say like, hey if you take like this kind of inclusive design philosophy, like if you do these things to kind of serve this particular client or this particular user, then you’re going to be serving others as well and you’re going to benefit from that.

Sheryl Cababa: Just using that line of thinking. The fact that she was able to empower herself, I think shows that anyone in the organisation can, can kind of make these arguments. You just might have to be armed with the right, I don’t know, sort of perspective that will resonate with some of the decision makers that you’re working with.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): So being able to understand where you can express that return on investment where they might not be necessarily, obviously looking at it like if the, if their way of the their they evaluate success and how they measure impact or that return on investment is still based on those pseudo vanity metrics or core metrics that are ultimately tied to money and how quick you’ve got to think of a different way of being able to communicate that. And I’m guessing with something like that it’s more about long-term return on investment of this is going to be significantly higher because you are now going to be in a position where you outdo all of your competitors because you are now enabling and supporting a group that has felt underrepresented.

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, I mean I don’t think the way she approached this is a bad way of approaching it. I do think like it is a also a good example of like incremental change, which you know is a, is kind of like a, a facet of systems thinking is like knowing that there is that concept of multi-functionality, there are like multiple ways of solving kind of like hairy wicked problems and I think it’s like she kind of took advantage of like the thing that she had control over, you know me and like my position that’s like very different. I might actually be questioning the framing itself and being able to kind of say do you as a business have to benefit from this in this specific kind of financial way or are you willing to kind of do it as an investment in you know, like having greater or more positive social impact. It just kind of depends on where you’re coming from but you can kind of like use these tools at different levels in order to be able to create like yeah some of that interrogation, especially if you want something to change.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): It sounds actually like a really great example of the values that I would actively be looking for in a product designer cuz what they’ve done is identified an opportunity, you know, used design thinking classic principles here to identify an opportunity space and then come say, hey, this is a thing. And, and thinking about it is, it’s something that I’ve got a real bug bear about with, I know it’s job roles and titles, but words matter and product designer or product manager often just means, oh I I tell these people what to do in the priority queue for this and, and not actually thinking about, well are you just optimising something? Are you, are you the product designer of this thing or are you the janitor? Are you there just to make sure that it keeps working? Maybe every now and then you will go and tighten some nuts or are you thinking about how to make things that address problems that you see?

Sheryl Cababa: I think sometimes like people kind of struggle with the concepts of these books because they’re just like, yeah, that’s not my lane. Like I, you know, too low on the letter to be engaging in these ideas. I’m kind of like, well I honestly think that’s a mindset problem in many ways because like honestly the designer that I’m talking about, like she found a really like creative outlet that was a reflection of her values and also, you know, what she worked on was far more innovative than what she was assigned to work on. Like it actually tested the boundaries of the technology in a more interesting way than if she had just gone ahead with the brief that they had given her and said, you know, like, yeah design this thing for, you know, consultant who always stays at the Hilton. Like it was actually far less interesting in terms of how to use this new technology.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): And that also seems to play with that idea as well, right? If that’s where their main revenue stream comes from, then actually all they are doing is optimising a preexisting concept.

Sheryl Cababa: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. So I mean I think it’s really easy to just continue down the same path you’ve been going down, but I think if you’re kind of like thinking about potential opportunities sometimes those surface through having, taking more of this like a systemic lens to your work.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): That’s something I was thinking about when I was reading your book. What I really liked about it is that it’s got, you’ve got a slightly different approach to some of the other books that have come out recently where you’ve, you’ve sort of taken this this attitude of I’m not the front of all knowledge on this, there are a lot of people doing things and they’ve all got really fascinating things to share with you and, and there’s, there’s sections where you’ve got interviews with individuals that I found really, I actually found it really encouraging that it wasn’t coming across as I’ve adapted and and defined all of these things. I’m utilising these tools from all of these people that have come before me and they’ve done fantastic things. If I am convinced now based on listening to our conversation that I’m not actually just a pixel pusher and I wanna start stretching the boundaries of that, what kind of things is a good place for me to start? We talked about systems, systems mapping and I think, you know, you can go and create a KU account and then completely lose yourself for like a year and stakeholder mapping, there’s lots of different frameworks that you describe. Where do we go? Where do we begin our journey?

Sheryl Cababa: I mean I think a really good starting place, like especially if somebody’s like, I think I want to learn about this by doing is I always recommend, I think it’s like, yeah, Omidyar groups I think is guide to systems practice and they, it’s basically like a really great guide for doing causal loop diagrams and oftentimes that’s where people kind of like want to start with systems thinking. Even though I would argue that causal loop diagrams are probably in some ways the most difficult kind of framework to engage in, which is why I kind of like pointing to some others that have been, I don’t know, I guess traditionally used in other spaces. Like they tend not to be described as systems thinking, but there’s like an iceberg diagram, which I think is you could actually go into your practice and just start using tomorrow as your, with your team and also like ishikawa or like fishbone diagrams.

