Saturday, June 19, 2010

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Take on Big Company Suckage

Scott Berkun wrote a good post on Why Big Companies Suck, at popular request on his site. It made me think about my own experiences at small, medium, and large companies over the past 20 years. I'm assuming Scott and his readers were mostly talking about "why it often sucks to WORK at a big company," rather than why big companies suck from the outside looking in.

The individual is lost in the machine. The opportunity to be noticed, to get feedback for doing a job well, or for improving someone's life in or outside the company, is that much less. Which may limit your chance of a promotion, or just make you feel your job is pointless. One company I worked at had a famous management mantra, "If you're not making the product or selling it, what are you doing here?" Which is absolute bullshit, and dismisses the administrative roles of accounting, the benefits department, travel and admin staff, tech support, and other critical team members at a large software business. Functional companies need a lot of people doing different things, otherwise the people writing the code can't do THAT job.

Communication from the top is often poor, intentionally or not. The message that trickles down from management, or that's delivered from main stage at company meetings, tends to be diluted for the common denominator, which means it's not really addressed to anyone in particular. Sometimes it contains no information at all, as a result. Scott may have covered this under "they believe their own bullshit," but I think there's another slant on it: They don't know what's going on. The more levels and divisions there are, the more distorted the signal is, and the more likely you are to hit people who aren't sure they're supposed to be telling you something that they know.

Secretiveness. I don't get it - but bigger companies tend to keep more secrets from their own employees. I have nothing to say about this right now, because I'm just baffled by it.

Managers are rarely evaluated well or fairly at any sized company. Even in times of turnover or economic distress, management are the last to go (unless they're a very public, board-threatened figure, like a CEO, in a very bad political environment). Scott mentioned the Peter Principle, but I think it's more profound -- with power working as sum of the people below you, the weakest point in the tree is the bottom. Even when the bottom is arguably the most valuable part of the workforce. Companies with a lot of management structure will have fewer people doing quantifiably good work, occupying the org chart and protecting themselves at the expense of the workers under them.

Evaluation of what's good or valuable often happens on idiotic scales. When I worked at AT&T Labs 15 years ago, the company didn't think about anything but a sure business that would pull in billions -- never mind betting on smaller startup ideas to see if they could create new markets or businesses. Other companies like 3M and Google have since made this a visibly stupid way to do business, but it's definitely an easy way that managers can avoid risky bets on new verticals or product lines.

The small company made crap, and now the big company has to support it. Staff in big companies are sometimes stuck in trying to repair what was made by the small company, or what was acquired from the small company. This really sucks for the people in the big company. Bad design that was produced in a "proof of concept prototype" as VC's pounded on the door and the cash ran out -- well, those guys saying the good old days were great got rich off that crap, and now it's everyone else's job to "fix it."

Because the small company made so many mistakes, and the bigger company learned from them, there is more process and review of decisions. Face it - a lot of the processes and checks and balances in bigger companies exist because of bad things that happened when the company was smaller. The big company "learned." It decided it was too risky to do that stuff again. Stuff like having no usability review of the most important feature of the release!

Smaller companies sometimes feel more homogeneous -- the individuals know each other better, and there's usually less role differentiation and processes involving a lot of people you don't understand. This can make it more pleasant, give the impression that you're "getting things done," but it can also mean less original or high quality work is produced in the end. See above, about producing crap and making mistakes.

People who have their own money at stake, or make a lot of money from something they did, tend to be very engaged and happier about their contribution. This is a guess, but I think this study about hourly workers supports it. The study says people feel a stronger correlation between happiness and rate when they are paid hourly, rather than by salary. There's a direct reward connection between money and time. People who got a lot of money from a startup --either from selling one, or being there and getting the stock profits -- no doubt feel they were rewarded by the world for something of value that they did. It's less easy to feel rewarded either monetarily or by subjective feeling in a big company. Because the individual contribution is much harder to make or to recognize.

Finally, a few ways in which small companies can suck, too: There's never enough money, or for long enough; there isn't enough staff to do things that need doing (travel booking, accounting, etc?); the hours can really suck, related to the money issue, no doubt; there are STILL cowboy coders and often secret politics about decisions and design directions and what we're hiring for next.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tips and Tidbits from the UI14 Conference

Back to blogging after a long hiatus of work and travel... UI14 in Boston had some good stuff for designers and managers! I heard a lot about techniques for creativity and design generation before winnowing; good reminders to generate multiple approaches before "settling."

