People Everywhere Want Help

mcdonalds bag

I see it all the time. People don’t audibly ask for help. Usually, the ask looks like frustration. Or figuring out short-cuts on doing something that shouldn’t be that hard. They want help. They just can’t get it.

Perfect example is leaving the super-market. Out she comes with a full paper grocery bag. She is frustrated, wrapping both arms around the bottom because the bag is ripping. It no longer has handles, the paper is too thin, and the wetness of the fruit has further weakened the paper. The bad experience doesn’t have anything to do with the look of the bag (it looks great) or wanting to be delighted when she leaves the supermarket (please, she just wants to get home).

Her bad experience has everything to do with the bag not doing the job it was supposed to do when she needed it. There are a whole mess of reasons for that bad job. Some of it has to do with corporate money. Others have to do with laws. Some has to do with her own forgetfulness. Doesn’t mean we need punish her for those various reasons. She wanted help before needing to ask for it. If the supermarket really wanted to help, they could have looked across the street at the business who had the same journey and gave a better experience just by focusing on the job that needed to be done: get the ordered food safely to the car.

I’ve been in plenty of industries. Did time in the city working at an agency. Went through advertising, publishing, media, entertainment, b2b, and now did a short stint in banking and onto insurance. Brown paper-bags everywhere. They don’t look like brown paper bags, but they’re there. People wanting to do a simple task and blocked by the solution decisions we have decided to make.

Be human. Be helpful.

Accessibility is Customer Centric

close up photo of person using braille

Do you think you are customer focused? If you are not doing better than legislation in dire need of updating, then you really do not care about the customer. You need to ensure anyone can seamlessly use your digital properties, no matter their situation in life. It’s not only good for your brand, it’s good for people.

Look at this law. It is ancient. When it was created Star Trek had our closest idea to the iPhone. When it was created, you still need to carry around a “case quarter” so you could make a call while on the go. When it was created, the only way to enter into a virtual space was by making sure your telephone squawked at another phone (or something) somewhere else.

We need to do better. Read on.

Agile is More Than a Buzz Word

person writing on the notebook

I remember sitting in an agile workshop hearing a non-practitioner say that agile just doesn’t work and that you have to do traditional project management. Sure. If you’re building a bridge. But if not, you’re just slowing things down. Or doing agile wrong.

Listen, a truly agile company looks different. Teams are doing the work. They are pivoting around the customer. They are driven by the overarching business strategy. They are funded by the value they offer to the company.

Here I am not only using standard SAFE terminology around value streams.

There is not a company today that doesn’t pay for phones. It is assumed that companies will have phones. They also assume they need people to support those phones. To manage the phone life cycle. Same thing with computers. Keyboards. Monitors. These things are assumed values because they are the cost of doing business. Sure those things are often capitalized and depreciated but that’s just because those are physical assets.

With agility and the modern marketplace, strategy is the driver and agility is a mindset that allows the flexibility to realize the strategy. Just like with computers and phones, certain things needs to be in place to bring the strategy into reality and in the modern world that means virtual assets should be funded—even if we haven’t figured out how to capitalize and depreciate them. No modern strategy should exclude a website, for example. Or customer-centricity. Or the customer’s job to be done.

Of course, if the business strategy no longer sees websites or apps (or phones or computers) as important to the business, then they stop funding those areas. It is why companies no longer fund a horse and buggy.

Now, by funding a virtual asset, I don’t only mean money.

I mean resource staffing so that small teams have the right people. I mean empowerment so that small teams can make the decisions. I mean investment in the equipment and tools to allow the team to work. I mean unblocking upstream or downstream damming that get in the way from happening—even if that damming looks like middle-management. I mean building up the team confidence cache by reflecting good (versus bad) behavior. All of that is the funding that makes agile work beyond a buzz word.

If you want agile to work throughout the organization you must do more than use the term in a PowerPoint. You need to fund the virtual assets that drive the business strategy with the tangible means to bring that strategy into reality in any hundred different ways.

