Friday, October 21, 2016

Do I really need to write a book?

Last month, I was chatting with Peter Merholz at the Big Design Conference in Dallas. He was there promoting his new book, Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Teams — an excellent book by the way, and we were talking about how interesting it is that it is still important to write a book to be sought out as a consultant; blog posts are not enough. “You’ve never written a book, have you?”, said Peter, “Why not?” (Interestingly, it was Peter who first asked me years ago why I hadn’t started my own user research firm.)

Should I have written a book by now? Probably, yes. (Should I have started my own user research firm years ago? Again, probably yes.) I certainly have a couple of books in me, but do I really want to urge them out? Is it really true that good blog posts cannot suffice?

Well, without answering those questions (at least for now), let me spend a bit of time proclaiming the merits of reading old blog posts — not just anyone’s, but mine! I’ve written lots about topics such as those Peter addresses in his new book, and though many of those posts have aged a number of years, their relevance remains surprisingly — perhaps disturbingly — high. And what makes my posts particularly valuable is that they present and contrast the experiences and perspectives of many; they are not solely about what I think and have experienced.

For example, consider the topic of design collaboration. Cross-functional collaboration is now highly touted as crucial to successful design, but I know lots of designers who still do their work largely independently. WTF? Some of my blog posts on the importance of collaboration and keys to its success include:
Numerous posts address (additional) characteristics of a good research and design process, something with which many continue to struggle. They include:
But what do you do when you can’t follow an ideal process? I had a conversation about just that about a month ago with a director at a company that strongly touts its ideal process, but can’t always engage in it. I pointed him to, Working “middle out,” an approach which ends up increasing the chances of following a more ideal process in the future.

Multiple obstacles to employing design in the most impactful way can surface. Some of the many posts about such obstacles include:
Each post in the above list also addresses how to deal with such obstacles. Additional posts which do the same include:
The design and positioning of design organizations is still a hot topic, as suggested by the reaction to Peter’s book. Among the posts I’ve written on this topic:
And I’ve authored posts on so much more. Indeed, there is gold to be found in these many blogposts.

Design leadership is a hot topic these days, and many of these posts could form the foundation of a very good book on the topic. But, can’t the blog suffice? Do I really need to write a book?

Well, things would be better organized in a book, and I’d update and extend the posts’ content, and I’d fill in some gaps, and…

OK, maybe I should write a book. But while I do that or consider doing that, look through the lists of posts I’ve presented above for those that might be of help to you now. Use the tags for help accessing others. As I mentioned earlier, even the older posts continue to be of relevance.

Friday, October 07, 2016

My best work lies ahead of me

A version of this post has been published on medium.

I’m presently looking for full-time work, and part of my strategy has been to contact people I know or with whom I’m connected on LinkedIn who work at a company with an opening in which I might have an interest. I also sometimes reach out to others in key positions at the company. I always try to meet — in-person or remotely — with such people, usually informally and sometimes over coffee or a beer, to discuss the role, the company, and what they believe is most needed in the role (and why). I learn lots this way and sometimes seem to go through a pretty extensive interview process even before such a process has officially begun.

One of the times I arranged to meet with such a person recently, I entered the place of work, was taken back to the person with whom I was to meet and had not met before, and then watched as she sorta froze as soon as she saw me, the smile disappearing from her face. This happened with two of her co-workers as well, and it has happened on other — though not all — occasions of a similar nature.

I’ve talked about this with some of my older friends, and they confirmed what I feared might be going on, since they had experienced the same thing: ageism. I surprised these people I was meeting for the first time by being older than they had expected and probably hoped, and it negatively affected things moving forward.


Ageism in tech has been dubbed “an under-the-radar diversity issue” — “the industry’s biggest secret.” However, it wasn’t much of a secret when Mark Zuckerberg uttered these oft-quoted words in 2007: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.” Today, “the average age of an employee at the top technology employers is around 29.”

Some people have tried, such as via lawsuits. But the title alone of a recent Washington Post article suggests that most such efforts have been to little avail: “Baby boomers are taking on ageism — and losing.”
“At a time when conditions have vastly improved for women, gay people, disabled people and minorities in the workplace, prejudice against older workers remains among the most acceptable and pervasive ‘isms’.”
This is disgusting.

One of the jobs I applied for recently is pretty much equivalent to a job I held several years ago. I applied, because I loved that job and because my experience since being in that job has enabled me to perform in such a job even better. But I was told by the employer that the years that had passed since I held that job was a detriment.

Hmm… (and I can share a story of a similar nature involving another company).

Do not disregard the benefits of my experience, people! I’ve learned lots over the course of my life and career and have contributed substantively to the development of the field in which I work. And I continue such contributions and am higher performing and more capable than ever. 

