User Experience and the Human Spirit: Three Stories of Connection

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An exploration of the relationship between the user experience of technology and the part of us that feels a deep connection with something larger than ourselves, Told through three stories from my …

An exploration of the relationship between the user experience of technology and the part of us that feels a deep connection with something larger than ourselves, Told through three stories from my own life, two as a user of technology and one as a UX professional. (Note: I am sorry that Slideshare does not seem to support playing sound files embedded in PowerPoint presentations.)

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  • I’ve recently become interested in an aspect of UX that relates to the human spirit, and I’d like to share with you three stories from my own life.
  • First, let me say what I mean by “the human spirit”. I define it very broadly — It is the part of us that feels a deep connection with something larger than ourselves. It is the part of us that feels a sense of wonder and purpose. And awe.
  • “ Larger than yourself” means many different things: nature a deity or other being: God, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, etc. a group, a family, a couple, a sports team – basically, other people, as long as the connections are deeper than superficial a cause or purpose the Universe
  • I’ve been thinking about how our involvement with technology may nurture our spirit, how it can enhance our sense of connection and wonder. I have a feeling it just might have something to do with UX. :) So I have three stories for you.
  • Just over four years ago I realized a long-held dream — I joined a group that sings Medieval/Renaissance sacred polyphony. I’ve resonated w/ early music as long as I can remember — even in childhood my favorite Christmas song was the 16th C. "Coventry Carol.” Now, I’m not religious in a traditional sense, but this music just speaks to me. Polyphony is a musical texture in which two or more independent melodic lines weave in and out, creating complex harmonies. Some of the rhythms are difficult. For someone raised in the 20th Century, accustomed to having all voices sing the same words more or less together, singing early stuff is just plain hard . Fortunately, we don’t use this notation any more.
  • One of our members transcribes old manuscripts into modern notation; this is mostly what we sing from. I’m grateful for technology that enables me to learn this glorious and difficult music. One month before the first rehearsal, our director sends out the sheet music, along with MIDI files to give a general idea of how the pieces sound. Let me play you a little of one of these. [sound on left] It’s really hard to tell the lines apart. I’d never be able to pick out my part by listening to this. Fortunately, I have music notation software that can. I set my part to a French horn and the other parts to softer instruments… and I save the results to MP3. Here’s what that sounds like. [sound on right]
  • For two months before each concert, I live with these pieces. I have a handy little gadget that allows me to play my iPod through my car radio – which I do, any time I have a drive of more than about 15 minutes. Not only does it help me learn the music, it makes my commute more enjoyable.
  • One morning I commuted through Rock Creek Park in Washington DC – singing along with learning files and feeling intensely connected to the Universe: cherishing the fall colors, the flowing stream, and the mystery that this magnificent music evokes in me. My spirit soared . Thanks to music technology, the DC rush hour didn't faze me one bit.
  • And here’s a little of the final result. [play sound] So. Creating this experience involves three software apps and three pieces of equipment (not counting the car). My sense of connection to the Universe — the mystery and wonder I feel — are part of my user experience of these tools. The tools help nourish my spirit. In his goal-directed design approach, Cooper would say that connection and wonder are two of my goals. I say they’re my fundamental goals.
  • Unfortunately, we can also become absorbed in technology, and disconnected from the world around us.
  • Online communication is very important to me. I’ve made friends, learned lots, gotten new business, and had fun. In fact, an online support group helped keep me sane during the last couple of years of my husband’s life — and some of those connections were pretty deep. On the other hand, sometimes my use of them isolates me, by creating distance from people I care about.
  • I work mostly at home, and I spend a lot of time in front of the computer. When the phone rings, I answer the one by my desk. Often I pay half attention to the phone call and half to what I'm doing on line… unfortunately, to the detriment of both. Most callers don’t mention it, but I have to assume that some of them notice it and wonder about it… and feel hurt.
  • My mother never seemed to take offense at my divided attention, but I always felt embarrassed. One evening several years ago, she called. A few minutes into the conversation she asked, “Are you on the computer?” I sheepishly admitted that I was. She said she didn’t want to bother me and would call back another time. I said “No no, I’m sorry, it’s not important.” I turned my attention away from the computer, and we talked.
  • Three days later she had a car accident, and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. In the next seven months I spent a lot of time with her — in the hospital, and then in the nursing home. We had many conversations during that time — but she was never very coherent, often off in another world. And then she died. I feel sad that our last real conversation carries the shadow of my half-attention. And yet, I continue to do it. This disconnection is part of my user experience, too. I don’t blame the technologies, but some of the ways I use them don’t serve my spirit.
  • My last story is about my work in UX. Last winter I started on an exciting and important new project.
  • The project was two websites to support sexual health in cancer survivors. My role would be to assess the usability of the sites, and make recommendations for design changes.
  • When the client told me what the problem was, I had to sit down.
  • Ten years earlier, you see, my husband had died of prostate cancer. Antonio and I lived with this disease for nine and a half years. Hormone therapy destroyed his libido, and you can imagine what kinds of challenges that brings to a relationship. I have lived the problem that these sites address.
  • So — I would be working on a project that carried powerful meaning for me. I felt a profound connection with the users, even though they wouldn’t be aware of it — and I wanted to support them. It was too late for the men’s site to do anything for Antonio and me — but I could use my UX knowledge and skills to improve its ability to help others who face similar challenges.
  • There’s a down side to this , too. It turned out that I was so focused on my connection with the users that I lost sight of my connection with the client. I’m not working on this project any more. When I read the client’s email my spirit sank, and I sat back and had a good cry.
  • I don’t know about you, but I got into UX because I want to help make people’s lives better. Sure, I find the work challenging and fascinating — and that’s very important too. But for me the key is knowing – that what I do for a living – matters . That it helps connect me with my users, my clients, and the best of myself. That it is larger than myself.
  • Life is about connection, and UX is no different. I submit that our work needs to nurture not only our own spirit but those of our users, and ideally our clients as well. I think we’ll serve our users better if we at least keep it in the backs of our minds.
  • Now I’d like to hear your stories. And let’s talk about how they might enhance and enrich our work. I’m planning to start a PhD program in a few months, to study this topic. I’d love for you to fill out my exploratory survey. You’ll find it at
  • Thank you!


