Revamping my design leadership portfolio: goals

I’m not in a big hurry to leave my job (hi, folks!). But every once in a while a really nice opportunity comes along, and I’d like to be prepared for it. And of late I’ve felt that I’m not prepared. I think my portfolio doesn’t reflect my value as a design leader; it’s only a little bit past a designer portfolio, and a hastily thrown-together one at that. Sure, it was sufficient to get my current gig, but I fell into the lap of this company at JUST the right moment; a lot of this last transition is down to good luck.

This is a good reminder that you should be looking for your next job before you want your next job.

Roy Rapoport, Director of Corporate Engineering at Netflix

Recently we’ve started to revamp the company site, which has gone untouched for half a decade. In doing so we’ve selected two audiences we want to impress based on our business goals, done research on each, and penned some aims and a mission for the site based on that research and some hopefully reasonable assumptions when research didn’t suffice.

I’ll take a similar approach, at least conceptually, to improve my own portfolio, using my own goals (why have a portfolio site, after all?) and what I’ve learned in my many contacts with recruiters and hiring managers over the past few years. Over several posts I’ll go through the process, and eventually arrive at a portfolio site that I am proud of and I expect will do the job.

My highest-level goal is to be an impressive candidate design leader to firms that I’ll further assess these companies myself for culture, personal growth opportunity, financial opportunity, and interesting work to do.

My design leadership portfolio will contribute to that goal by suggesting to recruiters and hiring managers looking for a product design leader at the director level or better that I am worth further evaluation and an interview.

It’ll do so by demonstrating that my teams make great experiences for normal people in software, hardware, out-of-box, and services.

It’ll do so by showing how my organization of the team, the process, and the work, and my wrangling of the particular challenges of each project, contributed to outstanding results.

It’ll do so by reflecting how I lead teams to use research, usability testing, and metrics to produce good experiences and improve them over time, and where organizational failure to do these things left money and opportunities on the table.

It’ll do so by making it clear that I’m concerned with exactly the things that a growing business needs to pay attention to, including

  • delivering delight,
  • becoming recommendable,
  • demonstrating thoughtfulness through meaningful differentiation,
  • avoiding churn, cancellations, returns, and support costs, and
  • demonstrating continuous improvement.

These writings have a part to play, of course. My ability to explain concepts, reveal my thinking, and work in public are all facets of my work personality that are material to whatever success I’ve had so far. So it’ll be a help if these sometimes refer to the portfolio and vice versa.

Equally important are non-goals:

  • While I know a bit about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and cut my teeth on CSS back when we were rebuilding table-based layouts without tables, it’s not important that I showcase particular skill with these tools. So I don’t need to shy away from tools that make producing a site easier. I don’t need to hand-roll everything.
  • While I’m a design leader, I’m not producing a lot of shipping design myself; rather I’m helping teams of people think about and organize their work, and developing those people and the processes in which they operate, to deliver excellent experiences that drive business results. So I need just enough polish to demonstrate thoughtfulness and get my points across. I don’t need to create a truly bespoke design. The content will matter more, and team results will matter more, than the frame in which these are shown.
  • I’ve learned that designer-manager positions often become one or the other to the dissatisfaction of everyone. I know that what I love is coaching, up and down, and I don’t want a player-coach role. So while my own design aptitude is important, my individual work should take a back seat to the results I lead cross-functional teams to achieve. My own sketches to help foster that achievement may have a role to play, however.

So I’ll need to select projects and produce case studies that provide opportunities to do these things, and be explicit in pointing these things out as I go.

Along the way I’d like to do things a little differently. I’d like to share credit, perhaps by naming people who played a special role on the team. I’d like to discuss the sort of culture I hope to foster on design teams, where the team makes decisions together, knowingly for the good of users and the business, and sign-off by a superior is neither necessary nor sought. And I’d like to set myself up for regular maintenance of the portfolio, such that it’s not burdensome to add to it over time. I’d rather not go through a spasm of intense work as I have at each major job transition in the past; rather I’d like a small amount of continuous effort to result in my preparedness for these transitions when the opportunity arises.

