Design Leadership and the UX of Organizations

I’ve been thinking about how good design happens, organizationally, and I’m certain that it doesn’t happen by simply hiring one or even a team of so-called rock-star designer.

Matt Drance wrote about this in his post The Problem with All-Star Teams arguing that you’ve got to have leaders “who care about design and “get” design.”

That’s not to say you don’t go for the talent if you can; of course you go for the talent. But the work only begins there. The solution to this too-many-cooks problem is leadership.” – Matt Drance

At HIVE 2011, Hillel Cooperman, Co-Founder of Jackson Fish Market, emphasized this idea in his keynote: most organizations don’t have design leadership. They’re using metrics they learned from B-school to apply to something they don’t get, and designers are rarely in decision-making positions.

At the most recent Seattle InfoCamp, while Ario Jafarzadeh talked through 10 Observations from 10+ years in the Corporate UX Trenches, I noticed a theme: it’s not just the software and user experiences we work on that are broken, the corporate environment in which we’re working in is also broken.

Today, Marco Arment penned four steps on how to bring good design to a platform, and step one starts with the top, again.

Demonstrate from the top that high quality and attention to detail are prioritized and appreciated above everything else, including being the first to market, having the most features, or having the most aggressive prices. If you can get those as well, that’s great, but quality will not be sacrificed to do so.” – Marco Arment

Are you seeing this pattern too? Is it too hokey to chant leadership, leadership, leadership? If there are people trying to improve the experience of the users, who’ll improve the experience of the corporations?

With Great Power – The Responsibility of Doing User Experience Design

UX is kind of a big deal these days (and not just in Japan), and it has gone a long way since the early days of our profession.

That’s a Good Thing, and along with our 15 minutes of fame, comes some responsibility. I think we still have a long way to go to integrate into how we make software. Here’s how I’ve grown as a UX Designer, and some lessons I’ve learned along the way.

First, here’s where I’m coming from.

Phase 1 – The Beginning: I heart UX!

I got interested in doing User Experience Design during my sophomore year in college. Only, it wasn’t called User Experience Design then. It was Usability Engineering, and User Centered Design, and Value-Sensitive Design, and Library Science.

I majored in Informatics at the UW iSchool, and I totally loved it. I was one of those _really_  annoying and overly enthusiastic kids that would sit in front of the class and go to the professor’s office after class to talk about things like “models of information search behaviors in antiquity”, or something similar reeking of fancy academic speak.

When I finished college, I wanted more than anything to do two things: 1) run off to Thailand to bartend at a dive resort and rock climb, and 2) do User Research for social technologies.

Number 1 wasn’t really an option, at least not while my parents were still paying for my expenses, and number 2 was due to an internship I had at Microsoft Research doing participatory design and studying mobile and social patterns.

Phase 2 – The Separation: I Got Jaded

For my first job, I ended up at Boeing where I worked in the Usability Engineering group. I started to feel lost in the sheer size of the company, and began to question how much impact I really had.

Don’t get me wrong, there was a ton of good work going on, and I learned how to fit Usability in a larger corporate software development methodology and cycle. But looking at the big picture, I lost faith in how much good I could do in the world with my career.

I got jaded.

I thought long and hard, and longer and harder, about what I wanted to do in life. I started doing Business Analysis, because they get to gather and write requirements and create functional specs, and those specs get read by software developers and they build the code, which become the software, which gets used by the user.

I liked the idea that *that* was how I’d make a difference in the world. I was all over it. I read books, I went to seminars. I wanted to be the best requirements gatherer I could be. I wanted to be the T.S. Eliot of functional specs.

But, I discovered how awkward requirements gathering was. Requirements are not like oranges to be gathered. It went against a lot of the things that I had learned and personally believe in when it comes to making software. As the guys from 37 Signals say, there’s nothing “functional” about a functional spec.

Once again, I lost steam. Once again, I dreamt about bartending and rock climbing and teaching yoga on the coasts of Thailand.

Phase 3 – The Transformation: ZOMG, UX is Back!

Five years have passed since I graduated with an Informatics degree, thinking I could improve the usability of software for the average user out there and wouldn’t it be great. During those years, I gave up, and rediscovered that idealism, just to give it up again.

And now, UX is en vogue. I’m pretty sure this is partly thanks to Steve Jobs, who’s proven that good and thoughtful design actually makes money!

