Creative innovation consultant, neurodiversity advocate and social entrepreneur, Matthew Bellringer, shares his personal story of being diagnosed with ADHD and autism only recently and his mission to help organisations embrace neurodiversity as part of their design and innovation processes.
#019 - We are all neurodiverse but we’re encouraged to leave our neurodiversities at the door just so we can “fit in”. However, neurodivergent designers can bring in a lot of lived experiences helpful for innovation, especially when designing for neurodivergent users. In this episode, I chat with Matthew Bellringer, creative innovation consultant, neurodiversity advocate and social entrepreneur. Matthew was diagnosed with ADHD when we was 39 and autism at 42. For Matthew, increasing neurodiversity in organisations is not just a morally right thing to do but also a competitive advantage.
In this episode:
Join Nirish Shakya and Matthew Bellringer LIVE on Delightful Dissent on Thursday 20th October 1pm UK time
Matthew Bellringer on LinkedIn
Delightful Dissent Podcast
Illustrations by Isa Vicente
Music by Brad Porter
Episode edited by Niall Mackay
[00:00:00] Matthew Bellringer: Diversity is most strongly correlated with successful innovation than anything else in organisations. It is more efficient to have a completely homogenous workforce, but that becomes like a monoculture, like a field full of a single crop. That if one small thing is a problem for one of those, it's a massive problem.
[00:00:25] Nirish Shakya: That's Matthew Bellringer, creative innovation consultant, neurodiversity advocate, and social entrepreneur. Growing up, Matthew knew that he was different, but he was only diagnosed with ADHD when he was 39 and autism at 42. For Matthew increasing neurodiversity in organizations. It's not just a morally right thing to do, but also a competitive advantage. In this episode, we talk about how neurodiversity fosters more creativity and innovation in organizations, which typically tend to be predominantly monoculture. There's so much to unpack in this chat from being a fulfilled neuro diversion designer to fostering neurodiverse organizations, to designing for neuro diversion users.
[00:01:11] Shivaun: This is the Design Feeling Podcast with your host Nirish Shakya.
[00:01:25] Nirish Shakya: Hi, I'm Nirish Shakya, and I'm a designer, educator, and the host of my new podcast Design Feeling. Most of the time, you'll probably find me helping organisations put their customers first, or you might find me teaching design thinking and creative innovation, but I'm on a slightly different quest here - to explore the human behind the designer - who you are, what drives you, what frustrates you and why, and ultimately how you can bring more impact and meaning into your work.
[00:01:59] On this podcast, my expert guests, and I will be uncovering ways to increase your self-awareness, creative confidence and meaning.
[00:02:10] Nirish Shakya: Matthew Bellringer Welcome to Design Feeling.
[00:02:15] Matthew Bellringer: Thank you for very much. Uh, thank you for you for having me on the show.
How Matthew got started in linking creativity and neurodiversity
[00:02:17] Nirish Shakya: So Matthew, you are a creativity innovation guide and a neurodiversity advocate. tell us your origin story about how you got into this feel in terms of linking creativity with neuro diversions.
[00:02:33] Matthew Bellringer: I worked in tech for most of my career. until a few years ago, when I started working for myself during that time, I studied psychology and got really interested in the human side or, and the relationship between people and technology. Partly because I was part of a lot of very big projects with a lot of very clever, very well-intentioned people.
[00:03:00] and a lot of resources was I started investigating why. So few of those projects actually resulted in things that people really wanted. We would spend a lot of effort talking to people and collecting information and we'd deliver exactly what we thought they'd said. And then it wouldn't be what they wanted.
[00:03:22] Matthew Bellringer: It wouldn't get used or it wouldn't work. Or, and, and that whole process got me thinking and it,it became such a regular pattern that I, I, I got particularly interested in that and started investigating, A few years ago, I left, working for other people. I wanted to work for myself because I wanted the flexibility to work outside of the conventional boundaries that most organizations, tend to need you to work in.
[00:03:52] the combination of it and psychology is a relatively rare one and that meant that there wasn't any one role where I could use everything that I wanted to, that I could easily find re shortly after I left the, working for her,the university of Sussex where I, which was the, the last place I worked, when I was working for someone else, I started exploring my own neuro divergence. So I, when I was a child, I had a diagnosis of dyslexia and I'd always been interested in the concept of neurodiversity.
[00:04:23] Matthew Bellringer: I did my, psychology research project on the, well, one of the major projects on the experience of dyslexics in work and education. what happened was I was at a, at a kind of conference. Isn't quite the right word, unconference, an open space where one of the people, one of the sessions was around neurodiversity.
[00:04:46] So I went along. Right. And I was chatting to a few people, and very much resonated with their experiences. And I discovered that they all had diagnosis of ADHD. And that kind of got me thinking . And so I went through the GP, got put on a very long waiting list and they went private to get an ADHD diagnosis, which surprised not that many people around me turns out.
[00:05:14] eventually, the NHS did, I did get an NHS assessment as well. And yeah, I want to say here in Brighton, the NHS services are incredibly good. They're just, under-resourced in terms of how quickly they can see people, but, but they're, they're incredibly good services. And I was also referred for an autism assessment so I was, I was 39 when I was diagnosed with ADHD And I was 42 when I was diagnosed with autism. for me, it's a really, really interesting experience to start. And even before the autism diagnosis, I was already focusing my work on, on, on the neurodiversity aspect of innovation, but it's, it's a really interesting.
[00:05:59] Matthew Bellringer: Position to be in, to have lived experience and to work in a space. And I think for me, that's perhaps one of the things I'd really like to explore today, there's something slightly contradictory in the, the expectations of someone who has lived experience of what can be a very challenging condition, who is also, professional, working on solutions for people who have that condition.
Neurodiversity, neurodivergence, neurominority and neurotypical
[00:06:29] Nirish Shakya: I think there are so many nuggets there. I'd love to dig up, in our conversation today. but before we go into the details, I would love to know from you, how do you define neuro divergence? And the reason that I asked this question is because, I only most more recently came across this term myself and, pretty much most of my working career.
[00:06:50] I hadn't actually come across this particular term myself. and it, I think it'd be great for us to just create that baseline of baseline understanding of what it means before we go deeper into this.
