Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 3

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In my last two installments, I shared how Greg, Tim, and I prepared Intuitive Company for success by creating an open work environment and then “planting” the right people into our culture.

Watering is next—and it’s critical. After a team of senior professionals were in place and had formed a strong foundation for Intuitive Company, we had to set them up for success to ensure things kept running smoothly so that our culture and growth wouldn’t wither. One of the most obvious ways we “watered” this team was to give them support in the form of new hires. We brought on younger employees slowly and in lockstep with well-thought-out decisions to take on additional client work.


When someone officially joins Intuitive Company, they usually don’t feel like a new hire. That’s because we typically engage people on a project basis for at least a few months before bringing them on full-time. What’s more, many of these candidates have been referred by someone within the firm.

We won’t extend an offer to anyone who isn’t a good fit. We look for people who are driven—driven to innovate, learn, deliver and succeed. Being a good listener and communicator is a must as well. I’ll never understand companies that leave all of their hiring decisions to HR, or to a few people who aren’t going to be the ones working day-in and day-out with the applicant in question. That’s just asking for it. I don’t know if there could be a higher return on investment than what can result from investing time in growing your team with the right people.

Another example of watering is how we do everything we can to retain our employees once they’re here. We compensate at the upper end of the industry range, provide performance bonuses, contribute to profit sharing, offer full healthcare for the employee or their family (at the time of hire), frequently host lunches and pick up the tab, and encourage employees to travel comfortably when they have to head out of town to see clients.

But most importantly, we just let people do their work. We’re trusting and flexible. We don’t monitor hours or vacation days. I remember how demeaning it was to have to log two hours of personal time for a child’s doctor’s appointment, or how demoralized I felt when a family vacation should’ve lasted one more vacation day than I had to spare.

Now that we’ve helped build an atmosphere of trust at Intuitive Company, I can assure you that when employees don’t feel like The Man is watching their every move, they really, truly appreciate it, and it shows in their work and in their attitude. And no one has ever abused our system.

We also recognize that some people are social and others prefer to keep to themselves. Some people are natural leaders, while others are doers. So we don’t try to force anyone to be something they’re not, especially because we started with a core of senior people who could do everything: deliver, motivate, innovate, communicate, lead, and produce. We let those qualities influence the people we’ve added (and continue to add) to the staff.

One of the other mistakes we’d seen in our previous jobs was micro-management, so we knew when we started Intuitive Company that we must treat employees like the professionals they are. We vowed not to create organizational hierarchies just for the sake of doing so. We’ve found that if you simply trust people to get their jobs done and are confident that they’ll come to you if they have an issue, they’ll usually go above and beyond. People naturally group together by skill set and function, and leaders and doers will emerge on their own without having to be formally organized as such.

It was actually one of my experiences that led us to our anti-hierarchy stance. I was taking over a team of 60 people at a large corporation, and on my first day I was given this team’s organizational chart and instructed to “revise it so it works.” Management was confident that if they could just get the organizational structure right, all of their problems would be solved. I wasn’t told to observe what was working and what wasn’t or even allowed time get to know everyone. I was just supposed to rearrange boxes and rows and voila! The team’s processes and output would surely be flawless after that. Um . . . nope!

I’ve got a lot of advice for this step since it’s one of the most important parts of the process. Here are my suggestions:

  • Review your company’s hiring practices and see what can be improved.
  • Don’t wait too long before filling positions due to workload demands, and ensure that a candidate will be a good fit, both professionally and culturally. If other team members are already overloaded by the time relief arrives, you’re hiring too late. It’s a balance though, so hire carefully.
  • Observe how new employees assimilate into your culture and their roles and determine if anything can be improved with this process.
  • What’s morale like around the office? How intensely are people managed? You may discover that the two answers are related.
  • How many “layers” on the organization chart are there, and do they really have to be there? Make changes as necessary.
  • Does your team gel together, enjoy each other’s company, and know how to both work and play hard? If not, why not?
  • And most importantly, when people leave, do you know why? If you don’t, start asking the tough questions.

