Rolling out the welcome mat for your new designer

Design Managers: set your new hire up for success

So you just hired a new designer. Congratulations!

As a manager, your mission is to help your teammate be successful as quickly as possible. Don’t just throw them on the most burning problem and see what happens. Take the time to set them up for success: help them gain knowledge, build relationships, and deliver on their first project.

Here’s how we onboard new designers at PlanGrid:

1. Gain knowledge

Designers need lots of information and context to be successful. What are your business goals? What is the strategic role of design? Who are your users and what makes them tick? Where does your product succeed or fall short?

These are complex questions that can’t be answered in a day. Focus on providing the right introduction, scaffolding, and resources so your employee can learn and grow at their own pace.

Company training

PlanGrid offers a week-long training for all new hires that covers everything from getting your computer and software set up, to selecting your health insurance, to learning more about our customers and products. It also provides an overview of the business and various departments. Since there’s often “information overload,” we also share training decks and points of contact so employees can follow up later.

New hires love our “Design at PlanGrid” training.

New hires love our “Design at PlanGrid” training.

Team training

For each new designer, I create a personalized “Welcome Guide” and email it to them on their first day. I also print a copy for us to review together at our first meeting. It includes some suggested tasks for their first month, a list of people they may want to meet with, and links to useful tools and resources. You are welcome to adapt this sample for your own use.

Sample New Hire Welcome Guide

Sample New Hire Welcome Guide

I book an hour with them on their first day to provide some basic team training. We cover topics like:

  • Our team vision and strategy, and where they fit in
  • How we’re organized, and who’s working on what
  • Common processes and tools
  • Expectations for their first 90 days

I also make sure to schedule weekly one-on-one meetings from that point forward to continue the conversation and encourage them to reach out proactively when they have questions. I reiterate that during their first month I’m not expecting them to deliver a bunch of work; rather, I’m expecting them to build a strong foundation for future success.

2. Build relationships

It’s tough being the new person— you don’t yet feel part of the community, you’re unaware of the company’s unique social norms, and it’s not always clear where to go for help.

Here are a few tactics to help your teammate build strong working relationships right from the beginning:

Give them a buddy

At PlanGrid, new employees get a “buddy” — a peer that helps them get up to speed, shows them around the office and answers their questions. We rotate this responsibility around the team whenever someone new joins.

Introduce them around

We want to make sure everyone knows our new teammate is joining and is as excited as we are to have them here. Before the new hire’s first day, I email them asking for a photo and short bio. On their first day, I email this out to the broader organization with a few words introducing them and what they’ll be working on. I also try to introduce them to people around the office to help “break the ice.”

Send an intro email to your organization

Send an intro email to your organization

Include them

Too often new hires are accidentally left out of standing team meetings or offsites that were planned months ago. Now when someone new joins, I make sure to add them to all the right calendar invites and chat channels so they never feel excluded.

Set up one-on-ones

One of the most important relationships an employee will have is with their manager — that means you. Get your relationship off on the right foot by setting up recurring one-on-one meetings. I typically start with 60 minutes once a week, then reduce to 30 minutes once they’re up to speed.

Your new hire will thank you for helping them get connected more quickly. You’ll also be thanking yourself: when your new hire has a bigger network to help answer questions, your job becomes easier.

3. Deliver on their first project

New hires want to show what they can do and make a big impact right away. Take the time to define the right first project: one where they can deliver positive outcomes quickly.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Is the project well matched to their expertise?
  • Can you pair them with someone to help them learn?
  • Is success dependent upon deep user or product knowledge? If so, does the timeline account for this?
  • If things don’t go well, do you have a backup plan?

I typically give someone a “starter” project that is smaller or less complex than the type of work they’ll be doing longer term. That’s because I know they’ll need to spend time learning more about the users, product, and their team.

I also work with them to create a New Hire Blueprint. This tool helps them plan their first three months and stay focused on the most important things.

Sample New Hire Blueprint

Sample New Hire Blueprint

Throughout their first project, I make sure to check in regularly. This can take a couple forms:

  • Weekly one-on-one meetings
  • Casual hallway conversations
  • Team design critiques

I make a point to ask lots of questions, provide constructive feedback, and recommend other people or projects that might be relevant to their work.

At the end of their first project I ask what went well about the project and what they’d do differently next time. This can lead into future conversations about growth and development.

Summary

We’ve seen great results with this approach to bringing new hires aboard. The knowledge they gain is invaluable, and getting an early win helps them quickly build trust with their team. Your new hire will appreciate the work you’ve done to set them up for success.

Do you have other suggestions for welcoming in your new hires?

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The New Hire Blueprint: how to succeed at your new design job

You’ve got three months to make an impression. Here’s how.

So you just took a new design role. Congratulations! 

Whether this is your first design job or your fiftieth, the next few months are going to be incredibly exciting and challenging. You’ll be meeting lots of new people and drinking from the firehose of knowledge. It will be a lot of fun but also very overwhelming.

