Quality, part two

It seems like we have a pretty good grasp of what quality should be when it comes to infrastructure – what technical soundness is, how much load we should handle, what kind of logging, etc. but we are less mature regarding other dimensions of quality.

An interactive item in general availability, operated by customer users, should

  • be valuable to specific users
    • deliver value in results and conveniences
    • minimize toil
    • and this should be verifiable by experiment and by monitoring success metrics/adoption rate/etc.
  • be usable by those users
    • intelligible
      • and this should be made more likely via concept testing, and somewhat verifiable by experiment and by monitoring success metrics/adoption rate/etc.
    • obvious in expected actions and right action (design guideline)
    • makes success obvious (design guideline)
    • makes good use of familiar controls and interaction paradigms where possible (design guideline)
    • and this should be made more likely through user testing, and monitorable via success rate/time on task/error rate/etc.
  • be complete in its states, messages, and errors (design guideline)
  • be instrumented so we can witness users’ successes and difficulties

There’s some disagreement about how important interactive quality might be for infrequently-operated configuration tasks in the platform. The irony is that an infrequently-operated item is not practiced frequently enough by a user to be well-learned, so it must be more obvious in its operation than something they do every day. So to the above there’s pressure to add

  • be self-explanatory, relying on recognition rather than training and recall

For products in a growth phase, where catering to new users and bringing them to intermediate proficiency is arguably more important than catering to existing power users, “be self-explanatory, relying on recognition rather than training and recall” is also important for the most critical, central workflows.

Some attention to interactive quality is important even in experiments, since poor interactive quality can confound our measurements. For example,

  • If it is not usable we may not learn what we hope to learn from an experiment or a beta – since actual use will be hampered.
  • If it is unpleasant to use, its uptake will be blunted unless the value strongly outweighs the problems.
  • If it is not visually credible, confidence in its function will be blunted.
  • If it contains needless toil it will be unpleasant, time on task will be high, error rate may be high.

Some confounding factors inhere more strongly to “complete” features rather than experiments:

  • If it is incomplete in the intended use cases it will seem broken.
  • If it is incomplete in its states, messages, and errors for the covered use cases it will seem broken.
  • If it is not obvious it is not usable. This is just a facet of usability that we should strive for in every delivery to live users.
  • If it is not self-explanatory it has poor usability and increases the cost of training, which is backward from what we plan to do.
  • If it is poorly-labeled it is not usable. This is just a facet of usability that we should strive for in every delivery to live users.

The general idea is that scope should scale but quality should not. All of these are achievable in small scopes and if we care about quality are not “extra” costs.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 07 24

The health scare has passed. That alone would be enough, dayenu. A little bit of this week was taken up by dealing with not having a good memory of what transpired the prior week. Even so,

  • Simplification – as the SMS team learns more about the customers and how they can be helped with missed and after-hours calls, the proposed solution is becoming simpler rather than growing tentacles. That’s a great sign; continued customer contact and analysis across those customers, rather than specific attention to any one of them, is driving this simplification.
  • Simplification – learning about the sales process with another leader from R&D is causing us to explore simpler ways of trialing our product. And we had a breakthrough idea this week that will further simplify what we are prototyping, mostly taking the actual product and its attendant complexity out of the picture. This’ll be cheap to try and could lead in so many interesting directions that it’s really exciting.
  • Teamwork – the UX team is swarming on a key set of usability and capability improvements for our growth product, and it’s going well. The newest member of the team, from a design process and output standpoint, is running rings around one of the more senior members. It’s nice to see the development.

Also, I stopped procrastinating on a thing, and now the thing is moving well.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 07 17

The week was dominated by a health scare that continues. Even so,

  • My spirits are fairly light.
  • No one (yet) is feeding me their crackpot health advice.
  • It’s really two issues that can be managed separately, and only one is a significant concern, so I’m free to focus on it.
  • I felt not a twinge of guilt taking the day off on Wednesday to focus on this item.
  • I and others have been kind with me spreading the workday out more gently. My concentration is off, but my reasoning is just as good as it has been, so I’m still useful to my charges…
  • …and to the fellow that might be a new mentee; I was able to give him a little bit of help even in our “getting to know you” session.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 07 10

This was not an easy week. Several things went at least a little sideways: Tuesday’s workout wrung me out; Saturday’s was cut short by a whopper of a headache; I recognized that I’ve taken on too many projects; several people were out and despite all of our preparation that did cause some disconcert in projects; I procrastinated on a thing I really care about and made no progress on it all week. And yet there is gold among the sand:

  • A key project beset by inter-group politics, misunderstandings, and misapprehensions is seeing the politics die down and the plan emerge. And in response to a critical misunderstanding involving my team (no, while the key designer is out design capacity will not rise, but we do have a plan to maintain it and a plan to raise it further over time) a very nice meeting was had to negotiate scope. No voices raised, no disappointments even. Everyone played fair and it seems that everyone is happy with the result.
  • Procrastinating on the thing I really care about that I procrastinated on made room for a handful of other needed things that, while not as important, helped me make progress on a few of the too-many projects. Structured procrastination FTW?
  • …and Thursday’s lifts went up just fine, while the prior Thursday was a struggle with some of them not completed. Bodies, they are strange things.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 07 03

It was a short week, and that brings danger that people will try to cram five weeks of meetings and activity into three. This happened, alas. Even so,

  • Giving people the (exceptional) option to skip critique or 1:1 for this short week provided a little relief to folks chasing urgent projects, even though few took advantage. (Schedule relief for those who did, psychological relief for those who did not.)
  • A plan came together (with coaching, but that’s fine) to distribute work among the team to keep things moving as people get into their suppertime time away from work. We’ll have a smaller crew than usual next week but everything that needs to move will keep moving.
  • Is the team getting the messages I’m sending more consistently, that superficial aesthetic variation is not interesting but informational and interactive design exploration, aimed at well-expressed informational and interactive goals, is? Yes, mostly. Not everyone all the way, but yes, mostly.

