User research is at the heart of what we do. We talk to people. We listen to their needs and desires. Then we create solutions that are tailor-made to address them. That, by definition, is human-centric design. And it’s our jam.
Throughout the initial research phases of our projects, the UX Leads will periodically share reports or conduct read-outs of key findings and insights with the project team. This ensures that everyone touching the project is designing toward a common set of needs.
I frickin live for these. I never miss a download and I’ll read every single report. I’d even go as far as saying that it’s one of my favorite parts of the process. We all have our means of escape, binging on Stranger Things or getting lost in 50 Shades of Cray. Me, I’m reading juicy user research reports. There is simply no better fix for a non-fiction junkie like me. It’s like watching a real-life mystery gradually unfold before you. Clues, in the form of human needs and desires, are subtly revealed and you start piecing together solutions on how to solve. User research at its core is real people interacting in real life. Like storytelling, it provides context through a narrative. And who doesn’t like a good story?
So here I am reading another story. Only this time, it's not about a product or a web app. It's about me. I'm getting juicy insights into how others experience me in the context of their day-to-day jobs. Areas where I’m either involved too much, or not enough. Behaviors of mine that can inspire, derail, or even confuse others. Things I do that contradict the Cake & Arrow positioning or company values. As a leader, it’s hard enough to learn of occasions where you fail to address the pain points of your employees. Even harder to learn you are the source of them. Let me tell you something, non-fiction takes on a whole new meaning when it’s about you.
Last year, my Cake & Arrow co-founder Alex and I decided to undergo a 360 assessment. We’ve always fostered a culture of feedback and continuous improvement. So after 15 years of being on the giving end of many 100s of reviews, it was time to receive one of our own.
There is plenty of debate out there as to the value of such activities. I think part of the issue is the means in which they are often conducted. We knew we didn't want a technically-driven, quantitative report that compiled survey results into a neat list for us to interpret on our own. It had to be human. So we went and found a reputable, trusted consultant to perform the assessment for us. The engagement, which spanned over two months, included getting to know us, our goals, and the company, followed by an extensive set of interviews with 10 pre-selected employees. The consultant, who specializes in gathering, analyzing, and compiling this kind of data, was particularly skilled where it was needed most—her ability to turn observations into actionable insights.
The process was scary, surprising, humbling, and generally disappointing. How could I be so naive to all of this? If I preach importance of self-awareness to all, how the crap could I demonstrate such a complete lack of it? Only after I was able to distance myself and my feelings from what I was hearing, did I realize how powerful this was. This whole 360 review wasn't about me. It was about everyone else. How as a leader, I fit (or failed to fit) into their day-to-day lives. Sound familiar? It should. I became the product. Everyone else the end users.
We went into this process hoping to learn how, as individuals we could capitalize on our strengths or improve our areas of weakness. What we didn’t anticipate was the way in which it would reveal so much about others—their expectations, their needs, their desires.
Which is what lead me to realize the ways in which this process was not unlike the human-centric design approach we go through when developing products and services for our clients . Our goal as a design firm is to put things into market that provide value to the people who use them. Our role as team or project leaders–particularly in a workplace–is no different. Value is defined by our ability to get the best out of others, to inspire others to do things they might not normally do. And like products, iteration based on real human feedback is key to ongoing success and providing a meaningful human experience. In this regard, it would make sense that my strengths and weaknesses would be different now than they were years ago. Not only have I changed, but so have the needs of the people around me, and I need to adjust myself to accommodate these needs. In other words, I need to iterate.
Consider all best products out there – Uber, Netflix, LinkedIn. Their design and functionality deliver on a particular need. Now think about the best boss you’ve ever had. There is likely one that stands out because they knew how to motivate you, make you feel valued, or how to inspire confidence you didn't know you had. She personalized the experience for you. The best designers continually ask how they can better serve their users. Similarly, the best leaders do the same toward their teams.
So this all got me thinking: what if we started thinking about our professional growth through the lense of human centered design? What if we thought about performance reviews not as the results of a high-stakes test that tell us how good we are at our jobs, but instead as a window into the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings of others and an opportunity to better iterate ourselves to fulfill their needs? What if we designed leadership based on what ultimately made the team more productive?
