window post jan 3rd
January 3rd, 2013

The P’unk Way: Empathy, Authenticity and Alanis Morissette

Ilyssa Kyu
Senior Researcher & Strategist

Not only am I one of the newest – and most female-est – additions to P’unk Avenue, but my position as a user experience designer & strategist is new to the team. While P’unk Avenue has always focused on the user experience on past projects, this is the first time they’ve brought on an index card-writing, post-it-bearing, marker-slinging user experience designer that specifically focuses on the research and development of a project, beginning to end.

I consider myself a recovering industrial designer. Ironically enough, my experience in industrial design taught me to be afraid of creating objects. For years, I learned that industrial designers are responsible for all sorts of horrible things – like lawn darts, Yugo cars and pretty much everything that strangles a sea turtle or doesn’t decompose in a landfill. Regardless of their inherent beauty or ability to make things more efficient, there was and always is a double-edged sword in creating objects.

This fear of doing the wrong thing motivated me to veer in a different direction as an industrial designer. I stashed away my foam models and made sure I forgot my passwords to my CAD software. By acting on my curiosity, giving myself time to explore, telling stories and using a design process familiar to those in the user experience world in my own personal work, I went from creating objects to creating experiences. I found my solutions in creating opportunities, spaces, actions and clarity.

While in undergrad, I attended several years of student industrial design conferences and eventually had the opportunity to represent my school at one. Every year, our program stuck out like a green-thumb— yes, a green-thumb. I realized we were different. I was different. In front of a giant TED-style screen in a RISD auditorium filled with industrial design professionals, professors and students, other senior design students represented their schools by presenting their work – including, impeccable renderings of toy fire hydrants that squirt water and images of beautifully crafted lounge chairs made from exotic hardwoods.

I, on the other-hand, told a story about a worm I met when I was five-years old and presented my work in the context of this story—none of which reflects the chairs, cars and electronic devices that for so long had defined the industry. I described my deep desire to be like Alanis Morrissette when I was seven-years-old and how accidentally stepping on living coral in Honduras made me want to save the trees in Philadelphia (in a totally non-hippie way) which then landed me an internship with the City of Philadelphia at the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

I wasn’t sure how that would all go over, but it was safe to assume odds were against me.

However, to my surprise, strangers throughout the night asked for my permission to hug me. Professionals and designers with decades of experience in the field told me that I inspired them to rethink how they approach problems, products and even the presentation of their work. Though I set out to represent myself and my work in the only way I knew how, I learned a very valuable lesson early on as a designer—people value authenticity. They value empathy and they value humility.

And the same goes for clients. Don’t forget—clients are people, too. It helps them believe in your work and the way that you work, which gives you the flexibility and support to discover something new—to do something greater than just better.

And these are the things that P’unk Avenue believes in as a purpose-driven company. And, even after my year-long-fresh-out-of-school identity crisis as a junior user experience designer in a previous position, I am finally beginning to see the value of this perspective in the few months I’ve worked at P’unk Avenue. While I was busy convincing myself I would officially become a user experience designer as soon as I read all the books, I already was one – in a way.

My title in the professional world may be user experience designer, but there are probably dozens of quantitative analyses, formulas and methodologies that are industry standards that I still have never heard of. What I’m finding is that, it’s not about letting my title define my work or how I craft my research and recommendations. As a designer, whether I wear my industrial design hat or my user experience hat, I realize my job is simply to be an advocate for the users—and, to do it with as much empathy, humility and authenticity for every project as I would use as I do when trying to become Alanis Morissette.

Ilyssa Kyu
Senior Researcher & Strategist