Dan Rubin had his workshop group generate 20 different thumbnail sketches in 5 minutes. (Maybe it was less - it seemed like less.) Then combine the best aspects of their favorites into one bigger one. Hard, and a good way to make you get crazy early, if not go crazy, or just to think very broadly.

Leah Buley's charming "How to Be a UX Team of One" presentation is worth watching online. Her link includes her templates for wireframes with notes - useful for her excercise of 6 designs in 5 minutes (or less? again, I forget). After doing those sketches, she took a room vote on which idea in the 1-6 range the audience preferred out of their generated sketches. Most of the votes indicated it was not the first idea drawn.

There were some other interesting creativity exercises in Scott Berkun's excellent "Myths of Innovation" workshop (based on his excellent book of the same name). For a stuck team that's gone dry on good ideas, try brainstorming the worst product features possible for a while -- this will open up the wild and funny ideas. Then invert them, for the germ of some good ideas to pursue. Another alternative was to go from completely unconstrained brainstorming (such as "ideal features of the perfect cell phone") to slightly more constrained ("ideal features of a $10 cell phone").

I found Scott's most entertaining activity to be one in which the group listed 30-40 (again, early onset memory loss) random words - nouns describing things/activities/states and adjectives. Each small group had to pick 3 of them, brainstorm a new product or service around them, and create a pitch for it. All in ten minutes.

Strangely, from our workshop list with "TiVo" (I did not propose it!) and "guitar" and various sports... many of the groups picked the word "tomato." No idea why. But their weird product pitches were all very clever and funny. Scott pointed out afterward that this illustrates how a bunch of people who had never met before could self-organize, be creative, and even have a good time doing something that initially seemed impossible. On the "self-organization" topic, he noted that the person who takes notes in the group (self-nominated, of course) is usually the person who ends up delivering the pitch for the group, which also seemed to be true for several of these groups. As a conclusion to that one, he said that the reasons for this activity being difficult for many people (despite their success!) were these:

  • Creativity creates confusion
  • Unclear roles [group self-organization takes a few minutes or lots more]
  • Responses to uncertainty differ
  • Responses to subjective criteria differ
  • Group dynamics influence decisions
  • Time pressure [creates more stress]
  • Lack of trust / relationships [although I noticed that one team had a bunch of people from the same company, a team I wish I'd observed during the activity]

Scott gave out copies of his newest book, Confessions of a Public Speaker, at his second UI14 talk. That talk was great fun as well.

Dan Rubin's short talk on Visual Design tips was excellent as well. A couple of his tricks will definitely go in my toolbox, especially the use of an image that a client chooses for setting a color scheme using kuler. (My take on it: Choose a bunch of images that might convey the mood of a site or product that a customer wants, and be sure the palettes are sufficiently different. Ask her to choose the "mood" she likes, and generate the colors from sampling that image.) Another of his tricks - using a 1 pixel sample of a photo to generate a gradient lighting effect with layer blending - was deeply cool!

UI14 is a great conference, and this year it was in an even better venue than it has been before (a plush hotel in more accessible South Boston instead of cramped Cambridge). Some things that make it annually so good: power strips under every table, and working wifi; a great drinks party; long workshop sessions as well as sampler short talks; accessible speakers who hang out and attend each other's sessions (or else, just check the bar). For a tech-industry conference, it does an excellent job of being gender-balanced for speakers. UI14 also has the odd honor of being the funniest conferences I've been to in a while -- possibly because Berkun, Gerry McGovern, and Jared Spool are all very entertaining! Check it out next year.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Recent Consulting Links

A few articles on consulting in the current economic climate, thanks to the Freelancers Union newsletter:

The Freelancers' Guide to Getting Paid On Time, or getting paid at all, from the Wall Street Journal. Some good advice in here, especially "deal directly with payroll" to avoid touchy discussions with your primary client; and advice on how to approach a suit if you need to go to small claims court.

For the Self-Employed, It's An Endless Work-Week, another one from the WSJ, this one about how difficult it is to go on vacation or take time off when you're constantly worrying about the next gig. While I don't personally have this problem, I will work on a vacation if an exec requires it, it turns out. So will a lot of other consultants out there, especially as the competition increases (more layoffs mean more freelancers, at least short term).

Now Hiring: Contract Workers? From Business Week, argues that employers are looking for non-perm employees now, and it means business for consultants. "In a recession, contract workers are often the first to go. But often, they're the first to be hired back, because in an uncertain environment, employers want to be flexible." This matches my observation of how the past 6-8 months has gone. The article notes that cutting of contract workers has slowed, and that contract workers are being hired back, but at lower pay than previously.

