• Larissa Schwartz

How I Found The Interaction Design Foundation — And a Way Back to UX

Updated: Apr 4

On a dark day during the long northeastern winter, I felt like I was at the bottom of my professional existence. I hadn't realized it at the time, but the symptoms were all there. It was burnout.

My passions had taken on a chore-like quality. Advocating for people over technology, teaching user experience design to professionals working in adjacent fields, and working with senior leaders to understand the now overused and misunderstood terms "UX" and the phrase "design thinking" felt Sisyphean. I found myself wishing I'd never learned programming as a kid. I wanted to erase all knowledge of the web and tech and usability. And given recent data breaches, the rise of false and misinformation online, I wanted to obliterate my insight into the deeply disturbing nature of how societies were being negatively impacted by the platforms created during the previous decade.

As a UX professional, I am accustomed to challenging work environments, but a series of difficult situations had taken a toll.

I'd been told  -  for the first time in my professional life  - that I had a "can't-do attitude" which came after I'd pointed out to management that as one of six consultants, five male and one female, the woman was paid less than the men. Before that episode, I was asked without explanation by the owner of a nonprofit to reduce my hourly rate. Something he didn't request of the man on my team. After that, a male coworker referred to me as "crazy Larissa" for over a year, while the pressure I put on myself plus the miles on the road were never enough. Then there was the guy who said I didn't have "any of the special sauce" he was looking for, with no explanation of what he meant by the condiment reference.

Reflecting on this string of events I realized it wasn't surprising that my energy for technology and design, creativity and problem solving, business pragmatism and management, complex intersections I'd inhabited for over 20 years, had gone dark.

Heal Thyself

After wallowing under blankets for long enough to binge watch as many seasons of The Sopranos as possible, I went back to my office, fired up the internet with the intention of finding a way back. I knew it was impossible that I was the only person in this predicament.

I started by tapping back into my desire to see technology help the world grow into a better place. I knew in order to contribute to this mission, I had to begin with myself. With Peter Drucker's teachings and a couple of choice quotes floating around my head  - "The best way to predict the future is to create it," and "Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window" -  I started my trek back to my place as a leader in user experience design.

By diving into a short course developed by Otto Scharmer called Leading Change in Times of Disruption, I found an ember underneath the coals. It was a friendly burn that helped me realize I needed to connect with all of UX again and - most importantly - accept that Design Thinking was not going away. I'd spent two decades advocating for systems thinking, human-centered design approaches, pragmatic management, clear communication and cross-functional teamwork to solve tough problems in organizations. Design Thinking, the methodology developed by IDEO, had hooked people, so I had to get with the program even if I felt like we already had all the necessary tools and this latest process was icing on a cake already topped with plenty of rich buttercream.


I Found IDF

After my meta moment in Scharmer's U. lab class, I decided design thinking basics had to be next, if for no other reason than to prove to myself that I knew them. Off to Google I went with a few keywords; one of the top five search results led me to an article by Rikke Dam, one of the co-founders of The Interaction Design Foundation (IDF). My first thought upon reading her bio: "Why don't I already know of this community?" It didn't take long for me to decide that the annual fee unlocking unlimited content would be a worthwhile investment.

I immersed myself in Design Thinking: The Beginner's Guide.

The content, though not new to me, was well- designed, engaging, and delivered in a way that made me want to focus and sharpen my own skills. I immediately wanted everyone I knew inside and out of the UX world to become a member so they too could take this course, experience high quality instructional design, and see how a global community is created and nurtured. The IDF curriculum is as good as it gets and it is by no means a giveaway for members.

The courses are truly challenging. The insights they reveal exceed my expectations, time and again. The expert teachers are available and enthusiastic. The methods the IDF uses tap into a basic need for the dopamine rush of immediate feedback while also having a system of delayed gratification while real humans read long-form, written responses. Equally important is the opportunity to engage with thousands of members from just about every corner of the globe.

A few months later, I felt the imposter syndrome creeping back in so I went back to IDF for another course. In Frank Spillers class UX Management: Strategy and Tactics, I received a response to a comment I'd posted that helped reel me back in. Not only was the coursework grounding, the person who responded to my post is an important new connection who helped me reboot after burnout.

Continue Learning to Learn

As a mentor at CareerFoundry, an online design school, I frequently ask my students how they're able to balance the coursework with their other responsibilities. The feedback varies and what I share with them is based on my own experience of freelancing and working remotely. I encourage them to carve out specific times of day for their studies. If they have full-time jobs, this might be two hours in the evening and four hours a day each weekend. If they have more flexibility, I encourage them to look at the curriculum and commit to one task per day.

To succeed in the self-directed, online learning environment at the IDF, I had to practice what I was preaching. My approach during the design thinking basics course was to work though one section at a time and not spend more than two consecutive hours in front of my computer, whichever came first. If I was thoroughly engrossed and had more than a couple of hours, I would simply start the cycle again. Other things that helped me truly engage included closing all other browser tabs, turning off all smartphones and other devices that go, "Ding," and recognizing when I was starting to go on auto-pilot.

What Now

Not only has the IDF helped me stop the imposter syndrome cycle when it starts to spin, it has also led me back to my true connection to technology - people. The fog of burnout kept me from seeing that I was responding to a real phenomenon: Technology is driving us, when in fact we, the people, should be driving technology. What I was experiencing as cynicism was a healthy, skeptical response to the idea that the tools and platforms we share should, as Google says, "do no harm" and, according to Facebook, "bring the world closer together".

Instead of retreating from technology and how it impacts people, I decided to delve more deeply into the psychology of how people experience life, work and each other. While working on a doctorate in Psychology, I'm reenergized and continuing my work as a UX consultant, helping organizations create technology that works for humans.

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