Whenever a new designer joins our team, I tell them:

Your first three months will set the tone for the next three years.

Over the course of your time at a job, you will no doubt learn, grow, and change a lot. But those first three months are a critical period to learn as much as you can (you can only play the “new person” card for so long) and to form that first impression of who you are and how you’ll fit into the team.

While this may sound stressful, it doesn’t have to be. With a little bit of planning, you’ll be able to get up to speed, build relationships, deliver results, and demonstrate that you’re a valuable member of the team.

Blueprints are essential to building for success.

Blueprints are essential to building for success.

The New Hire Blueprint

On the PlanGrid design team, we use a tool called the New Hire Blueprint to help new teammates build a solid foundation in their first three months.

Sample New Hire Blueprint

Sample New Hire Blueprint

It’s broken into areas of focus and divided up by month. Each cell contains specific tasks to be completed in that month. The status of each task is tracked using color-coding.

Each new designer works with her manager to make sure the blueprint is specific to her specific role and goals. This ensures the designer and manager are both aligned on expectations. It also helps the designer to feel confident that the work she’s doing at any given time is part of a bigger plan to ensure success.

In those moments where there are a hundred things you could be doing, it’s helpful to have a reminder of what you really should be doing. Taking the time to think through the bigger picture of the knowledge, customer empathy, and relationships you need to build early on in your new job will help you get fully onboard before getting sucked into delivering tactically.

Key themes for designers

When it comes to filling out the New Hire Blueprint, I encourage people to think about their first three months as building the foundation for their future success. What must they learn or accomplish in order to be successful going forward? 

There is no single definitive list. In order to be successful, a senior user researcher at a 8,000 person global company will have a different plan from a junior designer at a 20-person startup. However I recommend starting with these four themes:

  • Company onboarding
  • Building strong relationships
  • Building customer empathy and understanding
  • Your first project

Let’s dive into each of these.

1. Company onboarding

Many companies offer some sort of new hire training aimed at helping you quickly get up to speed in your new organization. For example, at PlanGrid we have a full week training that covers everything from getting your computer and software set up, to selecting your health insurance, to learning more about our customers and products. 

Not every company offers this, so you may need to do a little more work to get up to speed. Ask your manager for resources and training and ask your teammates what they wish they knew when they got started. If you come away having completed all your paperwork, know where the coffee is, and understand how the company talks about itself and its customers, you’re doing well. If you have a good understanding of the company strategy and design’s role in that strategy, you’re doing even better.

2. Building strong relationships

To be successful as a designer, you must have strong, healthy relationships with your teammates, including designers, product managers, engineers, QA, and more.

Plug into existing team mechanics. Ask people on your team to invite you to everything the team is involved in, even if you aren’t sure if you need to be there all the time. 

Get involved in team meetings, critiques, and events.

Get involved in team meetings, critiques, and events.

Here are a few examples of where to embed yourself:

  • Working team meetings, e.g. daily standup, retrospectives, planning sessions
  • Design team meetings and critiques
  • Company meetings, events, and all-hands
  • Email distribution lists and online chat channels
  • Social occasions like lunch or happy hour

Show up, listen, and ask lots of questions. This will give you a better idea of what happens where, who’s involved, and where to focus your time as you’re getting up to speed. It will also communicate that you’re a team player and help people get to know you.

Meet one-on-one with coworkers. A boss once gave me this sage advice:

“Never underestimate the power of breaking bread together.”

Taking someone out for lunch, coffee, or a walk outside works wonders for building strong working relationships.

There are many people you’ll want to meet with, but focus first on the people you’ll work closest with. Then branch out to other teams and departments over time to understand how the broader organization works. 

Nothing brings people together like a good cup of coffee.

Nothing brings people together like a good cup of coffee.

When you have your one-on-one meeting, make the most of your time together by preparing a few topics of conversation ahead of time. This is your chance to make a great first impression, learn more about your teammate, and lay the foundation for your relationship. 

Here are a few questions you might ask:

  • What’s your career journey, and how did you get to where you are today?
  • What’s your role on the team?
  • How’s the team doing? What’s going well, and what’s frustrating?
  • How have you worked with designers in the past? What did you like or dislike about working with them?
  • How do you prefer to work, and what are some potential “triggers” that I should avoid?
  • What should I make sure to learn or do over the next few weeks?

Make the conversation two-sided. Consider sharing the following about yourself:

  • How you got to where you are today, and why you took this role
  • How you’ve worked with [people in their role] in the past, and what you enjoyed about that
  • What it’s like to work with you, both the good and the bad

By starting off your relationship from a place of genuine curiosity, sharing, and goodwill, you’ll establish a solid foundation of trust to build upon in the months ahead.

3. Build customer and product knowledge

As a designer, your work is only as good as your knowledge of the customer and the product. 

The PlanGrid team visits a construction site to build customer and product knowledge.

The PlanGrid team visits a construction site to build customer and product knowledge.