[00:07:01] Matthew Bellringer: Thank you. Yeah, it's, it's always good to, to define anything like this. and yeah, I completely, I do wanna restate thank you for, for the, for framing the question in that way, but that this is my perspective, my working definition, these are my working definitions of words, rather than an absolute categorical truth.
[00:07:21] I always want to define neurodiversity, because I think it's also sometimes, misused neurodiversity, everyone is neurodiverse in the sense that we all have different neurology. We all experience the world somewhat differently to each other. It's not that there are some people, some people who might be re.
[00:07:41] Referring to an individual as neuro diverse, doesn't really make sense in beyond, beyond that. we, we are, we,
[00:07:48] Nirish Shakya: Cause it's so relative, is it?
[00:07:50] Matthew Bellringer: everyone's different. Yeah, everyone, but, and the relative, the relativeness is actually the important part here because, for me, some people clearly experience the world in quite significantly different ways to other people.
[00:08:04] They are neurologically more different and those differences often cluster too. So we say neuro divergent, that tends to mean someone who is, who experiences the world in significantly kind of qualitatively different ways to most other people around them. That's my working definition of, of neuro divergent,
[00:08:29] and a couple of the other words that I may or may not use, but might be useful in this space are neuro minority, which refers to clusters of experience within the. Space of neuro divergent to people. And so for example, autism is a neuro minority, and obviously these overlap as well, ADHD is a neuro minority and there are some people in both. so there's all of those, those different things playingout there. And the other thing, uh, the other phrase you might hear is, is neurotypical, which is an easy way of saying people who experience the world in broadly similar ways to most of the people around them.
[00:09:11] It's just the, the inverse of neuro divergent. so yeah.
Neurodivergence in design
[00:09:15] Nirish Shakya: One of the things that, I'm interested in learning more about is,neuro divergence in design. and you work as a, a creative innovation guide, and designers are all all about creativity and coming up with creative solutions. what are some of the, the links that you've seen between creativity, innovation and neuro diversions?
[00:09:38] Matthew Bellringer: So there's a, there's kind of a general one and a couple of specific ones as well. I'll start with the general one. For me, there are a whole range of marginalized perspectives that have. An incredible amount of value for the mainstream and what I say, marginalized perspectives. I mean, I include neuro divergent people, neuro minorities in that, but also different cultures,indigenous cultures. Um, and I think of the work of the indigenous systems lab in Australia, for as an example, have a fundamentally different yet coherent and very useful perspective on the world.
[00:10:26] Nirish Shakya: So, what are you, what are
[00:10:27] you referring to in
[00:10:28] terms of
[00:10:29] them having a fundamental different perspective Or what did you mean by that?
[00:10:32] Matthew Bellringer: So how you experience and make sense of the world on, on really, quite a fundamental level. So the way that you, the things you attend to in the environment, the things that you notice and the way that you systematize them, the way that you make sense of them and the way that you express your responses to them. That's a, a perspective. So that fundamentally, you know, different way of just relating to the entities in the world and perhaps seeing different entities, you know, seeing, making different categorical judgements, seeing different things as.Coherent things, uh, or not coherent things because we, you know, what we think of as an object is relatively arbitrary and it's something that we learn as young children and it's culturally specific. So what, what we think of as things is not fixed, they're not natural categories, they're conveniences for how we think.
[00:11:51] And so the whole perspective, if you line things up differently means that you can engage with those things and their relative relationships. Differently. And that means that you can be aware of both ways that you could do it better. So opportunities and ways that the existing arrangement could. So.
Recognising neurodivergence within yourself
[00:12:22] Nirish Shakya: Mm-hmm ..Okay. and one of the things that you mentioned is around how,you, identified, the, the neuro divergent qualities within yourself, only pretty recently. what are some of the things that a, a designer can do to start to recognize some of those traits within themselves?
[00:12:42] Matthew Bellringer: Great question. Thank you. Um, and I think it's really worth pointing out that even for, for a lot of people in more creative professions in general, that many people have traits in this direction or in neuro divergent directions, even if they don't have full blown clinical clinically diagnosable conditions. And so it is a really interesting thing to, to investigate. One of the strange things about my diagnosis is on some level, a lot of it, not a lot of it was news on a personal level.So I, you know, I've had a yoga meditation practice for years and years now. And so I was quite aware of how I worked, what was news to me was that not everyone else worked that way. And I think this difference is perhaps the interesting thing to explore for, for designers. So yes, there's the self-awareness and the, the, that kind of thing, but there's also the, well, how is this different for others? And who is that? Who is this
[00:13:53] different for, which is fundamentally you know, this is a, um, this understanding of how we relate.
[00:14:03] And why we see them and prefer them. as we prefer them. You know, why do I choose probably unconsciously to design something in a specific way? Because so much of our design practices are below consciousness.
[00:14:24] Nirish Shakya: a lot of times, in, in my career, I used to think that, everyone else probably thought the same way that I did. And most of the time they probably didn't.
[00:14:35] Matthew Bellringer: And I think you know, a lot of, you know, my, my background from a design perspective is in, is agile and lean practices. And in testing. So the question is very often, well, how can, if I, if I have a sense of like, okay, there's something here, how can I test that? What can I do? You know? Um, and there's so many different ways you can, you can look at it.
[00:15:02] And one of the things is and who has affinity for what we do, you know, for, we tend to spend time with make relationships, with build things for people like us on important levels. And those can be all sorts of different. Kind of, um, different categories of affinity. There are all sorts of different things.
[00:15:29] We can be similar. We're different ways we can be similar, but finding out, you know, what, what, where is,where are those things coming together? You know, and why, and investigating, like, why do I this? Or why don't I like this? You know, where I think this is, this is the other really big skill is being able to articulate a negative reactionbecause that's, you know, that's the foundation of real strong strong criticality. Um, as a, as a positive practice, if we can say why we don't like something in terms that other people can understand, we don't necessarily have to have them change it, but we can give them the benefit of our perspective. And one of the big challenges, I think for those of us who have fundamentally more different perspectives is that we haven't been given the opportunity to necessarily develop the ability to express that.
[00:16:30] Or we've not experienced it as welcome.
