UX researcher Elena Moon on stage at Design Week Portland

Navigating uncharted territory with UX researcher Elena Moon

Design Week Portland has become a citywide clarion call for the design community to come together, celebrate our collective creativity, and re-engage on the hard questions that lead to meaningful, fulfilling work. The nine-day festival kicks off with two days of main stage programming focused on a big question: “We are in uncharted territory, What’s our role in the changing political, social, economic and environmental landscape, as designers?”

To help us get in the Design Week mindset and to navigate its weighty theme, we caught up with 2016 Design Week Portland presenter Elena Moon. In her 2016 main stage talk Designing for Not Bad, Elena explored the gray-area choices designers commonly face and tactics for making great design work with a soul. (Hint: keep your work focused on solving real problems for real users, even if your ”boss” is a brand.)

As founder of Osage Orange, Elena works closely with clients and teams to research and design elegant, easy-to-use solutions. Elena’s dedication to the real people who use a design or technology has taken her work to the far corners of the globe—and even space. She’s enjoyed working with organizations like Oregon Zoo, Mozilla, SpaceX, and India’s Barefoot College (a truly fascinating story if you get a chance to ask).

Follow along for our discussion about the designer’s role in driving change, the distinct challenges facing world-traveling creatives, and how working abroad can bolster your design research. Then, take a sneak peek into Elena’s Design Week Portland 2017 itinerary.

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UX researcher Elena Moon
Nathan: You’re known for design research projects that take you around the world. How does being an “outsider” or a foreigner help or hamper your work?

Elena: I felt more like a foreigner on Rodeo Drive than I ever did spending time with aboriginal people in Australia and Papua New Guinea or illiterate grandmothers who were studying to become solar engineers in India.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced as an outsider is not a cultural one—it’s having an outsider’s immune system. Seriously. It’s challenging to stay healthy. Our entire team of eight was taken down with various ailments at some point during or after our trip to Rajasthan and I’ve heard the same story over and over from other teams who are dropped in the middle of challenging physical environments.

Nathan: What are the challenges or joys of working abroad, outside of your own culture?

Elena: With our size and cultural dominance, the U.S. is such an insular country. We have the luxury of cultural self-absorption. It’s refreshing to break free from this bubble, to hear other perspectives, to be around cultures that experience community, poverty, materialism, nature, health access, gender roles, and self in utterly different ways. It opens me up, it helps me generate ideas, and it deepens my capacity for problem-solving.

I remember traveling on a barge for 24 hours along the north coast of Papua New Guinea as the only foreigner. On the open deck, the boat informally divided based on gender, and the women quickly grabbed me into their group and in a friendly way said, “Women here, men over there. It’s better this way.” We laughed and told stories for the entire trip. That was such a deeply different community and gender experience than I experience in the U.S. When was the last time anyone on public transport created a giant group community?

I usually come back sad for what I see as fractured community and isolation in the States and also grateful for my friendships with men. In so many traditional cultures, the relationship a woman can have with a man is a professional, sexual, or familial one. Platonic friendships are looked at suspiciously, and there is often the assumption from the man that there is sexual interest.

I also come back appreciative that, relative to many other countries, I’m much more free to pursue daily life as a woman and as a queer person, at least in our urban centers, without feeling ostracized or threatened. Though of course, it’s relative. We still have huge issues, and I experience advantages that come from my class and race. In many countries, though, I have had to be accompanied by a male colleague after dusk for personal safety.

Maintaining my physical health is always interesting, too. I was diagnosed with celiac in my mid-thirties, which means I’m microscopically sensitive to gluten and can only eat food prepared in dedicated gluten-free kitchens. That makes travel incredibly challenging as all restaurant food is off limits. In Northern India, every kitchen has a flatbread oven. Navigating that was a total nightmare. In those situations where I’m on the move and am not staying in a place with a kitchen, I carry a little hot pot and run out to markets every day to get a meal put together.

That being said, when I came back from Australia, I saw how broken our healthcare system is. There, the staff has the luxury to immediately talk to you about your health issues. No forms, no insurance grilling, no paperwork to sign saying how you will pay. It made me realize how much of our time, infrastructure, and staffing is wasted to insurance, billing, and going broke.

And well, as you can imagine, homesickness is real.

Nathan: In your 2016 Design Week Portland talk Designing for Not Bad, you challenged designers to earnestly consider the impact of their work on its users, avoid falling into moral gray zones, and to do no harm. How would your message change this year?

Elena: Well, if you care about social justice, the environment, democracy, not being ruled by an oligarchy, or corporations having an outsized influence on politics and policy, there’s currently no shortage of work to be done. Do your job and meet your financial needs, but then use your skills to step up and volunteer. Take action in whatever way is meaningful to you. Take a break from Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, and Twitter and use that time to be an engaged citizen. It’s hard to engage in social media without numbing out. Sometimes we feel like we’re doing something because we share a political moment, but don’t mistake that for meaningful action.

Before the election, I started to doubt if the little things I could do would really make a difference. Now I ask: “If a million other people gave this $5 to a cause I care about or showed up to a march or the airport when we’re about to deport someone, would that make a difference? Can I make time for it?” If the answer is yes, I do it.

Nathan: What is a designer’s role in leading change? How can you be certain you’re solving the most important problems, the right way?

Elena: A good designer will elicit and stay true to the desires and values of both the sponsoring organization and the people who have to use the design. Keeping those desires and values alive and in mind throughout a project makes sure you’re solving the right problems.

Doing it the right way? Well, that’s experience, a solid methodology, skill and good teamwork.

Nathan: If you could go back in time to tell an earlier you one piece of sage design advice, what would you say? What is one thing you know now that you wish you had known earlier in your career?

Elena: In my twenties, when I was just getting started in design, I was very flexible in deciding how to choose a job. Aside from generally being interested, it had to involve two of the following: technology, creativity, or nature/the outdoors.

I had all three for a long while and then dropped the outdoor/nature part during the dot-com bust. That was a mistake.

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Audience view from Design Week Portland 2016