The first time I rode a motorcycle I was on the back, clinging to my college roommate. He happened to have a second helmet, it fit well enough, and I was eager to get to the other side of campus.

He gave me two instructions:

  • “Keep your feet on the pegs.”
  • “I am not a steering wheel.”

Can you guess which instruction he complained about at the end of the ride?

Here’s a hint – it’s easier for a not-already-knowledgeable person to follow a positively-worded instruction (do this) than a negatively-worded instruction (don’t do that). It’s even harder to follow an instruction when it relies on a metaphor, as it’s less clear, less obvious, less instructive. The combination of negatively-worded and unclear is worse yet.

I should have asked clarifying questions, like “what would it feel like if I was treating you as a steering wheel?” but I didn’t think to at the time.

At work we just did a retro on a somewhat fraught and over-large project, and much of the raw conclusions are negatively-worded. Some are metaphorical. The people involved are knowledgeable but from different disciplines, so the level of shared understanding is probably lower than people guess. So a lot of “don’t do X, don’t do Y” will probably not get the results we seek. I’ll be helping to bend these into positively-worded instructions today. I suspect our success will depend on it.

Bryanne asks

I’m trying to coach some designers along the path of feeling comfortable adjusting and evolving approaches that have been learned in school (vs believing that there is a single “right” way and that design quality is aligned to how closely they execute against that “textbook” approach). I’d like to be able to share something with them that demonstrates that the higher one’s design maturity, the more comfortable/ confident one is with adjusting approaches and trying new things based on context and experience… and that this is a good thing.

I don’t have a framework or model to point to, but the thing that strikes me as interesting about this question is

design quality is aligned to how closely they execute against that “textbook” approach

It might be worth pointing out that this is an inward-looking, appeal-to-authority view of quality, measured in the wrong place. Design quality is actually measured by the attainment of user ease and satisfaction coupled with business results, and these do not depend on method adherence. The methods exist to help you get the information you need to achieve these results but they do not deliver these results themselves.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 10 23

A decidedly ☯️ week, with each ⬇️ paired with an ⬆️:

  • During a tough retro on a key project the team
    • ⬇️ expressed a lot of frustration with new process tweaks, an unfamiliar level of design involvement, conflicting wishes from the team, unhappiness with the overall shape of the project (though this was known from the beginning), but
    • ⬆️ was careful not to throw blame to any function or person, and acknowledged the negative effects persistent stakeholder misconceptions had on how the project progressed. THIS we can work with!
  • Regarding some of those stakeholders
    • ⬇️ third- and fifth-hand feedback, amplified by loose talk and seniority, was brought to me as potentially damning, but
    • ⬆️ in general these stakeholders were open to feedback and clarification themselves and learned from our interaction. THIS we can work with!

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 10 16

A grab bag:

  • An end-to-end demo of a hard-fought project went pretty well. We’re functionally close, but far from where we need to be in terms of a professional-looking and -acting feature.
  • The Huskies won. As a Dawg in duckburg I’m torn – should I buy an away jersey (white) to wear around town or a home jersey (purple)?
  • New mentees continue to appear. Some of them aren’t actually mentees but doing a little market or product research, but I don’t mind as long as their questions are relevant to my interests. It’s a tough time for entry-level UX people, but I hope I am helpful to them with my seemingly slightly-offbeat advice. Remember, it’s the designer’s job to do the right thing with the feedback they receive.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 10 09

The month of October signals the end of the third quarter in our funny misaligned fiscal year. That’s useful, in part because I promised some things by the end of the quarter, and a little push is a good thing. So,

  • That little push helped me make progress with revamping a set of moribund customer profiles, and the latest increment of that work is now out for review. Thanks, October!
  • I got out and plugged in and noodled on my keyboard (nothing fancy, just an M-Audio KeyStation plugged into Garage Band), filling in little obligatoes to the usual evening Spotify soundtrack. Good fun, and long overdue.
  • Fancy pictures (MRI) of my knee reveal what seems a relatively simple explanation for the oddball problems I’ve been having and have been slowly worsening over years. (Can I afford the remedy? TBD.)

