Guest Post: On Giving

Ed. Note: This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa and I’m extremely grateful to the author for creating such a thoughtful post. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by me, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts.

On Giving. Photo © Shereen M

On Giving.
Photo © Shereen M

On Giving

I can still remember the first time I read The Gift of the Magi. Reading it today is one of my favorite holiday traditions.

My mother had brought home a special edition of the story book complete with a red velveteen slipcase and the title embossed in beautiful script letters on the cover. It sat on our coffee table for all of five minutes before I gave in to the allure of its gold-gilded pages.

I recall feeling the lump in my throat as I read about the main characters, a couple of modest means, Jim and Della, who sold their most prized possessions only to unknowingly buy each other gifts that they would both no longer be able to use.

In the end it didn’t matter. In the end, the act of giving the gifts was greater than the gifts themselves. Real life works this way too.

Just like the many others who’ve read the tale before me since it was first published over a hundred years ago, I was deeply moved. I may have even got a bit misty-eyed.

But look beyond the cosmic irony of Magi’s mechanics and you’ll see actions universally held as noble and good. Actions like thoughtful consideration for another person’s needs and desires, and sacrifice for the sake of someone else.

Stories like these resonate with something deep inside us, because we all want to give and receive that sort of gift.

There’s a psychological explanation for our profound connection to giving. Research has found that not only has generosity fared well in our evolution because, “at the ultimate level, it is a high-return cooperative strategy,” but that “far from being a thin veneer of cultural conditioning atop a Machiavellian core” giving may actually be at the heart of what makes us human and an essential ingredient to our happiness.

But even with a generous spirit and our natural propensity to give, giving a bad gift is entirely possible (think fruitcake or tacky sweaters from your well-meaning Grandma).

Gift giving like we see in Magi takes something more.

Giving a gift that truly benefits both the giver and the receiver takes a mental leap from your own perspective to that of someone else. Feeling what they feel, knowing what they need, and delighting in finding just the right fit.

In a word, it takes empathy.

As content strategists, writers, and user experience designers we have the opportunity to do this in our work every day. I’m not just talking about users either. As Erin Kissane says, “… the people who are inside our companies have the same needs. They need simplicity, they need things that are intuitive and don’t get in their way.”

How Can We Give a Gift?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I catch myself being a little territorial and controlling, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

When a client isn’t happy with a design decision, or when a writer ignores the style guide that was so carefully constructed, or when both the content strategy and search marketing teams think it’s solely THEIR job to dictate content goals, things can quickly escalate from a little unproductive in-fighting to a full-fledged war over who’s right.

These sort of situations can, and do, happen in the real world across agencies and in-house teams alike. And they aren’t just bad for business; they’re bad for us as individuals, and ultimately for our users, too.

Earlier this year, Kate Kiefer Lee wrote an inspiring post on helping. She said:

“As helpers, we have to be willing to learn new skills for the sole purpose of making someone else’s life easier. For me, that has meant things like learning markdown to improve our team’s workflow, reading design books so I can better communicate with my coworkers, and asking questions in public that are maybe a little embarrassing for me.”

“For the Sole Purpose of Making Someone’s Life Easier”

Well-meaning Grandma aside, most of us have received a thoughtless gift from someone who just didn’t put any effort into considering who we are or what we need. Perhaps they were short on time, or maybe they just wanted us to have what THEY wanted us to have. This is the root of re-gifting (not that I’m endorsing the practice at all, people).

Either way, these type of gifts, the ones that only benefit the giver and impose upon the receiver, completely pervert the purpose of a gift-giving.

Communication strategist and interaction designer, Michael Duah, equates the principles of giving a good gift to that of telling a good story. In a recent talk he explained, “The most important character in any story is the audience. Period. A story is something you give to someone else.”

A style guide is something you give someone else. A user narrative is something you give someone else. A message architecture is something you give someone else. You get the picture.

The idea that we can use our time and talent to serve clients, users, and colleagues, and in doing so derive a much deeper satisfaction and fulfillment from our work is both remarkable and important. It makes framing our work in terms of a gift to give more than worthwhile, but rather impossible to ignore.

About Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman is a UX content strategist at Facebook, keynote speaker, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter @jcolman. Feel free to contact him directly.
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