[00:16:34] And we may well be in is where it isn't welcome
[00:16:38] Nirish Shakya: because I guess,we are not, Encouraged to be different in the workplace, you know, we're encouraged to be compliant. Um, and it probably comes from, you know, the, the tailor tailorism where it's all about being as efficient as possible within your own little box to help the bigger structure, the bigger system achieve its goal as fast and as cheaply as possible.
[00:17:04] So when you, if you try to kind of peak outside that box, you're probably punished for doing that. I, I think we can link this back to this idea of creativity a little bit. You know, the creative process is messy. It goes off in tangents and it has it's. It has rabbit holes. We, the creative process is, is, is not efficient.
[00:17:23] And what's, I think interesting about that
[00:17:25] is, we might be, fully comfortable, exploring the whatever subject matter that we're dealing with as, as a craft person, as a designer, for example, the problems we're solving, and the, the goals that we're meeting for, for our users and customers, but we might not be as comfortable in exploring, our own internal world in terms of, maybe, there are divergent aspects within me that are different to, other people, but then at the same time, what I would find difficult about that is I would find it really difficult to place me on that spectrum.
[00:18:01] Where do I fall on that spectrum or that scale, especially, I'm trying so hard to just fit in and be like everyone else.
[00:18:08] Matthew Bellringer: Yeah. And I think finding out where you, you know, finding out something more fundamental about you and fitting in. You know, there is a,
[00:18:21] there is an element of differentiation about all of this and finding the value in a, what makes us different and what makes us similar. And I think for me, that's the really, that's, that's the essence of this is it's the both, and it's the, where, where, where do we overlap and where do we differ? Because we don't want everyone to have exactly the same skill set or to want the same thing. That would be a very difficult world actually, to satisfy because we'd use. All of whatever that was, and we'd all want to do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. So resourcing a world where everyone was identical would on some level be efficient,
[00:19:14] Nirish Shakya: Hmm. But Matthew, like if you look at most job descriptions for designers out there that whether that be UX designers, UI designers, product designers, you know, industrial designers, um, You can probably copy and paste a lot of those job descriptions and, you know, hire people using those copied and pasted job descriptions, right.
[00:19:34] Job specs. Um, I don't really see a lot of space given there for diversity or, or divergence in terms of how people think. Uh, because even when I was hiring, I was literally just trying to tick the boxes and, fill in the boxes that I thought were empty. and not really considering maybe we have some,gaps in neuro diversions that I need to fill within my team.
[00:19:56] or maybe I need to recruit for in different ways in which people solve problems. so.
Filling in the neurodiversity gap and why that's important for innovation
[00:20:02] Nirish Shakya: My question to you is, as a designer or as a design leader or as a hiring manager, what are some of the things that we can do to first of all, well, increase our awareness, be aware, of these gaps in the ways we think and solve problems and what are some of the action that we can take to start to fill in some of these gaps?
[00:20:21] Matthew Bellringer: Thank you. Yeah, that's a, a really, really helpful question, but perhaps I might take a step back before I answer that directly and, and talk about why, why you would want to, because I think for me, this is one of the really important things that often gets overlooked in the conversation, um, on a practical level.it's we, we talk about, you know, EDI and have to do, um, whether that's because there's a legal requirement to do it, like there is in the UK, in this country, um, or because it's the morally correct thing to do or because it's what our stakeholders want us to do, or some combination
[00:21:03] of all of those thingsor it's what everyone else is doing. And we, you know, we don't want to get left It does definitely an important one. Um, it's not one I So, but yes, that's a really important one. And for me, and this is where innovation relates actually is, is diversity is most strongly correlated with successful innovation than anything else in organisations It is more efficient to have a completely homogenous workforce, but that becomes like a monoculture, like a field full of a single crop. That if one small thing is a problem for one of those, it's a massive problem and you lose everything.
[00:21:47] Nirish Shakya: in, in the short term,
[00:21:48] though, that that farm with, just one type of trees does produce a lot of fruit that he can sell and make money off.
[00:21:55] Matthew Bellringer: It does until it doesn't. is always the question, um, for me, I think the more invested we are in the continuance, in the endurance of a system, essentially, the more privileged we are you know, we are talking about senior stakeholders here like the people on the, the people who are paid, you know, minimum wage for an organization or who are doing, um, gig work for an organization.
[00:22:22] Don't have a lot invested in the continuance of that system. They can go somewhere else. If you are CEO, if you're in the C-suite, there's a lot riding on that organization, enduring and lasting for you personally. And so you actually have quite a lot invested and every time you engage with the environment, you are rolling the dice. So the question becomes, how comfortable are you with that dice role? Do you, do you like the odds of the possibility of complete failure, even though it's small at the expense of short, you know, and do you want that short term profit?
[00:23:13] Nirish Shakya: Hmm.
[00:23:13] Matthew Bellringer: that's, that's a, that's a valid question, but I would say if we look at the history of organizations that have endured versus the history of organizations that have failed or ended, is the diverse and diverging organizations, which last and which succeed and which tend to outplay their competitors as well.
[00:23:34] This is the other thing is yes, you can make a lot of profit with a single monoculture, but what happens if. the farmer in the next field and the farmer in the next field and the farmer in the next field and the farmer behind you all decide to grow the same thing,
[00:23:53] the market
[00:23:53] collapses. So there are all of these different risks to monoculture and the other difficulty as you're so committed to a single practice, to a single way of working that is very, very expensive and difficult to change.
[00:24:07] And you don't have the capabilities around changing change. You don't have the capabilities of creating change. And if you encounter an unexpected event, a big player comes in, someone PLA you know, the, the, the, the, the local kind of L down the road decides to grow everything that you are growing and completely out competes you through resourcing.
[00:24:32] You haven't practiced any change.
[00:24:34] Nirish Shakya: Mm-hmm yeah, I'm I'm loving this, farming, metaphor here.
Fitting in or fitting out: what can you do as a neurodivergent designer?
[00:24:38] so let's imagine that, I mean, let's start with the current reality where a lot of organizations are monocultures where, compliance is rewarded, and efficiency is, compliant, let's say compliant efficiency is rewarded, but if you are a, a designer or not just designer, but any, any professional working in that kind of monoculture where, you are different and you realize your difference, what can you do?
