Skip to content

Becoming a Better Contributor

August 15, 2013

What makes someone difficult to work with? We might point to patterns of behavior like cluelessness, stubbornness, and rigidity. When people are being clueless, they don’t understand their limitations. When being stubborn, people don’t admit when they’re in over their head. And when they’re being rigid, they don’t adapt to the ever-changing circumstances typical of design projects. Learning to manage these behaviors (in other people and in ourselves) and to become an effective contributor is the most important challenge facing designers and design teams.

It’s in light of this belief that I challenged Jonathan Kahn’s question about facilitation. He asked:

How do “people skills” like facilitation and listening feature in your work?

I retorted:

Converse question also important: How do I become a better (more effective, more efficient) contributor to the team.

When he turned the question around on me, I couldn’t just respond in 140 characters. Becoming an effective contributor is a process, and there are dozens of ways to skin this cat. Here is one take, a three-step process:

Step 1: Awareness

Good contributors are self-aware: they understand their strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and style. They have thought about the tasks that make them uncomfortable, the environments in which they perform optimally, and the people who bring out their best.

But awareness doesn’t end with the self. People need to be aware of their colleagues. Every person on the team has a contribution to make (or should), but also has their own strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and style. Understanding your colleagues as contributors means understanding their skill sets but also:

  • How they like to communicate with other team members.
  • How they handle critique.
  • How they deal with a new challenge.
  • How they deal with conflict.
  • What parts of the design process they relish.
  • What parts they hate.

With this understanding, you can craft your interactions to play to you and your colleagues’ strengths. You can position feedback in a way that will be heard. You can ask for critique in a way that will be most effective for you to respond to.

Step 2: Admission

Awareness is one thing, but admission is another. Being honest with yourself and your colleagues is difficult. People are met with skepticism if they overpraise themselves and with hostility if they are overly harsh on their colleagues.

Good contributors take a different approach. They’re matter-of-fact and direct, but admit their own shortcomings just as readily as anyone else’s. They are specific in their feedback, and look toward changing the future, rather than dissecting the past. They take responsibility for their mistakes:

  • “I’d love to try my hand at prototyping this design, but I don’t have a ton of experience. Can we be sure to include some time for me to consult with our HTML/CSS experts?”
  • “I do want to get more involved with research, but I’ve never conducted a user interview before. Perhaps I can split them with our expert researcher, so I can watch a few in progress.”

Weakness isn’t really weakness. Dishonesty is what undermines a team’s effectiveness.

Step 3: Adaptation

Good contributors use the information they gain from the first two steps to adapt their behaviors.

  • Have someone who shuts out critique? Find ways to make it more palatable.
  • Work with someone who flounders on design problems? Establish a system of check-ins to help them work toward?
  • Have problems managing your time? Enlist a colleague to discuss your work week.

Experience teaches us how far we should go to adapt. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m bending over backwards or compromising my values. But as a team member, I hold some responsibility for making sure the work gets done. If that includes padding out my meetings to pay someone extra compliments, or holding an informal conversation to discuss time management, so be it.

Maybe you think this isn’t any of your concern, that it’s someone else’s problem. I’ve worked with countless team members who behave as if their capabilities or talents makes them immune to team dynamics. I’ve worked with people who behave as if a team’s dynamic is a foregone conclusion. Experience shows, though, that people would rather work with someone honest with less talent than a talented person who is a jerk.

Check out my new book

Designing Together: The collaboration and conflict management handbook for creative professionalsIf you’re interested in becoming a better contributor, dealing with conflict on design projects, or fine-tuning your team’s collaboration, consider getting my new book Designing Together.


Designing Together: my new book!

June 12, 2013

So, it turns out that I still know how to log into WordPress, which is great. I’m using this latent ability to tell you what I’m up to over the next few months.

If a blog isn’t for self-promotion, I always say, then what is it good for? Expression, conveyance of ideas, and meaningful discussion, you say? Maybe, but only in service to self-promotion. (Cynicism. It’s what’s for breakfast.)

A New Book: Designing Together

Designing Together: The collaboration and conflict management handbook for creative professionalsIn the next week or so, my new book hits the shelves, but don’t let that stop you from pre-ordering on Amazon. Designing Together is a book for designers who need to work… wait for it… together. It provides a framework for collaboration and conflict management, a set of behaviors and attitudes that cultivate productive relationships and team dynamics.