  • 1. UX and the Human Spirit Three Stories of Connection Elizabeth Buie @ebuie
  • 2. “ The Human Spirit” the part of us that feels a deep connection with something larger than ourselves — that feels a sense of wonder, purpose, awe
  • 3. “ Larger than yourself” can mean many different things
  • 4. Herewith three stories. What role might technology play?
  • 5. Story 1: Of Music and Mystery
  • 6.  
  • 7. Live with pieces
  • 8. Commute - spirit soared
  • 9. Mystery/wonder part of my UX
  • 10. Story 2: Of Absorption and Disconnection
  • 11. Seductive Hypnotic Isolating Seductive - Hypnotic - Isolating
  • 12. Divided attention
  • 13. Phone calls with my mother Mom never seemed to take offense at my divided attention. She just thought she was interrupting something important. She was proud of my work.
  • 14. Three days later, an auto accident. Our last phone conversation carries the shadow of my half-attention.
  • 15. Story 3: Of New Projects and Serendipity Heartfelt thanks to Kel Smith (@kelsmith) and Debra Levin Gelman (@dgelman) for sending me this client.
  • 16. The project: Two websites to support sexual health in cancer survivors
    • One for women
    • One for men
    • My role: usability assessment and support to redesign
  • 17. When the client told me what the project was — I had to stop for a second, and catch my breath.
  • 18. Ten years ago, my husband died of prostate cancer.
  • 19. Powerful meaning, profound connections
  • 20. A cautionary note Strong connections can backfire. I was so focused on my connection with the users that I lost sight of my connection with the client. I’m not on this project any more.
  • 21. UX is work of the human spirit.
  • 22. Life is about connection.
    • UX is too.
  • 23. These are some of my stories. What are yours? How can we use them in our UX work? Fill out my exploratory survey: Come find me, and let’s talk.
  • 24. Go raibh maith agaibh Thank you Photographs © Elizabeth Buie except on slides 2, 5, 6, and 9 Elizabeth Buie @ebuie [email_address]