[00:25:02] Nirish Shakya: Like, is it a matter of, um, you trying to fit in or you're trying to fit out, or you try to change that culture or you just try to ship out and go into some other farm that actually, grows more diverse crops.
[00:25:16] Matthew Bellringer: I think that very much depends on your own position, your experience, and how you choose to relate to the world, what you want out of, out of the situation, depending on your level of seniority. That again, the more senior you are, the more helpful it is to actually be open about your own difference.
[00:25:38] There's a huge amount of evidence that suggests that, that. people who are openly in minority status in, uh, in the senior levels of organizations makes that whole organization a better place for people within that minority, with who also hold that minority status and being able to be open about that is a really, really big step forward.
[00:26:06] One of the big challenges, particularly from design is that we simply don't know what we don't experience because we don't experience it. And therefore having a range of different experiences of the world in your design practice makes your process a lot. More, but protected from the unexpected because you have a variety of different perspectives looking at the issue.
[00:26:35] You don't, you no longer have a monoculture and there is a balance here. I think it's really important to say.we also don't want, it makes sense to specialize to some degree, it makes sense to, to have a, a coherent grouping, but it also makes sense to
[00:26:55] be diverse within that. So with the efficiency, I think I often like to think about efficiency and effectiveness and their relationship. So we often seem to think that almost like effectiveness takes care of itself in organizations that as long as the more efficient we are, the better. however, if you're doing something that's ineffective, it doesn't matter how efficiently you do it. And if you're doing something where the effect is negative, which is surprisingly common in organizations, then efficiency is an active harm because you are gonna be doing something
[00:27:35] Nirish Shakya: Hmm, is it kind of like, we, we. Reward ourself for running as fast as possible, or being as productive as possible in any given moment, but we might be running in the wrong, in the wrong direction.
[00:27:47] Matthew Bellringer: exactly it's like sometimes it helps to stop and look at a map and decide where you want to go.
[00:27:53] And, and so that, you know, that relationship is, is a really important one. And I think the more latitude you have, to give yourself permission to work in your own way, and if you have organizational power authority to allow others and trust others to work in the way that works for them.
[00:28:23] And when I say work in the way that works for them, I mean, in really broad terms could be anything from working hours to. The practice around the work. For example, I mean, one of the interesting things about a lot of design work, particularly in innovation work is it's insight driven rather than kind of, um, working out driven in the, in the, you can't just grind through it.
[00:28:50] You can't brute force. It, it it's like you need an insight, insight processes tend to happen when you are not actively working on the thing. So for many people, myself included the best thing I can do if I'm stuck on something is go for a walk. And how many workplaces would
[00:29:16] actively encourage kind of practice or go to, you know, or go and play a musical instrument or go in and have a chat with a, yeah, just not directly
[00:29:26] working on the obvious outcome. So you can use different bits of your experience to process. And for me, there's also things like the environment, like what kind of environment supports you? It probably isn't an open plan office, for example. So what can you do to give people the degrees you can give them? Like, for example, I know, um, like Google are famous for allowing people to build, like basically build their own little, tiny little shed office things in their open plan offices because they have these big spaces and they, so what degrees of freedom do you have that you can let people adapt their working space?
[00:30:14] Because this adaption is a huge part of both. Being a better place for neuro divergent people. And for everyone else is how can you let your people and yourself work in slightly odd ways, ways that aren't conventional ways that aren't proven yet necessarily, but that feel good, that feel right. And connecting with that intuitive sense as well.
Who's responsible for nurturing neurodiversity in organisations?
[00:30:45] Nirish Shakya: Hm. So Matthew, who's
[00:30:47] responsible for, enabling this to happen in an organiz.
[00:30:51] Matthew Bellringer: I think responsible is a very interesting word. I, I, I tend to like to think of it as who responds able, who has the ability to respond
[00:31:03] and to what. We almost all have different degrees of freedom in our work than more degrees of freedom than we tend to use, because we very often internalize a model of what work is and what we are expected. That isn't actually that accurate, particularly if we're working as a professional, I'm not sure that's true.
[00:31:23] If you're working in, that's probably far less true if you're working in frontline retail or on a factory floor, but it's definitely true for creative professions. Um, and so seeing what degrees of freedom you have, what can you do that isn't directly and obviously related to your job, but is still your job.
[00:31:48] I've often said to people that I'm, you know, where, where they're working for other organizations is you don't necessarily need to ask permission for everything. Some of it is implicit. Some of it is given just because it is your job and this is how you do that?
[00:32:07] job. You're an expert. So for example, um,say you see a, I D a book that's tangentially related to what you do.
[00:32:21] So for example, say, I'm trying to think of a specific that grabs your interest, um, but that isn't directly related to your working practice. I mean, for example, I use a lot of biomimicry in my practice is like looking at how biological systems solve problems and seeing what we can borrow and
[00:32:42] learn from them. So So say you have a similar thing then maybe buying a book about. How fungi live and work is actually a useful and relevant part of your design practice and allowing yourself to push that edge a little bit, not too far, but whatever, what you are, you are comfortable with and, and then see what comes of it and kind of develop confidence in it, giving yourself a little bit of space to play, essentially to not do the directed stuff.
[00:33:22] And this can be a very, very small amount particularly to start with. I would never suggest to anyone that they should do more than they feel comfortable with, particularly in this space. So if it feels comfortable, just give yourself maybe five minutes play when you get in, in the morning and five minutes play after lunch.
[00:33:43] Every day, like when I say play undirected, working something where you don't have a specific objective where you can follow your interest and see what comes out of it.
Creating space for play in your daily practice
[00:33:55] What are some of the, the practices that you have that you do in, in those five minutes when you are taking the time out?
[00:34:03] Matthew Bellringer: I give myself a lot more than five minutes for a start. Um, on some level, most of my work is space of work and play. Um, for me, I don't think we can necessarily get to an ideal, a hundred percent place, but if I'm at two thirds
[00:34:21] Nirish Shakya: Hmm. So if someone is just like starting try out, like, you know, doing their first five minutes of play um, what are some of the can do because you know, people might be wondering, oh yeah, I've got five minutes. I don't
[00:34:33] Matthew Bellringer: And I think a lot of this comes down to trusting your intuition is letting your intuition be free. It's like, if you are thinking on a problem, your brain works on stuff far more than you're aware of consciously. If you ever meditate, you'll find, you know, all of the random threats that are running in your brain all the time.