The book includes:

  • 28 collaboration techniques
  • 46 conflict management techniques
  • 31 difficult situation diagnoses
  • 17 designer personality traits

Designing Together also features sidebar essays from smart people who think deeply about design and collaboration:

  • David Belman (Threespot) on speaking the same language.
  • Mandy Brown (Editorially, A Book Apart) on transparency.
  • Erika Hall (Mule Design) on commitment.
  • Denise Jacobs (independent consultant and speaker) on fear and creativity.
  • Yoni Knoll (InfinityPlusOne) on the ultimate job description.
  • Marc Rettig (Fit Associates) on shared understanding and shared purpose.
  • Jeanine Turner (Georgetown University) on collaboration tools.

Oh, yeah. Scott Berkun wrote the Foreword. To say that I’m honored is an understatement. In fact, you can download a PDF of Scott’s Foreword and the table of contents. You totally want to buy the book now, right? Amiright?

Designing Together: The Workshops

My schedule includes two related workshops in the coming months. In fact, I assembled and taught these workshops before writing the book. They are highly interactive, and provide a safe place for people to talk about their most challenging work situations.

July 9
UXPA 2013 Conference, Washington, DC
Designing Together: Cultivating Collaboration in Creative Environments
In this workshop, we’ll talk about 10 essential behaviors for improving collaboration. We’ll identify the behaviors we each individually can work on the most and make a commitment to be more collaborative.

October 14
Digital PM Summit, Philadelphia, PA
Designing Together: Making Conflict Work for You
In this workshop, we’ll talk about some techniques for dealing with typical situations on design projects. You know the ones I’m talking about: stakeholders getting distracted by the competition or the creative director changing the strategy at every meeting. We’ll play my card game Surviving Design Projects.

Sign up for one of them. Heck, sign up for BOTH of them. In fact, if you’re in my workshop on July 9 AND you come to the workshop on October 14, I’ll give you a copy of the book AND the card game.

Collaboration Workshop: What description do you like best?

August 31, 2012

Hi! Hope you can help me. I’m creating a new half-day workshop on collaboration, giving designers some ideas on how to work together better. I’ve got two possible descriptions for the workshop. Both are accurate summaries of the exact same workshop, with different emphases. Which do you like better?

Option A: Aspects of Collaboration

The world seems intent on classifying people as introverts or extroverts. And people who strongly identify with each group seem intent on defending their way of life.

The truth is that humans are far more complex, and that regardless of preference you have to work with other people. Collaboration is here to stay.

But how does collaboration work? What makes it work? Why is it deceptively hard?

Most organizations assume that people know how to work together. They assume that such skills are either innate or taught during childhood. If your experience was anything like mine, you didn’t get Collaboration 101 in college. No, you were taught how to work with other people by being thrown into the deep end.

And now, we all have some bad habits to unlearn.

The focus of this workshop is to learn essential behaviors for successful collaboration. We’ll provide context by:

  • Validating the need for collaboration
  • Debunking the myths of collaboration
  • Dismantling the obstacles that prevent collaboration
  • Describing the four aspects of positive collaboration

The four aspects of positive collaboration are:

  • Definition & Clarity: Everyone must have a shared understanding of the work
  • Accountability & Ownership: Everyone must understand their role and each other’s roles
  • Awareness & Respect: Everyone must treat other members of the project team respectfully
  • Openness & Honesty: Everyone must be as transparent as possible

Behaviors that embody these aspects generally yield positive outcomes. Though this workshop, we’ll identify and discuss such techniques and how to integrate them into your process.

Option B: Collaboration Framework

More than ever before, web design demands active and pervasive collaboration. With the complexity and extensive integration of online services design teams must work together effectively. Gone are the days when dropping a set of wireframes over the wall was the extent of my collaboration.

Successful collaboration relies on a harmony between three things:

  • Tools: the techniques, applications, and methods we use to support collaboration
  • Mindset: our attitude and preferences that guide our choices for how we approach work
  • Culture: the ecosystem of policies, incentives, and peer pressure that provide context for our work

Each of the elements in the tools-mindset-culture triplet must be structured to enable collaboration without overpowering individual contributions.