Sheryl Cababa: Like those are used in like other contexts, but they’re really great systems thinking tools for analysing a problem space. And these are really accessible in terms of like, they don’t take a lot of legwork. I think one of the things that I do wanna reinforce is that engaging in systems thinking the right way means doing this with other stakeholders, with multidisciplinary stakeholders and not just going off and creating a consulate diagram by yourself as a designer. That’s not the goal and that’s definitely not a magic bullet. It requires a great deal of communication between different stakeholders who are, who affect the system and who are affected by the system.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Yeah, so collaborating you mean in actually making, making that visualisation of what’s going on?

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, exactly. And ha and having people do this work in, you know, workshops or project teams or what have you because that gives you the context that you yourself don’t have as a designer, which gives you that systems lens. So oftentimes I engage as well, like subject matter experts, so people who are researchers in this space, you know, I’ve yet to meet a re an academic researcher who doesn’t wanna talk about their work. And so I think reaching out to them when you find like white papers or something on the subject is a really good way of getting a system lens that, for example, end users don’t have. And a lot of times academic research has a really good sense of like the systemic lens on things. So I would encourage that as well. I don’t, I realise like when I wrote the book I didn’t, I feel like I don’t talk about that nearly enough, just like this idea of who engaged with like just multidisciplinary stakeholders throughout this process. Like there’s not really a point where you’re like going away and creating something because it requires like all of this communication with different people who are within the system.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): There’s, there’s definitely references to, to workshops and kinds of activities and how to get people engaged in it. That was another thing that I really liked cuz I, it’s great to be able to share knowledge with people about things that you are passionate about and things that you think make a difference, but it’s very easy to stop there and not give that and and here’s an approach of how you could do that. I find it quite comforting in a way closing off our, our discussion today, like you, what you’ve described is takes us back to the beginning of the call, which was you said that you’ve become more of a design facilitator and I, I can’t help but think that maybe that’s a role that’s desperately missing for us now in the field of design is acknowledging that actually that is an arts. If you go all the way back to the days of adaptive path and at the early days of, you know, u i e we all talked about the concept of that we are like architects, we’re an architect, doesn’t build the house, you know, they orchestrate the people and they know about the materials and, and what things should work, but they need those other people to, to realise the vision and perhaps we’re, we are forgetting that a little bit, we’ve, we’ve kind of gone too far into that and we’ll show you how it’s done rather than relying on people who are really, really great at those bits.

Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, yeah, I mean I think like, you know, there’s always been that conversation about whether designers have a seat at the table and you know, someone argue like, yeah we, we have that seat at the table because there are VPs of design everywhere and like big companies, you know, lots of like maybe partially successful or failed efforts to like turn organisations into design organisations. Ibm, I’m looking at your direction in terms of the failed piece, but like I think, I think part of having that seat at the table is like using your powers in a way that, you know, takes advantage of skills that you already have. And I think what designers are really good at, a lot of designers are naturally good at facilitation because of the sort of creative approach to problem solving as well as, like you were saying, like this need to rely on other people to execute on even things that we design.

Sheryl Cababa: You always have to rely on engineers for example, to carry things through because we’re not building the things ourselves. And so it’s kind of a natural progression into like this strategic space that is really reliant on facilitation and I think that sometimes gets kind of overlooked maybe in like design education and things like that but like yeah, it’s like a really central part of our work. Like so much of it is, so much of our work is communication. I think this is where, you know, you know Mike Montero’s book design as a job really like articulates that where it’s like you may have learned a lot of like things about like executing on design and design school, but what you may not have realised is like so much of it is about communication and how you navigate that. And so yeah, I think this is, these concepts in my book are kind of like in many ways a reinforcement of that.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Yeah, bringing people together. That’s amazing. Where can people come and, and find you and learn more about what you’re doing?

Sheryl Cababa: I am horrible. I don’t have a website so just look me up and connect to me on LinkedIn. But yeah, you can also, yeah, find my book on the Rosenfeld media site and yeah, I often talk about my speaking engagements and things like that on Twitter and LinkedIn. So find me there.

Andy Parker (The UX Coach): Okay, so they have it. Another episode in the can. Don’t forget you can listen to all of the previous episodes at or quite frankly where you are listening to it right now, cuz I’d imagine it’s not on the website. If you go over to the website in the show notes, you will find discount codes for Rosenfeld media books and of course You can sign up to the UX coach newsletter, just head over to the website, go to the blog. The blog is running off of ck. I promise I will only send you something if I think it is useful. It’s also an opportunity for you to keep updated with new courses that are designed to help you get clear, remove those inner limiting beliefs and achieve your goals. Thanks for listening and keep subscribing.