[00:34:56] And then you're like, no wonder I'm tired. Um, so allow one of those processes to drive for five minutes. That might mean putting on a piece of music. That might mean going for a walk that might mean doodling. That might mean free writing. some really useful tips that Matthew, in terms of things that I could definitely try, I mean, I tend to do, free writing after my meditation session in the morning, but I hadn't actually thought about, how do I make it fun or how do I bring in more pleasure into that practice?
[00:35:34] Nirish Shakya: So that's something I'm definitely gonna try next time.
[00:35:37] Um, I think that, um, brings, brings me to
Don't create safe spaces, create safe-enough spaces
[00:35:40] Nirish Shakya: One of the other things that I wanted to ask you about was around, dealing with, or managing complexity and the uncertainty that comes from the complexity, and the role of neuro diversions in that. And how do you create that safe space, for, all kinds of neurodiverse people in your organization, in your team to be able to, to do.
[00:36:04] Matthew Bellringer: um, I'd like to start actually maybe working relative,
[00:36:08] um, as someone whose thought process often works backwards from the conventional perspective, there, but,firstly, uh, because it's probably the key to this or some of this is the idea of a safe space.
[00:36:24] this fully safe space? Actually, isn't very useful in a fully safe space. Everything is known and predictable. That's why it's fully safe.We can't explore, you know, if we go a bit off the path, we might we might fall down a hole, you know, But we won't fall off the edge of a cliff.
[00:36:43] So what we are looking for is a safe enough space. We're looking for a space where we can fail and that that's okay because that's the place that we want to explore uncertainty in. We want to be able to get close to the edge and that has some risk. And this is actually really important for particularly medicalized minorities is the idea that minority people, people in a minority must be kept safe somehow and therefore prevented from exploring the world and engaging with the world in their way. There's a concept from psychology called the dignity of risk. which I really, really like. And I think this idea of allowing ourselves to try things out and for them not to work for them, for us to suffer some
[00:37:52] small harm, even as a result, that's how we
[00:37:58] So, so it's the idea that if we don't have the ability to take risks, to fail, we don't have dignity because we don't have autonomy. We strip something important from someone's humanity. If we insist that they keep themselves safe, particularly when we say safe, For our terms of safe. And I think this is also a interesting question from a design perspective in general, designing, there's some really interesting, uh, research from around children and playgrounds, for example, this will give you a good, this is a hopefully a, a, a fairly grounded example of, of what I mean by dignity of risk is there was a theme or a trend for playgrounds to make them absolutely safe.
[00:38:55] Every time there was an accident. Things were redesigned. Things were removed or changed until basically kids couldn't. It was almost impossible to hurt yourself as a child, a playground, and at a population level. What they found was yes, there were fewer small playground based injuries, but there were a lot more catastrophic, real world injuries amongst children who had experienced, who had grown up in places where those playgrounds were ubiquitous.
[00:39:36] We need developmental, we need spaces of some degree of risk to develop an appropriate way of relating to that Uh, it needs to be an appropriate level. You know, you don't want a playground that is lethally dangerous, but a playground that could result in a scraped knee or a bruise is not, is actually going to be a more helpful space and if you think about this applied to the workplace, then, you know, thinking about work teams and design teams is okay. Well, what happens if we, we create a space where it doesn't quite work, what happens if we try something where it's not safe? Okay, well, we've spent some resources on effectiveness. Great. We found a way that didn't work. That's a helpful thing.
Giving neurodivergent users spaces to play with in digital products
[00:40:27] Matthew Bellringer: And the other side of this, which is an area that I am particularly interested in personally from a digital perspective, is what if we pass that onto our users as well? What if rather than giving complete closed solutions, we give people frameworks, climbing, frames, things they can play with and play on and adapt in their own way. And we give them useful defaults. We give them useful examples, but that we allow them to change those things. We allow them to implement their own things within inbounds,
[00:41:13] with what we deliver to them. Say, for example, I'm delivering a, a smartphone app. What options about how the thing works. Am I actually putting in the hands of users? How am I, if you think about example, um, is everything fixed? Can some, or can the user move those elements around? Can they make one thing larger?
[00:41:42] And one thing smaller? Could they change the color scheme? Because for example, um, and a very real example of this is for various people with disabilities or with, or in neuro minorities, there are potentially conflicting design decisions around the color around color schemes. So people with visual impairment, for example, may want a really high contrast. Scheme, and that may be necessary for them to successfully engage with an app people with autism or with one of the dyslexia co-occurrences, which is, um, um, where letters move around in high contrast environments may want a much lower contrast scheme and only be able to successfully engage with that app with a lower color contrast. So, which do you choose or do you give people a default and then let them make up their own mind?
[00:42:52] Nirish Shakya: cause you, mentioned around,creating these spaces for risks, even, for the customers and the products that you design for them. So is it about what you're saying is it is a, is it about, letting them pick and choose how that experience works for them, and giving them that framework to do that rather than deciding everything for them.
[00:43:11] Matthew Bellringer: Yes, I think, well, it's about, it's about offering a default experience. The one that you know is good. I'm not saying don't do user research. I'm not saying leave it all up to the users by any means. But what I am saying is be aware that your own experiencing of the
[00:43:30] world and your research may be incomplete
[00:43:34] that you may be forced to make trade offs in that design that you're aware of, where you can't reconcile to kind of paradoxical needs.
[00:43:49] And that there are lots of them and some of them you won't even be aware of, unless you've got an incredibly representative design team.
[00:43:58] because this is one of the other things is, is one of the real advantages of, of, of a more inclusive working practice is that more people have direct lived experience of a range of different ways of being in the world.
[00:44:11] So they will understand how things that often when you do have those teams, you get a lot of conflict.
[00:44:19] You're like, well, we need it like this and you need it like that. So, which do we decide? We no longer have a conflict. Now we have a choice. Now we have an, a degree of freedom, a significant degree of
[00:44:33] freedom that people can change.
[00:44:36] So again, going back to the color scheme thing, it's like, okay, different people need different color schemes. Great. We'll give them the option, but we'll also give them some scaffolding. Maybe we have like. A standard color scheme, a high contrast color scheme, and a, and a low contrast color scheme, and allow people to tinker with it a bit in between, or find a way to adapt that create a slider, whatever.
