Reorgs: Rocky or Righteous?

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As designers, we grapple every day with challenging projects. This of course is part of what keeps us coming back. Some challenges, although not directly related to project work, can still be looked at through a UX lens. In this case, I’m talking about a phenomenon you’re likely familiar with: company reorganization.

If you’ve been through a reorg (that’s ‘reorganization’ in water cooler parlance), you’ve probably experienced your share of the whispers, closed-door meetings, and mixed messages that seem to be par for the course when an organization goes through major changes in size, scope, staffing, or management.

I’ve been through a number of these shuffled decks myself, across several companies, and for a variety of reasons. It’s fair to claim that each one is different, but there’s enough overlap to identify patterns and form some baseline recommendations.

If you’re in a role with decision-making authority, then you’re ideally positioned to ensure that the reorg will be designed as an intentional experience with its actual user base in mind.

However, if you’re like the majority of us who aren’t in a position to make decisions about the reorg, you’re probably still reasonably close to the folks who are. Why not take the initiative and lay out some scenarios and recommendations for how the reorg can be designed for optimal reception and impact on your organization?

The users

Whether it’s planned or not, the scope of the reorg will have an audience far larger than the group of people seemingly affected on paper. The experience of these groups throughout the reorg should be purposefully designed by whomever is running the change management show.

Let’s take a look at who your users are.

  1. The folks who are officially part of the reorg. Their status is changing in some way, be it their actual role, reporting structure, or the like.
  2. Coworkers/teams who have direct or dotted-line dependencies with anyone or any team directly involved in the change.
  3. Coworkers/teams whose only connection is physical or cultural proximity or who ultimately report to the same upper management.
  4. Third party vendors who communicate with or provide services to reorg-affected parties.

Here’s what you need to realize: These groups will be getting bits and pieces of news about the reorg whether or not you craft that message explicitly.

With that in mind, you should ensure the messaging supports the business strategy, is accurate, and speaks to each party’s specific concerns.

This is the difference between an unplanned, unpredictable experience and an intentional, designed experience. It’s a golden opportunity to show your stakeholders they are a valued part of the organization, and you’ve got your arms firmly around managing the changes. If the right preparation goes into the reorg, you can nip in the bud any misinformation and unnecessary stress, building confidence in your team’s leadership and capability as a whole.

The alternative is to risk spending what trust currency you’ve accrued to date.

The message

Now that you know who you’re talking to, what do you say? It’s idealistic to think that you’ll know all the details when you begin planning the reorganization–but you do need to initiate your communications plan as close to the start of planning as you can.

Start by crafting general messaging that indicates the why–the logic being the necessity and desired benefits of the reorg. This should be high level until more details are known. If you know enough about the how to paint a low-res picture, do it.

A little bit of information that’s transparent and honest will go a long way–but take care not to make promises you can’t keep. Things can and will change, so own up to the reality that dates and other details are very much in flux to help you avoid having to take back your words when deadlines shift down the road.

As you approach major milestones in the reorg process and as the details solidify, provide appropriate communications to your audience groups–and do so again once the changes have been rolled out. This may seem like a lot of effort, but rest assured your people are asking questions. It’s up to you to address them proactively.

If a milestone date changes–and it will–the audience who’s been paying attention will still be looking to that date unless you update your wayfinding (in the form of project timeline communications). Without this careful attention to detail, you’re sharing bad information–perhaps more damaging than no information at all.

When the rubber meets the road

Inevitably, one question that will come up repeatedly throughout a reorg is “When does all this actually happen?” In other words, when do we start following the new processes, change how we route requests, start doing this and stop doing that?

For both logistical and psychological reasons, knowing how and when transitions will take place is vital. Often the difference between a stakeholder being stressed out (perhaps becoming a vocal opponent of the changes) versus being calm and confident is the company’s honest commitment to consciously bridging the transition with trained, capable support.

This could be as simple as a window of time during which existing persons or processes can continue to be called upon for support or as complex as an official schedule that shows specifically how and when both the responsibilities AND expectations of the audience segments will change.

