Reflecting on reflective practice

I attended a fringe event of the User Research London conference on Friday this week, thanks to the lovely team at STBY.

It was an intimate evening of discussions and camaraderie, as I took the opportunity to briefly rekindle with Jo Wong and Dan Szuc from Apogee HK, as well as other friends I haven’t met in years. But there were many new faces I got to know that evening, and we were sharing and debating and, well, reflecting on the idea of reflective practice.

The woke designer

Reflective practice, or more appropriately — a reflective practitioner — is someone who actively integrates aspects of learning, awareness, and savvy intrinsically to their design practice. Kind of like a designer who’s woke.

So, the idea of reflecting on reflective practice, while sounds very meta, is actually just a part and parcel of being a reflective practitioner — it’s not abstract at all.

Geke van Dijk from STBY opened us up by framing our discussions around highlights, tips, and challenges, which surfaced several things like:

  • The importance giving ourselves and our colleagues space to reflect on our work (e.g. retrospectives, blocking out specific times in our calendar),
  • Not having enough time (general busyness, increased obsession and preoccupation with speed which is a dangerous thing)
  • Embodying reflectiveness in our own lives (you can’t really switch it on or off, and that there are sometimes identity issues when reflectiveness changes you as a person so much)
  • Impact or influence of culture (team, organisation, discipline, upbringing; appropriateness of practice in different parts of the world)
  • Gratitude / thankfulness / lightness of practice (of people close to us, friends in the industry, likemindness, intentfulness)
  • Frameworks, tools, resources and methods (’s organisational design resources, Johari windowDIY toolkit)

The metaphor of scaffolds

Some of this really resonated with something I’ve been developing over the last few months in the form of a talk, which is the metaphor of scaffolds in relation to approaches for facilitating work within teams and organisations.

I think of scaffolds whenever I think of things like the double diamond, experience maps, UX principles and diagrams, and even definitions of strategy and vision. These often emerge from or is applied to some understanding of a problem space, and typically is expressed in words and/or visuals, to help people solve problems and do work.

I like thinking of them as scaffolds, because:

  • They’re often transitional and facilitative, “erected” to support the development of an end solution or outcome.
  • Someone typically has to take the lead to guide others to navigate the “path of the scaffold” — it isn’t always obvious just by looking at it.
  • The structure of the scaffold suggests how work can be done, so that groups of people can achieve a shared outcome better.
  • Sometimes, scaffolds can become permanent (for better or worse) — they become part of actual solution that teams are working towards.
The double diamond is a good scaffold — useful for communicating the structure of design work, acting as a bridge between disciplines and teams across organisations
The idea of scaffolds within the context of reflective practice is meaningful to me, because it suggests a long-term adoption by groups of people towards a shared direction. The success of a scaffold is when it’s meaningfully used by diverse groups of people without you being there.

Reflective, forever

Reflective practice isn’t without drawbacks. It takes more effort and time. It requires observation, understanding, action and risk-taking. Sometimes it means people getting uncomfortable, when they see things from a different point of view (of others’, particularly), and when it nudges them to act wisely on behalf of the larger context. Sometimes people misinterpret systems and subvert them in the wrong way.

And although reflection isn’t the only way, it’s a preferred way. And it’s by being more reflective, our craft and discipline becomes strengthened as a force for the long term, both for ourselves and for the world around us.

We just need to keep spreading the love.

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