Stay tuned for Step 4: Adding fertilizer!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 2

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In my last installment, I shared how Greg, Tim, and I prepared Intuitive Company for success by focusing on creating an open work environment in every sense of the term.

Planting, or placing the right elements into the mix, was our next step. We wanted every aspect of our environment to be a positive influence and encourage great work. You can’t achieve that without first having the right people. Our employees are the “seeds,” if you will.


When Intuitive Company was founded, we decided to not only take our time bringing on new people, but to also focus on hiring senior level professionals first. This established a mature culture from which to further expand and minimized the growing pains that can sometimes result from bringing on several young employees all at once. Methodically hiring senior professionals in the early days also enabled us to realize our dream of having a “lead by example” culture once we started filling out our team. As such, we’ve never needed any official training or mentoring. It’s a true learn-by-watching (or doing) environment.

To expand upon this further, the openness we strive toward can only be achieved if we’ve picked people who are transparent about how they work and what they’re working on. Greg, Tim and I also need to be clear about what our expectations are. We’ve found the best way to encourage transparency is to show the rest of the team how heads-down hard work will lead to rewards (more on that in a future installment), and how egos or politicking will not be tolerated.

As such, the two other principals and I continue to complete hands-on project work—which serves the double purpose of keeping us fresh while also allowing our younger employees to learn firsthand. There’s a culture of respect and appreciation for the leaders who lead and the doers who do. Further, everyone can see and hear Greg, Tim, and I communicating with each other—making decisions, discussing client projects, and planning for the future. This helps reinforce a feeling of belonging among all employees.

Let me be clear: It’s not just the founding principals who are leading by example—everyone does. That’s because we’re picking the right people to join us. And when the right people are in an open, respectful environment such as ours, it gives even a young buck the opportunity to make an impression on the old dogs—to teach us new tricks, as the saying goes.

Up next: Watering. Until then, here’s a recap of what to concentrate on during the planting phase:

  • Reassess what type of culture you’re trying to build and figure out how to bring on people who will help grow that atmosphere.
  • Establish a strong foundation for your group to expand from by getting the right people in place and then letting them learn from each other, rather than work in a vacuum.
  • Make sure you’re setting the right example, too.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

An Open Letter to Project Managers

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Dear Project Managers,

It has been a very enjoyable experience working with everyone over the last couple of months and sharing our ideas on UX design. The various discussions about user interface, product usability, and user engagement have been an enlightening experience for me as well, and it is very positive to see that everyone involved in the product thinks so highly about improving the user experience.

In an ideal world with unlimited time and resources, I think the best way to address UX issues is to perform the same tasks as the user under the same environment/pressure–even if we’ve built something never done before–because then we would understand the exact problems that they have to solve and hopefully come up with the best solution.

User-centric design principles, however, do not replace the fact-finding mission we all need to take as UX designers; they merely serve as a starting point for making design decisions. We are not here to critique or provide expert opinions, but we are here to help ask the right questions and get the right answers from the users.

So, let’s talk for a minute about this thing we just launched.

What went wrong?

When you asked me what the users think without giving me time or money for research, you are in fact asking me what I think the users think.

When you asked me to apply standard guidelines and industry best practices, you are asking me to ignore what users have to say and to treat them like everyone else.

If our users are feeling a little bit neglected, it is because we’ve allowed ourselves to think we know better than they do.

Standards and guidelines abound, but not all of them apply. You have to know the rules first to know when to break them. These then need to be combined with as much knowledge or information as possible about our users so we can make some design decisions on the assumption that it is in their best interest.

Finally, we need to test and validate these assumptions so we can correct any misconceptions and continue to improve the product.

Somehow, SCRUM masters have convinced senior managers that standing in a circle in front of a board full of sticky notes constitutes a meeting and playing poker figures out the work schedule and priorities, but any suggestion of UX designers talking with end-users seems to be a waste of time and effort and not worth considering. If we aren’t given the right tools and resources to do our work, how can we be expected to deliver the best outcomes?

