Quick advice for the individual contributor starting a new job

Jaemi asks:

I begin my first day tomorrow with [new job]. If there is any advice you might offer I’d welcome it.

Off the cuff, I have just two things:

  1. Now is the time when you learn about the business. Talk to everyone, ask people who you should talk to next, write notes, ask question, ask especially about the goal of or the intended effect on metrics of a thing that has been chosen for the team to work on.
  2. They chose you to make an offer to rather than other applicants, so there’s something they like about you, something they are excited or hopeful about – what is it? If you can find out what it is it should be straightforward to prove them right in their choice of you.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 11 28

  • I accepted the offer and will start December 12. Startup paperwork was mostly easy, save for finding the exact dates of move in/out and start/stop for my address and work histories. Getting a local notary to do my I-9 right took a couple of tries, but it is done, supposedly.
  • Christmas gifts are almost entirely sewn up. Everything I don’t already have in-hand is at least ordered and on the way.
  • I brought a little bit of interview prep here as an article. It was easy. And since similar articles are an important part of my portfolio in that they are demonstrations of what I bring to a team, I feel I should figure out how to usefully mingle these with more traditional portfolio items. That could take a lot of forms, but I’ll turn my advice on myself and
    • Name the problem specifically
    • Identify the audiences and what I need them to see or learn
    • Come up with several concepts to address that problem, for those audiences
    • Select one concept according to its fitness AND feasibility
    • Only then execute that concept, progressively

I was asked “what kind of leader are you?”

During my recent (and successful) series of interviews one interviewer asked me “what kind of leader are you?” I blurted out “supportive,” not having really quite prepared for that sort of question, and while it’s true, I didn’t find that answer satisfying – support is not all that I provide, though I find it important. So I resolved to do better in alter interviews. This topic came up as a prompt for a final presentation to a panel of interviewers, so I chose four adjectives and presented those. (Any one of these topics could be an article unto itself.) A slightly cleaned-up version of what I had to say appears here:

Supportive

I don’t really talk about people as “my employees” or “people who report to me;” I like to think of designers, researchers, writers, etc. as “the people I support.” The people commonly thought of as individual contributors are the hands and feet of the organization, doing the actual work that our users and customers will interact with, and they need the path cleared to do their work as best they can.

I typically have a weekly 1:1 with each person I support, time specifically set aside for me to support them. And I try to create the conditions for the people I support to be mutually supportive as well. 

One way this occurs is by having weekly design critique, prefaced by my giving the team whatever “news” I’ve gathered from the company. Critique is not about design approval; it’s really time to borrow the  brains of other team members for help working on whatever you are working on, and the teams where I’ve put it in to practice have, over time, come to seek each others support outside of critique, have been more aware of what is going on on other teams, have borrowed good thinking from each other, and have in general started to converge in terms of the experiences they are producing. This works remote or in-person; at Cayuse most of the folks on the team had never met in person. (A good design system and pattern library helps with this too, of course, and while someone should be in charge of it, it’s worthwhile to have multiple individuals chew on it and take pieces to work on.)

Adaptive

In order to improve our results we need to change our behavior. “Try harder” is not typically an effective strategy. There are a great many ways we might need to adapt:

  • We might need to add capabilities by bringing in people who have these capabilities, or through training.
  • We might need to encourage existing behaviors through process changes, internal metrics, or incentives.
  • We might need to change which people work together when.
  • We might need to address specific interpersonal issues.

When something isn’t going quite right my first questions are not about who, but what is our goal and what activities are contributing to that goal or detracting from it. When I arrived at Cayuse, several product managers largely gathered feedback from customer advisory boards, and many on those customer advisory boards were not frequent users. Some weren’t users at all. And the designers basically punched out UI based on very specifically-written stories with little or no user contact. Both designers and PMs needed to be pushed toward alternate research methods, especially user interviews, so I pointed out what sorts of activities went with what parts of the Cayuse process, and gave trainings on interviewing intended to lower the barriers to actually doing interviews. Here’s how to plan, here’s how to schedule, here’s what to do in awkward situations, etc. And it worked! In the Risk Management, Inventions, and Animal Procurement teams that were only doing CABs, they started doing interviews to investigate specific capabilities they were working on, leading to more meaningful debate and decisions that could actually be explained to upper management.