Here are a few suggestions for quickly building your customer and product knowledge:

  • Do a heuristic evaluation of the current product. Note down your first impressions, where you got confused, what seems broken, what’s working really well. Then share this with your team and have a discussion. It’s a good way to start building product knowledge hear what your teammates think about the current experience.
  • Attend training meant for customers. Many companies offer training for their customers. Ask if you can join the training to learn more about the domain, product, and how it’s explained to users. Say hello and ask lots of questions of customers in attendance.
  • Attend your coworkers’ user research sessions. Even if the session isn’t directly related to your team’s projects, this will give you a chance to meet customers and learn about the work that’s currently in-flight. And of course you can run some sessions of your own.
  • Visit customers. If your company doesn’t already organize customer site visits, set some up yourself and observe them using your product. Bonus points if you bring your team along.
  • Shadow support and sales. Most support and sales reps will be happy to have you shadow them while they talk with customers. This is a great way to learn how your company talks about the value it provides and see first-hand what is exciting or confusing to users.
  • Do your own research online. Do some googling, read app reviews, check out the latest PR, or read what people are saying on Twitter. You’ll learn a lot about how your brand is perceived and may even learn a few things that are new to others at the company.

Document all of the interesting and surprising things you learn. Consider sharing your insights with your team — they’ll appreciate you helping them see things through fresh eyes.

4. Your first project

If you’re like most new hires, you’re eager to jump in and start delivering right away. While that ambition is great, think about your first project less as, “design something amazing that completely transforms the user experience,” and more as “learn how to get work done here and put your first few points on the board.”

Getting specific with tasks, mapping them over time, and getting aligned with your manager and team will help. Here’s an example of how you might divide up your first project:

Here’s how you might divide up your first design project.

Here’s how you might divide up your first design project.

This may be different depending on your role, scope, and how your organization works. Try to be a bit conservative on your estimates because training, one-on-ones, and deepening your product/user knowledge will take up more time than you think.

Make sure to review this with your manager and working team to ensure everyone’s on the same page. You can also review this plan periodically to make sure everything’s on track and adjust if necessary.

Creating your own New Hire Blueprint

Ready to create your own New Hire Blueprint? Get started by copying this sample New Hire Blueprint and customizing to your specific situation.

A few more tips for getting started:

  • Talk with your manager about goal setting — do they have a standard new hire goal setting process they prefer? If not, are they open to working with you on using this template? 
  • Take a pass at filling out your New Hire Blueprint, then run it by your manager and team to make sure you’re all aligned.
  • Review your plan regularly to make sure you’re on track and ask others for help where you need it. Check in at least monthly with your manager to give a progress update and ask for feedback.

At your three month anniversary, take some time to reflect. Do you feel like you have a solid understanding of how the company works, your product, and your customers? Did you have a successful first project, and do you have clarity around what’s up next? You can use this to inform future goal setting and areas of focus.

Learn more

For more about starting your new job off on the right foot, check out “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watkins. This book is primarily focused on new managers but has tips that are relevant to anyone taking on a new role.

Design Managers: In a future post, I’ll share how to use the New Hire Blueprint as one of several techniques to set your new hires up for success. Sign up to be notified when it’s available.

The not-so-dark art of design management

As a young designer, I thought managers were like Gandalf: mysterious wizards who spent their days orchestrating important matters in the shadows. Every now and then they’d pop by to check if I needed rescuing, but for the most part I’d slog along on my own.

So when I had the opportunity to take on a management role, I was baffled. What did managers even do? When I asked around, I mostly got vague descriptions like, “You’re unlocking the creative potential of the organization.” Inspiring? Maybe. Helpful? Not at all.

Having now managed design teams at multiple companies, I can confidently say that management is not a dark art. Rather, it’s a role with specific responsibilities.

What is a manager, anyway?

Picture a restaurant during rush hour. If we take a look in the kitchen, we’ll see a bunch of people chopping, stirring, and running about. The chef is the manager of the kitchen and her job is to make sure her crew makes the right food, quickly, with high quality. She does this by hiring the right people and helping them work together to deliver great results.

As Head of Design at PlanGrid, my job is similar to that of a chef. But rather than cooking the perfect meal, we’re crafting great user experiences.

What types of work do managers do?

The work of a chef is different from the work of her crew. Each member of the crew is focused on specific projects, like chopping vegetables or cooking on the grill. The chef plays a different role — she’s hiring, delegating, checking quality, solving problems, and ensuring everything is running smoothly.

Similarly, the work of a design manager is very different from that of a designer. Here are five areas where I spend the most time:

1. Hiring

At the end of the day, I’m responsible for what our team delivers. When things go well, my team gets the credit — but when things go wrong, I’m the one who takes the blame. So it’s incredibly important to build the right team.

One of the first things I did at PlanGrid was to spend time with each team member; both to understand their strengths, and to find out where they wanted to grow. I also looked for broader gaps where we were missing critical skills. For example: I discovered that we didn’t have enough designers to cover all of our projects, and we didn’t have strong user research expertise on the team.