In this workshop, we will:

  • Learn skills for listening better, and behaviors that impair our ability to listen
  • Consider the obstacles that prevent people from using collaboration effectively
  • Examine designers’ insecurities and frustrations that often prevent them from working together effectively
  • Discuss techniques (tools), attitudes (mindset), and organizational policies (culture) that yield positive collaboration
  • Identify day-to-day behaviors that designers can adopt to improve their working relationships

You will come away from the workshop with a collection of new skills to try on your next project, whether you’re working one-on-one with a client, or on a large multi-disciplinary design team.

The Role of the Design Mentor

June 20, 2012

A couple days ago, I got an email from a local designer asking me to be his mentor. (I’m listed on the Information Architect Institute’s web site for this.) Whenever I get such a request, I immediately ask about expectations: goals, commitment, and topics. Upon getting his response, I crafted the following, which I thought would make a pretty good addition to this otherwise anemic blog. Enjoy.

I’ve mentored about a dozen people over the years. One thing to realize is that for both of us, this commitment will fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Client commitments, business commitments, and family commitments will always come first. Because this kind of “professional growth” lacks the context of real work, it’s easy to de-prioritize it, you know?

I can’t commit to working on this for more than one hour per month. That is, no work outside a monthly phone call, as little preparation as possible. I do this not because I’m lazy (though I am) but because I know I’ll never get to those assignments. I have more billable work than I can possibly accomplish, more tasks to run my business than I can possibly get to, and I turn off work in the evenings and weekends to spend time with my family. What little “free” time I do have, I dedicate to side projects that are personally important to me.

I tell you all this to help you understand what I’ve learned over the years mentoring people both inside and outside EightShapes. By far the best possible way to grow professionally is to take time to reflect on your work. As a mentor, my job is to facilitate that internal conversation with yourself, to build your self-awareness, and to improve your ability to critique your own work.

By setting these expectations with “mentees,” I hope to institute a specific dynamic for our conversations. We look at the previous month’s work and we talk about what they could have done better. We talk about difficult conversations they experienced and talk about what insecurities and mental ticks lead to those situations. We consider upcoming work and talk about how to incorporate lessons learned from their previous gigs. Though I’ve been a teacher (lectures and workshops), in this relationship I’m less tutor and more therapist and sounding board.

If that’s not what you need, then I’m not the right mentor for you.

Everybody’s Got Something: Reflections on Rare Disease Day

February 29, 2012

Today is Rare Disease Day, a day set aside by the National Organization of Rare Diseases and other international groups to raise awareness for this group of conditions. A rare disease is one that affects less than 200,000 Americans. Taken together, however, 10% of Americans have a rare disease.

I believe that number is going to grow.

With increasing scientific knowledge and life expectancy, we will discover more diseases faster than we eradicate them. Fine-tuning our scientific “vision” will allow us to see nuanced differences between conditions. Our increasing reliance on genetics for diagnosis and treatment will further personalize the lens through which we see conditions.

Me and the orphans

I have two rare diseases (sometimes known as orphan diseases), not related to each other. I was diagnosed with the first at age 6 and the second at age 15. Though eminently treatable (compared to many other conditions in the rare disease database) they do have a daily impact on my life.

That said, I consider myself lucky: lucky to have been born into a family that took my symptoms seriously, that sought the best treatment, and that could afford to pursue those therapies. I’m fortunate to have found a life partner who took it upon herself to learn more about these conditions than I know, and to stand patiently by my side as I continue to confront them in adulthood. She made the diseases “ours,” not just “his,” and that alone makes me confident I found the right person for me.

Coping strategies

In 1997, I set up a support group for one of my rare diseases. It’s an endocrine disorder with a relatively simple treatment. Untreated or undiagnosed, however, the symptoms can be insidiously devastating. Caught early, and treated reliably, the patient can have a semblance of normalcy. Otherwise, the disease becomes as much a psychological one as a physical one. The support group I set up was online: the Internet, it seems, was made for connecting just my kind of people together.