We also might need to adapt when it comes to the data we seek – Belkin and Cayuse both neglected support contacts for a time. Cayuse is still wrestling with how best to use NPS comments, and for now ignoring customer forum discussions as a data source. Some orgs look for “north star” metrics when they really should start by counting basic user successes.

I’m also a little bit skeptical of “best practices” – when people speak of “best practices” it sounds to me a lot like copying. Being informed by what others have done, and experimenting, piloting, adapting, is great. But if you just copy your not learning.

Communicative

I debated whether to call this “communicative” or “connective” – to be most effective, people need to to know what’s going on in the organization, how their work contributes to the success of the product they’re working on and the org as a whole, and why we are making the decisions we are making. They need to be plugged into feedback and data coming from real users and real customers. They won’t act in an empowered and accountable way until they are able to make decisions, however small, in an informed way. That’s why critique starts with the news, for example.

I’m fond of a “one page strategic plan” approach to ensuring that our adaptations are chosen to support our goals and our strategy, and I share this thinking and let people help with it. In a one-page plan, each strategic objective is broken down further and further until we get to concrete activities. Generally you’ll find that some activities feed multiple objectives and are thus especially valuable. The important part here is that by going through this exercise we can arrive at a prioritized set of initiatives to improve how we work and the quality of that work, arriving at that plan is done in public, and the plan is available for review so that when we aren’t thinking straight we can recall what we were thinking when we were thinking straight.

It’s essential that the people needed to make a decision get together to make the decision. There are many forms of “get together” but I’m especially fond of product trio, where the key product person, key technical person, and key design person make decisions together. If push comes to shove the product person owns the product, but the main idea is to avoid ill-informed decisions that invite revisiting immediately. I can’t tell you how many times a designer has come to me complaining that “the plan changed again” when the underlying issue was that the right people were not together, leading to an unstable decision, or an opinion being taken as a decision.

I also like to evaluate design in terms of themes, and to make sure we are all aware of and supportive of these themes. The experience quality themes from Cayuse are likely different than the themes we will arrive at with Invoca.

It’s also essential that in general we communicate in terms of goals rather than just instructions. I try to model this whenever I can. Instructions describe one way to meet a goal. It’s helpful to know what we are doing, but it’s essential to know WHY as we will need to adjust at some point and it’s easy to choose the wrong adjustment if you don’t have the goal firmly in mind.

(Judiciously) Innovative

There are good places and bad places to innovate. But what do we mean by innovation? I like the IDEO definition, which is simply “introducing new ideas.”

In general, I think we do NOT want to innovate in interface design. We want to make something understandable, usable, useful, informative, branded, and pleasant. People learn about how software works by using software. Thousands of hours of other people’s software. We don’t need to be boring but we do need to be familiar.

We may want to innovate as we improve our processes. It’s good to be informed by what has worked elsewhere, but let’s not copy from others, let’s learn from others and adapt.

I DO think we need to innovate when we are exploring, thinking about how to solve a problem, coming up with concepts. And we especially need to introduce new ideas when a concept is too clever or fancy to be cost-effective. We can think of our interventions on a scale from the simplest thing that could possibly work to too fancy for the ROI, and the right concept for today is somewhere on that scale, often a little lower than we’d expect. We may need to introduce new ideas to make something satisfying and effective that takes us down that scale to the right level.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 11 27

It’s been American Thanksgiving this week, and we hosted due to local family either having smaller places or being in the midst of a remodel.

  • We managed to get nine around our table, in our small dining area, responsibly comfortably. The choice to roast smaller chickens rather than a big turkey, worked well. Everything was good, and the leftovers are good, and any anxieties I had about hosting and making were unfounded.
  • I received a job offer just before the holiday and it set my mind at ease.
  • While the competing jobs I’m interested in are much earlier in the process, and thus cannot be seen as competitors to the offer simply because of timing, it’s nice to have been considered by multiple firms at once.
  • The interview process, much like other discussions, reminded me what I think about certain things that are article-worthy. I can move some of my interview prep almost directly to this site, and will do so.