My own rates were cut by a long-term client a few months ago -- and my health insurance has gone up $100/month in the past year. My work expenses haven't dropped any, either.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cheap and Interesting Travel Resources

Since I've been busy vacationing, I haven't been busy blogging much - so I thought maybe I'd update with some references for travel sites and lists I use. A few friends have asked me for tips, so here is the collected recent lot.

The Caribbean

There are lots of deals right now. I just went to Turks and Caicos using, but there are other options. With Lastminute, you often have to check carefully for catches, like overnight flights, or trips priced for 2 if you're not going with someone. (I like solo travel, because I get to read more.) CheapCaribbean is one site that I think a friend and I used for an all-inclusive Cancun trip a few years ago. It's not hard to find resources like this. I've enjoyed winter trips to St. Croix and Grand Cayman for snorkeling using these types of sites. You'll still want to find a good site on the destination itself, to help you pick your hotel location, if you're not driven solely by price.

Adventure Travel

A few years ago, a friend recommended this site and their trips (she'd been on 2). I've been a drooling over their catalogs for the past several years myself, ever since going on a very wonderful trip to Morocco that they advertised. They offer group travel for active adults, sporty or cultural or no-frills, sometimes with an eco-orientation. I wouldn't go to Morocco alone, and I'm not sure I'd even go with just a female friend. But I had a terrific time in a group of young adult (mostly UK-based) adventurous travelers. It may have helped that an Irish woman brought along a bottle of gin. Note that their prices do not include the airfare, while the Caribbean deals above generally do.

Another adventurous option, solely in the UK, are the National Trust volunteer working holidays. These are also group trips, based in one spot, usually with lodging in a youth hostel; you are doing some type of local volunteer labor while there, with breaks for genuine sight seeing and socializing built in. The ages are quite mixed, without any young kids along. I myself did an archaeological survey trip in the Midlands. Lots of fun, albeit also some hard labor clearing off brush from a buried hill fortification. (I see their web site now says that for legal reasons they are currently only accepting EU and Swiss residents for their bookings. How sad!

A friend recommends EarthWatch expedition volunteer trips, but I find them a bit expensive for my tastes. There are some volunteer trips in the AdventureCenter catalog, as well. I'd like to know about more that are not extremely pricey, if you want to leave a comment or send me email?

Rentals in France

I know this is a bit specific, but since I did it recently (and have done it on and off for years), I thought I'd post the how-to's.

The primary source for good-value housing rentals in France (not Paris, but the rest of the country) is the French Gite system, on the Gites de France site (English available). Originally all arranged by paper catalog, it is now online, and many of them take internet bookings directly via the site. Normal reservations during high season are for weekend to weekend only; outside of high season, you can negotiate for different days or less than a week.

A few things to be aware of: You may need to pay a deposit or full amount in advance (by wire, or they may agree to hold a paper check); you often have to pay a surcharge for water, heating, and other fuel costs, and often for bed linen and towels. You are expected to clean before you go (they are not hotels - think of it more like a well-equipped private hostel). But if you can handle this, there are many beautiful farmhouses, cottages, and apartments, often old historic ones, for a steal - especially if you split the cost.

I admit I went out of the system for my recent Brittany vacation because it was easier to search for wifi on this UK site, French Connections. (Yes, it sounds like a bad dating site.) Some of these rentals are also cross-listed in the Gites listings.

Rental cars are easy to hire in France, from Avis, Alamo, etc.; use their sites, or a local European wholesaler like Nova. Pickup options that are most convenient are train stations in the main towns (I used Rennes) or airports. Even tiny airports that are taking RyanAir and other discount airlines have rental car options. It's much cheaper to get a manual transmission, but you can reserve automatics too.

The French train system requires reservations on many lines, and the TGV especially: You can use this RailEurope site instead of the SNCF site to book an electronic TGV ticket with a claim code that allows you to retrieve it at a kiosk at the station in France.

Paris rentals are a lot pricier. There are a zillion sites out there - use at your own risk, or get a hotel.

FYI, my trip recently was Boston-London, cross London by bus to Stansted airport, fly by cheapo Ryan Air (bought on their site) to Brittany (Dinan), pick up car there, drive to apartment with wifi. This was because I got a much better deal on a ticket to London at the time, and it saved me 2 train rides and a lot of time to go via Ryan Air direct to Brittany rather than travel via Paris.

Travel Deal Resources

I'm on a lot of lists and get notifications about travel deals. I recommend's airfare alerts, notifying me of current low prices from my home airport to wherever I care about, which is most of the world! Kayak also has email newsletters on deals they find. You need to register on the site, and then find their alerts section if you can. They let you set a price threshold, like "any flight under $600 to Europe." This will keep their notifications to the minimum you care about. (I use different price levels for different regions of the world.)