[00:45:02] And in this sense, the degree of freedom that the, the risk we give people make a really ugly color scheme. ,you know, they might make a really unusable color scheme. They might find a color scheme that it obscures important UI elements. So what we also need to do is we need to give them a way back.
[00:45:20] So we need to give them a button that's like, okay, go back to defaults or go back to the, you know, a way a signpost back to the path that we already know so that they can try and experiment. And so I think this, I, this, this flexibility is a really important aspect, but. That ability to see these things as degrees of variation, rather than fixed points that need to be decided and solved is a really helpful way
[00:45:56] of resolving that
[00:45:58] conflict that every
[00:45:59] design team
Get your design 80% right
[00:46:02] Nirish Shakya: I, should probably clarify here for my own sake is, suggesting that we release a half baked solution you know, maybe like partially works partially doesn't, accept that role or just, you know, give that risk to the user
[00:46:17] Matthew Bellringer: Absolutely. John.
[00:46:20] But one of the things that you can, you will, you might find if you do this, is that actually it moves resources to different places. So if you think about a design process where we, we spend a huge amount of time looking for the perfect or the optimal, and if you think about how many, how many meetings have you been in?
[00:46:42] How many conversations, how many design sessions, how many user groups have you been in where we are like finding a fixed, optimal point and the resources involved, you know, because you've, you've got to get it so right. You end up right up in that last 20% of optimization where 80% of the cost is.
[00:47:03] And if we can get the design 80%, right.
[00:47:07] And let people flex that for themselves. We can learn a lot more.
[00:47:14] And the other thing is that gives us really useful telemetry. If we have something like an app, because we can see what our users are doing with it, and we can learn from that and we can iterate ourselves. So we are actually, you know, we can say, okay, people use it this way.
[00:47:32] We didn't expect people to use it quite this way. How can we support that in our next iteration? How can we improve that? Because for me, this is one of the really interesting things about innovation. Is it almost always comes from the integration of different perspectives. So one of the key drivers of innovation is the integration of two different perhaps opposing perspectives. And one of the most fundamental pairs of perspectives within the design process is the top down perspective of the designer and the bottom up perspective of the user. And what we are really talking about is creating a context where we can integrate those, where those can come together. in interesting and unexpected ways. And this space for the unexpected, I think is probably one of the key themes, you know, is that, that we've been talking about, you know, creating a little bit of space for uncertainty that reflects our real level of uncertainty. This is one of the other things, if we are really sure about something, because it makes sense to research that it makes sense to engage with that.
[00:48:45] Then we don't necessarily want a lot of degrees of freedom for the end user. Um, if we're designing medical equipment, for example, or if we're designing avionics in a, in an airplane, we actually want a high degree of consistency. And we, we have quite a consistent environment. We have a very highly trained user group, and we also have the ability to influence that training. So if we implement a new tool, we can offer that. That can be part of the offer. If we're working with more naive users in the, in the literal sense users who, who aren't formally trained in, whatever it is that we are giving them. And we don't have that opportunity to formally train them, we are necessarily gonna have a high degree of uncertainty in what we develop.
[00:49:40] Matthew Bellringer: So it makes sense to reflect that and not try and
[00:49:44] overdevelop beyond
[00:49:46] what we can be sure
Preventing uncertainties in design being hijacked by opinions
[00:49:47] Nirish Shakya: would probably raise in that is if we leave that in a certain space, for uncertainty in our products, there is a risk that that space might be hijacked by the opinions of some of our other stakeholders in the team where there might not be comfortable with. Uncertainty and they basically make a design decision.
[00:50:07] but just based on their opinion of how it should work, just to kind of fill in that gap, how would you manage, that kind of scenario, yeah, it, it's a very real concern. Um, and I think particularly when we're talking about senior stakeholders who are naive to the design process, says it's a very significant risk. And one, this again, actually relates ultimately to the self-awareness thing. There are limits to what you can do as an individual. One of the things you can do is experiment with the degrees of freedom that you do have and prove the approach. So you might not be able to do it on a large project. And I wouldn't, again, this is new space, so don't do it on something where there's overwhelming risks, straight away, do it in a space on a small project. I'm really a big fan of internal projects for developing this, um, how we develop our tooling ourselves and then spread that outwards is a really, really good way of both developing the capabilities of working this way and developing really interesting innovative products and proving them. So what you can do is you can say, well, we don't know this for sure, but what we do know is in this kind of situation, this is more effective than any single
[00:51:35] Nirish Shakya: Hmm.
[00:51:35] Matthew Bellringer: solution.
Using as lived experiences to design for others
[00:51:37] Nirish Shakya: So Matthew, another thing that I wanted to kind of take us back to was,know, one of the things that you're an advocate of is, using your lived experiences, in, in your process, in your practice. one of the, the principles that, we tend to follow as designers is, especially in human-centered design, is that you are not the user.
[00:52:09] Matthew Bellringer: I think my question would be, why are you not the user? Why, why, why, where is the differentiation point? Why, what is it that divides you from the user?
[00:52:23] Nirish Shakya: Because we're too
[00:52:23] close to the product that we're designing. Right. And we might have our own personal biases that might skew the, the data we're using. And hence why we collect data from the real world and use that as evidence to make our design decisions.
[00:52:36] and it's true. There's burden of knowledge, burden of knowledge is a big thing. You know, we, it's very, very hard for us to put ourselves in the position of someone who doesn't know what we do. And some of that can be covered in testing. This is why testing is really important is because I don't know what is intuitive I can't really, um, if I'm. Neurotypical. I can, I might not be aware that that's necessarily true. If you're neuro divergent, you're often acutely aware that your intuition, you have different intuition about things to others where, you know, right or wrong, we all have to work with.
[00:53:20] Matthew Bellringer: Intuition is about engaging with uncertainty and complexity. So it's, it's necessarily not like a complete answer, but it's a steer in the right direction for us very often. But how are we testing? That is a really important part of it. But the other part of it is what is our relationship to the problem we are solving? Why are we as an individual motivated to solve this particular problem? And in this particular way, what aspects of my lived experience do connect me with the user. Because that's another really important part of it. And the what aspects so yeah. Um, This idea of how are we designing for what we know, but how are we also taking account of what we don't know is, is a really major aspect of this. And one of the significant ways that we can use to examine this is edge cases. Like where are our edge cases, including our own experience of edge cases is like, am I not the core user of this app?