So it looks like I’ll accept this new offer on Monday and then be on the Pro Leisure Circuit until December 12. Yay!

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 11 14

“Cold” applications to Director or VP of UX Design/Product Design jobs are going nowhere. Not a one has resulted in so much as a conversation with a recruiter. I’m zero for sixteen on these. Perhaps worse; I haven’t kept careful count. BUT!

  • “Warm” applications, where I’ve been referred by someone I already know or otherwise managed to network my way into discussing an opportunity, have resulted in initial conversations or informational interviews about a third of the time.
  • Recruiter-led opportunities, where a recruiter approached me first, have been fewer, but have resulted in initial conversations or informational interviews three quarters of the time.
  • Most of the networked or recruiter-led opportunities are rather more interesting than the cold ones.
  • Get me into an interview with the hiring manager and we’re off to the races. Whenever this has happened I’ve made progress through the interview schedule.

It’s the network! Work the network.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 11 07

  • My practice of doing at least one thing each day for the three topics of network cultivation, opportunities (warm and cold applications, reviewing job boards, targeted networking), and evidence (resume, portfolio, profile, articles) is keeping me moving forward and busy without frazzle.
  • The fear of doing a poor job on portfolio updates has finally been overwhelmed by the fear of not having done enough. It’s a bit tricky as I left one job without gathering visuals and that company no longer exists. It’s a bit complicated by the fact that at my prior job nearly all of the team’s effort went into rewrites that have not yet shipped, so have not borne results.
  • Some of my target companies are going through layoffs right now, but there are plenty of other opportunities out there. I just need to keep hammering, and the iron will become hot.

Single diamond, the basic form of the creative process

If you search the web for “double diamond” you’ll find a great many articles describing a design or product management or product development process in which you

  • choose what to build
    • discover – gather insight into the problem area(s)
    • define – express the area to focus on as a distinct selected problem
  • then build it well
    • develop – generate potential solutions
    • deliver – make and ship a potential solution

Some people call this “build the right thing” and “build the thing right.” “Discover” and “develop” are meant to be generative, expansive processes, and “define” and “deliver” are meant to be specifying/selecting/contracting processes. This puts an expansion and a contraction in each of two phases, hence the diamond shapes. There are two phases, hence “double diamond.”

As we discover we expand. As we define we contract. Develop expands again, and deliver contracts.

One of the reasons that the double diamond fails to satisfy is that it expresses each activity as either an expansion, a generation of ideas, or a contraction, a selection among those ideas. Generation and selection are important, and the way a team needs to think while generating is different than while selecting, but there’s much more to do than just generation and selection. The dirty little secrets of the double diamond are that it

  • misses the relatively linear work of actually producing a solution, even as a test,
  • expresses the informative first phase, the research inherent to “discover,” as an expansion, which it might only accidentally contain,
  • skips a step where you select among the available solutions in an informed way to get to where you can actually work on and ship one of them.

I happen to think of a UX process in three horizons or phases. (Already we are off the double diamond.) Each of these contains some learning and some making. The learning might inform us (not necessarily expansion) or it might help us select (contraction). The making might be generative (expansion) or it might be adding specificity (contraction). So in each phase there’s some expansion and contraction going on, each pair making a single diamond.

The single expansion of "generate" and contraction of "select" is preceded by an "inform" phase.

(This three-phase approach actually maps somewhat closely to the Ideo Human Centered Design Process, consisting of inspiration, ideation, and implementation.)

If you search the web for “single diamond” you’ll find a lot of gemstones. But this basic idea of informing/immersing, then generating, then selecting, maps quite nicely onto a general creative process that humans already naturally go through if they are adept at creating.

If you watch trained professional designers work, those that do not rely on inspiration or deadline panic, you see this process in action. They learn about the space in which they are working, they switch off the evaluator and cheaply/quickly make lots of diverse possibilities, many of them not very good, then they shift into evaluation mode and choose among the possibilities those that are worthy of improvement or delivery. A ton of that generated work is discarded, but the resulting item or items are much better for having gone through this process. Immersion, generation, selection. I’ve witnessed the process many times, but especially among industrial designers at Medtronic and Belkin, nearly all of whom were trained at Art Center, Long Beach State, or RISD.