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 06 26

Scattered wins this week:

  • After three tries (all administrative or preparation missteps of one sort or another) the girl now has a learner’s permit; a small but crucial step toward learning a few adult skills.
  • Disconcert between two teams is giving way to eagerness and collaboration. Three things I often talk about are helping us along:
    1. referring to real customer data,
    2. finding and negotiating common goals, and
    3. humans remembering to relate to one another.
  • A couple of the people I support are getting the message that attention to detail must be demonstrated. (In the details! Surprise.) This has required some tight feedback loops, but I think I’m successfully avoiding micromanaging.
  • Mentorship is fun! I might have a new mentee, perhaps just for the duration of their job search.

Group coaching vs individual feedback

Group coaching is valuable when the message is positive (“I invite you to do this”) and useful to all and there’s no need to single someone out, or when singling someone out would be more pointed than the situation warrants. It allows the saving of face. Small issues such as not having the correct email signature, failing to make a fresh pot of coffee when taking the last cup, etc.

I used group coaching today when I pointed out to my team that, yes, the time slots in our weekly critique are short and it is hard to go deep, but I invite them to pursue feedback in other ways as well (and listed some ways). There were two people who needed that message the most, but it was relevant to all of them.

It’s not the same thing as complaining to someone about problematic behavior, or escalating this complaint to their supervisor, which are more inherently pointed or even confronting.

We all wish that people would come directly to us individually for their wishes and corrections, but sometimes they are not sure they should, or don’t want to confront, or are nervous about their skills in such an interaction, or don’t want to make a big deal of it, or mention it in passing in more established relationships, or…myriad options.

(If you spend too much effort parsing the behavior of others you are likely to do the same for your own behavior, or vice versa, which will make it harder to relax and act in the moment. When I find myself stressed about how someone else’s complaint came to me I try to set aside the manner and just focus on the content. Often there’s at least a little something right in the complaint.)

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 06 19

The lady is out of town, but

  • I’m mostly eating right anyhow, in contrast with other such times
  • Chauffeuring to and from ballet and other events has not been a problem (and I have people to help next week)
  • The girl was interested in seeing Snarky Puppy with me on Tuesday, and it was a good show. No opener, right to the good stuff
  • Nothing blew up while the one PM director was away, a credit to the team. Yay

Weekly wins for the week of 2023 06 12

I had a medical…thing…to do on Monday so this was another shortish week, the sort where all the meetings get slid atop one another to occupy available space so you can pretend that it was not a short week. Even so,

  • The medical thing went fine. I remember nothing.
  • Friday was meeting-light so I got a little bit of non-meeting work done.
  • I realized that for a handful of the initiatives I’m on I needn’t toil in obscurity but would do better to send async questions to a handful of people, so I did.
  • A team-wide message from the CEO mentioned “The transition to a multi-product company, the importance of AI, and strengthening the role of UX and front end engineering have emerged more clearly for me as priorities.” – It’s sinking in!

Someone mentions “specialized enterprise users” in re accessibility

During a discussion of accessibility and the level of attention a company ought to pay to it, someone said

I have always worked in complex enterprise software where the user is a specialized individual and not the general public so accessibility has never been stressed or pushed beyond considering the impact of colors and contrast.

I seek only to take down what they said, so I’ll not name them here.

This position is entirely understandable, and I suspect that most designers working in a B2B environment receive this excuse from their organizations when asking about those organizations’ lack of attention to accessibility. Though it is understandable is also wrong-headed; a close reading reveals where.

“not the general public”

Note that

  • many of the impairments that make poor attention to accessibility a problem are not that much less prevalent in enterprises than in the general population, and
  • where there are differences in prevalence (for example, there are far fewer blind people in knowledge work jobs than in the general population) it’s due in part to lack of attention to accessibility in the tools used (or the jobs themselves), making it hard for those people to take jobs that rely on those tools.

In essence, companies discriminate against their employees and potential employees by not providing accessible tools, and companies that provide such tools but ignore accessibility are complicit, perhaps even participatory, in that harmful practice.

“specialized individual”

“Specialized” does not mean “without impairment.” Just as it is wrong to assume that an unnamed doctor is a man, it is wrong to assume that a librarian won’t have difficulty carrying books or a software developer won’t have difficulty typing or reading a screen. But even folks without long-term disabilities may have, situationally or temporarily, impairments where they too would benefit from attention to accessibility and inclusive design. Witness the very nice graphic from the Microsoft Inclusive Design Manual that demonstrates that people may need accommodation for a permanent issue, due to temporary illness or injury, or due to seemingly unrelated life circumstances. Inclusive design helps all of these.

In this case, I’m not sure “specialized” is correct, even; typically, enterprise software is used by normal people with a normal level of specialness. We’re not dealing with thousands and thousands of Top Gun pilots here. The one way in which these users differ reliably from the general population is in domain knowledge relevant to their work, and even that domain knowledge is not evenly distributed. For example, I work with several systems in my job, and my level of expertise in each of them and the domain they operate in varies widely. I’m just not that special or specialized except in re a few of the many tools I use.

And don’t forget

Many of the interventions we’d entertain to improve accessibility also improve usability for all users. So the sadly common thought that folks with impairments are special cases that require extraordinary effort for little return is also incorrect.