Other newsletters I subscribe to, which have been useful: Travelzoo, Booking Buddy's list, and Go-Today, a site I enjoy browsing too.


Friday, May 08, 2009

In Defense of Hard Skills for Designers

The other day I was in a meeting in which evaluation criteria for developers came up; nice concrete stuff, like writing code that other people can read and modify, putting in comments, resulting bugs, etc. It made me pause and admire the local weather of that strange country. In my experience, it's vanishingly rare for an interaction designer, usability specialist, or User Experience professional to have such nice hard criteria applied in evaluation of their work. Far too often, we're judged on mushy subjective factors like whether some team likes working with us, or feels we're doing something valuable--often outside their expertise or range of view to make this judgment, but that rarely stops anyone. I have some stories about this subjective mushiness in my article in HCI Remixed, titled "Designing 'Up' in the Software Industry."

Why is this--sign of an immature field? evidence of double standards, for sure, but also imprecision of job role? Poor management, perhaps contributing?

I suspect it's related to the observation that many designers have trouble achieving credibility in their role. Scott Berkun's seminar for UIE on Why Designers Fail advocated working on "soft skills" over hard skills, such as learning ways to win friends and influence people via negotiation, diplomacy, and other interactional condiments.

Not to pick too hard on Scott - it's hard to disagree that people skills are valuable and most of us in the computer industry are weak in some of them - but I think it's generally NOT true that designers have sufficient hard skills. I think gaining and using hard skills are our best bet for being taken seriously in places full of skilled workers. Most interaction designers spend too much time in "soft" areas that can too easily look like matters of opinion to others, or overlap and sometimes threaten other existing professional roles like product management: user testing (which often looks like "anyone could do this"), observing people work and suggesting improvements to their tools, pointing out issues in existing products that could confuse users (heck, everyone has an opinion on that), scheduling and managing stakeholder meetings, writing requirements documents and functionality specs. Most of these activities are politically difficult, and don't make other colleagues drop in their tracks and say, "Oh, you're so valuable and provide skills we don't have!" As I pointed out in my HCI Remixed article, a common reaction to much of this work is, "Didn't we already know that?" Finding problems with software is relatively easy; creating solutions is not.

We can convey solid, indisputable value when we focus on creating concrete, skilled deliverables that NO ONE ELSE CAN MAKE. In economic crunch times like now, consultants hear this from the front line. If a client or potential client has someone on staff who can apparently do what they do, they're not a clear asset. Never mind that they have 15 years of experience doing it, if their value looks like primarily "opinion" or "process," it's not very convincing when it comes to opening the bank account.

Here are some of my suggestions for hard skills, that many interaction designers and usability folks could stand a more training in:

  • Technical prototyping skills: Flash programming, javascript/ajax, css, html site design, Flex, Expression. Use of the tools that are used by developers, at a basic prototyping level, is a solid PLUS, because you can make things that everyone can see are relevant to the end product.
  • Ability to make high quality visuals: Visual design training, skills with Illustrator, Photoshop, page layout applications, and other design tools for good looking mockups. Low fidelity may be useful and helpful with fast user testing and concept evolution, but you want to be able to make something your client or non-designer colleagues can't make. I know one case of a visual designer hired into an interaction design role because of the caliber of his mockups. Never mind how wrong this was for him and his manager eventually-- it got him the job to start with.
  • Data analysis: For user research, learn some solid statistics. Even just pivot charts! Maybe some VBA for automating actions in Excel. Eventually, data mining, increasingly important with the large amounts of data around. (This is a career growth area all on its own right now.)

I'm with Scott that it's not a highly valuable proposition for a usability engineer to learn to do a cognitive walkthrough when they already know how to do 5 other methods for usability evaluation. But that's the wrong "hard skill," in my opinion. One who learns to make beautiful designs, which no one else could have made, will have a serious edge in their job role. Same goes for other skilled, niche deliverables. True story: A client with a budget problem told me recently that she had people in-house who could do an InDesign layout project, and that my value to her was in the data analysis and recommendations I could deliver for her that no one else could do. Good thing I'm working on that array of hard skills!

If only the university programs for HCI, UX, and usability thought like this, designer credibility issues would start going away a little faster. And performance evaluations for more designers could be done in concrete terms like how much good stuff we MADE during the design process, not how much we talked in meetings and if the other people there liked us when we did.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Why Failure Isn't Working for Me

A response to a number of posts and talks on failure recently, particularly this one by Michael Krigsman, Five Reasons to Discuss Project Failure, linked from Scott Berkun's blog.