I used that information to create a hiring plan. I worked with my boss to get approval to open several Product Design roles and a UX Researcher role, wrote job descriptions, and trained our recruiting team to look for great candidates.

Today, I spend a lot of time meeting with people across the design community both formally and informally. I genuinely enjoy hearing about people’s journeys, what inspires them, and where they want to grow. One of the hardest things is that I meet so many wonderful and talented people, but they aren’t always the right fit for the current roles and gaps we have on the team. Even when there isn’t that perfect match, I try to help where I can by offering advice or making introductions. That’s not technically part of my job but I see it as part of being a good “design citizen.”

When we do find the right person for our role, I work closely with them and our finance teams to put together a compelling offer. Assuming all goes well, I partner with our HR team to make sure they have a great on-boarding experience and are set up for success from Day One.

2. Coaching

Great managers don’t just hire great people and then sit back and hope everything works out. They create the space and support for their team to succeed. Here are a few ways I approach coaching:

  • Weekly “one-on-ones”: Every week I meet with each teammate for at least 30 minutes. This is a great opportunity to hear what’s on their mind, where they need help, share feedback, and more.
  • Goal setting and growth plans: I’m a big believer in having teammates set their own goals and OKRs. I see goals as a commitment between employer and employee: if my teammate has a goal to speak at a conference this quarter, then she is going to do her darnedest to make that happen, and I’m going to do my darnedest to help support that. When your teammate is working hard to learn and grow, everyone wins.
  • Performance feedback: Everyone, even the most amazingly talented person, has areas where they can grow. As a manager, it’s my responsibility to understand how my teammates are doing and have honest, frank conversations about their performance. Performance reviews are documents that get written a few times a year; performance feedback happens every single day.

In addition to working with teammates one-on-one, I also help to build skills across the team. This might look like bringing in a trainer to run a workshop, or sending people to a conference or class. My favorite approach is to ask a teammate to share their expertise about a topic with the rest of the team. For example, one of our teammates recently led a workshop about OKRs, and another gave a lesson on how to create Windows icons. There is so much that we can learn from one another, and this helps the “teacher” to grow their own coaching skills.

The PlanGrid design team making dope art.

3. Strategy

What separates a good team from a great team is having the right strategy.

A good strategy is a carefully researched and well designed action plan designed to meet a challenge.
— Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

Crafting this requires having organizational awareness, a deep understanding of the team’s strengths and opportunities, and an an inspiring vision of the future.

When I joined PlanGrid, I met with designers, members of other departments, and the leadership team to understand the current strategy and goals. Then we held a design offsite to talk about our team’s strengths, opportunities, and vision. This helped us create a set of initiatives to focus on throughout the year, and to ensure our work is aligned with the bigger picture. We continue to refine our plan as we encounter new challenges along the way.

4. Quality

Designers play a unique role in upholding the quality of the user experience, and as a design manager I am responsible for setting and articulating a certain bar of quality. Fortunately I have a great team to help me do that! Here are a number of things we’ve done at PlanGrid to raise the bar on design quality:

  • Design critiques: The whole design team meets every week to share andcritique one another’s work. This helps each designer strengthen their craft and deliver great designs, while also creating a shared understanding of what we define as high quality.
  • Design QA: When designers are involved in the development process, it helps to raise the quality of the experiences that we ship. At PlanGrid, we are experimenting with different ways to provide design input throughout the development process, from Lean UX to attending QA-led bug bashes.
  • Design system: We are building a design system to help clarify our principles, style guides, components, and more. This makes it easier for us to design high quality experiences and is also a great tool for educating our non-design peers about quality and consistency.

Creating a design system and component library to increase design quality.

As a manager, I also set clear expectations around quality:

Being a successful designer doesn’t just mean delivering great mockups — it means shipping great product.

This expectation is a two-way street. It means that a designer’s performance is tied to the quality of the work that their team ships. It also means that I’m there to support them if they’re pressured to ship 💩 to meet aggressive deadlines.

5. Communication

Communication is one of my most important responsibilities. I’m very much on the manager schedule where much of my day is spent in meetings, one-on-ones, and informal hallway conversations. That’s not time wasted; it’s time spent gathering information, synthesizing it, and using it to inform decisions.

My teammates also need to make informed decisions, so I err on the side of over-communicating. When I’m in meetings, I take copious notes and share highlights with teammates afterward as relevant. I also hold a weekly design team meeting where I share a well-prepared TL;DR of information I’ve collected throughout the week. I encourage people to ask questions, and when I don’t know the answer, I do my best to figure it out.

I also help people outside of the design team understand what we’re doing and why. This includes highlighting projects that we’re working on, talking about staffing, and explaining what designers do and how we fit into the broader organization. This also includes finding opportunities for designers to be able to share their work, such as inviting them to present to executives or at an all-hands event.

How do managers spend their time?