I remember doing Usability Engineering and being told, “Thanks for the lovely report, but it’s too late, and we have no time or money”. I remember being told “the user is a four-letter word”, and that “that touchy feely stuff doesn’t pay the bills.”

How time has changed.

The other day, I was reading this article about User Experience in Forbes, (yes, Forbes!!!): Why Apple Will Hold Its Tablet Hegemony With iPad

“What is Apple’s “secret” to success? What Apple has delivered in the iPad and has consistently delivered in all of their products is a “user experience.”

Somewhere around 1967, our culture began to focus on experiences, not attributes, and ever since then marketers have made millions selling books on branding, emotional branding, rethinking design, conventions of experience, et cetera. Yet, technology companies fall into the same old trap of touting attributes (GB, RAM, 4G, et cetera) instead of the experience.

If the competition just tries to compete with Apple on functions, they will not be well served. The tablet category is just beginning. Apple has emerged as the clear mind-share leader and the only way to compete is to focus on user experience (usefulness, simplicity, elegance, consistency) not the product attributes.”

Where was this article when I was a 24-year-old trying to justify my existence in the professional world?

Consider another article from MondayNote by Jean-Louis Gassée: The OS Doesn’t Matter

“Windows will live on — in a PC industry now at a plateau. But otherwise, in the high-growth Cloud and smartphone segments, it’s a Unix/Linux world. We need to look elsewhere to find the differences that matter.

The technical challenges have migrated to two areas: UI (User Interface, or the more poetic—and more accurate—UX, for User Experience) and programming tools.

Now that all “system functions” are similar, the game for hardware and software makers is to convince the user that his/her experience will be smooth and intuitive.

Your device will walk on water (with the programmer right under the surface), catch you as you fall, make sure you don’t get your feet wet.”

Great, so now the bar is “your device will walk on water”? Can I just have a minute to put some hot air in my head and get some “I told you so” vindication first?

No, really, in all honesty, I’m glad it has worked out this way for the UX profession.

Actually, I’m grateful.

Grateful that I am in a field that’s getting recognition, which means I get to have a job, which means I get to go to work tomorrow doing something I believe in. I’m grateful that I get to get worked up over first-world-problems, such as, “look at how this form assaults your senses.”

Phase 4 – The Integration: I Try #Adulting

Now that UX has been hailed as some kind of Double Rainbow all the way across the sky, here’s what I’ve learned about the responsibility of being a UX Designer.

Stop, Drop, and, you know this one

Though I didn’t always enjoy doing other types of work: Business Analysis, Project Management, Product Management, etc., I got to experience first-hand the challenges of those roles, and I’ve come to sympathize with them.

UX Designers can occasionally (and understandably) run into conflict with other roles, and I’m glad I have some perspectives on what they do.

I get it. I get why we get mad.

For example, as someone who’s trained in doing research and usability, there have been so many times when I squirm uncomfortably during user interviews or acceptance testing conducted by my non-UX colleagues.

“Oh my god, for the sakes of everything that’s holy, don’t … do… it!” I would silently think when I hear one leading question after another.

I’ve realized, though, that my findings from user research mean nothing, my wireframes and brilliant UX Guidelines are totally useless if there are no developers coding and breathing life into them.

I wouldn’t get to put my headphones on and obsess over the taxonomy of a system if I didn’t have a PM worrying about allocating time and money for the project. I wouldn’t even have a job if I didn’t have someone out there courting clients, selling work for me to do.

In other words, I can do no good without all these people. So what if their universe doesn’t include the difference between Utility Navigation and Content Navigation?

UX is not better than any other roles on a project, and I’ve learned to not get too smug. Or, to get smug, and get over it.

Clarifying, not just for butter

I don’t know what the right word to use here is: Educate sounds heavy, Evangelize sounds corporatey (not to mention… uh… churchy?). But, I hope you’ll know what I mean when I’m done.

UX is still new for a lot of people and organization. You can’t just show up and say, “Who wants some UX?”

To make things worse, there’s a bunch of *stuff* that goes into what we call UX. In fact, I’m willing to bet you right now that what’s in my mind is not exactly the same as what’s in your mind about UX. It is this fact that makes things so fascinating and frustrating.

Seriously, the UX of the talking about UX can be vastly improved.

UX could mean Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Usability Engineering, Content Management.

UX could mean Personas, Wireframes, Scenarios, User Research, Interviewing, Contextual Inquiry, Participatory Design, Prototyping, Dreaming About Unicorns and Rock Stars, etc. Are you getting dizzy yet?

