Last May, I asked my boyfriend if he would rather we spend our vacation in Barcelona visiting my family, or traveling around Ireland with friends. His response was to quote a meme: “Why not both?”
It was the beginning of a new world for us. Every either/or decision became an either/or/both decision. Should we spend the weekend at home, or out? Why not both?! Should I buy a small laptop case for conferences, or a larger one to double as an airplane carry on? Why not both?! And so on and so forth. In many cases, I still choose one or the other, but the phrase “why not both” is now a gentle reminder to me to “think outside the box” and consider other, less binary alternatives.
Right and wrong
We come up against binary thinking all the time – I see it frequently when clients and design teams reach a crossroads. I’ve also been asked by beginner UXers if they will be “better off” going into content strategy or user research, UX design or front-end dev. Why not both? Ultimately, it may behoove you to specialize, but why choose the path before experiencing all of the options?
Binary thinking is dangerous, because by saying content strategy is the “right” choice, it implies something else (be it content marketing, digital strategy, or user research) is the “wrong” choice. Our world is simply not that binary. Sometimes there is no wrong answer.
The darker side of binary thinking
A week ago, when I began writing this article, it was a lighthearted look at the frustrating binary perspective I encounter at some point on nearly every project. But now things have changed, and I need to write this as not just a content strategist, but as a woman, an American, and a human being who is impacted by the world around me. With that in mind, let’s take binary thinking a step farther.
Binary thinking can be polarizing in the content world, but it’s downright dangerous in the political and legal realm. Both George Washington and John Adams worried about a two-party political system for its polarizing ramifications, and today many people feel compelled to vote with their political party, even when they disagree on important issues. That’s dangerous, and it gets work.
Binary thinking leads to arguments over whether mass shootings are caused by anti-depressants or lack of gun control. It leads to arguments over whether Elliot Roger’s rampage was caused by rape culture or mental health issues. It leads us to try to choose one scapegoat for situations that have many causes, because we want an easy answer. Because binary makes sense. Because we are searching for simplicity in a complex world. We must avoid this either/or mentality, because saying shootings are caused by mental illness implies we need to fix that instead of gun control, or instead of race relations, or instead of rape culture. And that’s simply, sadly, not the case. We live in a collaborative society, where one societal problem impacts another. To become a better society – and better people – we have to work together, collaboratively, on more than one area at a time.
I won’t attempt to say what so many others, including Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Arthur Chu, have already put much more comprehensively. I’ll just ask that in your personal as well as your professional lives, you join me in asking why we need to choose before grasping at a singular solution. Let’s take a step back, and consider: why not both?