What’s next? I can see a handful of needed activities:

  • Product-managing the various possible portfolio pieces
  • Considering overall positioning and messages that reflect that positioning
  • Selecting and preparing to measure the appropriate primary actions that denote success for the site

It’s probably sensible to go after the hardest part first: the portfolio pieces. Watch this space.

How to be strategic

I’m not a fan of LessWrong – while I like the idea of being more rational, and strive to acknowledge and feel my emotions but not let them impede my thinking needlessly, there’s a strong whiff of holier-than-thou coming off of many in the rationalist community, including the otherwise very interesting Scott Alexander, whose writings on mental health care I admire. A little humility goes a long way but it is sometimes in short supply.

Nonetheless I was happy to read Anna Salamon’s article Humans are not automatically strategic. Though the article makes heavy use of the trope of calling the less-rational populace “humans,” as if rationalists are somehow better than mere humans, the core of the piece lays out an eight step process to develop and pursue goals that is very much like the method I came to the hard way over many years, and try to coach the people I support into using.

(a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve;
(b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress;
(c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal;
(d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past);
(e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work;
(f) Focus most of the energy that *isn’t* going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best;
(g) Make sure that our “goal” is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won’t continually sap our energies;
(h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting

Point (a) seems to be where so many people fail. What is it that you want? What should happen? If it were magic, where would we be already? Some of this is using question (b) to back into (a), which can be easier, sometimes. But (b) is really about measurement—making your goal operational.

(C) and (d) are research. People often forget to do this, or find it unexciting. That could be a clue that you’re not as interested in your goal as you thought (see point (g)), but in these times many find our intellectual persistence has been weakened by the many available distractions of social media, especially the FOMO that comes with that. It’s all to easy to envy or look down on anyone you come across on Twitter, Instagram, etc. and it doesn’t help you be you if you are buys inspecting others.

(E), systematically test many different conjectures, is an advanced form of what I wish people. would do, which is just try something and see how it goes. That makes a lightweight form of (f) possible—see if what you are trying is working, and make a change if not, based on (b). (H) is similarly advanced. A lighter form of this, more than adequate to start, is to take notes on your plan and results so you can refer to them later, and do so.

Any creative professional (and I use the term broadly) eventually needs to create a system for themselves (or adopt and then adapt one) to organize their thoughts and plans. One’s head is the least reliable storage. Doing so can help make being strategic possible.

What is a business case?

To me, someone who didn’t go to business school, the all-too-common admonition to “make the business case” for something was often a showstopper. What is a business case, what does it include, how do I make one, and what hard questions need be answered when making it? I had no idea where to start. And even my best bosses were no real help, handwaving vaguely about time and costs and benefits and whatnot.

It turns out that, aside from some large businesses that have a very specific format for an internal proposal, they were handwaving vaguely because they didn’t have anything more specific to say, and because some of their words carried meaning that wasn’t obvious.

It took me a long time to figure this out. I finally pinned someone down while I was early at Belkin and fairly interrogated them about the “business case” that seemed so daunting throughout my career, and learned that there’s not really much to it. You could bash together a business case for whatever without too much trouble, I bet.

Sure, there’s the matter of benefit—that’s a bit of business jargon that refers to the desirable result of doing a thing, said in a way that doesn’t depend on how it is achieved. For example, we would like to have a more inclusive workplace. There are lots of things we could do to get there. Improving the inclusion of underrepresented groups in our hiring pipeline is one tactic we might use to help achieve that benefit.

So this business about benefit, time, cost, etc. is correct, and really about expressing a problem, a benefit to counter the problem, and then offering possible methods and their costs that will help achieve the benefit.

