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.

Conference talk: UX philosophy

Here’s a recent talk I’ve given regarding how, under my leadership, the UX design team approaches its work.

The design and behavior of Cayuse applications is critical to their ability to help reduce administrative burden. Take a look at how the Cayuse design team approaches their work, see an example of how focusing on burden reduction results in helpful changes, and learn what has changed in our design practice since last we spoke.

Conference talk: prioritizing accessibility

Here’s a recent talk I’ve given regarding why we pay attention to accessibility, and how the accessibility-related practices at Cayuse have changed in the past year.

Just as our customers have a responsibility to provide accessible tools to their employees, Cayuse has a responsibility to deliver accessible software to our customers. In this session, we’ll discuss how accessibility practice is changing at Cayuse, the accessibility status of our products, and what we’re doing to continuously improve.

Tightening up my hiring process for UX practitioners

I used to have a hiring process that carefully ensured every team member had a role in questioning, evaluating, and discussing each candidate. My employees loved it, but candidates suffered through it and it made us very slow to make decisions. I worked on tightening up the process (and especially its planning and logistics) so we could get through all of the various meetings in a half-day or so. That helped a little bit. Then I tackled improving how we made the yea/nay decision on a candidate, aiming to make a decision the evening of the interview day. We picked up the pace a bit more, but still chewed through a lot of candidates looking for one that would get a thumbs-up from enough people. We were still slow, rejecting too many fine folks that could have helped us. And we wasted a lot of employee time doing so, within each individual candidate’s process as well as across candidates.

There were some nice points to this process, namely that we

  • became a lot clearer on the criteria we used to score candidate portfolios
  • carefully divided interview responsibilities to reduce duplication of questions and topics
  • became a lot clearer on the few criteria we used
  • developed a standard scoring scale for each criterion: no/near/yes/plus, where we were hoping for “yes”es but a person who we liked who had a few “near”s might be offered an opportunity to move them to “yes”

Then I changed jobs to a firm that was much smaller and could not afford a lengthy process, even if that process was contained within a day or two. Even if that process in its rigor strove to protect the firm from mis-hires. We could not involve the whole team. We could not take hours out of everyone’s schedule to accomplish an interview, much less a hire. And we had to be even more crisp with how we evaluated people to set aside the inappropriate candidates quickly but not deny a good person an opportunity to shine.

I also realized, when putting this new process together, that part of the stress for candidates is in the gaps between activities – not knowing what to expect, not knowing if you are succeeding or failing, not knowing how to prepare. I strive to reduce these stressors in my hiring process.

I’m also conscious of the work that a candidate is tempted to do to prepare for an interview – polishing their portfolio, doing design exercises, practicing presenting their work. These are all barriers to folks that might be amazing employees but due to other constraints (such as caring for a child or an aging parent, economic pressures, attending school) don’t have the time outside of work to polish a portfolio. I don’t care about the ability to spend time outside of work preparing, I care about how a person thinks about the work and how that thought appears in the activities they choose and work they produce. I don’t need a person to do a bunch of unpaid homework to prove these things to me. I do need them to be able to talk coherently and in some detail about the work they did, how they integrated with the team, what they chose to do and why, how their contributions helped.

The result:

  1. I evaluate a candidate’s resume and portfolio. I have a little checklist of characteristics/experience/capabilities to watch for. If a person checks most of the boxes I invite them to a screening call. Boxes that aren’t checked are noted for steps two and three. (So far I’ve had success evaluating the “portfolios” of designers, writers, researchers, really anyone that can provide work samples of some kind.)
  2. I have a well-planned half-hour screening call, kept strictly to the half-hour, including a brief explanation of the entire process and what to expect timing- and communication-wise. This explanation demonstrates empathy and helps put the candidate at ease. I explain the job, the company, the team, some of our current challenges, then ask the candidate about what of their experience they find relevant. This gives them an opportunity to learn about the role, decide if it seems exciting or uninteresting, and shape their story. At the end of the call I let the person know if I’d like to talk to them further. In most cases we can schedule our next meeting right then. If not, I explain when they can hear from me.
  3. We have a 90 minute interview mostly organized around portfolio review. I bring one team member to this meeting. Rather than try to go over everything in a candidate’s portfolio we ask them just to bring two projects that they are especially proud of that seem relevant in some way to what we discussed in the screening call. I counsel them not to make anything new or fancy for this meeting. They don’t need a polished portfolio, they just need real examples of work they’ve done, in whatever stage of completeness they have. As mentioned above I’m looking for evidence that they actually did the work and their thought processes around the work. This meeting ends with us telling the candidate exactly when they can expect to hear from us. That moment is never more than a day or two away, allowing for weekends.
  4. The team member and I have a quick huddle where we go over our scoring and decide whether or not we’d like to make an offer, and at what level. I immediately work with whatever people at the firm are necessary to get an offer prepared quickly, if needed, and we rapidly communicate a verbal offer or non-acceptance to the candidate within the promised timeframe.

This process lowers barriers for the candidate, saves us and the candidate needless anxiety and extra work, is quick yet rigorous, and of the many people I’ve screened/interviewed/hired, only one turned out to be a mis-hire so far.

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 10 24

I got laid off today. That’s not a win, surely. But it set off a few:

  • The moment I announced I am #openToWork on LinkedIn there was an inrush of good wishes and referrals and recommendations.
  • The surviving and departing members of my team spontaneously gathered to provide mutual support. Their comments to each other and to me are really heartening.
  • I remembered to create an alumni Slack, and some people who left prior to this layoff are showing up. As with the flameout of my previous company, there are good people who formed good relationships and are happy to band together.