Usability research

It’s not like you can do A:B testing with a reorg. You can, however, do some polling when the initial reorg information is shared, then midstream, and again after the reorg is complete.

Why do this research? As with any project, from your first person perspective, reorg elements might seem obvious–or you may have overlooked some pretty big pieces. Talking with your ‘users’ can be illuminating and also sends the message that their input is desired and valued.

While some reorgs are expressly designed to reduce overhead/staff, reorgs are not always about cutting heads. Often-times it’s a shuffle of resources (people), and if the right discussions happen you can guide that process to a win win.

Using a handy list written by a gentleman you may know of, here are some dimensions coopted for our use. Employ these as you see fit to generate interview material and discover how well your company reorg experience has been crafted.

Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?

We can ask our participants what they took away from the reorg communications they were sent. This includes actual group or 1:1 meetings, formal documents, emails, etc.

Find out if the materials conveyed the message so the transition was easy to understand. Did they grasp both the high-level view and the granular details? (In other words, overall strategy and the specific impact to them.)

Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?

If the folks you’re polling have been assigned specific assignments in the reorg, ask early on if they fully understand their instructions and if they could have added any insight that might have decreased task costs or durations. Midstream or late in the game you can follow up to see if those instructions turned out to be clear and accurate enough for the tasks to have been carried out efficiently.

Did task instructions have the most time-saving sequence? Were there steps left out of the tasking communications that had to be discovered and completed?

Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?

Remember the telephone game? Someone makes up a story and then each player passes the story on to the next by whispering. When the story makes it back to the author, the details have changed–it’s a different story.

When those involved in a reorg talk with others, they’ll pass along what they know. The simpler the story and the more they’ve understood it, the less you’ll lose in translation.

Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?

A successful reorg requires a lot of work and collaboration between groups. Mistakes tend to be costly and have a ripple effect, becoming harder to correct as time goes on. The critical path of these big projects is placed at risk due to missteps due in large part to (wait for it) learnability and memorability, or due to errors introduced by people who have been put off by the lack of efficiency of the reorg process and attempt to forge their own path.

Another source of error is in failing to communicate enough timely information about role changes to employees and contractors. Major change breeds anxiety, and in a job market where workers have the power and employers are constantly on the prowl for good (and hard to find) talent, it’s a mistake to risk wholesale attrition.

Avoid this error by honestly and accurately communicating dates and the likelihood of roles continuing as is or with changes. If roles are going away, be transparent about that too. Better to maintain trust and respect with clear messaging about terminations than to leave folks in doubt and unable to plan for their future.

Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

If the reorg does NOT leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and if the stated project goals have been met, you’re doing it right. Reorgs happen for a reason, typically because something’s suboptimal or simply broken. Ultimately, everyone should pull together and work towards a positive outcome resulting in better workflow, lowered cost of doing business, increased job satisfaction, and, of course, $$$.

Moving on

Regardless of your role in the company and the reorg, consider whether or not you can use your UX superpowers to make the entire process less painful, easier to understand, and more likely to succeed.

Good luck!

Ending the UX Designer Drought

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The user experience design field is booming. We’re making an impact, our community is vibrant, and everyone has a job. And that’s the problem. A quick search for “user experience” on indeed.com reveals over 5,000 jobs posted in the last 15 days (as of March 15, 2014) in the United States alone! Simple math turns that into the staggering statistic of 10,000 new UX-related jobs being created every month.

This amount of work going undone is going to prevent us from delivering the value that UX promises. It’s going to force businesses to look toward something more achievable to provide that value. For user experience design to remain the vibrant, innovation-driving field it is today, we need to make enough designers to fill these positions.

Fortunately, there are a tremendous number of people interested in becoming a UX designer. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for these people to land one of these jobs. That’s because of the experience gap. All these UX jobs are all for people with 2-3 years of experience–or more.

UX design is a strategic discipline in which practitioners make recommendations that can have a big impact on an organization’s revenue. Frankly, a designer isn’t qualified to make these kinds of recommendations without putting in some time doing fundamental, in-the-trenches research and design work. While this might seem like an intractable problem, the skills required to do this fundamental work can be learned!