I wrote a little memory jogger to help build these. It’s not much to look at; I’ll bet you can fill it out pretty easily as you think about a problem you are trying to solve. A simple proposal, not too expensive or time consuming, can be just this in an email. A fancy proposal will need more flesh, but the anatomy is the same:

We have (problem)
It costs us this (in treasure, pain, missed opportunities)

A way forward is (solution)
It will cost us (how much) to get started (in treasure, people, space, equipment, etc.)
In the first (timeframe) it will yield (result), based on (the similar experience of others)
Ideal for us is if it ramps to producing (result)
Other opportunities it might create include (stretch)

There’s also (alternative solution)
It’s better than the other (because)
It’s worse than the other (because)
It will cost us (how much) to get started (in treasure, people, space, equipment, etc.)
In the first (timeframe) it will yield (result), based on (the similar experience of others)
Ideal for us is if it ramps to producing (result)
Other opportunities it might create include (stretch)
Etc.

Any part of this you can’t answer can be answered with the help of folks in your organization, folks you know or learn about via working the network, or can be left asked but unanswered. You’ll need to talk to these people anyhow to gather support for your proposal, so you might as well include them early—involving people in creating the future that they will be part of is really the only good way to create buy-in.

Recently I’ve started to knock this sort of thing together into a little proposal format. It doesn’t match the above exactly, but you’ll recognize the themes.

A specific and action-oriented name for the initiative

Background

Explain the situation that gives rise to the problem and any useful facts about the situation that will be good to know as people read through the proposal.

Problem

Express the specific problem you’d like to go after, more plainly and directly than suggested in Background.

Our Aim

State the desired benefit. For example,
Elevate the average employee’s awareness of inclusive work culture and behavior, and equip them to participate in small local interventions when necessary.

Proposed Intervention

Explain the concrete steps you plan to take to achieve the benefit.

Cost and timeframe

Talk about what it would cost, and how long it would take, to do those steps. Consider initial costs, recurring costs, whether we’re “done” at some point. Bonus points if the costs and time line up exactly with the activities in the proposed intervention.

That should be enough to get most ideas out of your head and into active discussion in your company, club, homeowners association, etc.

Free to be the company blog

You’d be forgiven for thinking my employer doesn’t have a blog. It (and the website it’s a part of) haven’t been updated in a while, and while the content is interesting, it’s a little wooden and sparsely published, to the tune of an article or two per year in past years, and none this year.

“Thought leadership” is a line item on every director’s or VP’s job description, and we’re told it is important. The suggested ways to demonstrate thought leadership are by the blog, giving conference talks, and by participating in standards committees (useful for our edtech products and clientele). A very few people are in position to participate in the standards committees, and the rest of us are not holding up our end.

You’ll probably see why, looking at our posts. Their length and production value is fairly high, with illustrations and pull quotes and tight editing to reflect the company voice and tone. They fit into a fairly narrow band of design and development process and technique, with some loftier edtech concepts and product announcements rounding out the list. And I’m told they take weeks to produce and go through a fairly strict approvals process.

At some point soon I’ll be on the hook for a revised “thought leadership strategy,” an assignment I made up and gave myself because I don’t find this situation satisfying, and because I think that our ethos of continuous improvement leads us to experiment with techniques, tools, and process all the time so we are always learning. And we’re not just learning about edtech standards or design and development technique; we’re operating on team processes, people management, equity and inclusion, social responsibility, accessibility and usability, research and discovery, client management, pattern-oriented design, staff development. We are chewing on every part of the business we are in. So chances are we have lots to say. And we’d like to put not just a human face, but real human faces on our work and the portrayal of our company.

The past manner of producing blog posts looks to me like a series of expensive hurdles between a person who is eager to share something they’ve learned or realized or succeeded at and a far-off blog post that’s going to be enough work to squelch the impulse. But perhaps we can overturn these hurdles. Maybe we can “what if” them away.

What would it be like if we didn’t have an extensive approvals process? What if instead we had guidelines, and helped people to comply with them when they were not? That would probably be easier for everyone, and we could update the guidelines as we learned from the process.

What would it be like if, instead of tightly editing each post to fit into the company voice and tone, we let the voice of the author shine through? We could edit for clarity and basic grammar and be done with it. The voice would be the person’s, the tone would be appropriate to the material (and we may have some weighty topics to discuss; no need to force everything to be technical or lighthearted), and the people will see their own expression, personality, and esteem in the posts they produce.