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 10 02

I got to the end of the week feeling like I worked hard but didn’t accomplish much. Lots of managing, a lot less doing, and the things I said I would do by the end of the quarter are now hanging over my head a bit. But

  • I have a solid plan for the number one item on that list, and the one thing that can truly block me from enacting that plan produces its own plan.
  • New mentees are finding me and so far I’ve been able to help each one. It’s a mix of folks! Researchers, new designers, more senior folks, etc. Some of my advice has started to converge (apparently I’m consistent in what I think!), but I believe I’m giving an appropriate level of individual attention to each person and not spouting platitudes. I recognize that that’s an available danger and promise to be vigilant.
  • I once joked that my superhero identity was “explains-a-concept guy.” It has been especially true this week.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 09 18

It took two trips to Home Depot and a barked knuckle, but I repaired a leaky shower handle in less than an hour for $22. This included finding the shutoff for the whole unit and working around others’ demands for water. I even managed to notice and fix the hot/cold swap that I inadvertently introduced before buttoning everything up. #capabledad #stillgotit

Just a little too late for this project, I also thought that it would be a good idea to write the brand and cartridge part number on the back of the escutcheon to help the next guy. Too bad, next guy!

PT asks: “how do I convince leadership to care about UX research?”

A new mentee opened the session with (paraphrased)

How do I convince leadership to care about UX research?

It’s a broad question. A giant question. It’s highly situational; it’s hard to answer without deep knowledge of the organization’s goals, its failings, and the people involved.

After a bit of conversation it became clear that the actual question was a little smaller. Paraphrased,

Our CTO is placing a lot of emphasis on summative research activities like usability testing. I don’t want to neglect, and am more interested in, formative research. How do I convince him to let me do formative research?

Okay, that’s still a big question, of the sort that a disinterested third party (me) can’t answer directly. But it led us to talk about a few topics:

1. People have their reasons. What are they?

The CTO is favoring testing over formative research. Why? They might be right in doing so; maybe that is what the company needs right now. Or they might not understand the value of one or the other. Or they might have a different understanding than you of the proper division of labor in the company. Or…a lot of things could be in play here; people have their reasons. But it’ll be hard to influence the CTO or others unless you understand their reasons.

2. Given the organization’s goals and performance, what needs to change?

What is the company trying to accomplish, and what are their results so far? Does the gap between what they want and what they are achieving (there is almost always a gap) suggest a particular course of action? Is this gap due to poor product/market fit, poor initial quality, churn, cost of support, customer time-to-value, customer payback time, something else? Each of these would suggest different areas of the product to attach and might require different research activities or emphasis.

3. Who needs to understand the problem the way you do? Who are your allies? Who is your audience?

Once you understand the CTO’s reasons and the organizational situation you can determine if your idea about an intervention (more formative research) is sensible or not – whether or not it will contribute meaningfully to closing the results gap. But then you need to make it happen. And this requires deep knowledge of the organization: the people, the culture, and how change occurs. You may be in an organization where you can, armed with the above information, make a convincing argument to the CTO. You may be in an organization where you have to recruit like-minded people to surround the CTO. Or you may be in a place where convincing the CTO is less important than engaging the people who would be helped more directly by your intervention, the product managers.

We also talked about projects vs incrementalism, chain of command vs lateral influence, and allowing for serendipity in formative research, but those are topics for another time.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 09 11

  • One-time mentorship conversations are fun, and they remind me how I think about issues. So far everyone has been pleased with our conversations. I wish I was as readily eloquent when it came to writing these posts.
  • My knee is much more stable now than it was when it was irritated recently. This is only now that I have PT and ortho referrals coming up, of course. Murphy sometimes mistakenly interferes in a way that makes things a little better.
  • If you need something done at a hospital, call the patient advocate. Changing the channel from email to phone, and changing the recipient from a barely-interested secretary to a person whose job it is to chase things down has produced enough of my chart from 31 years ago to greatly inform what’s to come next, whatever that is. As I say often to the people I support, “f you aren’t getting the engagement you want, try changing the channel.”