Someone just has to teach them.

Solving the problem

There are many ways to to teach fundamental UX design skills. Design schools have been doing it for years (and the new, practically-focused Unicorn Institute will start doing it soon). However, to access the full breadth of people interested in UX design, education in UX design needs to be accessible to people at any stage of their lives. To do that, you need to make learning a job.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. Other professions have been doing this for hundreds of years in the form of apprenticeship. This model has a lot to offer the UX design field and can be adapted to meet our particular needs.

What is apprenticeship?

In the traditional model of apprenticeship, an unskilled laborer offers their labor to a master craftsman in exchange for room, board, and instruction in the master’s craft. At the end of a certain period of time, the laborer becomes a journeyman and is qualified to be employed in other workshops. To be considered a master and have their own workshop and apprentices, however, a journeyman must refine their craft until the guild determines that their skill warrants it.

While this sounds medieval–because it is–there are a few key points that are still relevant today.

First, apprenticeship is learning by observation and practice. Designing a user experience requires skills that require practice to acquire. Apprentices are also compensated with more than just the training they receive. Even “unskilled,” they can still provide value. A baker’s apprentice can haul sacks of flour; a UX apprentice can tame the detritus of a design workshop.
Apprenticeship is also limited to a specific duration, after which the apprentice is capable of the basics of the craft. In modern terms, apprenticeship is capable of producing junior designers who can bring fundamental, tactical value to their teams. After a few years of practicing and refining these skills, those designers will be qualified to provide the strategic UX guidance that is so sought after in the marketplace.

A new architecture for UX apprenticeship

The apprenticeship model sounds good in theory, but does it work in practice? Yes. in 2013, The Nerdery, an interactive design and development shop in Minneapolis, ran two twelve-week cohorts of four apprentices each. There are now eight more UX designers in the world. Eight designers might seem like a drop in the 10,000-jobs-per-month bucket, but if more design teams build apprenticeship programs it will fill up very quickly.

Building an apprenticeship program might sound difficult to you. However, The Nerdery’s program was designed in such a way that it could be adapted to fit different companies of different sizes. We call this our UX Apprenticeship Architecture, and I encourage you to use it as the basis of your own apprenticeship program.

There are five components to this architecture. Addressing each of these components in a way that is appropriate for your particular organization will lead to the success of your program. This article only introduces each of these components. Further articles will discuss them in detail.

Define business value

The very first step in building any UX apprenticeship program is to define how the program will benefit your organization. Apprenticeship requires an investment of money, time, and resources, and you need to be able to articulate what value your organization can expect in return for that investment.

Exactly what this value is depends on your organization. For The Nerdery, the value is financial. We train our apprentices for them to become full members of our design team. Apprenticeship allows us to achieve our growth goals (and the revenue increase that accompanies growth for a client services organization). For other organizations, the value might be less tangible and direct.

Hire for traits, not talent

Once you’ve demonstrated the value of apprenticeship to your organization and you’ve got their support, the next thing to focus on is hiring.

It can take a long time at first until you narrow down what you’re looking for. Hiring apprentices is much different from hiring mid to senior level UX designers. You’re not looking for people who are already fantastic designers; you’re looking for people who have the potential to become fantastic designers. Identifying this potential is a matter of identifying certain specific traits within your applicants.

There are two general sets of traits to look for, traits common to good UX designers and traits that indicate someone will be a good apprentice. For example, someone who is defensive and standoffish in the face of critical feedback will not make a good apprentice. In addition to these two sets of traits, there will very likely be an additional set that is particular to your organization. At The Nerdery, we cultivate our culture very carefully, so it’s critical for us that the apprentices we hire fit our culture well.

Pedagogy

“Pedagogy” means a system of teaching. Developing the tactics for teaching UX design can take time as well, so it’s best to begin focusing on that once recruiting is underway. At The Nerdery, we found that there are four pedagogical components to learning UX design: orientation, observation, practice, and play.