Today that group has 1700+ members, and I’m not very active in it as I once was. But the traffic on it is as vibrant as ever. Read the messages and you’ll see complex patterns: lots of similarities, but lots of differences, too. The disease is the same from person to person, but each one is equipped differently to cope with it. They internalize it in different ways, and use it to magnify their insecurities, or obscure their strengths.

For many members, the mere existence of a support group is therapy enough. In the early days, most of us expected to go through this condition alone. The doctors that treated us generally hadn’t heard of the condition, much less treated other people with it. With a support group came sympathetic voices, empathetic ears, and myriad information and advice.

Everybody’s got something

When I first set up the group and still watched the traffic on the mailing list I felt a strong bond with the other members: we share so many life experiences. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel that each of us was dealing with a different disease. That may have been the moment when I adopted “everybody’s got something” as a sort of motto, incorporating it into the philosophy of my early adult life.

It is about as close to compassion as I get, though not for lack of trying. No doubt compassion is hard work, but it seems as most people aren’t even trying any more. I can’t say whether people are feeling less for each other, but I can say that people aren’t doing much about it. I hope this doesn’t come across as cynical ramblings of a man with a few years’ experience under his belt. Daily interactions with most strangers reveal a stark lack of compassion. Daily accounts of global news show this playing out writ large.

The rare disease is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the increasing specialization and customization of medical conditions implies a greater focus on “me”. As people are confronted with increasingly individualized conditions, where they may never meet anyone else with the same one, they are out of necessity turned inward. Each person faces his or her own natural disaster, not one that affects an entire community.

On the other hand, people with rare diseases realize that they aren’t alone. They see what I came to see: my demons look and act differently from yours, but they are no less significant, relevant, or impactful. It can be easy to dismiss one’s own plights (as my peer group does frequently appending tweeted complaints with “#firstworldproblems”) but plight is plight. Just because someone else is suffering from something, perhaps more devastating or more debilitating doesn’t make my suffering less important.

And in the context of me in my life (or you in yours) obstacles and challenges can’t be compared to those of another. It is this, the emergence of unexpected challenges in unique contexts, that gives us our united front. It is in this confrontation we find our compassion for others. Whatever I’m dealing with, you’re dealing with something equally complex, equally challenging, and equally consequential.

My rare diseases have taken much from me. But what they’ve given me is a perspective that I doubt I could have gotten elsewhere. That said, you don’t need a rare disease to have this perspective. Everybody’s got something, and not just a medical “something”. That fact doesn’t diminish what you have — the challenges in your life you don’t get to choose — but don’t let your own challenges distance you from other people. As we increasingly confront different things, we need compassion more than ever to cope, to make sense, and to heal.

Silly Amazon Prime Business Rule

February 3, 2012

A few weeks ago, my wife got an email from Amazon saying that she could no longer take advantage of Amazon Mom benefits. After a brief exchange with customer service, she learned that because she shares my Amazon Prime account, the Amazon Mom discount on diapers no longer applies.

We’re talking about 15% off diapers.

Seems like an easy fix: Make Sarah the Amazon Prime primary account-holder. Of course, this doesn’t appear to be possible through the Manage Prime Account.

So, now, for all the world to see, the email I wrote to customer service. I’ll be sure to post their response in the comments.

Currently, my wife and I are Amazon Prime members. The primary membership is attached to my account and shared with my wife. I’d like her to have the primary membership. Please let me know how to accomplish this.

Why do we want to switch?
My wife is no longer allowed to take advantage of Amazon Mom benefits through our Amazon Prime account. According to your policy, only the primary account-holder can use Amazon Mom benefits.

Why do we care?
Frankly, I’m sorry to bore you with the details, but it’s your silly rule. In our house, Sarah’s in charge of ordering all the stuff for the kids. She stays on top of this stuff. I order the stuff for the kitchen — paper towels, garbage bags. But you already know this. You know more about how we run our house than my own mother. Not that she hasn’t tried to find out.

The question is, why do YOU care?
Seriously, Amazon. The diapers come to the same house. We pay with the same credit card. Why do you care whether the Amazon Mom account is attached to the primary Prime account or a shared account.

Long-time customer, First-time complainer

As someone who designs for the web, I’m no stranger to silly business rules. Remember when you couldn’t return stuff to the store that you bought online? This seems like that, only more arbitrary and more obscure.