[00:54:34] edge case user? You know, how do I relate to what it is that I am creating? And to the people that I am creating it within mind is one of the big difficulties of being different is that there are many people who have opinions about the right way for me to act in the world and to be, which are informed by their own experience necessarily. because my experience is different, those can be very unhelpful ways of acting. They don't work for me either because I experience them differently. And so I see things they don't, or I miss things. They do. They, they, they do see, or usually a combination about. Or because I have a different set of capabilities. It's a very difficult pathway. They, they essentially, it proposes a difficult method. So the question is, what are you, where are you coming from as a designer in this whole process? Because we are not neutral. Our work is not neutral. It is the product of our experience, our fundamental assumptions and beliefs and the way that we feel in the world. There is no getting away from that. And when we try and ignore it or pretend it isn't real, all we do is we bake it in to whatever we do. If we can begin to engage with it, We can start using it as a real strength in the design process and be clear about our relationship to the use and the use cases and how we expect what we are creating will benefit people on a more fundamental level and also how it will benefit us, because this is the other thing is allowing ourselves our own development, allowing ourselves to loop back what we do to make ourselves better at what we do is a really important way of building capability to help others in this space.
[00:57:19] Matthew Bellringer: So you can see it on a personal level. It's a bit like what I was talking about, about building internal tools.
[00:57:25] It's building your own personal tools is another way to look at this. You know, what tools practices, approaches support you as an individual? How do they relate to what the team does what we all output, um, and how our users use them and allowing ourselves to learn from our users, allowing ourselves to be experts, but experts with constrained knowledge, constrained, experience experts who can learn from
[00:57:53] the bits that we
[00:57:54] don't yet know.
[00:57:55] Nirish Shakya: again being self-aware and finding out what works for you, and using that to make those design decisions at the same time, letting your intuition guide you as well.
[00:58:05] Matthew Bellringer: Absolutely. Let letting the, you know, how, how are you
[00:58:10] relating? How do you feel
[00:58:12] Nirish Shakya: Yeah.
[00:58:13] Matthew Bellringer: about what you create and how does
[00:58:16] creating it feel.
Joyless designs are a result of joyless creation processes
[00:58:19] Matthew Bellringer: Because I think this is another really interesting artifact of the design process is very often the joyless designs to use are the result of
[00:58:33] joyless creation processes.
[00:58:36] If we can enjoy and engage with wholeheartedly what we are building, we make a better product, but that's not trivial bringing about that situation is hard work devoting some of the resources to that instead of simply to direct outcomes, whether that's on a personal level and exploring your own experience, exploring different ways of expressing yourself or whether that's on a collective level, particularly if you have a leadership role and allowing teams and individuals within the teams to do
[00:59:14] that. It's the most value we can, we can get a huge amount of value out our resources spent in that direction simply because
[00:59:23] we don't, because they're so rare
[00:59:25] at the moment because we are so up
[00:59:26] the other end.
[00:59:27] Nirish Shakya: you know, a lot of times, know, we, I mean we tend to do, you know, what we call human centered design, uh, where we put all our, uh, energy and resources to meet the needs of the humans we're designing for. But what you just said reminds me of, and maybe we need to bring the human within us into that picture as well.
[00:59:47] and what are the needs that we're trying to meet and what brings us joy and make that part of that process, that part of that practice to make the products that we design joyful as well.
[00:59:59] Matthew Bellringer: absolutely. And I think it makes me think of maybe
[01:00:02] humans centered toas an alternative. Um, but it also means some challenging things. Um, particularly the idea that we can solve every use case in a single implementation that we can design the perfect universal, whatever we happen to work in and allowing ourselves to start from a really clear, good design for a small use case for a small group of the people we know best.
[01:00:34] And the people we know best are usually the people like us and then work outwards rather than trying to establish a complete. Idealized implementation before we have the knowledge, the experience to
[01:00:53] Nirish Shakya: Hmm. Yeah. Mm-hmm cool. Awesome. Thank you so much for that, Matthew. I've got a few other questions to, wrap up our conversation here. Um,
[01:01:03] Matthew Bellringer: Hmm.
A common myth Matthew would like to debunk
[01:01:04] Nirish Shakya: so. What is the one common myth that you'd like to debunk in the world of creativity, innovation and neuro diversions.
[01:01:13] Matthew Bellringer: I think the myth I'd like most like to debunk is that that what makes us different is a source of shame. It may not be a myth that people are consciously aware of, but it's very much a myth. If you think about how individuals and organizations behave is we're so desperately afraid of doing something that the others aren't or of not doing something that the others are and allowing ourselves both of those, particularly the latter actually, because that space is so important is a core part of how we differentiate towards our greatest value,
[01:02:00] because it's that rarity where a lot of the value
[01:02:04] Nirish Shakya: I love that.
[01:02:06] Nirish Shakya: So Matthew, I'm gonna just do a quick recap of some of my learnings from this conversation. and one of the things that, we started off with was around how everyone is newer diverse, right? And, and then we moved on to how you, a lot of times, know, we might be operating in a monoculture where.
[01:02:26] Tend to encourage everyone to be the same and think the same, but if you are a designer working in such monocultures, one of the things that you could do is first of all, start off with, what do you want, to do? There's no one right way out of that kind of system. and we are all response able, so we are able to respond to such, environments and do what is necessary for us to either work within that or get out of it.
[01:02:55] And one of the practices that you mentioned that I really loved was around introducing something like a five minute play into your day where you might be, using more of your body. For example, maybe going for a walk, listening to music, or maybe even trying out something like a free writing where you're just, writing down, whatever comes to your mind for, for five minutes.
[01:03:17] but. Although I do that practice regularly. One of the things that I, I knew some, once something new that I picked from that was how do we bring in more pleasure into that practice? So maybe using a pen that you really enjoy using or a paper, that really feels nice. and that's something I'm definitely gonna try out tomorrow when I free ride after meditation session.