Orientation refers to exposing apprentices to design methods and teaching them the very basics. In observation, apprentices watch experienced designers apply these methods and have the opportunity to ask them about what they did. Once an apprentice learns a method and observes it in use, they are ready to practice it by doing the method themselves on a real project. The final component of our pedagogy is play. Although practice allows apprentices to get a handle on the basics of a method, playing with that method in a safe environment allows them to make the method their own.

Mentorship

Observation and practice comprise the bulk of an apprentice’s experience. Both of these activities rely on close mentorship to be successful. Mentorship is the engine that makes apprenticeship go.

Although mentorship is the most critical component of apprenticeship, it’s also the most time-intensive. This is the biggest barrier an organization must overcome to implement an apprenticeship program. At The Nerdery, we’ve accomplished this by spreading the burden of mentorship across the entire 40-person design team rather than placing it full-time on the shoulders of four designers. Other teams can do this too, though the structure would be different for both smaller and larger teams.

Tracking

The final component of our apprenticeship architecture is tracking. It is largely tracking apprentice progress that gives apprenticeship the rigor that differentiates it from other forms of on-the-job training. We track not only the hours an apprentice spends on a given method but qualitative feedback from their mentors on their performance. Critical feedback is key to apprentice progress.

We track other things as well, such as feedback about mentors, feedback about the program, and the apprentice’s thoughts and feelings about the program. Tracking allows the program to be flexible, nimble, and responsive to the evolving needs of the apprentices.

Business value, traits, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking: Think about these five things in relation to your organization to build your own custom apprenticeship program. Although this article has only scratched the surface of each, subsequent articles will go into details.
Part two of this series will cover laying the foundation for apprenticeship, defining its business value and identifying who to hire.

Part three will focus on the instructional design of apprenticeship, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking.

If you’ve got a design team and you need to grow it, apprenticeship can help you make that happen!

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 8

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That old cliché isn’t true: all good things don’t have to come to an end. It’s possible to prepare your team for ongoing success and growth, but you have to be smart about how you do it.

In this series I’ve shared what’s worked for us at Intuitive Company. How we thought of our team as an organic garden and realized that once we had all of the right elements established, we didn’t need to mess with things too much. We prepared an open workplace, planted the right people, watered and added fertilizer to boost morale and growth, tilled and experimented to ensure we didn’t rest on our laurels, observed and protected our team when necessary, and then picked some of our best performers and work to celebrate and spotlight.

After all that, the final step is enjoyment—sitting back and appreciating the positive environment everyone has worked so hard to create. To us, success is the feeling of completion—of hard work yielding superior results for clients. We have to make time to soak it in, because there’s always more work to be done!

Enjoyment

The ways in which we have fun and enjoy what we’ve built and achieved at Intuitive Company often take the form of office events. Beer Swap, Happy Hour, Poker Night, and a having a team in the Broad Street Run have all been successful and bring our group even closer together.

And so I’ll end this series by asking you whether your team or company ever takes time out to just enjoy what you’ve accomplished together. If you’re at a larger organization, I’m not talking about holiday parties or other corporate-wide events that hundreds attend and everyone stays in their own clique. I mean more intimate celebrations or excursions where an individual team or all members of a small office can relax and have fun. It’s easy to add in a few activities throughout the year to show appreciation, encourage team bonding and just blow off steam.

I hope what I’ve shared about our experience growing Intuitive Company has given you ideas of ways your small business—or team within a large corporation—can create a more open and successful workplace environment.

If you’ve tried other tactics that led to the same positive results, I’d love to hear them, especially since I know we’ll need to keep honing our approach as we continue to grow.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 7

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After discussing how to prepare, plant, water, fertilize, till and experiment with and then observe and protect your organic garden of a team, I’m happy to announce that the last two steps are quite fun. You’ve worked hard to grow your business and have made the necessary tweaks along the way. Things couldn’t be better. Or could they?

Picking comes next, and it’s a way to recognize the highest achievers and celebrate successes.