Mind the Gap: The Danger of Baked-In Bias

antelope canyon

When gathering data, we need to also look at wildcards. They may not really be wild cards but they might be enough to shake our biases before they get baked into any digital solution.

I am not here writing about racism—though that can be included. Think about historic redlining affecting your ability to get a loan in an automated system. Don’t know what I mean?

Here is IBM realizing that a common bias can become part of a virtual reality and artifical intelligence just because the designers have unstated assumptions. For example, anchoring bias: the first thing we hear is most likely right. Or CS Lewis’ chronological snobbery: the assumption because we are more modern, we know more than the previous generation. Or gender bias: like when looking for an image of a “cop” or “pilot” you (wrongly) expect and (wrongly) get men or when you google “nurse” you (wrongly) expect and (wrongly) get women.

These things can go really bad if there are medical conditions that we stay quiet about or integrate symptoms around the male body as a norm. A big one like the symptoms of a heart attack. A friend of mine had a heart attack while going on a hike and they did not go to the doctor for several hours because her symptoms presented as tiredness and indigestion: which are common presenting symptoms of the female body. Or when our data gap outright ignores people groups where those differences might matter.

This is happening everywhere and you can read about it in regards to women in Caroline Criado Perez’s excellent book Invisible Women. You can get around this by purposefully including groups (like women) as part of your research and not only around roles. Here I would argue that you need a randomized wildcard that excludes the common bits you are looking for.

I am not saying this is the only answer but we need to do better lest we forget large swaths of humans in our supposedly human-centered solutions.

I’ve updated this post with newer articles.

Design is About a Job Well Done

designed staircase

Marketing wants to communicate a message. Graphic design gets it done. Manufacturing is setting up a payment and fulfillment workflow. System design gets it done. I’m not referring to roles. I’m saying that with design, you answer the question: “How will someone [get this]?” Swap out the bracket for whatever. Do this. Read this. Consume this. Use this.

Seth Godin puts it this way. “Design is about function. Everything we do has a job, and if it’s designed properly, the job will get done well.” He’s right. Want proof? Check your palm, purse, or pocket. You carry around a thing that has been iteratively designed to complete more and more functions. Now, you see it as important as your keys.  

More Than Words

scrabble board letters

Words convey meaning. They are vehicles for conveying information. Or ideas.

Words are often perspectival. “My heart aches” means something very different if I’m currently breaking up with you or if I am having a heart attack. That is not only a matter of context but of what I am experiencing.

Sometimes though, trying to perfectly convey meaning, words get in our way from making real progress. We spend more time discussing what this or that should be called instead of testing it with real people.

Consider the case of telling someone to get off the train tracks. Instead of finding the right words, we dance, wave, scream, and point. Words are great, but the immediate outcome has a higher priority than finding the right verbal vehicle.

Avoid the very human trap of finding the perfect word and instead show a prototyped solution.

When Designers Get In the Way of Great Design

gray concrete building exterior with geometric design

I am a designer. I formulate a solution to a functional problem and decide what, I think, is the best way to depict that solution. Thing is, I always have multiple options for that problem. That means that, in practice, there are always multiple design solutions to any given problems.

The problem is when I think this one solution is definitively the only solution. With designers, that happens more than it should. That is why we are often not happy when the client takes our worst option.

Thing is, it is the nature of a problem to have multiple solutions. If there is a gap from here to there you can build a bridge between the gap or you can level both sides down so that there is no gap: both work. The best solution rears its head around objective, budget, and long-term strategy. Hopefully.

This is why templates and frameworks are helpful. They do not solve for everything but they solve for a lot. We designers hate them because they cause constraints but what they do well is structure strategy so that we can maximize the design possibilities. If you allow it, the template or framework is simply the page grid where multiple design solutions can play.

Designers, do not get in your own way. Use all available tools.