What would it be like if, instead of having to present news (we launched!) or a fully-fledged method or conclusion, we were to talk about things we were trying to do, or learning about, or experimenting with? We might not feel so called to present a federal case about a technique we had chosen and then feel stuck with it.

What would it be like if we opened up the allowable topics to cover essentially anything we were learning or experimenting with at work? Folks on my team are wresting with including a blind person into the design process, bringing content-first techniques to data-driven tools, packaging research as a product, bringing clients to rapid usability testing in the midst of short sprints, development of junior staff, and many more interesting topics. We may not always have something completely new to say about these things, but we can talk about what we are trying and, later, what happened and what we’ll try next.

What would it be like if, instead of insisting that posts be weighty, we were to allow short ones? A paragraph or two about things learned when discussing a meaty topic might be just as valuable as, and a ton easier to bang out than, a lengthier, lighthearted post about a nice result we have produced for a client.

Imagine a company where essentially any employee, not just a few in the management class, has the ability to post, and knows how to make a good post. We might have a process by which a person, inspired by a meeting or with a fresh thought about an experiment we should do, could bang out a quick post before the rush fades, and we can make up for a few high-production-value posts with a flood of smart thoughts from real people, trying hard every day, if we manage to release each of these brakes.

My note to Mr. Bias

Mr. Bias wanted folks to look over his new portfolio, and I was happy to help. He’s a new UX/UI Designer and what little appears on his site is promising. Here’s what I had to say:

Hey there.

I like a lot of what you have here, and you were smart to grab your own domain name. I’m sure it’ll look more impressive once you have a couple more projects on there.

As a hiring manager (who is, alas, not hiring at the moment) I’m interested in

  • seeing what your contribution to the project was (especially your THINKING contribution to the project)
  • seeing how decisions were made and what you learned along the way
  • seeing those insights made visible in the mockups or prototypes

I even have a rubber stamp that I use on resumes to see what characteristics or capabilities I can find clues about in a person’s materials:

  • Research (user research and secondary research)
  • Prototyping (self-explanatory)
  • Testing (user testing!)
  • Graphics (not a strict requirement for a UX role, but often helpful)
  • Delivery (quality of deliverables – are they organized, explanatory, easy to follow)
  • Communication (is organized thinking made obvious in speech and writing)
  • and bonus skills (is there anything else this person can do that might be useful or reflects intellectual curiosity)

So I’m watching for signs of people being interested in these topics, doing them, and hopefully doing them well or progressively better. Happily all of these things are expressible or at least hintable in an online portfolio such as yours.

Your writeup for Pay the Poet is straightforward and sensible, but it leaves me wanting a little bit more re the above items, especially what you (or the team) learned. I think this is mainly because you have some fairly uninformative statements in there such as “Poets love the Instagram UI.” This is a bit of a “so what”—what do they love about the UI? Emotionally, functionally, etc.? You do mention that they are used to Insta’s upload interface, which is specific. Specificity, plainly spoken, is your friend here.

Another, “PayPal is a popular and secure method of payment that users trust” hints that there’s more there, but you don’t go further. What other payment vehicles did you ask about? Is anything important beyond trust?

These things seem to me pretty easy to fix, but will require some introspection.

On the other hand, there’s a whole line of inquiry that could be useful to discuss coming off of “Poets want exposure and a means to build a following.” This is the sort of meaty starting point for an interesting app + service. Right after that you say “Poets want to be able to connect with fans and those who seek to book them.” I like this one too. I wonder if you have more to say about these.

Take care with statements like “after our first stand-up, we decided to create a screener survey which informed us what type of digital product to create”—a survey never tells you want to do, but that’s what you are saying here. My guess is that your interpretation of the survey results gave you clues about the way forward that you then needed to explore, yes? Probably not answers per se.

I like the “How Might We”s and wonder what more you might say about them that’s specific.