And, to be honest, it’s a bit of a relief.

The bones of my emerging philosophy of UX research and design

Two basic activities

There are two basic activities in UX.

  • Learn
  • Make

You might call these “understand” and “design,” or “investigate” and “generate,” or whatever. It’s the same. There’s nothing fancy or proprietary about any of this. But you have to do both. If you learn and don’t make you are more knowledgeable but don’t have a solution to the problem. If you make and don’t learn you have a thing, but an indefensible one, with no way of knowing if it is any good.

You might learn to make making easier, or you might have to make some things in order to facilitate learning. You might alternate between learning and making. You might learn, make, make, learn, make, etc. But you’ll do both. Sometimes making just captures what you’ve learned in a form you can use later.

Yeah, this is basic stuff. Baby steps. Even so, some teams fail at this level.

Three “horizons”

I like to think of product delivery, and thus the work of research and design, in three segments or horizons.

Horizon one is the horizon closest to whatever we are hoping to ship soon. I call this the “detail” horizon. It involves creating workflows, selecting and laying out controls, defining behavior, formative usability testing, implementation support, and instrumentation. Most teams seem to do most of their work in horizon one. That’s an anti-pattern; without adequate attention to the other horizons, work in horizon one is poorly-supported, organizations aren’t learning, the designs are accidentally good at best and indefensible at worst.

Horizon three is the farthest out. In the third horizon we’re looking for problems we might solve for our existing or prospective customers, and proposing benefits that will address those problems. Call it the “benefit” horizon. Most teams leave this horizon to product managers and executives, though they shouldn’t. Executives especially can fall into the trap of leaping from horizon three to horizon one, or even shortchanging horizon three in an effort to get to horizon one quickly. Horizon three is learn-heavy, but there’s making in proposing benefits that the team may choose to deliver.

Between horizons one and three is horizon two. This is where we bridge the gap between a benefit and a specific design. I call this the “concept” horizon because there are many ways to deliver a given benefit, and we need to figure out some concepts and choose among them before getting into the details. I’ve witnessed very few teams that explicitly work in this horizon, and the quality of their delivery suffers.

I’m still chewing on this

One quibble I have with this “horizons” idea is that they aren’t numbered sequentially; for a given product you work in horizon three, then horizon two, then horizon one. But naming them works and provides a handy mnemonic for the overall workflow: “benefit, concept, detail.” That might be more powerful than speaking in horizons.

Surely there’s more

Yep. These are just the bones. Flesh yet to be written about:

  • Specific learn and make activities in horizons one, two, and three
  • How product, UX, and engineering should interact in each horizon
  • Double diamond, single diamond, how many diamonds and how large
  • Scaling the process up or down to be responsible the task at hand
  • Other philosophical points important to this process

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 10 17

  • I’m using a process initiative at work to demonstrate to the company, especially to folks not on the product team, a basic UX research and design process. The main idea is to short-circuit the all-too-common impulse to leap from an identified problem or need to one seemingly obvious solution. Executives are famous for this, but it’s common in other parts of the company as well. Executives are also famous for mixing generation and evaluation, which should be held apart for a while.
  • Going hard at the gym has started (at long last) to result in less or even no knee pain at night, leading to better sleep. Hallelujah.
  • I’m getting closer to a unified field theory of UX research and design. Watch this space for stabs at explaining parts of it at various levels. The first bullet above holds one fragment.

Two jobs?

There has been a lot of scuttlebutt about people secretly holding two jobs of late. This is partially due to a labor market that remains tight, especially in tech, publicity around fraudulent interviewees, and employees having more control over their time in remote and hybrid work environments, among other concerns. This has led to some needlessly inflated rhetoric and managers comparing notes about how to detect people who are working more than one job.

I’m not that worried about it. The number of jobs an employee has is not my concern.

  • If the person is getting their work done and meeting my performance/communication/availability standards, I don’t have a problem.
  • If they are not getting their work done and/or not meeting my performance/communication/availability standards, I do have a problem.

In neither case do I need to cast about for proof that the person is working another job or two, or distracted by caring for an elder parent, or going through a messy breakup, or what have you. I gain nothing by investigating each employee to see if they might be working another job. If I determine that there’s a performance problem, I need to talk to the employee and manage the issue.

No one seems to care if an employee in the C-suite serves on multiple boards (unless they are competitors) or advises multiple startups (unless they are competitors). No one seems to care if an employee also plays in a band. No one seems to care if a person sells their ceramics or tunes pianos or works on software projects on the side for free; perhaps it’s conflict of interest we’re worried about?

If there’s no performance problem and no conflict of interest, is there a problem?

Weekly wins for the week of 2022 10 10

  • My two conference talks went fine. It’s not easy to gauge audience response when using some of these online conference platforms, so I’ll reserve further judgement until the survey results come in.
  • One of my online participatory design exercises went fine (the other was marred by low participation). These are hard to do online, but better than nothing, and we learned some things even so.
  • I tried doing a pull-up on a pair of cannonball grips, and surprised myself by succeeding without much trouble. I haven’t trained pull-ups for years. Maybe I should. (Word is you should “Spock” your grip on these, with two fingers on either side of the bracket at the top.)