If you watch adept untrained designers, the same thing typically happens. They take a number of rough stabs at the work before choosing a direction to go. They may already be immersed in the space in which they are working they generate, then they select. it took me a while to adopt this process, but my own work and the work of the people I support is much better for it.

A similar thing happens when jazz musicians improvise. First, they immerse themselves in the space in which they will be improvising by rehearsing the underlying tune and by playing scales in harmony with different passages of the piece. They then practice improvising within and around the harmonic structure of the piece for many hours, experimenting with sounds and passages. While practicing improvising the evaluative part of their thinking is muted, but as they continue they amass a vocabulary of musical fragments that they like, chosen from the many that they have created. And when it comes time to perform, they have the selected fragments at their fingertips. Immersion, generation, selection.

Meanwhile designers whose work isn’t very good, or who are in a rush, or people taking a stab at designing who don’t understand design, often make one or two crucial mistakes. Some tend to skip the inform/immerse art of the process, meaning that they’ll come up with solutions that are poorly-informed, not well-suited to the problem at hand. Some try to generate and evaluate at the same time, and end up coming up with one maybe passable solution that’s not nearly as good as they would have made had they generated for a while without evaluation.

(The second mistake is similar to what happens if you are brainstorming and someone is shooting down ideas during the meeting. The evaluation interferes with the generation, and little of value is actually created.)

Immersion, generation, selection. It’s the basic form of the creative process.

Philosophy of UX research and design: Horizon three (benefit)

I mentioned earlier that I think of UX research and design practice in three horizons:

  • Horizon one, detail: creating detailed designs, testing those designs, preparing for shipping, supporting development, instrumentation
  • Horizon two, concept: generating and selecting among concepts intended to deliver a chosen benefit
  • Horizon three, benefit: learning about the problems people face and the benefits we might offer them to alleviate one or more of these problems

Our goal in horizon three is to

  1. understand the people we intend to serve, the work they are doing, and the difficulties that they face so well that we can
  2. come up with multiple benefits we might offer these people, then
  3. select among these according to their value to these people and to the business.

To do this we have a handful of learn activities and a handful of make activities, in a learn/make/learn sequence:

  1. Learn
    • Examine about how people work in the domain in which we operate to detect difficulties or gaps in the experience (you’ll recognize this as qualitative research), via
      • Interviews
      • Job shadowing
      • Customer advisory boards/focus groups
      • Surveys
      • Etc.
    • Measure how people use the product now, or alternatives to your product if you don’t have a product yet (you’ll recognize this as quantitative research), via
      • Testing existing experiences – summative testing
      • Reviewing sources of experience data
        • User success metrics and other user behavioral metrics
        • Support contacts themes and details
        • The frequency of error messages
        • Etc.
      • Reviewing sources of user opinion data
        • Ratings and reviews
        • Customer complaints
        • Net Promoter scores and comments
        • Etc.
  2. Make
    • Generate a list of potential benefits – results that are desirable that don’t mention the specific manner in which these results are delivered
    • Express each benefit in a way that works for your business, be it a benefit statement, a value proposition, a magical prototype, etc.
  3. Learn
    • Check each benefit for strategic fit – would deliver this benefit help us with our chosen strategy, or distract from it?
    • Check each benefit for product fit – would delivering this benefit strengthen the product’s value proposition, or dilute it?
    • Examine each benefit with the help of the people you serve – to what extent would having this benefit appeal when compared with competing benefits? How well would this benefit address existing complaints or difficulties? Would this benefit encourage subscriptions, renewals, purchases? There are numerous tools to do this, including max diff survey, dot voting, landing page testing, crowdfunding, and many others.

At the end of this you’ll have one or more high-scoring benefits and likely will already have gathered some ideas about how you might deliver each one. You’re ready for horizon two, concept.

You can see that this phase is an example of a single diamond creative process, where we inform ourselves, generate multiple possibilities, then winnow down the possibilities into a select few that we think will be especially good.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 10 31

Last week I pointed out that

The moment I announced I am #openToWork on LinkedIn there was an inrush of good wishes and referrals and recommendations.