(Also, UX for some people is bullshit. Please say a prayer for them.)

My point is, I’ve learned to ask first, “What do you mean by UX?”, and “What is your expectation of how I can help?” If someone wants me to create a Flash or Silverlight spinning ad or a landing page, I know I’m the wrong tree for them to bark up.

My second point is, I’ve found it really useful to keep educating myself, and then others, especially with being as clear as possible the difference between the methods, which is different from the goal, and why/when/how to do what for what purposes.

The more people that I explain UX to, the more people who can 1) explain UX to other people and generate more work, and 2) the more we can collaborate with one another. Vanilla Ice would love it.

UX Sangha, let’s get together

Before I started doing my Yoga teacher training, before I started taking up meditation seriously, before I ventured into learning Buddhist philosophy, I didn’t know what a sangha was.

I didn’t pay much attention to other people doing the same thing I was. Sure, I went to UPA and CHI meetings. I went to InfoCamp and MindCamp and I signed up for all the UX user groups listservs. But I didn’t really think to have… for lack of better words, UX homies.

I recognized the importance of being part of professional groups, but it was for resume-building purposes. I didn’t think of people in the field as my support group, or cheap therapy, or, just anyone fun to have a drink with.

(And while I’m airing my dirty laundry, when I came into the field, I had a feeling that everyone was older and boring. Who else would get together to knit and talk about indexing? Not me! )

Back to sangha. Sangha is a Pali word roughly meaning “community”, specifically a community of people working towards the same vision. In the Buddhist context, that vision is liberation. Once I realized that I could not meditate on my own without a teacher, I went for help. Then I discovered the benefit of talking to people going through the same experience, having the same struggle, and discovering similar insights.

I took what I learned from that into the UX world. I’d go to workshops not just to learn about the topic at hand, but get to know the participants. I’d seek out prominent people in the field and see what they’re up to.

As I get older, I’ve come to see that obsessing over taxonomy and classification is not *that* insane to do on a Saturday night. Either I’m getting more boring, or those things are getting more exciting. Or both.

Regardless, I’m working on building my own UX sangha. Whether we’re rigorously debating the merits of tabs as navigation, or just letting our hair down and wondering what the heck Design Thinking is, we’re bonding, and hopefully supporting each other in this still-nascent field.

To the Future

How Companies Hire

Or, How Do You Hire The First Person To Walk On The Moon?

I’ve noticed that there are two broad strategies companies use for hiring, and I have given myself the liberty to use them as predictors of how those companies or organizations view Growth and Innovation–yes, that I word that we all vie for. (I recognize I’m generalizing here, but humor me just for this post.)

Method I: Hire Someone Who’s Done the Job Before

This is the easiest way for a company to hire. Does your resume show that you’ve done this? Check. A lot? Check. And successfully? Check. And you’re not wanted by the FBI or the the State Psycho Ward? Check? Great. Chances of you being hired? Pretty high at this point.

I’d say this method is ideal for employers who has limited resources, in both time and person, and just needs things done, fast. The employer knows exactly what needs to be done, now. This is ideal for the job seeker who’s perhaps a contractor, someone that knows exactly how to do the job in their sleep. Someone to just press Go, basically.

Pros: Minimal training, in and out, execute and run.

Cons: Eventually the employee is bored of doing the same thing and wants to learn something new.

In chapter 7 of the book 97 Things Every Project Manager Should Know: Collective Wisdom from the Experts, Richard Sheridan advised, “Add Talents, Not Skills, to Your Team.”

I realized we had stopped investing in our employees’ growth. We weren’t looking for fresh, new talent. We were looking for very specific, already refined, skills. Now, I tell people that if they see an employer hiring for an exact skill match, what that employer is really saying is, “We don’t plan to invest in you.”

My advice to anyone seeking to build a strong team is to hire for talents, not for skills. What talents do I look for when hiring technologists for my agile development teams? Good kindergarten skills.

Method II: Hire Someone Who Can Grow Into the Job

There’s another method of hiring, which may seem riskier at first, but with risk may come rewards, and that is to hire someone who has what it takes to grow into the job and take your company, or project, further.

So how do you know if someone has what it takes?

Randy Nelson, the Dean of Pixar University said, the problem with resume-based hiring is a lot of the jobs out there fall in the category of Doing Innovating Things for Innovating Companies, which means doing things you’ve never done before. So, what does Pixar do?