UX practitioners are not mind readers, and even if we do manage to guess right once, you can be assured that users won’t stay the same forever.

What could have gone right?

The more time you can spend thinking about UX and talking about it, the less time you will spend on fixing your products later.

If improving the user experience is something that the organization as a whole thinks is important, then everyone should be involved in UX design, just as the UX designer interacts with various people within the organization to come up with solutions.

Critical to improving an organization’s UX competency is removing the ‘black box’ view of UX design. There are definitely technical skills and knowledge involved, but I believe the most important skill for a UX practitioner is empathy, not Photoshop or CSS or how to read heatmap reports–as handy as those skills are to have and despite what many of the recruitment agencies would have you believe.

Certain aspects of UX design are familiar to all of us, in the visible and tangible part of the user experience. The user interface has a very visual and often subjective element to its design, but as a graphic designer can tell you, there are definite components (color, typography, layout, and the like) that are used in its creation. User interaction has a more technical and logical focus to its design because the nature of programming is modular and systematic.

Where I think people struggle to make a link with is the less accessible aspects of UX design, like dealing with user engagement of the product or the connection between the user experience of the product and the corporate brand/image. An organization may have many channels of communication with the end-users, but the messages spoken by the business unit can be very different than those of the product development team or customer support team.

Within the general scope of UX design there are different ways to involve the users: generating new ideas for product features, getting feedback on new releases/betas, running conferences or webinars, conducting research workshops, and so on, and it’s not as if organizations aren’t doing some of this already.

However worthwhile these activities are in themselves, if we make our decisions based on just one or two of them–or worse, carry any of them out but don’t act on the results–we’ve missed the opportunity to improve the user experience.

People who make complaints may just want attention–or perhaps they have been suffering for so long they can no longer deal with this unusable product. How do we know if all the complaints are filtering through customer support, and do fewer support tickets necessarily mean greater customer satisfaction?

Where to from here?

If we don’t like a particular color, we know how to change it. If a particular technology is incompatible, we can modify it or find an alternative.

But if we want to influence the behavior of our users, where do we start? Like any complex problem, the best way is to break the problem down into smaller and more manageable pieces.

If we want to make an impact on our product design, how do we go about it in the right manner? I think reversing some of the current attitudes toward UX design is a good starting point, because clearly the status quo is not creating the appropriate environment and culture for a UX-focused organization.

Don’t make the only UX designer in your company the UX team, don’t restrict the scope of UX design to the user interface alone, and don’t hide the users from the UX designers.

Do spend the time and resources to implement company-wide UX strategies, do try and understand UX design a little bit better, and do it as soon as possible.

But if we haven’t done anything yet, is it too late? Like everything else worth doing, it is never too late. However, not doing UX at all is probably not much worse than doing UX poorly. To act on good assumptions with caution beats acting on bad assumptions with confidence. A good UX designer knows that nothing about the user should be assumed or taken for granted, and we always need to be on our toes because just like the product, the user may see the need for change–even more readily than we do.

Having said that, if you don’t start taking small steps now, the challenge will become even greater. Make everything you do in UX design a learning experience that helps to reduce the problem.

If I haven’t lost you yet, then I think we are ready to talk some details.

Remember, there are a lot of standards and guidelines already, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel–we just need to work out what works for us and what we can disregard.

As with any problem-solving process, we have to go through an iterative cycle of observing, hypothesizing, and testing until we derive at the optimal solution. I emphasize the word optimal, because there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer but there may be the most optimal solution given the circumstances (time, resources, assumptions…).

For those of you that have gone through the pain (and joy) of implementing Agile methodologies, I think you will agree that there is no out of the box solution that is guaranteed to work for any organization. You can certainly embrace the philosophy and principles, but how you adopt them to work for your team will be quite different depending on how you define the goals and objectives you want to achieve, not to mention the type of teams that you work with.

Remember, I am not here to critique or provide expert opinions, but to help you ask the right questions and get the right answers from the users. What UX means for the organization is up to you to decide, but if I have managed to spur you into some action, then I will have considered my job complete.