Over the past week I’ve noticed the stream of well-wishers, recommenders, and referrers continue. This reminds me that

  • I have a bigger and better network than I give myself credit for
  • Some of those relationships have been surprisingly resilient (as I’ve not been the best about keeping in touch in most cases)
  • The people who have been recommending me have been recommending me for largely the same traits and activities. So these traits are real, and I can use this fact to let impostor syndrome calm down a little bit.

In addition, a second flood has begun – little tidbits that would be useful fodder for this blog or LinkedIn posts are becoming more apparent to me, and more often. I’m still wrestling with the “what does the portfolio of a director look like” issue, but I hope to have that sorted out soon, and I bet it will involve talking about how to get the work done more than the work itself..

Communications: providing both context and instructions

Bottom line

A small incident today reminds me of the importance of explaining not just what action you’d like taken but why. I have found this to be true so often that it’s become part of how I usually communicate with coworkers, supervisors, even my own family.

In brief

The message

We need either a new sewer outlet hose and a carrier to match, or just a new sewer outlet hose. Would prefer a longer hose and the ability to carry it. If using the existing carrier, there’s a bolt missing.

became, through the telephone game

Longer sewer outlet hose with carrier

and the work done merely

Replaced two missing screws from carrier

with the note

Currently has 47″ hose carrier, only has max 62″ space for different carrier

missing the (completely accomplishable) goal entirely.

Background

In August we took our little Airstream on a two-week trip from Oregon to Navajo country then back through some of the national parks of northern Arizona and southern Utah. It was an amazing trip, but we had a variety of mishaps with the trailer along the way. High winds carried off our radio antenna, we struggled with a blockage in the sewage tank, the toilet valve started to leak (not in a gross way), we lost a rivet inside, the awning started to spring back sluggishly and then not at all, we blew out a backflow preventer leading to a flood of fresh water coming out from behind the kitchen cabinet, etc. And in the very last days of the trip our 12-year-old sewer hose finally started to crack, leading to a small but unpleasant situation when we went to dump our waste water.

Naturally, once we arrived home we cleaned things up as best we could and made an appointment with our local service provider. Once I started to explain our list of issues they smartly asked me to email the list, which I did, explained in detail.

The drop off day arrived, and I dutifully explained each issue to the service writer, who had prepared a repair order based on the email. The service writer said he thought my explanations, email, and the repair order all made sense, and I handed him the keys.

Weeks passed, and I received a call saying the repairs were complete. We made an appointment for me to pick up the trailer.

That brings us to today

Today was pick up day, but I returned home empty-handed. All of the repairs were done satisfactorily but one: I had neither a new sewer hose nor a carrier to match. All that was done was to replace screws needed to hold the existing carrier in place.

Looking over the repair order, line two had only the instructions

Longer sewer outlet hose with carrier

Those aren’t bad instructions, actually. If they had been fulfilled, I’d have taken the trailer home. Instead, the trailer still had the original hose and carrier.

Apparently the next size hose carrier is 64 inches long (162.5 science units) and there was only 62 inches of unobstructed space across the trailer to install a carrier, so the technician spotted and fixed what they could see as wrong, missing screws. They took a note to this effect

Currently has 47″ hose carrier, only has max 62″ space for different carrier. Replaced two missing screws from carrier

and stopped work. The effect of this is that the most important part of my problem, needing a new sewer hose, was not remedied, and the least important, this too-short hose carrier being loose, was all that was worked on.

What went wrong?

I can think of a handful of different things that someone could have done to improve the situation. But the most charitable interpretation is that my goal

new sewer outlet hose and a carrier to match, or just a new sewer outlet hose

didn’t make it to the technician. I probably have a hand in that miss, as does the service writer.

There also might be a little bit of rosh gadol at work here; come to find out also that I’m not stuck with my too-short 47 inch carrier or a too-long 64 inch carrier – there are adjustable hose carriers. And surely a technician can select a carrier, adjust it to a suitable length, test a new hose to see if it will fit, and finding a match install both and sell them to me.

(It also probably did not help that my expression of the goal included an “or.”)

The remedy

Today I told the service writer

My goal is to have a new sewer hose, and the means to carry it, installed on the trailer.

The exact manner of meeting that goal is open to interpretation, but if that goal makes it to the technician this time I’m confident I will have the result I seek.