Every team is different

A manager’s areas of focus can vary across teams and organizations.

There have been times when I’ve managed small teams as a “player-coach”: spending part of my time managing, and the other part doing hands-on design work. Given the limited hours, I spent most of my management time on teammate check-ins and reviewing design work. My manager filled many of the gaps around hiring, strategy, and communication across the broader design team. My schedule looked something like this:

A typical player-coach manager schedule

There have been other times where I’ve managed larger teams and spent 100% of my time managing, without personally doing any design delivery. At PlanGrid, my time look more like this:

A typical full-time manager schedule.

As I learn more about my teammates, their skills, and where they want to grow, I also delegate certain responsibilities. For example, I’ve asked our Design Lead to run point on certain Quality projects. This plays to his strengths while giving me more time to focus on hiring and strategy.

Every day is different

The needs of my team are ever-changing, which means I’m constantly monitoring and adjusting my priorities to match. One day I might be focused on hiring and interviews, while another I’m dealing with a tricky HR situation. There’s a seasonality as well: performance reviews, roadmap planning, and budgeting all require attention at different times in the year.

Should I become a manager?

Design management could be for you if:

  • You want to scale your impact beyond yourself
  • You love helping people grow and do their best work
  • You’re deeply empathetic and a strong communicator

Still not sure? Try working with your manager to take on a low-risk opportunity, such as managing an intern or contractor. This is a great way to learn the basics of management while allowing for a graceful exit if you find that managing just isn’t for you.

The reality is: you do give up certain things when you go into management. I haven’t touched Sketch in months, my notebook has more meeting minutes than wireframes, and I can’t remember the last time I ran a user test. However, I find so much joy in managing — helping people grow in their careers, do their best work, and accomplish big things together — that it makes it all worth it.

Learn more

Here are some management resources to help you on your way:

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Escaping the Manager-Hero Trap: How to Help Your Team Design Their Own Solutions

When Alice stomped into my office, I knew something was wrong.

“I can’t take it any more,” she fumed as she told me about the latest offense from Charles, the coworker who always “forgot” to include her in critical meetings. I could feel my blood pressure rising. He did what? He said what? No way, not to MY teammate! 

60 seconds later, I was on the phone with his manager, demanding that he give some harsh feedback to Charles.

“I could do that,” said the manager. “But wouldn’t that make Alice look like a tattletale?”

I flushed with embarrassment. In my haste to play the hero, I had almost made the situation worse.

The problem with trying to solve other people’s problems

Be honest with yourself. How many times have you tried to take ownership of someone else’s problem? Maybe it was that time you yelled at your friend’s ex for cheating on her, or the time you called your child’s math teacher to get that B+ changed to an A-.

In a leadership position, it can be even more tempting to take on your teammate’s problems. You may believe that you will be able to solve it more quickly and effectively because you have greater power, status, or experience. However, when you try to solve your teammate’s problem for her, this is what happens:

  1. You aren’t fixing the problem; you’re deferring it. Most problems have underlying causes that run so deep that they can’t be solved in one go, especially by a third party.
  2. You’re making yourself a bottleneck for problem-solving. Your teammate will start to feel like any time she has a problem, she needs to rely on you to solve it.
  3. You’re implicitly telling your teammate you don’t trust her. Now she’s not only worried about solving her first problem; she’s also worried about how to earn back your trust and respect.
  4. You’re probably making things worse. You risk making it seem like your teammate is incapable of solving her own problems. 

Help people design their own solutions

If I really wanted to help my teammate, I had to ditch the superhero cape and become an advisor and collaborator. I apologized to my teammate and suggested that we work together to address the problem.

The next time she walked into my office, it was with a big smile on her face. She’d had a productive conversation with her teammate and was already seeing improvements! 

I learned a valuable lesson that day: Being a leader isn’t about solving people’s problems for them; it’s about helping them design their own solutions.

Design process for problem solving

Many of the tools and techniques we traditionally use for solving design problems can be repurposed for “people” problems. Here’s the process I use to help teammates design their own solutions:

  1. Acknowledge the problem. Many people struggle with asking for help because it requires them to acknowledge their weaknesses and failures. When your teammate raises a problem, thank her for trusting you enough to share and let her know you’re there to help.
  2. Clarify the situation. Put on your Researcher hat and ask open ended questions about the situation. Use the “5 whys” to identify the root cause. It may be useful to capture your insights on a whiteboard; for example, drawing a quick stakeholder map can help you quickly identify breakdowns and opportunities.
  3. Brainstorm approaches to problem solving. Pull out your post-it notes and work together to brainstorm different possible solutions to the problems you’ve identified. Push for quantity of ideas over quality; ideas that seem silly at first glance may in fact have some merit.
  4. Narrow to the top ideas. Encourage your teammate to decide which ideas to try first. If she’s struggling to prioritize, suggest that she order them by risk, effort, or potential for success. If she seems to be picking ideas that you don’t agree with, ask her to explain her rationale before providing your own input.
  5. Execute the plan. Check in with your teammate and hold her accountable to the plan. If she seems to be putting it off, ask why and help her adjust accordingly. Also hold yourself accountable and report back about any actions you took on her behalf.
  6. Reflect on the outcomes. Ask your teammate what happened when she put the plan into action and how she feels about the outcomes. Celebrate her successes, help her unpack problems, and encourage her to reflect on her learning and growth.
  7. Iterate. A designer’s work is rarely done. If the problem hasn’t been resolved or new problems have emerged, return to Step 1 and repeat.