Thank you for your time.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 1

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When a company or team experiences rapid growth, it’s exciting. But more often than not, that success comes with a price. Behind the scenes, leadership is faced with the challenge of frantically filling positions to meet the escalating client demand, teams are asked to gel quickly and work around the clock to hit client deadlines, and ultimately the quality of deliverables suffers. It can be difficult to keep a handle on exactly who is doing what—much less who everyone is.


But there’s hope. Greg, Tim, and I expanded Intuitive Company more than sevenfold within five years, and our experience proves that building a team doesn’t have to be a haphazard process, and exceptional growth doesn’t have to lead to pandemonium.

I liken Intuitive Company, and the process we’ve taken to build it, to an organic garden. It required some high-level planning upfront, followed by easy-going care and light-touch nurturing. In other words, once we had all of the right components in place, we didn’t need to mess with things too much. In fact, we never explicitly developed a “growth strategy,” per se. We certainly knew from our past experience what not to do. Our goal was to build a workplace environment that was optimal for employee satisfaction. We were confident that if our employees were happy, their level of work would be exceptional, and that would lead to high client satisfaction (and referrals). We were right.

I’m eager to share what’s worked for us in the hope that other small businesses—or teams within larger corporations—might be able to apply some of the same philosophies and experience success.

Preparation was the first step. We founded the firm with a determination not to repeat the management mistakes we’d seen in our previous jobs—mistakes that led to high attrition rates and low morale. If there’s a word to sum up what our goal was, it’d be “openness.”

An open work environment is a must. We believe cubicles and closed-door offices do not help foster teamwork, communication, or creativity. Offices convey a sense of importance, and I’ve seen them be a ridiculous, energy-sapping source of jealousy and competition among employees at larger corporations (“Whoa, he’s got a corner office?”, “How come she has a bigger office than me?”, or “I better get an office after this promotion!”).

What’s more, I’ve witnessed how an office building’s overall location can improve or weaken employee communication and morale. That’s why we took great pains to set up a proper environment for success before our first team member was brought on board, and then moved into an even better space and location as we prepared to enter our next phase of growth.

Our floor layout is completely open. No one has an office, not even me, Greg, or Tim. We enjoy a floor-wide music system, cable TV in certain locations, fun décor, and amenities such as two stocked kitchens (including a beer keg!), vintage arcade games, pool and Ping-Pong tables, and even lockers and a shower. There are conference rooms for client calls and a separate lounge area for when privacy might be desired or required.

But perhaps even more importantly, our space is situated next to a gorgeous running trail in a cool neighborhood that has several coffee shops, bars, and a record store. Many times, employees will hash out ideas while “walking and talking” outside, or could just as easily pop into a café and brainstorm client projects in a different setting. From firsthand experience, I have no doubt that our office is much more inspiring than rows of gray cubicles in a nondescript building within an office park.

Now, I realize that not all firms can choose (or change) their locations. For the first few years after we started Intuitive Company, we were in a less-than-ideal space, but we made the most of it. So I encourage you to take a look at your floor layout and see if there are ways the space could be opened up.

Another key aspect of preparing our company for growth and success was establishing the kind of atmosphere we wished we had at other employers. An open floor plan certainly helps foster communication, but it’s not enough.

In our previous jobs, we’d seen too many managers send important messages impersonally, or in a tone that was condescending, demanding, or both. That’s why we choose to communicate in person as much as possible. There’s significantly less room for misinterpretation that way, and there’s just something about having a face-to-face chat that comes off as more respectful. Sure, we still send tons of emails, texts, and IMs to each other, but for the really critical things? We’ll always pull up a chair or head out on a stroll and take the time to have a real discussion.

I’ll cover our second step, planting, in the next installment. Until then, here are some questions to ask yourself as you get started on the preparation phase:

Opening up your environment

  • Could office doors be removed? Cubicle walls lowered?
  • Could desks be moved into the center of the floor, or perhaps line the perimeter instead of being in rows or clusters?