I like that you called out your specific contributions later on in the write-up. I’m hopeful that your other writeups will show off other capabilities. Early in a UX career there’s not much room for specialization.

It would be nice to know what unique or interesting interactions you were attempting to express in your wireframes. Wires on their own are rarely sufficient to explain to a developer what you are trying to make, and I’m watching for clues that you can relate the concepts you’ve put there in words as well as pictures.

I like that you express some insights from user testing. This is evidence of learning, an important signal for folks beginning their careers.

Did you or the team think of potential future work for this product? Features that aren’t core now but might be useful later? This isn’t required, but it’s a clue that you are thinking about the user’s needs and the product outside of the immediate context.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to ask me questions if you like.

Also, I dig your About page. There’s a kernel in there that might be useful in discussions with hiring managers, or could even get more play elsewhere on your site. Poor UX in software, hardware, services, or what’s often called CX (customer experience across channels) leads directly to customer pain and support calls, making products and services less profitable. At Belkin this was a real issue – if we made a design or technical mistake in the setup of a product, each individual call would suck up all of the profit for the device the user had purchased. So there was a lot of pressure to learn about the problems users were bringing to customer service to try to keep costs down through design and development – through improving quality. You are uniquely positioned to make good use of what your brethren in customer service are learning every day from customers.

Later in the discussion I finally made the point that I seem to have to make with every new designer:

I can guess that you did a lot of the right activities and learned some stuff when you speak in generalities, but learning and good thinking is made obvious when you speak in specifics. There’s something a little bit “college essay” about generalities, and business demands specifics. So if there’s something interesting or surprising you learned that mattered to the project, telling me specifically about that, in plain language, is more powerful.

A quick link re the Slackquisition

M.C.Seigler has a somewhat inspirational take on the Salesforce acquisition of Slack, namely that

I believe that much like with Apple 20-some years ago, the timing will be right for the experience of using something to matter to the point where it changes the equation not just of a market, but of the entire world.

And that

 I believe such a change will happen in the enterprise as well.

He points out that this will likely be a slow process. And it will; it _has_ been a slow process for decades already. The fact that enterprise _buyers_ are often not adept, day-to-day enterprise _users_ has kept focus squarely on development cost at the expense of quality, ease, (ironically) cost of support, and a thousand tiny daily charges against goodwill as people wrestle with awkward enterprise software.

But the shift from in-house enterprise IT to SaaS and managed services has set the table for competition on experience and lower cost of support. SaaS teams with enough _focus_ can compete on experience quality at whatever scale if they remember to continuously reconnect with their users.

My note to by Humankind offering plastic reduction ideas

Dear by Humankind folks:

I love what you are doing and have progressively bought more by Humankind products over time (and tried to turn friends on to them). It’s inspired me to find ways to reduce plastic and packaging elsewhere in my life. And it’s also inspired me to consider how things might be redesigned to reduce their throwaway parts. So, if you’re willing, I have some ideas about your deodorant refills and dispenser.

Near as I can tell there are three “throwaway” plastic parts in a deo refill: the carrier, the screw, and the cap.

First up is the cap – it gives the deodorant its nice domed shape, but since you have it mated with a cardboard tube it doesn’t really do that job all that well; there’s always quite a bit of flash around the top of the deodorant, and the cap is sometimes hard to remove (I’m on my third refill, and two of them have took some tugging). So that injection-molded plastic cap could probably be replaced by a cheaper and lighter plastic film or possibly even paper. That would also allow you to get a little more deo material in the refill. The domed shape comes soon enough through use. This change would probably not disrupt any part of the customer experience and certainly wouldn’t demand more from users – in fact, it may be easier for them to use.

Next up is the carrier, which pushes the deodorant up when the screw is turned. This probably can’t be done away with, alas.

