It's not all about U(X): What we can learn from mushrooms

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Before we get into why “It’s not all about U(X)” - which, as a User Experience (UX) designer, sounds like I’m trying to do myself out of a job - let’s talk about mushrooms. From packaging to meat alternatives, mushrooms are, quite deservedly, growing in popularity. Nevertheless, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg, or rather the cap of the mushroom.

According to Paul Stamets, an American mycologist, mushrooms “have potential to do more for the planet than any other life form, humans included”. Now, I’m not going to suggest that UX is going to transport us to some kind of fungi utopia; but let’s see what mushrooms can teach UX and how we can use it to design a planet-centred future.

UX vs. Mushrooms

Firstly, a mushroom’s root network - mycelium - is what gives it much of its ‘power’; closing the loop of our ecosystem’s energy cycle by secreting enzymes which decompose dead organic matter. Sounds like inspiration for the recent emphasis on the planetary importance of establishing a Circular Economy. As well as being the invisible network that joins up those not-so-meaty bois on the forest floor, mycelium can boost human immunity and clean up oil spills. I know - magic…   

If you think of the pretty front-end digital experience as a mushroom’s stem and cap; then everything below ground - the mushroom’s root network - is the UX. A UX Designer’s role, then, is to assimilate a business’ needs, user’s needs and produce an experience (the fertile soil) which allows your digital experience to grow. From a strategic perspective, too, UX strategy looks to contextualise and join up various customer touch points in your digital ecosystem - customer journey maps spring to mind.

If you think of the pretty front-end digital experience as a mushroom’s stem and cap; then everything below ground - the mushroom’s root network - is the UX.
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“What can UX learn from mycelium?” I hear you cry. I find the symbiotic relationships that mushrooms have with the wider ecosystem is a good starting point. I’m hinting at the multi-channel nature of digital and the shift to considering the planet as a stakeholder. As UX designers, we tend to focus on the business and users - people and how they achieve their goals through an ‘experience’, or rather an interface, be it on or offline. It is, however, important that we remember the tangible impact of our output. As we are faced with the immediate threat of the Climate Emergency we, as designers, are therefore well placed to take direct action by focussing on the consequences of digital solutions.

It's not all about the user

That’s what I meant when I said it’s not all about U(X). UX is great, but nowadays it’s not all about users, or the experience for that matter. As a B Corp, the planet has been added to Yoyo’s client list and we’re focussing on actionable ways to limit and reduce our impact on the environment. I wish I could say that we were inspired by the mighty mushroom… then this article would make more sense. 

That said, it’s not about taking the user out of the equation. It’s about evolving your perspective and to design not just for ourselves, but for the planet. With that in mind, we’ve had a look at some key bits and boblies to keep in mind so that you, too, can design for the planet.

Design for people, not users

I’m sure mushrooms don’t discriminate. Unless we’re talking about those poisonous ones; but that’s another story. Mycelium root networks are inclusive systems which benefit not just mushrooms but the entire ecosystem - everyone wins.

The same can be said for accessible design. Design for everyone and you design for the world. If, for instance, your site implements appropriate colour contrast for those with glaucoma, includes large touch target sizes for those with Parkinsons’ or leverages UX design principles to support users with ADHD, it means those across a wide range of contexts and capabilities can access your experience and achieve their goals. 

Great UX doesn’t mean simply designing for your target users, but accounting for a broad spectrum within user groups. Take a look at Microsoft’s position on the power of persona spectrums.

Eco-conscious design

If mycelium is good for the planet and people, UX is too - or at least it has the potential to be. Don Norman agrees! Calculating the total impact of your designs is a contentious science, but there are tools out there to measure impact of your digital experience when it comes to carbon budgeting and energy efficiency. 

There are actionable steps you can take to reduce the environmental impact of your digital footprint. At Yoyo, we’ve taken the time to put together a list of 10 considerations that teams can use to put eco-conscious design into practice.

Reduce waste

Right; this is the last mushroom reference, but their efficiency is second-to-none - they convert and live from waste and agricultural byproducts. In fact, they don’t require much time, space or resources to grow. If a business could be a living organism, you’d want yours to be a mushroom. 

There are also similarities between the Toyota Production System, a well-referenced philosophy which aims to eliminate waste in pursuit of efficiency. Streamlining processes, utilising resources to their full potential and avoiding unnecessary effort are examples of its principles which provide guidelines on how to reduce waste and can be applied to an eco-conscious approach to business practices. Beyond operational efficiency, UX can certainly help you identify pain points and where there are opportunities to improve efficiencies across your digital ecosystem.

Well done, you’ve made it through this weird and, I hope, wonderful thought piece on the similarities between mushrooms and UX. I bet you didn’t see that one coming. If you’d like your reward for making it this far, get in touch with a member of the team at Yoyo to understand how we can help you design for the planet, not just U(X).

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