Encouraging open communication

  • Survey how communication works on your team or in your company as a whole. Is there passive-aggressiveness over email? Is there a lot of gossip?
  • How is good news delivered, versus bad news?
  • Would increasing the amount of in-person communication help cut down on rumors or improve morale? Try it out and see!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Your Boss Works for You

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This past June, I stood on the brink of achieving a major professional goal. The UX apprenticeship program I’d been working so hard on was going to begin on Monday. It was Thursday. On my desk lay a curious stack of paper labeled “Manager’s Onboarding Kit.”

Of all the things I’d planned for and anticipated about the apprenticeship program, becoming a manager was something I hadn’t even considered. It’s something I’ve consciously avoided my entire career. The apprentices arrived, and I awkwardly mentioned that “technically” I was their manager. But after working with them for awhile I noticed something that changed my whole perspective.

I was working for them, and I loved it!

Granted, my situation might be unique in that my express purpose is to nurture and grow the apprentices’ nascent skills, but I learned many lessons about management that other managers can benefit from. Each of these lessons revolved around ways in which I found myself working for my team.

I cleared the path

Long ago, Samantha Bailey told me that the role of a UX manager is to shield her team from the chaos above them. I’m glad that lesson has stayed with me for so long, because I was able to put it into practice with the apprentices. I told them that their primary goal was to learn new skills and grow them. If anything got in the way of that, they should come to me and I would make whatever it was go away. I helped them clear a path to their goal through the organizational jungle.

An unexpected but happy consequence of this was that my working hard for my team inspired them to work hard for me. If you work for a consultancy or agency, you’re probably required to fill out your timesheet daily. And you probably don’t do it. The apprentices did. I told them that I relied on their time entries to track their progress and needed them to enter their time, daily, and never once did I have to have the timesheet talk with any of them.

I told it like it was

I wasn’t born in Minnesota, but I may as well have been. I am rife with Minnesota Nice. Giving people feedback beyond, “Great job! Here’s some hotdish!” makes me twitchy. But my role is to help people with promise develop that promise into talent. To do this, I needed to extend myself beyond my comfort zone and give the apprentices feedback about things they needed to work on.

It wasn’t easy for me, but it did get easier as time went on. This was because my telling it like it was led them to trust me. That trust yielded results. One apprentice in particular would make a point of implementing the feedback I gave her. One week I’d awkwardly say she should work on something, and then the next week I’d both hear feedback from mentors about how she’d done that thing and she would tell me herself. That not only helped her grow; it helped me grow too.

I increased my say/do ratio

One of my early mentors kept track of her “say/do ratio” on the whiteboard at her desk. This is a personal metric that describes how reliably a person does what they say they’re going to do. I laughed, but she was serious about it. She was exceptionally reliable. I’m fortunate that this is another early lesson I retained.

When you work for your team, you need to do a lot of things for them. I’ve not always been the most organized person, but I felt was important enough to commit to making a concentrated effort. Working for my team would be no good if I didn’t do the things they needed me to do.

Being an interaction designer, naturally I designed a process to keep track of what I said I was going to do and whether I had done it. Often, apprentices would come up to me as I was at my desk. A to-do would often come out of that conversation. I use Things to track my tasks, and I keep it open at all times. With a simple key combination I could instantly enter a new task, leaving for later the classification of the new task. During our weekly one-on-one meetings, I left a section in the Evernote note that guided each meeting for me to keep track of new things an apprentice would need me to do. Each item had a checkbox, and after the meetings I’d enter them into Things and check off the boxes in Evernote. Once the item was completed, I’d check it off in Things. Maybe this seems excessive to you, but it works for me. Find whatever works for you and do it consistently.

I constantly sought feedback

At the very beginning of the program I let my team know that I had neither managed anyone before nor run an apprenticeship program. I told them I needed them to provide feedback on both me and the program for it to be as good as it could be. Sometimes they’d provide me with feedback I wouldn’t implement, but when that happened I explained why. Sometimes the things they needed me to do for them would take awhile. Sometimes the solutions to the problems they brought up weren’t obvious.