Thinking through these questions, I started putting together a list of the ways we can apply the principles of human centered design to our professional growth along a with few lessons i learned from my recent 360 assessment. Here’s what I came up with:
Evolve alongside your audience
Rolex watches have it easy. Their value increases over time and they don’t have to change a thing. Bastards. It’s the opposite when it comes to designing products and people. People’s expectations, behaviors, and motivations change over time. And the best products evolve alongside them. The ones that don’t will lose value and their customers will find what they need elsewhere (See: Blockbuster, Kodak.) This 360 process demonstrated that this same principle applies directly to my role as a leader at Cake & Arrow. I got feedback, from people who I've worked with for years, that there was a lack of clarity around my role. They knew I was the Design guy, but they were unsure when and how to leverage me in certain scenarios. It made complete sense. Not only were they maturing as craftspeople and leaders, but the roles and design process around them was changing as well. They were given the autonomy to apply change, but I didn't consider how I fit into that.
Assumptions are dangerous
In product design, we make assumptions all the time. But they exist solely to be validated. Without validation, assumptions can have a disastrous impact, causing us to waste valuable time and effort focusing on the wrong things. When we make assumptions about ourselves and one another, we are accepting something as fact without any proof. Not only do we miss out on precious opportunities to engage in meaningful relationships with others, but, as was the case for me, we prevent ourselves from reaching our full potential as people and professionals. I went into this review curious how others perceived my communication style. It’s something I've had to work on all my life. Damn, that assumption got me good. Turns out that some of the weaknesses I thought I had were not weaknesses others perceived in me. Here I was spending time and effort toward fine-tuning skills that no longer needed attention. This was time I could have been spending focusing on developing other strengths. Damn you assumptions!
Meaningful relationships breed loyalty
I’ve been a long time user of Mailchimp, using it annually for my personal fundraising outreach outside of work. Recently, our company implemented Hubspot to manage all of our marketing efforts. Since email marketing is included in our package, we tried using it to send out our first company newsletter. Hubspot is a fantastic product, but I missed my Mailchimp. Our 5 year relationship was filled with plenty of ups and downs, but through it all, we got to know each other and developed a mutual trust. As my outbound marketing skills evolved over time, Mailchimp evolved along with me. Heck, they even talk the way I talk. I had created a true affinity with the Mailchimp brand and product. Relationship is by definition "the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected.” I’m a strong believer that when people leave their jobs, it’s likely because of their boss. Relationships between humans don’t come naturally. It requires effort and care, particularly from the top. When we can find ways to emotionally relate to our teams in return we get loyalty and a commitment to improve.
MVP (Minimum Viable Product) = MVP (Most Valuable Player)
Whether designing a product or yourself, you need to make a plan, set priorities, and roll your changes and “upgrades” out strategically. One of the biggest challenges in product design is deciding what features should be included in the initial release. We all want to make the best product possible, so it’s hard to make trade-offs particularly when you know a feature will have some value to the user. Similarly, when I got my 360 feedback I was eager to tackle all the issues it raised. But like an MVP, it’s crucial to be selective and apply your effort wisely. Pick 2 to 3 things that you are going to commit to, then share that with your team along with the growth measures. The last thing you want to do is lose credibility if you are unable to follow through on any commitments.
Your workplace and culture are unique
People often confuse market research with design research. It’s an important distinction as they both inform different design decisions. Market Research is a gathering of mass market or quantitative data. User Research is based on human experience and allows us to understand what value means to the end user. Focusing solely on market research would be similar to relying exclusively on management books. While there is certainly value to learning from other’s experiences, nothing comes close to taking the time to research and test in your environment. Just like people, organizations have their own personalities. Consider your workplace and the culture within as its own unique case study and use your surroundings and your colleagues to test and validate your ideas.
Research and design need not be separate activities
Integral to the product development lifecycle is the flow of research, testing and iteration. They are ongoing and concurrent. A truly agile workplace provides opportunities for ongoing formative assessment in which employees are constantly given opportunities to be researched, tested, and to iterate themselves. Periodically ask your team, “How am i doing?” The healthiest and most effective feedback cycles goes both ways.
We are all products
While it may sound reductive when said in this way, the key to applying human centered design to oneself is to think of oneself as a product. This exercise of depersonalization is critical to being able to see feedback as a way into understanding more about others, and less about the product you are designing, which is of course yourself. Linkedin CEO Jeff Weiner recently wrote a piece about what makes a truly great product great. It’s interesting that the five qualities he uses to describe a great product are basically the same as what I would use to describe a great leader. They exceed expectations, they can anticipate your needs, they resonate emotionally, they have a clear sense of purpose and they change a user’s life for the better.
The process of productizing myself was was by no means easy. At times it felt as if I was getting my ass served to me on a sterling silver platter. But doing this was a turning point in my career. I came out of it a better manager, teacher, partner, boss, project leader, and even a better husband and dad. I’m pretty darn sure if this silver platter was served to people in my position more often, there would be a hell of a lot more “Best Places to Work” out there.