Based on Krigsman's points, I wonder, Is failure really instructive? In my observation, there are a lot of people who don't learn from other people, or even hear what they say. Maybe they're "experiential" learners. Maybe they don't think like researchers--who are trained to build on other work--or they aren't smart. I personally hope they are genetic dead-ends. It seems a rare person who takes on board the lessons or advice from others; at least, it takes a listener, and someone who isn't arrogant.

On the subject of arrogance: A lot of organizations suffer from "not invented here" syndrome. They're in successful companies, don't see why they should do anything different, don't think they need to do other than tweak their current environment. And they're unlikely to hear from outsiders or new people. No matter how much they say they embrace change, learning, growth, new ideas... in general, in practice, it's not so true. Or it's better coming from someone internal with an extremely tailored message for that environment.

Do success stories really not work? The fun book Made to Stick doesn't entirely agree. One of my issues with stories of failure is that they end up being a lot like usability test results: Show you everything you did wrong, but provide no solutions for how to fix things. And it's hard to get the "right" lesson, because lessons are almost always hypothetical. IF we hadn't cut this feature, it would have sold better. IF we had done user testing earlier, we would have caught this. IF we'd had longer to develop the right architecture, this would be faster and people wouldn't be complaining about performance. IF IF IF. No one really knows, it's all just opinion.

If you don't understand your successes, you can't replicate them. And you can't use them to inspire anyone. You had a project team that cleaned up a disaster in record time and shipped something people loved. What was different about that team? What did they do better? Okay, it may be partly a comparison with the failure before, but it's surely instructive!

Root cause analysis of failure always has to skirt around sticky, difficult, subjective personality issues. This is often unproductive to discuss, and doesn't lead to positive outcomes. The people who name names look bad, and often suffer for it later. That guy who's the blocker for a zillion projects - everyone hates working with him, but he's critical path. Yes, it's been elevated to his boss before. VPs have been involved. Multiple VPs, on one occasion, during which ego bristles poked everyone. Nothing has changed. That guy is going to continue being a root cause problem on a lot of things. Talking about it means VPs and bosses are implicated too. And isn't it just personality issues for everyone involved? (Note, I advocate firing his ass, or moving him to another role; but I'm not in charge. The organizational dysfunction, which is usually just human nature, is in charge.)

design is invisible, till it fails.

Now, to switch onto on the subject of design failure. A hot topic among design gurus right now (see Spool on "Failure is Not an Option, It's a Requirement" and Scott's recent talk on "Why Designers Fail"), we're being told that good design involves failure and failure is important for innovation. I'd argue that designers themselves often know that design is iterative and exploratory, with important dead-ends that lead to strong results, but their managers or other necessary stakeholders don't know this. I hope Scott and Jared are being heard by these other folks, too, and not just by designers.

The people with the money are the ones that matter. They determine what constitutes failure, in the short term, like it or not. Many design consultants worry that client judgments don't take this iterative process into account. We are paid to be fast, creative, and accurate, all at the same time. Mistakes or dead-end work aren't seen as productive value for the money by many hiring managers. And their own sometimes flawed design judgments are at play in their judgments of our work. What should be a success is seen as a failure, through the squinty eyes of a manager that doesn't get it. It takes design talent to recognize design talent, yet most hiring managers aren't skilled or talented in this way.

This phenomenon leads to failures that shouldn't have been failures - good work was thrown out, bad work was done instead. Happens all the time. Happens on every dialog, every icon, every wording argument. Most of us live with failure very regularly: The little voice inside blaming us for not arguing the point just a little longer, for not standing up to that bully on the team about this important issue, for not getting to that other issue that's probably more controversial and yet more important for the user in the long run, for not making one more mockup to try to show how it could be better, or moving to Flash to show how it would work for real.... Oh yeah, we've got a lot of failure all the time. And our failures are much more visible than the guy writing some code on the backend that thrown an uncaught exception, which may not be noticed for years!

My point of greatest concern about these homages to failure right now is that they don't take into account power dynamics in most engineering organizations. (To be fair, Scott's talk does, and he found that managers who aren't skilled in design are a major cause of failures.) Designers are a minority discipline, and often we're trying to change processes and methods while also delivering on our work. We're trying to set an example with our deliverables and methods. The odds of success are already long against, given the weight of org history and number of people we need to convince. As minorities, we're often trying to argue for more headcount, and every misstep can be seen as another argument against hiring more of us.

Visible failures aren't generally a positive option, when disciplinary credibility is at stake.