Picking

On an annual basis, we draft individual performance reviews for each employee and circulate them amongst the three principals. These reviews incorporate feedback from co-workers and are probably the most formal thing we do. But it’s important for people to understand what they’ve done well and where they could improve. As we covered earlier, we believe people want to work here because of the environment and the responsibility they’re given from the get-go. If they’ve been performing well, they’ll receive a small salary bump and a healthy bonus in addition to being able to take part in profit sharing. So—unlike the majority of Corporate America—fancy new titles and promotions at Intuitive Company aren’t really end goals. But that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in the need to call out extraordinary employees.

We did that with our one and only promotion in five years—a User Experience Designer became a User Experience Director. He’d gone above and beyond in leading clients, leading staff, delivering incredible work, helping others, and showing maturity in thinking through very advanced client solutions. In short, he’s one of our best designers, and deserved some recognition.

We announced and celebrated his role change in a way that made it clear why we were recognizing this individual. Our hope was that it would give our younger employees a sense of what professional qualities and characteristics they should aspire to. One thing I always found curious at larger corporations was when dozens of promotions would be rattled off in one email, without any context as to why the individuals listed were deserving of the honor. It was just part of a process that people no longer viewed as special, but rather came to expect no matter the level of effort and passion they put into their work. Been here two years? Congrats! You’re gonna move from Assistant Vice President to Vice President for no apparent reason whatsoever, other than you’ve stuck it out.

Since promotions are rare at Intuitive Company, we do lots of other things to reward hard work on a more frequent basis. Examples include submitting project deliverables for industry awards, asking employees to show off great work at lunchtime review sessions, and sending high-performing individuals to popular industry conferences. We’ll put them up in nice hotels while they’re there, and when they return, they share what they learned with everyone else. This, too, gives younger team members motivation to do what it takes to be picked to attend in the future.

Your homework for this step entails thinking through how you reward your best performers.

  • Are your employees truly motivated by titles, or do they value other rewards more highly?
  • What other things could you do to recognize excellence?
  • Have you ever asked your employees what might drive them to stretch themselves?

The final step is within sight! I’ll be back to talk about enjoyment soon.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 6

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In this series, I’ve been using an organic garden analogy to describe how we’ve grown Intuitive Company sevenfold over the past five years. In previous installments I gave advice on how to prepare your organization for growth, and what it means to plant the right people into the mix, water and add fertilizer to encourage success, and then till and experiment to continue pushing yourselves.

Now comes time for observing and protecting. We’ve been thrilled to watch Intuitive Company grow and thrive, but we keep on the lookout for issues. Sometimes we need to provide cover for employees, be it by managing schedule conflicts or addressing tension with clients so that nothing escalates to a boiling point.

Protect and observe

One reason we’re able to do this goes back to our open environment. We’re aware of what’s going on with each project, as well as what may be going on personally with some staff members. This awareness allows us to act preemptively rather than defensively when we sense a deliverable or client or employee relationship might be on the verge of taking a wrong turn.

Problems will still arise every once in a while, but they aren’t showstoppers because of our vigilant observing. For example, if any employees are not performing as well as we know they could, we’ll revise their roles to better fit their likes and skill sets. This results in both happier employees and happier co-workers.

The staff often rallies together to tackle issues as well. We empower everyone to solve their own problems; being design-minded, solving complex issues is already their forte. Resourcing is a good example of this. When someone has free time, they proactively let their peers know in case another project could use a hand. Conversely, when someone needs help, they’re not afraid to ask. It bears repeating that none of this would be possible without the open culture we’d established upfront.

When your team or company has been succeeding, it’s time to take a step back, see what you notice, and make any necessary tweaks.

Ask yourself these questions during the observing and protecting phase:

  • Do you have a good sense of how each project team is doing?
  • Could someone use a break? Is there a better way to distribute the workload?
  • How often do issues arise, and could they have been avoided?
  • How are problems solved, and could more responsibility be given to employees to work things out on their own?

Stay tuned for Step 7: Picking!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.