Friday, September 27, 2013

Ha! So I guess I lied in my last post about posting more regularly. Sigh. That's what happens with life catches up with you, I suppose.

I've left Ariba and am now at Netflix. I'm pretty excited to be here. I think Ariba has its pluses and its minuses, and it was a good learning experience for me to discover what I really cared about.

During the time I was thinking about a change, I had many a discussion with other UX professionals about that the "next" option might be, from contract work to design firms to full-time employment -- some things which I've never really considered until now. It is interesting to see how the employment culture has changed, however; previously, I think being a "lifer" was the thing to do. Nowadays, the prevalence of contract work has increased, and we (especially in the software industry) are jumping from company to company more quickly now.

So here's what (little) I've learned about the different possible modes of employment for a UX designer (yes, there are probably more...):

Full-Time Employment
Pros: Stable paycheck, stable stream of work, could possibly switch within company (depending on size) if you don't like what you're working on, potentially great benefits/culture/people
Cons: Harder to leave if you discover you don't like it (culture, projects, people, compensation, etc.)

Individual Contractor/Freelancer
Pros: Flexible schedule, work only on what you like, likely pays a lot more than full-time employement
Cons: The onus is on you to find your own employment (so you gotta get good at selling your own skills), you gotta find/take care of your own healthcare, sometimes there are renewal limits when contracting at the same company for a period of time

Design Firm
Pros: Variety of projects, you can more often choose only to work on the projects you're interested in
Cons: Sometimes the projects don't come and then you don't get paid, potentially long hours when a project is in crunch time

I think some questions that were important to ask myself when assessing whether to stay or start looking again includes:
  1. Am I happy to go to work every day?
  2. Do I enjoy working with the other people here?
  3. Am I learning new things here (from people or tech)?
  4. Are there opportunities to work on exciting things here, or with exciting people?
  5. Is this job sustainable?
  6. Does my manager respect me and help me advance my career?
I'm sure there are more.

If you haven't seen Netflix's culture deck when it made its rounds a few years ago, this is pretty good to look through. It's definitely not a corporate mentality you stumble across very often.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Challenges for Design & Innovation in Engineering-driven Businesses

So I haven't been writing, pretty much ever since I started my new job -- probably for lack of decompressed brain space to use to think about this stuff, form an opinion on things that happened at work, and read and share good articles. Well, back to it more regularly now, I hope.

Moving from my quirky little division within Intuit to Ariba was a big shock for me. And, the more I've spoken to others about it, the more they tell me that what I have now is normal. "Homestead," they say, "was unique." Apparently not many other companies (outside of startups) are filled with people who value the same things you do. Apparently it's rare to make that many friends at work that you keep seeing outside of work as we do. Apparently, the lack of politics and the presence of people who are self-starting and willing to do whatever it takes because they care aren't so common anymore.

It's a little disappointing and, frankly, frightening to think that the best days you've had at work are behind you. It makes me think that I ought to look at startups next.

Ariba is apparently pretty much what most large companies in the Valley are like right now (save a notable few): historically engineering-driven behemoths, sad relics of the past that didn't realize that the world around them was slowly changing, until recently they were suddenly confronted with the fact that their old systems, processes, and products are aging dinosaurs, and that their end users (not the customers) want more than they can really handle, given what they have.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

One of the reasons I came to Ariba was to turn this dinosaur around, to attempt to push it toward a leaner, user-centric, embracing-design-thinking type of culture. I don't know if it's working yet because I don't feel like I see any changes, but then again, I don't have a true baseline; by the time I arrived, people had already realized that change was needed.

Despite that, the major challenges I see here include:

1. Fear
I see many types of fear here: fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of upper management, fear of sticking your neck out for what you think is right out of fear of losing your job. Some of these fears are normal, human behaviors that probably are present wherever you go. Some of these fears are, I'm afraid (pun intended), directly caused by the culture here and are unhealthy. The point when people are afraid to do things in different ways because they're afraid of what upper management says about them is the point you can say sayonara, sucker to innovation and the "little guy" following his or her own moral and ethical compass.

2. Artificial Measures of Success
What is true success for a company? The textbook answers are things like revenue, increased growth year-over-year, soaring stock prices, that you delivered what you promised customers. What do you use to measure this? Monthly recurring revenue. How many years your customers use your software to do their work. How often you hit your promised deadlines. Deliver the product, deliver results.

Yes, those are all still important, but with the rise of design thinking, the metrics that you measure success against become end user satisfaction (perhaps even delight), usage, comprehension, ease. What do you use to measure this? Net Promoter score? Tracking information from your products? User interviews? Surveys? The problem is that end user delight is difficult to measure. It's not prescribed in textbooks. You have to triangulate the information through many different measure, some of which aren't quite as clean-cut as we'd like them to be.

So, business tends to fall back to the concrete measures -- revenue, growth, etc. -- that aren't related closely enough to the factors that actually drive them -- like user satisfaction, word-of-mouth. And when this is what we measure ourselves on, we start driving toward artificial successes: increase monthly recurring revenues by raising the prices on our products, increase our "on time" ratings by delivering features in which it's possible to complete the target tasks.

3. Rewarding Behavior that serves Artificial Ideas of Success
The problem is compounded when behavior that feeds these artificial measures of success is rewarded. People care about self-actualization; we like praise; we like reward. So of course we'll bias heavily to those behaviors that get us reward and recognition. We'll allocate our time to doing work that gets us paid. Unfortunately, sometimes that is not asking questions, building the first solution we come up with, delivering a feature on time even if people have legitimate concerns about it -- hey, it was on time!

4. No Space to Breathe, Never Mind Innovate
I don't know if 10% time really works or not, but when people's timelines are so tight that there is no time to decompress, that works even less. Simply stepping back to assess one's situation requires space, and creativity and innovation needs even more. No one is going to be motivated to improve their current processes when they are up to their eyebrows in it. No one wants to stop the current train of deliver, deliver, deliver to make space for considering and digging deep into a user's needs.

But enough with the negatives. Let me leave you with the following delightful presentation:

I also highly recommend watching the YouTube video linked from slide 3: