Changing Lanes

by:   |  Posted on

In the course of your life, unless you have inherited your family’s Piggly Wiggly fortune, you will have held a number jobs. Maybe you started out in your teens by bagging groceries, or perhaps you filled up that piggy bank by babysitting or mowing lawns. That first job hopefully taught you some valuable lessons about life.

You probably learned that time is money, that you have to work hard in order to do well and keep that job, that learning new skills can be challenging but also rewarding, and that new skills make you better equipped for other jobs in the future. I hope you’ve realized that relationships are instrumental in your success in a role, and that the relationships you build in one job may prove to be a factor in roles you’ll hold down the road.

Undoubtedly, you will have at some point realized you no longer wanted to keep doing the same job. Depending on your circumstances, you may or may not have been able to act on that impulse immediately—many of us certainly have tales of a dramatic exit from a job we’ve held! Hopefully, you gave some thought to your decision to leave the job, but—regardless—you did eventually move on to something else.

Think for a moment about what led you to move on in each job you’ve held over the years. Can you pick up any patterns in your thinking or in the circumstances that triggered your desire to move to the next gig? Continue reading Changing Lanes

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 5

by:   |  Posted on

In this ongoing discussion about growing creative teams organically, I’ve shared how to prepare your organization for successful expansion, how to plant the right elements into the mix, how to “water” for sustainable growth, and then how adding fertilizer can take your group’s motivation to the next level.

Tilling and experimenting follow once everything’s been humming along smoothly for a while. Changing things up can breathe fresh air into a culture, as well as offer lessons about what works and what doesn’t. Continue reading Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 5

Building the In-house Design Agency

by:   |  Posted on

The first article discussed the pros and cons of different UX team structures. For companies that depend on user experience for business success, a strong internal team is essential. But how do you get there from here? Having built one UX group from scratch and managed another 230+ person internal UX groups, I’ve learned a few tips, often the hard way, that can help.

Making the case

The hardest part of building an in-house design agency is answering the basic “Why?”

I’ve been asked “why” by senior executives, database admins, and the mailman. It took a long time to recognize this question in its many forms, each with its own answer. But fundamentally, they all ask why should UX be a part of the conversation and how can it help them.

In any large enterprise, user experience can still be a new concept. I’ve made the mistake many times of assuming too much–assuming that help was wanted, or even needed; assuming that people understood the terms I used, like ‘deliverable’; assuming that everyone bought into the value of design in general, or on this specific project.

Take the time to meet with people across the firm to explain the services you offer and how you can help them. It is just like starting a business. Discover their issues and the language they use to describe them. Don’t be a salesperson–only offer user experience if it solves a problem they actually have. Once I understood that a UX agency is there to help other people succeed, life got a lot easier.

It helps to understand what the people you are working with mean by success. I’ve had the pleasure to work with many entrepreneurial leaders at a number of firms. They can be fantastic partners who drive real change, but their needs are very different from a product team. Senior managers are typically more concerned with defining the overall vision before building the whole project. User research can validate the concept; concept designs can help communicate their vision. Hitting a fledgling project with the style guide is a great way to not help.

On the other hand, product managers and developers are more concerned with execution.  They have deadlines and launch windows. It’s helped me to remember that there is always a next release; a timely good design beats a wonderful design that never launches. Wireframes help the team agree on what they are building; usability testing often helps make difficult tradeoffs.

Once you have a shared vision, it is on to executing design. To become that trusted partner, there is no substitute for demonstrated competence. Until you earn the name as an expert, you are seen as just another person with an opinion. A sales pitch can open the door, but a UX group needs clear product successes.

Establishing a good reputation by helping other leaders succeed will lead to natural growth. The goal is not to increase the headcount of the UX department, but to serve the firm; growth is an effect of helping others solve their problems. Success will feed on itself, enabling you to manage user experience professionals across the organization.

Every UX leader has learned the hard way that one of the most critical skills is setting and managing client expectations. Be clear about what a UX professional will do, how long it will take, and what delays could happen mid-project. Assume that clients are not aware of the user centered design process. It helps to explain the standard procedures and deliverables, not unlike a menu. Show examples of previous work. Our team made a template for every deliverable with a few sentences explaining what, for example, a wireframe was. Back when I worked at an agency, we used to joke when a client looked at wireframes and asked why their website was all black. Now I know it was our responsibility to answer that question before it got asked.

The biggest barrier I’ve seen to using UX in a firm is often simple lack of knowledge of what UX can deliver.

Spread the word about user experience horizontally across the firm by offering free UX “favors.” Two hour heuristic review meetings or small design projects are cheap and demonstrate value. Clearly define how much time you or your team can devote to it, so no one expects a full project.

Clients may come with projects that are about to launch. Giving a little help now will encourage them to plan you into a future project. I was once literally asked if UX could “put lipstick on this pig.” No UX person wants to burn out trying to patch fundamentally broken products, but the relationship can be worth the investment. That product manager came back to our group earlier the next time, and we did it right.

Running the group

Running the in-house agency is like running a small design agency. You have to deliver value for your customers to succeed. Credibility is the most important quality of a successful designer. The team has to do good work, every time. There is often no requirement to use design (“Can’t a developer just do that?”), but a good designer makes people want to work with them, even if it costs more. External agencies can walk away from a client with little risk that anyone will hear about a failed project, but companies are very social. Good (and bad) work will be remembered and passed on.

Not every project is appropriate for the in-house agency, and a smart group should not overload themselves by taking on every project nor risk ruining their reputation by taking on projects poorly suited to their team, like trying to do marketing with a product design team. Big, temporary projects or isolated product areas in which the team has no experience are good cases for bringing in “the Hessians.” There are other ways to help, including sourcing and pre-qualifying external agencies and individual contractors.

Design contracts have details that are not understood by most procurement groups. It helps to know what is expected and standard in a design project, such as whether personas are required, or if the firm already has a set defined. An internal agency can assist with writing the contract, such as negotiating billing rates, or checking that the estimated hourly rate and the project length makes sense. Once contracted, the internal team can get the agency set up and be effective, faster.

Structuring the team as a consultancy can be a natural step as many UX professionals have agency experience; the difficult part is establishing the practice internally. Organizations that recognize the value of user experience typically have an easier time, but even if the company culture supports it, a team’s credibility needs to be built one project at a time.

A good balance is to establish an “agency of record” relationship, where you partner with (ideally two) good agencies. Agreeing on a defined level of resources each month for a year builds a relationship of trust, which gets the best talent and enables lower rates. Maintaining a 70:30 ratio of employees to contractors offers a good blend of lower costs and ability to vary staff in case of a downturn.

Some firms still worry that this whole UX thing will blow over, and they’ll be stuck with a bunch of latte-drinking oddballs on payroll. Being able to grow on demand and shrink if necessary calms this fear and shows organizational maturity in a way firms understand.

My biggest passion at work is helping each person achieve their goals and how this manifests in our team culture. This has helped guide my decisions from the large to the most mundane. You would be surprised at the impact getting a fancy coffee machine has over a plain corporate coffee pot. It is one small way to communicate respect. UX people are like many other craftspeople; they are 10 times more effective when inspired and engaged. Typically, UX groups work best physically sitting together while spending a lot of time with their clients, but the team should be organized to fit best with the business. Organizing UX people or teams to cover a business area in the firm enables them to develop expertise (relationships, processes, tools, and terminology) and carry it from project to project.

Managing multiple products avoids the tedium of working on solely one product, but enables the team to build a reputation and good working relationships, leading to greater influence. The longer-term engagement enables them to focus deeper on workflow and have a strategic point of view. It opens the potential to suggest that UX could deliver more value by doing more work on project X funded by project Y. Ideally, allocate “10% time,” where team members can work on fixing problems or developing new ideas.

Off-shoring

Inevitably, cost cutting concerns raise the question of off-shoring UX. Why pay North American wages when there are people willing to do the job for a third the cost? Many large outsourcing firms have a  design or user experience offering, why not use them when when the developers may already be off-shored?

I’ve been unable to hire at the same skill level with off shoring companies, but the real challenge is simple project management. Design resources are active during the formative phase of a project, when clear communication is most needed and requirements are in flux. Waiting 24-48 hours to learn if the request was understood is an order of magnitude slower (and thereby more expensive) than a head shake during a meeting.

When Diana Vreeland said “Pink is the navy blue of India,” she wasn’t thinking web design, but a user experience is often defined by shared cultural norms. Good design takes into account the intangible essentials. The best designers are plugged into the cultural currents and apply them to the job at hand. Amazon lets people tweet their product purchases. Is is appropriate for pharmacy orders? How much visual priority should news be given on a page? Many failed projects could have been fixed by asking basic questions such as “Do people really want that?”

Many firms understand that Agile development is difficult with a team in multiple physical locations, not to mention time zone and language or cultural challenges. Outsourcing works best in a waterfall process with tightly documented deliverables and less dependency on communication. Unfortunately, design operates in an agile mode at all times. In a knowledge worker field like design, it is not enough to have one senior “thinker” and 10 “doers.” The thinking IS the doing.

The best way to integrate off-shore talent is to supplement a team, with a local lead who can break design problems up across a team and coordinate efforts. A good example would be to extend a design idea across a defined workflow, or develop a set of icons. Most outsourcing firms recommend this structure for developers. There are many projects that are simply extensions of previous work. If you have tight standards and quality control, this model can work well.

Ultimately, though, the more important UX is to a new project, the less successful outsourcing is likely to be. One-third as expensive costs more if it takes three times as long.

Funding

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked, “We’d love to have UX, but how do you pay for it?” Funding an internal practice is inevitably the hardest problem, but it is how a UX manager earns their stripes.

There are two main ways to fund a design group–centrally, by some overarching part of the firm, or by the various projects that the team will support. Central funding has its benefits–you don’t have to worry about justifying the cost of design on a project or the headcount with many stakeholders. It is often easier to start a group with the support of senior executives who may be concerned about the customer experience across products.

I’ve come to prefer a hybrid model in order to build UX deeper into the company. Central funding creates a competition for the “free” resources and creates a perverse value on the service–that is, $0.00. This is important, because people value what they pay. Everyone knows development and QA are significant costs. If UX does not cost, there is no need to plan for it during yearly budgeting, which means no money for the team.

Additionally, it can be hard to justify hiring a person in the central group even if another group is willing to fund the person. Bureaucratic delays can make UX integration across the firm much harder. “Free” but unavailable is also hard to take seriously. Central funding is definitely needed for centralized tasks like creating style guides and exploring new design ideas that would not be supported by any one project.

The ideal is to have an understanding with finance that the group will be housed in one location but have the actual funding for the people distributed across projects around the firm. You are looking for something like insurance, not actual dollars, from the central funder. In time, they will see how in-demand UX people are. The 70:30 split we discussed earlier helps here as well.

Challenges

A good team who knows its company still faces the significant challenges. Team member burnout is a real problem. Working on the same problem area for years causes fatigue and sloppiness; one solution is to plan to rotate team members from area to area. Often, this needs to  happen before there is a glaring problem, like a project delayed or someone quits.

It is human nature to put off a team change when there is work to be done. Unfortunately, there is always work to be done. My experience has been that the key is that no client likes to replace a known resource with an unknown, even if they are stronger or more well suited. A solution is to plan ahead and let them get to know the replacement well in advance. Ideally, bring on the replacement to assist for a few months. My motto with clients is “No surprises.”

UX projects can have the reputation of being expensive, due to additional team members, and the additional thought put into them.  This can be a poor fit when the need is defining the basic problem and sketching a solution.  Offering an “innovation” UX , in contrast to regular projects can be a powerful tool to get UX in at the conception of an idea.

An “innovation” project starts off with a three to five week boot camp to develop the product vision from an elevator pitch to testable prototype or a presentation to request funding. These projects tend to be a lot of fun as well!

Keeping fresh and staying connected with UX, design, and technical developments outside the company can be a challenge. Many companies block access to social media tools and design websites. These rules have the (unpopular, but real) benefit of keeping people focused (it can be amusing to read mid-day tweets by consultants who are working “full time” on your project), but also blocks out many design-focused sites.

A team that shares links has a healthy culture that spreads good ideas and innovative design. Collecting these in an UX newsletter email makes it easier to share with design-interested colleagues, and keeps design in the conversation. Talk to the corporate security to get the top design sites unblocked. It can be surprisingly easy–often they are simply caught in a blanket block licensed from the firewall vendor. Little details like this can make a big impact to employee morale.

“Going native” is what happens when UX’ers understand and accept unchallenged why certain business rules are required and why new approaches are impossible. As representatives of the user, the team must refresh themselves. Good ways to do this are to listen in on customer service calls, visit company stores, and observe real customers. Bringing clients along can be a great team-building outing; many head office execs rarely get enough time with customers to talk about their products.

Development is an ongoing problem. UX’ers who aren’t growing feel like they are stagnating. The single best way is to support their development in ways that help others and build an ecosystem. Encourage white paper writing and presenting at conferences. Learning by teaching is a tried and true method. UX groups have the benefit of an audience with similar interests.

Go forth and conquer!

An integrated internal UX team is critical to organizational success, and the stakes are higher in larger enterprises. An internal practice that builds lasting relationships, provides thought leadership, and acts as trusted advisors provides long-lasting value to the firm. As the digital space becomes increasingly human-centric, and organizations evolve offerings around consumer need, the internal user experience agency plays a significant part in delivering both short term wins as well as long term success.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 4

by:   |  Posted on

So far in this series I’ve discussed how to prepare your team or organization for successful expansion, how to plant the right elements into the mix, and then how to ensure sustainable growth by “watering.”

Adding fertilizer comes next. Think of this step as finding ways to spark excitement, provide motivational guidance, or even remedy a malady. Continue reading Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 4

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 3

by:   |  Posted on

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. Continue reading Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 3

Soldiers & Hessians, Ronin & Ninja

by:   |  Posted on

When UX’ers talk, they tend to talk about process, but the ability to deliver an innovative user experience starts before kickoff and lasts after the launch. Repeatable success in UX depends on the right culture. This is particularly important in enterprise scale organizations, with long-lasting relationships.

Having worked as a consultant, at an agency and in-house, I’ve observed that the organizational location and economics of the user experience team can make or break them. When should you bring in an outside team, and when should you hire an individual employee? When might you want to grow an in-house agency?

As firms digitize their business, user experience has gone from marketing to a core business function. Financial service companies have come to embrace this (see “Your interface is your company”). When your products are invisible and complex, web and mobile interfaces define your customers’ opinion. This increased value means increased responsibility: Designers need deep business knowledge, not just wireframing skills. Full “domain knowledge” starts with knowing the basic terminology to business rules, previous project successes and failures, and regulations.

Intimate organizational insight is critical to UX. In the course of a project, UX professionals dig up data and identify solutions to problems beyond the immediate project. A UX future vision accelerates short-term delivery, but also drives the product roadmap. By understanding how the business works, strategic UX’ers can connect them to fundamental insights on how to deepen customer relationships and win.

How to figure out the right team for a new project?

Here are three things to think about for a project’s user experience team strategy.

Domain complexity. The more difficult a project is to learn by a new person the less happy enterprises are with “turnover.” New people can mean more training, delayed projects, and missed deadlines.

Lifespan of project/portfolio. Generally, single marketing campaigns don’t need as much investment into future-proofing. On the other hand, software can live for years; it’s worth investing to make it scalable, consistent, and avoid design entropy.

Scale. An organization’s scale determines the amount of impact a single UX practitioner can have. On small projects, a single designer can do it all, but in a large organization, a few scattered people will have difficulty influencing business strategy or maintaining a consistent UX strategy.

Because of these structural differences, agencies and in-house groups have different strengths and are suited to solve different problems.

UX_team_organization

The Ronin: Individual consultant

An individual consultant can be an effective solution for an experienced client, but too often a consultant’s input does not get the traction it deserves. The temporary nature of the engagement makes it difficult to know the business in depth or to earn relationships that can influence the project. There is a high risk of being relegated to “surface” design. This is the most difficult position to extend into wide ranging influence, as a consultant often lacks the standing to create standards, nor the scale to work on many projects.

One area an individual consultant can have influence is speaking. There are many talented UX people who are happy to adapt their UX conference speeches to a business audience.

There are many related subjects, from mobile trends to analytics to SEO that overlap with user experience. Showing the connection to the latest hot topic to the fundamental user centered design process helps show how UXD helps accomplish a goal that executives have.

With the right introduction, these external experts can demonstrate best practices that can gain a competitive advantage.

The Ninja: Individual employee

A strong employee can positively influence their area of business; however, they also often lack the influence to change business strategy. Ironically, if they are successful at promoting a user centered philosophy, they are unable to satisfy the resulting demand.

Many firms employ isolated UX professionals in various departments, which can make it difficult to define and enforce standards and best practices. Individual user experience practitioners can face limited career paths and pressure to compromise design principles.

Many firms have UX interest groups where people talk shop and share techniques. One approach is to convert this to an “action” group to influence overall strategy. Bring in external speakers, write an analysis of the firm’s user experience, create a user experience mailing group for interesting topics. Find like-minded executives who could champion user experience.

The Hessians: External agency

Agencies are an excellent option for a blue-sky rethinking of a product, for crossing lines of business, and providing a neutral third party. Not knowing the business requirements, laws, or what was tried before naturally encourages new thinking. Employees may be less optimistic, or perhaps too realistic, for radical change. Additionally, there is implicit perceived value in the neutrality of an outside opinion, especially from a brand name consultancy; internal stakeholders are more likely to accept mediation with an outsider. Additionally, agencies can deliver a large team quicker and easier than hiring consultants. Agencies can provide trend insights from scanning the field across clients to understand what is being emphasized.

However, the effectiveness of external agencies can be constrained by simple economics. An agency team costs significantly more per person. This limits the type of projects they can execute. Multi-year projects with multiple releases are often not cost effective. Small projects are similarly not possible due to the team approach of agencies: You can’t just hire one person from an agency. Sort of like Goldilocks, projects too long or too small are left without UX assistance.

The nature of working contract by contract requires agencies to focus on different aspects of a project, for example, making elaborate presentations to help the client feel they have gotten value for their money.

Fixed-price contracts force enterprises to work to a rigid schedule, which can be good and bad. Spending money on an external group can bring focus, but it is rare that all groups in a large organization operate on the same schedule. There are usually several large initiatives fighting for attention and core developer resources at any one time.

Doing a large overhaul ensures that some of the teams will not be ready to work during the time the agency is there. An agency is often long gone by the time a software application is launched, preventing usability testing for the next phase and eliminating the chance to fix the UX for challenges encountered during development.

Being external increases the difficulty of getting to know the client’s business. Information is shared less freely with outsiders and access to users is more tightly controlled. This can be as simple as getting a laptop on the local network or as difficult as being licensed or having security clearance. Each barrier reduces the efficiency of a temporary worker. They have to be twice as fast for each hour getting up to speed, travelling, and making presentations. Collaboration is sometimes hindered by an “us vs. them” attitude with agency people working in their office and the client in theirs.

Agencies may execute short-term projects effectively, but being temporarily engaged limits their effectiveness over the long term. Their recommendations may never be built if there is no one championing them in the company. The need for an impressive “big reveal” presentation at the end of the project can get in the way of a spirit of open, iterative design. They are well positioned to create a style guide but poorly positioned to see that it gets distributed, adopted, and maintained over time. An agency is great to make a slogan like “Quality is Job 1” but would struggle to make quality the top priority across a company.

The Soldiers: In-house agency

The in-house agency merges aspects of the external agency (scale, coordination, career path, best practices, and standards) with aspects of working in-house (stability, domain knowledge, personal relationships with partners) that can cause change over the long term. Investing in a UX department demonstrates the firm’s commitment to its customers, but it is often simply a practical decision.

In this model, user experience people are located in one group but are assigned to projects when needed. This enables the team to provide the core UX service to projects across an enterprise, without the higher costs of an entire agency team or tie up headcount on a project that does not need to hire a full time UX professional.

Workflow projects with complex business rules are best done inside the company. The business knowledge discovered during analysis is precious and expensive. Stakeholders rarely agree to be interviewed again because a person leaves mid project. Getting a UX professional up to speed is slow and expensive. Hiring an agency is a sure-fire way to lose this information when a team member is moved to another project.

Worse yet, given the higher turnover rates in agencies, the knowledge invested can be permanently lost. From remembering why decisions were made six months earlier to knowing the rules of the business, this is life force of a project. Documentation can help, but mid-project most of the information is held in the heads of the team.

The centralized group provides services that no other model can. It can maintain design standards to give the customer a consistent experience and reduce duplicate work. This reduces costs and improves quality. Members share in-progress work to the group, so a client benefits from the experience of the whole group.

To conclude

Each of these models has strengths and weaknesses. Assuming the same competency of the people, an in-house agency provides the best long term value to the enterprise from its ability to engage with complex problems and influence the organization widely. As firms recognize the competitive advantage of customer experience, the question becomes: how to make this vision a reality.

The next article will cover building and growing a UX practice that thrives in an enterprise and delivers business value.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 2

by:   |  Posted on

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. Continue reading Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 2

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 1

by:   |  Posted on

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. Continue reading Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 1

Your Boss Works for You

by:   |  Posted on

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

Are You Going Soft?

by:   |  Posted on

When was the last time you read your resume?

Go ahead and give it a look. Read your last job description. It’s impressive, right? Chances are, you emphasize your accomplishments, your ability to create stunning deliverables, and your extensive knowledge of the user experience practice.

Now, think back to your last project. But, ignore the deliverables and design ideas. Forget the budgets and timelines. What are you left with? Aside from a handful of sharpies and post-its, you’re left with the daily conversations and experiences you had with your team. What were they? Did you have to persuade somebody to see your point of view? Was there frustration, misunderstanding, or even a heated argument? Or, did things just “click” and everybody worked in harmony right from the start?

Most of us never stop to wonder why certain projects flow effortlessly while others feel like we’ve entered into a cage match. The truth is that most of us ignore the very stuff that determines if our human interactions are a success or a failure. Most of us ignore soft skills.

What are soft skills?

Everybody has his or her own definition. Some people call them “social skills”; a popular movie scene shows a man humorously screaming, “I’ve got people skills!” at his interviewer, and there are countless books on the subject. I define soft skills as the interpersonal abilities and sensibilities we gain during our journey from children into social adults.

Whatever label you prefer, taking a look at what soft skills are and how you apply them can have a huge impact on your work performance. This holds especially true for us in the UX field where we constantly strive to redefine boundaries, achieve consensus, and persuade others to see our point of view. The road isn’t always smooth, or even paved, and it’s our soft skills that will get us to our destination.

Soft skills applied

Let’s look at three scenarios where soft skills are put to the test. Whether these scenarios are familiar to you or not, ask yourself what you would do in each situation. Ask yourself how you would apply your soft skills and what result they might achieve.

Scenario 1: You say tomato, I say UX.

It’s 12:10PM, and the rumble in your stomach confirms that it is indeed lunchtime. Instead of waiting for your favorite noodle dish to be served, you are waiting in the conference room wishing your pencil were an appetizer.

Finally, the door bursts open and Don, the marketing manager, enters the room. “Hey sorry to keep you waiting! I was chatting with Susan about my landing page, and she was saying how busy you guys are! Thanks for taking the time to meet with me about this UI stuff.”

Did he really say “UI”? Okay, it’s an honest mistake. You decide to return the smile and politely respond, “It’s actually user experience, or UX. There’s a separate group handling UI design.”