Book Review: Meals in Minutes, by Jamie Oliver

January 9, 2012

My wife and I peg my transition to “family chef” at around the time our first son was born. Until then, we’d mostly shared cooking duties, but with her tied up in a strict baby schedule, it made sense for me take over. Cooking soon went from household responsibility to serious hobby.

The Secret Ingredient is Improv

For the family chef, the key to cooking is improvisation. Home cooks need to learn enough to work with what’s around the kitchen when we haven’t had time to shop. This isn’t an Iron Chef kind of thing: I haven’t been forced to cook with squid ink and styrofoam. But the family cook needs to know whether he can get away with making Meal A when he’s missing ingredients X, Y, and Z.

While the Best Recipe series has been a staple of our kitchen for more than a decade, Bittman’s “How to Cook” cookbooks were eye-opening. His approach is entirely modular, going beyond 1-2 variations for most recipes. He also lists ways to extend recipes and includes tables showing how to incorporate different ingredients. For me, Bittman’s books helped escalate my skills by giving me a broader platform for improvisation.

Enter Jamie

Meals in Minutes (book cover)Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes: A Revolutionary Approach to Cooking Good Food Fast
is quite the opposite. Each page is a self-contained meal, including three or four courses including dessert. The ingredients list at the top of the page covers all the dishes and the method intersperses instructions for each one. In short, you follow directions to prepare a meal, not to prepare each individual dish.

Jamie Oliver is not the kind of person I’d want to go have a cup of coffee with. He strikes me as a bit of a goofball. (Not that I’m not a goofball, just a different sort. To be fair, I’m not sure I’d want to coffee with Bittman, either.) But we see eye to eye philosophically, and Meals in Minutes culminates many of his ideas. In short, Americans should be cooking more. (Not eating more, mind you, cooking more.) Our cultural dependence on convenience and consumerism has made us–as a whole–lose perspective on what it means to invest time in our food. Beyond this, his message is one of encouragement: You can do this. For Americans who are stymied by the kitchen, he seeks to make cooking not just accessible, but meaningful.

To that end Meals in Minutes is a mixed bag. There are some things I love about this book:

  • The design is beautiful. The method is easy to follow visually, and not having to turn pages is, surprisingly, one of the best things ever to come to my kitchen.
  • The meals depart nicely from family cook staples like “chicken, rice, and steamed vegetable”. I’m making things I didn’t think would be easy to do.
  • The recipes have a nice mix of fresh ingredients and pantry items.
  • The method is efficient. Both recipes I’ve prepared in well under an hour.
  • For more experienced cooks, Jamie’s recipes have some nice techniques you can borrow.

What Kind of Chilis?

Some reviews have criticized the format, since it’s not easy to make just one recipe. These reviewers, I think, miss the point of the book. Instead, the main drawback of Meals in Minutes is in the ingredients. There are some pretty obscure ingredients, and Oliver offers no guidance on substitutes.

I’m reluctant to experiment with substitutions since the balance of the method seems to depend so much on the ingredients. That said, I used jalapeno chilis instead of scotch bonnet in the Jerk Chicken. And when Sarah couldn’t find mixed organic mushrooms, we just used shitake in the Mushroom Risotto. (I know, I know, First World problems.) With the success of these meals, I’ll definitely use the book again.

What’s Next: Chicken Pie and Asian Salmon

There are at least half a dozen other meals in the book I want to try. (About a third of the meals involve red meat, and I only eat fish and fowl, so getting 8-10 meals out of the book is actually a really good ratio.) I’m a sucker for chicken pie, and Oliver’s meal includes that with some nice vegetable sides. He also has a chicken peri-peri meal with dressed potatoes and arugula salad. I’m eager to find a way to use frozen salmon in a recipe without it tasting like it was frozen. Meals in Minutes has two–asian salmon and crispy salmon–that look worth trying.

Bearing in mind that Meals in Minutes may send you on a wild good chase in your grocery store, it’s a worthy addition to the family cook’s bookshelf. It will inspire me to add new meals to the rotation and expose my cooking to some new ingredients. It will teach me to be more efficient in the kitchen, and add some new techniques to my repertoire.