In these situations, I communicated with them about what was happening and I sought feedback on my proposed solutions. I consciously showed them that by giving me feedback they could make things happen. As it turns out, the apprentices and I improved the program together.

My favorite example of how we built the program together is the internal project they all worked on as a team. Initially, I was dead set against apprentices working on internal projects. To me, internal projects were something to keep interns busy. I felt that internal projects would be a waste of time for apprentices. The goal of apprenticeship is to learn UX design through actual client work.

The apprentices were getting that experience, one design method at a time. They’d do stakeholder interviews on one project, then user research analysis on another. What they weren’t getting was a look at how the design process moved from one stage to another, say from research to analysis and then design. After they brought this up enough times, I swallowed my pride and suggested they work on an internal project together, from start to finish, with me as their mentor. They jumped at the chance, did a stellar job, and learned what they’d set out to learn.

I was there

The act of being physically present with your team shows that you support them. I chose to sit right in the middle of mine. Not at one end of the desks, not in an office, but right in the middle of the apprentice team. We have an open floor plan at The Nerdery, where people sit in groups of 6-8 desks rather than in individual cubicles. Being right in the middle of my team made me easier to talk to because I was only a glance away from any of them. The result was that the apprentices talked to me a lot and used the support I offered.

I ran the numbers, but I didn’t let the numbers run me

Running an apprenticeship program for four apprentices takes a lot of tracking. I have to track their time, feedback on them, and feedback they’re giving me. I also have to track how much the program is costing and whether it’s hitting its metrics. If it’s not, I have to do things to move the numbers up. Yes, this takes time. But I did these tasks early in the morning before the apprentices arrived. When they did, I could focus on them.

With management comes administration, but administration is not the essence of your job. Your job is to clear the way for your team, and administration is just another thing you’re clearing from their path. Yes, it’s something you have to do, but it should absolutely not be your focus. Your team is your focus.

Problems I faced

Even though I felt exhilarated and energized by my new role as a manager, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. For example, I was still on a project as a billable designer. Balancing the work I wanted to do for my team with the work I needed to do for my client was challenging. Sometimes, I just wanted to hide so I could focus on data analysis or sketching, but I resisted. When you’re physically present, you should expect to be interrupted. What’s helpful, though, is to remember that they’re not really interruptions; they’re your job. The really tricky thing is that you can’t ever predict your team’s needs, so always expect the unexpected and have someone who can support you.

My own managers and my project team were my supports. One manager had a knack for giving me feedback without pussyfooting around. I appreciated that in her and I tried to emulate it myself. When I talked with her about becoming a manager, she let me in on a secret. She was like that with me because that’s what I responded well to. Other people needed pussyfooting to accept feedback.

When I confessed my newly positive feelings about managing to my other manager, he beamed with a knowing smile. At that moment, I knew that he’d been working for me and everyone else all along. Now when we meet, he encourages me to keep working for the apprentices and he helps me break down any organizational barriers that arise.

My project team supported me by respecting the fact that I now had two jobs. When they needed my undivided attention, they scheduled collaborative work time with me. This helped me balance my client and management responsibilities. They didn’t schedule all my unscheduled time, just some of it. This allowed me to focus on the client for a time without being out of reach. I simply told the apprentices where I’d be.

What you can take away from this

If you are determined to avoid management at all costs, like I was, here’s what I want you to take away. Managing people doesn’t have to suck. It doesn’t have the obvious allure of design, solving problems and making things, but if you approach management as if it were a design problem, it can be incredibly rewarding. Think of your team as your users and their ability to achieve their goals as their experience. Good management is the continual, real-time design of your team’s experience. When you get the opportunity to manage people, take it. Don’t run away from it.

If you are already managing people, try putting some of these lessons I’ve learned into your own management practice. It will make your work more fulfilling. If you are already working for your team, that’s wonderful! Let’s hear what you’ve learned about it!


Learn More from our Archives

Erin Malone’s So You Think You Want to be a Manager

Christina Wodtke’s Career Choices for Designers

Brenda Janish’s Leading from Within