He pauses a beat and shrugs his shoulders, “Hey – UX, UI, it’s all the same, right? Now, I was thinking about my landing page design last night and I made some sketches. I know you are probably a wizard at Photoshop, so try not to laugh…”

What would you do?

Option 1: Put him in his place.

You respond, “First of all, UX is not the same as UI. I design experiences, not just interfaces. Secondly, there’s a lot of thinking that goes into it that you are unaware of. I start with something called discovery…”

Outcome: You may have succeeded in educating him on what you do, but you did it in such a way as to leave him few options but to be offended or embarrassed. Regardless of what he says next, Don won’t be coming back to you with the same openness and enthusiasm as he did today. Chances are, he might be asking your boss for somebody else who is “easier to work with.”

Option 2: Respect and be respected.

You smile and say, “Don, you know how your job as the marketing manager involves creating these great strategy plans for the year and outlining each campaign to make sure it aligns with a goal? Well, user experience is similar in that we look at the objectives for a project and strategize on how best to design the system to match those needs. UX…”

Outcome: You’ve avoided bruising Don’s ego by sidestepping the fact he doesn’t know what UX is. You show respect by stating the value of his role and you speak his language by drawing parallels with your own. By pivoting from a head-on posture to side-by-side, you have a much better chance of him accepting what you have to say and forming a new partnership.

Scenario 2: I don’t buy it.

It’s Wednesday morning and you’re ready to present your wireframes. You flip through your presentation even though you know it like the back of your hand. Your diagrams are polished, but not too high fidelity. Your annotations are thorough but concise enough to be digestible. You’ve memorized the talking points and are anxious to present the design to the entire team.

You begin smoothly enough by thanking people for their time and quickly settle into your regular cadence. The butterflies in your stomach perk up as you talk about the ever-contentious homepage redesign. People begin to nod in agreement with your strategy and you sigh in relief since the hard part is nearly over. You pick up the pace and mention the new slider design and how it can handle multiple business priorities. Suddenly, you notice a frown on the CEO’s face and your throat dries like a towel. Here it comes.

“I don’t like sliders. Get rid of them,” says the CEO.

Just like that, your presentation grinds to a halt and all eyes are on you. Even the butterflies want to know what you’ll say next.

Option 1: Dig in.

You fold your arms and say, “Well, I think the slider is the best way to go.”

Outcome: Besides the soundtrack from a spaghetti western, this head-to-head approach yields both a winner and loser. And since it’s the CEO you’re facing, the end credits will reveal you were the latter. You want to avoid win-lose scenarios as much as possible because not only will they undermine somebody’s credibility, they promote a culture that values strength over merit.

Option 2: Just the facts.

You adjust your glasses and respond, “Well, I did try different options but this one seems to be the best fit for our users. People are accustomed to using sliders in our other app and analytics shows they actually look at all of the messages before exploring.”

Outcome: The best way to deal with emotional arguments is by sidestepping the emotion. You can’t rationalize somebody out of a personal design preference. So, defer to the facts of the design. Make it about the users and business goals, not you. You are not your design.

Option 3: Turn the critic into the collaborator.

You nod and reply, “Yeah, the slider is a tricky element on this page. I explored a lot of other options but I’m open to new ideas. Let me walk you through my thinking and maybe you will see something I didn’t.”

Outcome: It’s far easier to criticize a design than it is to create a solution. Engaging people in the design process will let you be seen as a person who wants to make the work great, not someone who craves credit for every decision. Plus, by drafting critics into becoming problem solvers, you minimize on the amount of unconstructive noise without risking confrontation.

Scenario 3: There’s a storm brewing and it’s going to be a doozy.

“I don’t care about rational arguments and I don’t want to talk analytics. I don’t care what you say. I want it designed this way and that’s the way it’s going to be!”

I couldn’t believe I heard these very words during an internal design review. What started out as a simple discussion quickly escalated into a heated debate. Well, only one of us was heated, but we were clearly both debating. Unfortunately for me, he was the project owner.

Conflict is inevitable. People go to war, they fight in court, and there are small disagreements between people all the time. When faced with conflict, think about your options. There’s more than the fight-or-flight response.