A few exceptions

Here are a few exceptions that may require a different approach:

HR Violations
Problems related to harassment, bullying, criminal activity, or other HR violations need to be dealt with immediately and professionally. Your organization likely has clear policies related to this. If in doubt, speak to your HR representative.

They aren’t ready to problem-solve
If your teammate comes to you in such an emotional state that he is not yet ready to move into “problem-solving” mode, that’s ok. Create a safe, non-judgmental space for him by using active listening. If you aren’t sure whether he’s ready to problem solve, ask, “How can I help?” Let him take the lead on whether to tackle the problem immediately or whether he’d prefer to go for a walk and cool down a bit first.

The problem just won’t go away
If your teammate keeps bringing up the same problem and doesn’t seem to be making any progress, it may be time to ramp up your involvement. Are there big cultural problems that need to be resolved? Is there something that could be solved through smarter staffing? Listen for trends in feedback from other employees and departments. You may discover deeper problems that should be addressed by yourself or others.

Conclusion

As a manager, it’s tempting to think of yourself as a hero. But if you really want to save the day, help your teammates design their own solutions and become their own heroes.

Sketchnotes from Valiocon

Sketchnotes and memories from Valiocon 2014.

Speaker and fellow sketchnoter Lee Rubenstein of EatSleepDraw. Check out his take on Valiocon here.

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Michael Flarup, of PixelResort and Robocat fame. 

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Ryan Carson, co-founder and CEO of Treehouse. He gave a stellar talk on his approach to running a company devoid of management layers. You can read more about this on his blog.

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Kim Wouters runs a design agency in Belgium.

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Chloe Park of OpenTable shared a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of her approach to tackling “un-shiny problems.” Her story was complemented by a stunning, hand-crafted presentation.

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Amy Hood and Jennifer Hood shared their thoughts on the role of context in design, injected with personality and humor.

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Sam Kallis, visual development artist at Paramount Pictures, is one of my new creative role models. I was inspired by her authenticity, philosophy, and courage. And her work is simply amazing!

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Merek Davis of Mextures - helluva beard.

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Also - some old-fashioned sketches to grace the Catamaran Resort notepads. These feature Keiran FlaniganJennet LiawChuck Longanecker, and Hudson Peralta.

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It was lovely meeting so many talented designers and makers. Onward!

Innovations in Biosensors & Nanomaterials

I attended the Emerging Wearable Technology Group’s first meetup which featured 2 speakers from the biosensor and nanomaterials industry.

Dr. KooHyoung Lee, NeuroSky

Dr. KooHyoung Lee is the CTO of NeuroSky (the EEG-sensor technology behind Necomimi - those furry cat ears that wiggle based on your level of mental concentration)

He spoke on the topic of creating value with wearables - how we can get beyond just creating wearable technology for technology’s sake, and actually apply user experience, product design, and business models to create real value.

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He shared how wearables are already emerging in the market - not just to track information, but to up performance and function. For example, SolePower, a shoe insole that generates electricity as you walk.

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He shared how Neurosky approached uniting powerful biosensors with simple usability. At the time they were getting started, there were other competitors on the market that were much more accurate and measured many different types of brainwaves (vs. Neurosky only detects EEG). However, the competitors were completely unusable - you needed to apply all sorts of gels and stick things all over your head in order to get the accurate readings.

What Neurosky did was design for simplicity - trade off having 100% accurate data and a bad user experience in favor of a no-setup device that reportedly “tested at 96% as accurate as that within research grade EEGs” (Wikipedia).

They’re exploring different ways to put this device in consumers’ hands: Necomimi supposedly made $10B in revenue (did I hear that correctly?). It’s also used for “neurotoys” - mind controlled games like Star Wars Force Trainer. Doctors are starting to recommend these for kids with ADD, and it’s been used to help the USA Olympic Archery team improve their game (Wikipedia).

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The team released a Neurosky Developer Kit which looks incredibly cool. You can measure:

  • Attention
  • Meditation
  • Eyeblinks
  • Brainwave Bands
  • Raw Output

Time to hack your own jedi mind tricks - here are some interesting Kickstarter projects to inspire you!

Jay Ha, Materials and System Inc.

The second talk was from Jay Ha, the CEO of Materials and System Inc. He shared his point of view on the future of wearables and the role that nanomaterials will play. He explained that while “wearables 1.0” is all about devices that you attach to yourself (think FitBit and Polar Heart Rate Monitor), “wearables 2.0” will be invisible and built into the world around you - your clothing and your environment.