Finally, the screw. It’s kind of a big injection-molded part, and cast into the deo material, which makes it easy for users to manage. But depending on the level of work you are willing to ask of your customers, it could be a non-replaced part of the dispenser rather than a replaced and discarded part of the refill. This would require the user to screw the refill onto the knob and screw, then insert that assembly into the sleeve, which is a different and more difficult process. But it would knock off one screw per refill, or about two-fifths of the total plastic per refill. This would be a disruptive change also because you’d have to change dispensers, and thus obsolete and replace a set of existing dispensers. But it might fulfill part of your mission better, if done early enough.

A less-disruptive form of this would be to stop shipping screws in each refill and just have people keep a screw from a previous recent refill – they could screw the screw into a screwless refill, then install it the usual way, and you could ship screws to folks who need them or who buy new dispensers.

An alternative would be to collect all three of these parts, but that would lead to more shipping and you’d have to clean and inspect them before reintroducing them to manufacturing. Better to reduce than reuse.

Anyhow, food for thought. I certainly don’t expect or demand you make any of these changes, but figured you might find these thoughts interesting.

Reviews

At work we are soon to reconsider how we do annual reviews. But we lack a shared sense of why we do them, and they are performed with different levels of seriousness in different parts of this small company.

Unfortunately, signals from leadership are (likely inadvertently) mixed: reviews are important, feedback and development are important, but with raises _sort of on hold_ due to the pandemic, reviews are as well. Reviews aren’t all about money, but they are suddenly seemingly unimportant and all about money since the money is at issue.

I don’t say this to be critical of our leadership; the situation has been come by honestly over a long history. But it’s confusing to folks who have not grown up in this particular work culture. This is one of those all-too-frequent situations where a little more professionalism goes a long way.

In the meantime, I have people on my team who want to have their reviews, and I want to give them. And I just had my one-year anniversary, and want to have my own review. So we’re going to do them unofficially, with the slightly reluctant blessing of the leadership team, separate entirely from thoughts of compensation.

There are nice parts of these reviews: they involve an extensive self-appraisal, they involve peer feedback, they aren’t forced into a ranking or a five-point scale. But there are troubles as well. There’s little guidance to managers regarding performing these reviews. There’s scant relationship between the reviews and the mission or values of the company. And the reviews all end with an overview and compensation discussion with the very busy company president. So the connection between feedback and compensation is starkly underscored.

I’d much rather reviews be separate from compensation, since de-fanging them in this way allows them to lean more fully toward constructive feedback and the future rather than proving that past behavior was worthy of money. And now I have the chance to tilt the few reviews I’ll be a part of in this more helpful direction.

The peer feedback is also solicited in a vague way, with essentially two questions: do you have constructive feedback for the reviewee, and do you have any other feedback for the reviewee? I suspect these are not specific enough for any but the most committed peers to do a good job of addressing.

If I recall correctly, IDEO likes to evaluate their employees along four dimensions

  • Content – what is the quality of a person’s delivery
  • Commerce – what is their contribution to the success of their clients and the firm
  • Collaboration – what is their manner for working with the teams they are on
  • Culture – what is their contribution to the culture of IDEO

I think we can adapt this notion – the commerce piece in particular is a little more distant for many of our people. But we could bend it a bit toward

  • Quality – HMT (how might they) contribute to better results for the users of the product/project
  • Content – HMT improve the delivery of their own work
  • Collaboration – HMT foster greater collaboration among the team
  • Client – HMT better serve the needs of the client
  • Improvement – where have we noticed improvement in the review period

I plan to try this on by doing my two coming reviews with these dimensions explicitly in mind, and using these to solicit peer feedback. I’ll let you know how it goes.

My message to my team today

Gentle people,

It’s a moment of uncertainty and anxiety (election), piled atop a lengthy period of uncertainty and anxiety (pandemic, police killings, climate change, fires, etc.) with no real end in sight. I get it if you’re distracted. It’s fine—expected, even.

Be kind to yourself. And if you like, let me be kind to you, too. Let me know if you need help. Need to clear the decks? I can help. Need things to do to be distracted? I can help. Need to get something off your chest? I can help.

Don’t want to talk about it? Fine. Want to talk about it? Fine. I’m here for that, either way.

We will gratefully greet the sun in the morning.