And, as suggested by this photo from this summer of a subset of the people in the room who were giving me a standing ovation at the end of our 10 weeks of intensely working together, I know how to work effectively with those young people Mark Zuckerberg said are the only people of importance in tech:

I am looking for work (spread the word!), and my best work lies ahead of me.

------ o ------

Some additional excellent articles on ageism in tech include last month’s “You’re How Old? We’ll Be in Touch” in The New York Times and the older “The Brutal Ageism in Tech” in New Republic. Please share others you recommend via comment.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Go ahead — ask people what they want

A version of this post has been published on Medium...

“Do not ask people what they want.”

This is a mantra in the field of design research. It is said over and over and over again.

It was said years ago by the likes of Steve Jobs, Jared Spool, and Jakob Nielsen (and many others); it was said more recently by the likes of Erika Hall and Don Norman (and many others); it was said perhaps most recently — earlier this week — by designer Jason Li:

Karen Holtzblatt has written: "Don't ask your customer what they need or want or like. People focus on doing their life not watching their life. So if you ask the customer, people can't tell you what they do or what they want, because it’s not part of their consciousness to understand their own life activities."

Don Norman said: “Don’t ask them what they want, because people don’t know what they want. Seriously, you don’t know what you want; I don’t know what I want.”

And, of course, there is the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.”

But, doesn’t the answer about faster horses reveal important information? And do you really think that Don Norman never knows what he wants?

Do you never know what you want? Does what you think you want never reveal something of importance about what you really want, something which can be fruitfully expanded via additional questioning or other types of research? And is it never a part of your consciousness to understand your own life activities?

In an earlier post, I referenced a medical conference in which patients in the audience — patients who had invested tons of time in understanding their health(care) experience and in identifying what they wanted — were seriously offended when a speaker — a designer of wearable sensor products — proclaimed with pride that he never asks users what they need or want, but only observes user behavior. 

Is it advisable to observe user behavior? Of course. But is it good practice to offend the people for whom you are designing by refusing to ask them what they want?

The mantra of “do not ask people what they want” seems to partly be a reaction to over-simplistic practices of “requirements gathering.” But it also seems left over from the days of designer pomposity — when the approach of “designing for” dominated over the approach of “designing with.” This is not a claim that “designing with” only means you need to ask users what want; far from it. But users actually do often know what they want and need, and when they don’t (completely) know, answers to such questions often contain important clues.

Go ahead — ask people what they want. Just don’t ONLY do so.


Thanks to attendees of the May meeting of the ATX UX Book Club (Article Month) for their feedback to a draft of this post.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Stanford Medicine X Austin Pop-Up

Written for a Medicine X newsletter (except for the added list at the end)

What experiments would you conduct to explore how to address problems experienced with healthcare today? This was the question posed to attendees of the Medicine X pop-up event in Austin the evening of November 9. Attendees had just been presented with 6 key insights regarding such problems — insights derived from research done in the Austin area, and attendees actively engaged in the brainstorming using post-its as part of a process used by designers applying design thinking to solve human-centered problems.

The research insights had been presented to the attendees by Stacey Chang, Executive Director of the new Design Institute for Health, a collaboration between the newly-formed Dell Medical School and the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Stacey and the Institute are charged with applying creative design methodologies to the development of a model of a new value-based healthcare system for the Austin area. Stacey previously served as the Managing Director of the Healthcare practice at IDEO, a very successful global design and innovation firm.

Earlier in the program, Stacey outlined the mission of the Institute and its priorities, and expertly responded to the many challenging questions of the attendees, all people to be impacted by the product of the Institute’s work. The research insights he shared are insights which should be used as guides to the work of healthcare designers almost everywhere, though particularly in the United States.

The organizer for the pop-up was Richard Anderson, a past multi-year Medicine X ePatient Scholar and a teacher of human-centered design process at General Assembly, a co-sponsor of the event. He was joined on stage by Brett Alder and Breck Gamel, two other past Medicine X ePatient scholars, to introduce the program and to describe the Medicine X mission and experience.

The program was a success, leaving attendees feeling engaged in a process very important to the future of healthcare.

photos by Alicia Dietrich & Chris Hammond

FYI: the 6 research insights referenced in the newsletter piece above:
  • The Imbalance of Hope and Fear Prevents People From Engaging
  • Generalizations Keep My Baggage Stowed When It Should Be Unpacked
  • Navigating Health is Like Finding Your Way Through a Foreign Land Using a Map with No Legend
  • Diagnosis Today is a Period When It Should Be a Question Mark
  • Care Plans Feel Formulaic When They Demand Improvisation
  • Patient Compliance is a False Choice When People Aren’t Ready to Act