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He shared many inspiring examples the demonstrate the potential of nanomaterials:

  • a suit that looks and feels like a high quality suit - but is bulletproof
  • a patch that you apply to your skin that slowly releases drugs at a controlled rate
  • a foldable, flexible, and rechargeable battery (developed at KAIST)
  • integrated circuits printed on flexible polymers
  • haptic feedback technology built into motorcycle handles to provide directions while you ride
  • antivirus face mask with 20nm permeability
  • thermoelectric material the thickness of paper that generates electricity

During the Q&A, a topic that came up was that one of nanotechnology’s major barriers is scale. For example, today there’s no machine that can quickly produce thousands of nanobots. However, many nanomaterials can now be produced at scale if you have a big enough demand and budget - did someone say “$40K bulletproof superhero outfit”?


Updated 4/6/14: A correction from Dr. Lee -

Other companies had good technology to detect EEG with multi-channels. However, practically, multi-channel EEG systems were complicated and hard to use for general consumers. The multi-channel systems also made errors frequently.

NeuroSky made single-channel EEG system for easy-to-use and low price. NeuroSky also developed algorithms which were easy-to-understand.

Although it is not perfect, it is still usable and enjoyable to general consumers. We are working to improve the technology and usability till everyone can use our technology.

Bay Area Girl Geek: Women in Design

I attended a Bay Area Girl Geek dinner which featured women designers at tech companies like DropBox, Yammer, and Airbnb.

Did you know that only 33% of designers (in the UK) are women? This surprised me because I work with so many talented women at Intuit (p.s. we’re hiring!). However, it’s a good reminder that when it comes to workplace diversity, we can do better.

The lightning talks featured a mix of new and experienced speakers which made for a well-paced and enjoyable evening. Here are my notes from the event:

Alice Lee, Product Designer, Dropbox

A reminder that all of us start as amateurs and that to overcome impostor syndrome, practice and find mentors.

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Nina Mehta, Product Designer, Pivotal Labs

How to get design prioritized: build respect for your work and play nice with others.

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Elle Luna, Designer & Artist

Even with “success”, is your work your job, your career, or your calling? An inspiring call to seek out the clues that lead to your life’s work.

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Cindy Alvarez, Director of UX, Yammer

No one (but designers) care about delighting the user. Instead, focus your efforts higher up in the funnel, where decisions are made, and use the language of business.

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Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture notes for all of the talks, so check out Twitter and the Bay Area Girl Geek website for more design goodness.

Interaction Tips: When to default your radio buttons

Question: I’m designing a page where a user needs to select between 2 radio button options. Should I default one of the radio buttons to be selected, or leave them all unselected?

Answer: There isn’t a catch-all answer to this one because it really depends on your intended design. There are several benefits to defaulting radio button selections, such as requiring less clicks and reducing cognitive load by suggesting a “correct” or “most common” answer. However, make sure to consider the potential risks of defaulting your radio buttons.

Here are some of the factors I like to consider when thinking through radio button defaults:

  • Can we make an educated guess? If 90% of our users select option #1, then it probably makes sense to pre-select. Also consider leaving out the question altogether, perhaps through defaulting with a more subtle option to edit if needed.
  • What are the risks of selecting the wrong thing? If a user misses this question because you aren’t asking them to pause and think, will this cause something cataclysmic to happen? If so, the risks may outweigh the benefits of defaulting.
  • Does selecting a radio button trigger dynamic content? If so, consider what the impact is of showing the dynamic content when a user first arrives on this page. Does it fit in the conversational thread of their workflow? Does showing it obscure other radio button options? 
  • Are there unintended implications of pre-selecting? For example, if you have a question asking if the user is male/female, defaulting to “male” could be offensive to female users. It could incorrectly imply that their behavior suggested to you that they’re male, or that you anticipate that the majority of your users are male. Be aware of the subtle messages that defaulting sends.

P.S. For more on great form design, I recommend Luke W’s fantastic book, Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks.

Awesome Web Typography @SXSW

Richard Rutter of fontdeck.com taught a class about web typography at SXSW'13He showed us some great examples of when and how to tweak your typography with HTML and CSS.

A few things I learned:

  • adjusting auto-hyphenation
  • responsive web design - adjusting for line length, line breaks, etc. when on different sized screens
  • how to handle multiple columns
  • proportional/tabular/lining/old style
  • how to choose font faces for the web
  • options for loading custom fonts so that the experience is good even on slow internet connections

My notes:

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Keynote - MakerBot's Bre Pettis @SXSW

Bre Pettis, CEO of the MakerBot 3D printer, delivered the opening keynote at SXSW'13.