Depth-Based Search

Everyone is looking for someone who’s really good at something. We often see this advertised as, “HOT_SKILL Rock Star needed!” (Never mind the fact that rock stars come with some other issues, but we’ll ignore that for now.) However, what if that Something To Be Good at has never been done? What if that Something calls for a lot of creativity and innovation?

According to Mr. Nelson, Pixar looks for someone who has truly mastered something in their lives. Why? Mastery of anything requires a level of commitment and self-determination. It’s proof that this person has a certain amount of ability to recover from errors and succeed, because to master anything means that you necessarily failed in that arena at some point. And, if someone has learned to master something, chances are they know what it takes to learn to master something else.

Breadth-Based Search

Another thing to look for in a candidate? Someone who is interested, someone who’s interested in a wide range of things, and who’s interested in learning to communicate in the languages of those things. Because communication is the root of collaboration. As Randy Nelson said, “We certainly don’t want any one-trick pony.”

I remember reading something about ninjas once (don’t laugh), and that they were always encouraged, well on top of staying in shape and all that, to study a wide variety of things, like poetry and the arts. Makes sense, if you’re gonna be a ninja, you might as well know how to write a haiku, right?


Having done Improv, Mr. Nelson’s messages hit home for me. Two core principles from Improv:

1) Accept the offer: if someone says, “Wow, you changed your hair!”, you should say, “Yes, I thought I’d go green like everyone else.”, not, “No I didn’t.”

2) Make your partner look good: If you’ve ever been on stage with bright light shining in your face and you know out there in the dark are 20, or 200 people wanting you to make them laugh, wanting you to make their Saturday night date go well, you know the anxiety can be high. The last thing you want to have is a partner, a team member, basically, who isn’t helping your game.

So, Depth, Breadth, and Collaboration, that’s how Pixar does it. And it seems to be working out well for them.

The core skills of innovator is error-recovery, not error avoidance.

The video below goes into more details of The Pixar Way, and it’s a good watch.

I’m (Not) Here to Be Your Friend

Last week I read a short blog post by David Spinks (hi David!) about his participation as a Community Manager titled I’m Not Here to Be Your Friend, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. Actually, I’ve been wanting to ignore it, let it go, mind my own business, keep calm and carry on.

Well, my feeble attempt hasn’t been successful. Somehow, one way or another, I find my mind circling back to it. So here I am, writing this down, and hoping that this will help lay it to rest.

To be honest, I can’t really quite pinpoint what it is exactly that keeps nagging me about this notion. It’s a perfectly valid concept, and David makes a solid point that most professional business people would nod their head and raise their glass to:

My activities and interactions in this “social media community” have the primary goal to succeed as a professional. If my time spent here doesn’t help me to perform my job better, and to benefit my career, then I am wasting my time.

Does that mean I can’t make friends during the process? Of course not.  I have made amazing friendships along the way… I didn’t engage with them to become friends though. I engaged with them to benefit my career, and the friendship resulted from the process.


From the northeast corner, I have nothing to say to that. Another businessman saying that he’s here for business. It’s another day, another pay. Nothing new, nothing earth shattering here. But yet, from the southwest corner, I want to say, “Waaaait a minute. Really? Can I offer another perspective?”

What It Means To Work

Perhaps the crux of this issue is David and I probably have different ideas of what it means to work. For David, it might be a career. It might be for “building relationships for business purposes”. For me, work is, or should be, something that lets you express your life force, or prana in yoga. If that’s a little too mystical schmystical, perhaps what Dr. Evil said will make more sense: it’s the “Mojo: The libido. The life force. The essence. The right stuff. What the French call a certain… I don’t know what.”

I think we all long for meaningful work that we’re connected to, something we care about, something that brings us joy and satisfaction. I’m going to bet that we long for freedom, not freedom *from* work, but freedom *to* work; the ability to choose work not merely as a mean for survival, but as a way to express our authentic selves. Further, I also believe that there is something innate within all of us to want to help others, to want to contribute to our community, if not the world.

(Notice that I didn’t say job, I said work. You may be working, or you may be having a job, or both.)

And so, if we stay with the definition that work is an extension of ourselves and our creative process, would it follow that we would want to share it? Give it away for others to enjoy it? Musicians do this. Dancers do this. Programmers do this. And if so, the work that we’re doing benefits not only ourselves, but others as well, does it not? And if we can bring success to others, then is it not inevitable that we bring success to ourselves?