Here are your options when dealing with conflict:

  1. Flight. Someone might be having a bad day and are looking for a confrontation. If you think it’s best to avoid it altogether, do so. There is no shame in knowing when to pick your battles.
  2. Fight. If you think you are in the right and don’t mind making it clear that you are to be the winner and they are to be the loser of an argument, fighting for your position is what you want to do. Just be mindful of the potential repercussions.
  3. Give in. When push comes to shove and you don’t have a solid position, you will falter. Giving in is one way to quickly end a conflict and please the other party.
  4. Ask for help. Some situations are too difficult to face ourselves, so we call in somebody bigger and stronger to do it for us. That’s how it works on the playground anyway. In the office, we can call on our boss to handle things beyond our capability.
  5. Compromise. While it sounds like a good thing that a mutual agreement has been reached, compromise is never satisfying. Neither party gets what they truly want. And, the compromise looks a bit like design-by-committee, which always looks ugly to everybody not on the committee.
  6. Consensus. This is the holy grail of conflict resolution. You work through the material and everybody agrees the solution is a “win.”

Reading these scenarios and carefully choosing your option is a bit like living with telepathic abilities. Many times, we make choices in the heat of the moment based on our emotions, our instincts, or honestly the need to be “right.” I suggest we take a page from our own design playbook and first begin with exercising empathy. Even when you don’t know the “right” answer, thinking about what the other person is experiencing will make it far easier for you to decide how to react and have the best outcome.

What about you?

As your resume grows and you travel further down your career path, your may find yourself relying on your soft skills more and more. I’m of the mind that one’s work is never finished. In practice, there is no perfect. And, even the smoothest and most charismatic of us can use a little work. Here are three steps to getting on the path to improving your soft skills.

Step 1: List your work activities that require soft skills. For example, let’s say your list includes “Give presentations.”

Now, imagine the best presentation you’ve ever seen. Maybe it was watching a Ted Talk, your CEO, or even a colleague who works in the next office. We’ll define that performance a “10.” Now, list what skill level you think you need in order to do your job well and be satisfied.

Soft Skill Activities Required Skill Level (1-10)
Give presentations 8

Step 2: Write down your current skill level in another column. This takes some honest self-reflection. And remember, cheating only hurts the cheater. Unless you are delusional, in which case, I say go for it.

In this example, maybe you feel nervous and freeze up during presentations. Or maybe you lack the ability to go “off script” and exude the confidence and charisma you saw in your CEO. But, you still get your point across and nobody really complains. So, you think you’re about a “5.”

Soft Skill Activities Required Skill Level (1-10) Current Skill Level
Give presentations 8 5

Step 3: You knew the gap analysis was coming up next, right? Well, calculate the gap between what you need to be at and your current skill level.

Soft Skill Activities Required Skill Level (1-10) Current Skill Level Gap
Give presentations 8 5 3

What do we do when we see a gap? No, we don’t go shopping. We bridge it. Here are the bricks:

Make a Plan to Better Presentations

  • Brainstorm and talk to colleagues on how they honed their skills.
  • Look for speaking opportunities and practice religiously.
  • Join Toastmasters and refine your speeches along with your listening skills.
  • Try an improv class to boost charisma and trust in yourself.

Whatever the soft skill you are looking to improve, don’t forget it takes both learning and practice. Be creative and most important, approach soft skill development with the same tenacity you do with the hard skills we hone everyday.

Level up

Developing your soft skills will yield improvements both in yourself and your relationships with others. Contentious meetings will run smoother, your opinions will be heard (and valued) more often, and you will win the employee of the month award. Okay, the award might be a stretch, but others will recognize you for your ability to handle difficult situations and influence outcomes. And best of all, you will be doing it in a way that feels natural.

Take a look at your resume again. What is the next job description you will be writing? For many of us, the UX path can wind from practitioner to leader. The transition can happen slowly, but as your responsibilities and leadership duties grow, so will your reliance on the soft skills you have developed.

Soft skills are the leader’s hard skills.