My Takeaways:

  • “The next Industrial Revolution will be printed in 3D”
  • MakerBot got started as a quick & dirty experiment before launch, and now it’s helping others prototype more quickly so they can get their own “quick & dirty” launches out faster
  • SXSW attendees love their booze - MakerBot originally launched at SXSW 2009 by opening for musicians and 3D printing shot glasses
  • Big hurdle for 3D printing is the high level of skill needed to create digital models - but Thingiverse (crowd sourced templates for printing), simplified 3D rendering tools (AutoDesk 123D), and new MakerBot Digitizer are trying to lower the barrier to entry

Full notes below:

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SXSW 2013 Reflection

SXSW. What a rush!

I arrived giddy and excited to spend my time amongst the people at the forefront of design and technology. I was not disappointed! There were many friendly faces from the Silicon Valley tech scene, and many more new people to meet.

What inspired me most about SXSW was seeing how deeply the passion for creativity and “making” runs in fields outside of my own (web & mobile app design).

I saw robots cracking jokes, musicians mixing the birth of electronic music, thermostats making a house a home, and designers taking us to the stars. I met bicycle rickshaw drivers, small business owners, marketers, and videographers who embrace design and technology. So many amazing people, looking to the future with big dreams and a sharpie/iPad/Makerbot in hand.

The future is here, and we’re the ones creating it.

Steve Blank: Customer Development and How to Fail Less

Notes from a talk by Steve Blank, father of Customer Development methodology that inspired the Lean Startup movement.

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Steve shared how, through his experience founding and working with countless numbers of startups, he had the realization that big companies and startups are very different. Big companies are all about execution: the reason that they’re big is that they’ve identified a business model that works and they continue to execute on that model, increasing revenue each year. In contrast, startups are all about searching for the next big opportunity and proving that it’s valid.

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In the “old days”, startups pitched to VCs by making business plans and forecasts for all the money they were going to bring in if their idea worked. The problem with that is when you’re working in a completely new space, on a completely new opportunity, there isn’t really anything to benchmark yourself against. This means that all those “forecasts” are really just blind guesses. Founders try to make better guesses by paying for expensive market research, but market research can only tell you about today, not inform you about tomorrow.

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Tech has traditionally followed a waterfall software development approach - specifying everything up front and then building it out from start to finish before showing it to a customer. This was based on the assumption that we already know our customer’s problems and what sorts of product features are needed. This doesn’t work well for startups, though, where the customer has yet to be defined and the features are still TBD.

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Steve observed that:

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In thinking about how to increase the rate of success and minimize wasted resources and failure, he came up with Customer Development Process.

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In considering the definition of a startup:

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Startups are constantly searching for a way to create value for itself while delivering products or services for customers in a repeatable and scalable way.

The process Blank proposes is to start by filling out the Business Model Canvas with a series of hypotheses about what will work.

Next, the customer development team (founders from any discipline, without titles) work together to validate each hypothesis. The goal is to test each of these as quickly and scrappily as possible - for example using prototypes or wireframes - to maximize feedback with minimal cost. When hypotheses fail, this is an opportunity to reevaluate your guesses and tweak the business model.

More about customer development can be found in Blank’s books:

Reflection:

I was intrigued by how Blank defines the goals of big companies (“execute”) versus those of startups (“search”). There are many examples of big companies that excel at executing, but fade into irrelevance as times change. As time passes and the market shifts, how can large companies stay relevant? How best to balance the need to execute with the (arguably just as important) need to search?

During the Q&A I asked Blank whether he saw any ways to apply the Customer Development Methodology to large companies. He replied by telling a story about a GE executive who was given a new department and a large amount of funding to run with. The executive decided to reject the funding in the short-term, and instead ask for more time to identify and test the business model. It ended up being the right call– when they were ready to scale, the division was very successful. This showed how focusing on testing out a business model using a Customer Development approach can help large companies to make smart investments in future products and opportunities. 

Blank cautioned that for large companies to take a Customer Development approach, it really needs to “come from the tops down” because it’s a real mindset shift. This made me thankful to work at a company like Intuit which is actively adopting a “lean startup” philosophy across the organization. By shifting our mindset across the organization, we too can reduce “waste” and more quickly get to solving the right problems for our customers with the right products and services.

Researching Games with Kids

Notes from the BayCHI talk “Please Don’t Face-Plant Into the TV: Researching Games with Kids” given by Sarah Walter, user experience researcher and consultant with a focus on games.

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Sarah shared several techniques for conducting user research with children. The first two techniques (usability and playtesting) are fairly standard techniques that are used throughout the games industry.

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Although these techniques have been long-used for “hardcore gamers”, a target that is well understood, there was much to be learned about designing games for children. How do you know what’s “fun” or “engaging” for a 4 year old who can’t fill out your post-game survey? And how do you even find that 4 year old to play test with?

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So her team came up with some “kid-friendly” ways to conduct user research for the younger audience:

Bringing kids into the lab on designated days…

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Working directly with schools…

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… and visiting families at home.

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Since this was with children, they had to be extra diligent about explaining who they were, answering any questions, and ensuring a safe environment for their young play testers.