[01:03:36] another thing that I think you helped me reframe was around, in just thinking of how do we make our workplaces psychologically safe? How do we make them safe enough? Right. So that you still allow for some risk in that space where people are allowed to take risks, but small, early risks that people can learn from.
[01:03:57] Nirish Shakya: So that doesn't result in like massive, big, risks later on. and I think in all of this conversation, one thing that's, become more clear to me was around, the, the importance of. Knowing yourself so that you can place yourself in that system that you are trying to design, what is your relationship to the problem you're trying to solve?
[01:04:20] So you're not just solving the problem like a machine, but you're actually putting more of yourself into that and knowing your own motivations and needs, so that you can bring more joy into that process into that practice. So you're not just creating, joyless products to just joyless practices, but you are bringing more joy into that process so that you are creating and embedding more joy, into the products you're designing as well.
[01:04:44] and I love how you said, maybe it's not about being human centered, but also about being humans centered. It's it's not just about the humans are designing for, but also about you as well. and I love how, what you said with, at the end around what, being different is not. Source of shame, right.
[01:05:01] Nirish Shakya: Something that needs to be celebrated. And it's something that actually great for creativity and innovation and ultimately can work as a competitive advantage. so yeah, I, I just love all these nuggets that I picked up from that conversation with you, Matthew. is there a question that I haven't asked yet that you'd ask yourself?
The role of power
[01:05:20] Matthew Bellringer: I think there's one question that, that we've spoken to in relat, like kind of around the edges of, but we haven't directly addressed. And for me, the question is what's the role of power in all of this? How are we using our power and privilege? Well, Becausefor me as a design, you know, when we design any system, we are both using our power to make decisions and to make things in the world. And we are implicitly reflecting a lot of those, the assumptions that give rise to that in whatever we create. And we are hopefully creating something that allows other people to operationalize their own power in helpful, positive ways. But we must always be aware. I think of where we do have power agency control and where we don't and where, how that relates to our users. because one of the most significant kind of overlooked elements of many design processes is simply that the user group don't have the same agency. They don't have the same degrees of freedom of as us as designers, they may have different ones, but they don't, they, and so we need to be really aware of that relationship. And I think ultimately we want to create situations where both we have more agency power ability to change the world in positive ways.
[01:07:29] And so do our users, which means a shift in thinking from power over. Control, how do I make sure people use this in the way that I think it should be used to power with? How can we maximize all of the possibilities in this space for everyone
[01:07:54] Nirish Shakya: Mm, great. Thanks for sharing the Matthew. And I know that's a massive topic in itself. So if you'd like me to invite Matthew back for another episode where we dive deeper into this, please do email me at near Rocha design, filling.co. And, I'll make sure that, know, Matthew comes back to expand on that topic as well.
Free 30-min advice call with Matthew
[01:08:11] so Matthew, you did mention that, you would like to offer, a, an advice call for, our listeners. could you tell us more.
[01:08:19] Matthew Bellringer: So I work with an awful lot of neuro divergent people, and I'm aware that it can be a very difficult space, particularly if it is the topic you're exploring and squaring an emerging awareness of neuro divergence, whether that's by formal diagnosis or whether you, whether a formal diagnosis is actually something that you wish to pursue with a professional identity and what it is that you would like to be doing in the world and how you would like to use that is a very difficult thing.
[01:08:54] be very happy to offer, uh, a, a conversation with anyone who's exploring anything in this space and equally with any. Designers who are designing for neuro divergent people or with neuro divergent people in mind and to be able to make your, uh, whatever it is that you're working on, more accessible or to organizations, managers, um, executives who want to make sure that their working practices are as accessible as possible.
[01:09:32] Matthew Bellringer: And particularly who might want to explore more of the huge advantages of creating a situation where a wider range of a greater breadth of neurodiversity is available in the talent pool for the organization and where those people who are neuro divergent, who are already in the organization can use their greatest
Finding Matthew online
[01:10:01] Nirish Shakya: Thank you so much for the Matthew. so how can people find you, if they wish to contact you after this?
[01:10:07] uh, people can find me through that's the best share quite a lot of content, um, and uh, regularly do, uh, yeah, all sorts of different things, uh, in this space. So the be very best way to do is connect with me on LinkedIn and we can chat there and
[01:10:21] Matthew Bellringer: arrange a time
[01:10:22] Nirish Shakya: and I'll also include, direct link to your calendar booking, in the show notes as well. So, um, wherever you're listening to this podcast episode right now, feel free to, go to your podcast app and I'll also include a link to, Booker time slot with Matthew directly, your podcast app. So if you go check out your show notes in your podcast app that using to listen to this podcast episode right now, can book a call with Matthew directly and have that call with.
[01:10:49] Matthew Bellringer: That's wonderful. Thank you. And I would just like to add, if you do connect with me on LinkedIn, please do just share in the little note that it was through this podcast, that was the reason that you
[01:10:59] wanted to get in touch.
[01:11:01] Nirish Shakya: Well, thank you so much for the Matthew. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and your wisdom on the topic of creativity, innovation, and near divergence. Uh,you've certainly helped me open up my mind to this world that I wasn't really aware of, during my, during the entirety of my career.
[01:11:16] And hopefully you've done the same for, for our lessons as well. and, hopefully I'll, you know, see you back and our design feeling podcast again, to explore some of these other topics that we have not been able to explore in more depth, uh, today.
[01:11:27] Matthew Bellringer: Super, thank you very much for, uh, for hosting me and thank you to everyone for listening. I, I really enjoyed this, this particular conversation. It's, it's great to see professions engaging with this stuff. It's really valuable and, and important, um, for me as an individual as well. So yeah. Thank you for being willing to, encounter this stuff. Cause it's a little bit challenging very often, and I really appreciate that. Thank you see you next time. well.
[01:11:55] Nirish Shakya: thank you so much for joining us in this chat. I'll be joining Matthew live on his show, Delightful Dissent in October, and we'll be exploring the why behind what we do as designers, check out the link in the show notes for more details.
[01:12:10] If you are enjoying listening to the Design Feeling podcast, please do consider leaving an honest review on Apple Podcasts. It'll really help get this podcast out to more people. And please do share the podcast with a Design Thinking friend who could benefit from these conversations. See you next time.