A Friend, A Community, A Market – What Relationships Mean

I think I know what David means. He’s here to work, not to mess around, not to hang out, not to shoot the breeze and waste time. Fair enough. This is completely reasonable for a professional, just like it is reasonable for any professional to not to roll out of bed and stroll into the office in their pajamas.

Well, sorta.

Relationships are not made through status reports and Powerpoint presentations. Relationships are made through, well, honestly? A little bit of hanging out. And if we’re talking about the role of a Community Manager, we’re talking about someone who deals with the social. (Microsoft lawyers, please don’t knock on my door.) In this role, if you are not here to engage with people on some personal level, well, what are you doing here?

Actually, let’s forget about what the job is for a moment, let’s just talk about any interaction in our work, personal and professional. No matter how loosely you define the word “friend”, whether it be someone you could call at 2 a.m. in the morning if you’re too drunk to drive or if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere, or it’s a Facebook “friend” that you really could care less what they had for breakfast (but they are soo excited to share it anyway), anytime you’re in contact with another human being, you are engaging with a whole person.

Sure, we all have our titles and roles we play on some stage we’ve been put on or chosen to be. We are this Mr. Senior Manager and that Mrs. VP of Marketing. But we are much more than that, I hope. And if we don’t ‘fess up to that, we continue to trap ourselves in a system that views us solely as business suits and cubicle addresses.

In her famous blog post, “Open letter to CEOs, COOs, CIOs and CFOs across the corporate world“, Pam Slim advised:

3. Spend a moment walking around the halls of your company and look at your employees.  I mean really look at them.  Don’t just pat them on the back and pump their hand while looking over their head at the exit door. Look directly in their eyes.  Imagine what their life is like.  Who is waiting at home for them?  What are the real consequences to their health, marriages and children when they have to work yet another 13 hour day?  What kind of dreams do they have?  What makes them really happy?

So, if we can identify with someone, if we can see there’s some “me” in “them”, and some “them” in “me”, it’s possible that we begin to form some sense of “us”, some sense of a community. And then, we might ask, “What can I do for my community?”. If you are getting itchy and punchy at the word “community”, think of it this way: another name for a “community” is a “market”, as Dr. Rick Jarrow said in his book: The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide: The Inner Path to Finding Your Work in the World.

Do You Come Here Often?

I don’t think I disagree with David entirely, and though I don’t know him any more than through his online persona, I don’t think he’s all about cold, calculated business moves (I mean, look at his Jake Gyllenhaal smile).

I want to write this post, first of all, as I said, to get it out of my head, and secondly, to propagate a point bear repeating from author and senior yoga teacher Judith Lasater: if we are connected, to ourselves and to each other, we can solve anything. If we are not, if we think we must step on each other to reach the top, well, it’s gonna be a long night.

In the specific role of a Community Manager (yes, it’s really a job), sure, I don’t expect that you should be best friends with everybody, you couldn’t. True friendship requires certain amounts of tender loving care that necessitates time, a limited resource to all of us.

However, for companies to succeed, and for careers to soar, there ought to be some friendliness towards the people, the community, the marketplace. How many of us have at some point felt awkward and slightly slimy at those business networking events? For an authentic community to form, you can’t just collect business cards, you need to connect on a personal level. (And I don’t mean “connect” in the corporate lingo sense here.)

I personally think this is an exciting time, frightening perhaps, for some, but very exciting for all of us, in all walks of life, in Fortune 500 companies or corner mom and pop shops, in corner offices or cubicle-land.

It’s a time where we are experimenting with so many things so fast, trends are coming and going as fast as the morning stars. We’re colliding and mashing everything together to see what turns up, like Ashton Kutcher’s latest project of “influencer marketing,” which, according to Fast Company, is “a squishy hybrid of entertainment content, advertising, and online conversation that finds its audience via video, animation, Twitter, blogs, texts, and mobile.”

In this feeding frenzy, snafus, oopsies, epic fails are all but inevitable. But inevitable also, are “epic wins”. We didn’t just all of the sudden “get social”. We have *always* been social.

The challenge now is to use the tools that we have at our fingertips to put our sociality to some good use, to improve our lives, ourselves, our world, our job titles, etc. May the mojo be with us. Or if you prefer, may that sense of je ne sais quoi guide us. (Just had to let the Frenchie in me out for a moment :))

Some mooar links:


Oh hai kitteh! We can has frendz?

Oh hai kitteh! We can has frendz?