Response Crafting

our experience with things we encounter every day


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How great management is a lot like great horsemanship.

da vinci sketches

On the surface of riding, you’ll find a lot of prescribed, black and white basics on “how to ride.” But understanding the mechanics – like “using leg,” for example (which one, at which time, in combination with what else) – will only get you so far in the world of horsemanship. It’s not how you become a great rider.

The same thing can be said for managers. Almost anybody can read up on “how to project manage” – with gantt charts and burn-downs and status reports. But there is a difference between people who understand the basics of “project management”… and managers who internalize how to truly lead a team.

The difference between competence and greatness in either realm lies in the subtleties of perspective, personality, and how you partner with others.

The characteristics of great riders are the same ones that make great managers:

Trust.
God, so much trust – at every level, from the start, but especially as the stakes are raised. When you guide a horse over a large fence, you trust that he has the strength and skill to clear it and land solidly. In turn: as he throws himself over it, he trusts that you are doing right by him – that there will be a ground on the other side, that he will not get hurt, and that you will be with him when he lands.

Similarly, it’s so important that you trust a team member to do what he does and do it well – and to sit back sometimes and just “give him his head.” When a developer makes a recommendation, a great manager trusts his expertise; when he pushes back on something, the great manager will trust it’s for good reason. And this trust goes both ways: it’s equally important that you work hard to earn your team member’s trust in return – to always do right by him, watch out for his well-being, and ask of him only what’s fair. He should wholly believe that if he works an all-nighter or relinquishes a recommendation, it’s justified.

Levelheadedness.
Going hand in hand with earning trust, exhibiting good judgment, when entrusted to call the shots, can mean the difference between success and catastrophe. Both management and riding call for a degree of consideration, awareness, intuition and conscientiousness – not only in day to day decisions, but in what we ask of others.

Motivation can be fragile, and having influence over a horse or team member’s morale is something that should not be taken lightly. Great managers engage their teams in challenging tasks, but also ensure that they are positioned for success. Ask too much or put them in a position to fail, and you risk demoralizing them.

Humility.
The most effective riders know: It is always the rider’s fault; never the horse’s. (The most frustrated riders are those that discount this rule or try to find exceptions.) The horse can do nothing but horse, fundamentally. It is the rider who must take it upon himself to identify and resolve issues; to take ownership of all fall-outs.

A great manager assumes responsibility for everything that may go awry in a working relationship. If a developer does not deliver, it is only because of something like unclear or inconsistent communication, unrealistic expectations, or broken morale – i.e., something that falls within the manager’s realm to correct.

Forgiveness.
Pretty much goes hand in hand with “Humility” – a great rider absorbs mistakes, makes corrections, and emphasizes fresh starts. He never takes his frustration out on the horse, and exercises tremendous patience in reconciling issues, resolving setbacks or working through a learning curve.

People are innately imperfect. We are all messy and we make mistakes. We have to bear this in mind when working with others, and the best managers look to play the long game rather than dwell on short-term shortfalls. Like great riders, they don’t take their frustrations out on the team, and they don’t sabotage morale by making team members bear the blame for mistakes.

Accommodation.
And flexibility. And empathy. Great riders take the time to learn each horse, and invest energy in identifying and riding to its differences. Skittish, sensitive horses require a quiet rider with a light hand; bomb-proof horses may call for a lot of leg, while hot-tempered one may call for a little more “whoa.”

People are not drones, so there is no “one size fits all” approach. There is so much value in learning each team member’s motivations and quirks and then managing to them accordingly – understanding how each person operates and accommodating disparate personalities across a team. Because when you recognize people as individuals by working with their differences rather than quelling them, you also grant them the space and security to showcase unique strengths as well.

Respect.
With horses, you ASK for things; you never DEMAND them. You do not tell a horse to stop or go or change directions; you ask him to. And if a rider’s default “fix” for issues with his horse is to bind him up and load him down with more gear – rather than rebuild the relationship – then he is failing. (Great riders are as effective with their horse riding bareback as they are with all their tack. It is only the weak, ineffective rider who cannot “control” his horse as he is.)

With both horses and team members: they hold the power. Not you. Standing face to face, stripped of any external factors (crops and spurs; hierarchies and performance reviews); it is inherently them – not you – who has the power of performance at the start. A horse is physically stronger than his rider; a developer wields far more technical expertise than the average PM. Your approach in how you negotiate influence over that physical or mental wherewithal, or convince them to share it with you, is what sets the mediocre rider or manager apart from the great one.

Bad managers bark orders and tell people what to do; make threats and escalate issues to others. Great managers build relationships and ask for things. They perceive the team as equals, and believes that they are not above the team, but rather a member of it.

Direction.
Even if you’re asking rather than demanding, it’s tough to get much out of the relationship if you don’t know what you want or where you’re going. If you are riding a course, for example, you cannot possibly expect your horse to know which fence is next until you guide him to it.

Same thing goes for managers: you have to carry the knowledge of direction. You are responsible for knowing where the team is going. And although this direction can be defined through discussion and consensus – obviously particularly in the “people” context – you are still the one responsible for driving.

Clarity.
Once you’ve got the direction, you have to make sure that others clearly understand what it is. Both riding and management demand a lot of straightforwardness from those who are entrusted to guide – and part of that is communicating clearly, and in a way others understand.

Great communicators believe that communication breakdown is on the fault of the deliverer. If your message isn’t getting through, it’s on you, not your listener. Communicate in their language and in ways that make the message clear to them. Effective teams have strong communication, and it is largely the responsibility of the manager to ensure that it’s working.

Composure.
Forget all imagery of the cowboy hollering at his horse and spurring him into a sudden gallop. An erratic, unpredictable, or overbearing rider renders his horse unnerved and uncertain; over time, the relationship breaks down entirely. Great riders are “quiet” riders.

Great managers are sane and cool under pressure. An emotional, volatile or demonstrative manager does little to put a team at ease. Consistency and composure go a very long way.

Confidence.
Truly great riders exhibit an almost unwavering confidence, optimism and belief – in themselves, and in their horses. When the horse’s confidence flounders, a great rider has enough of it to carry both of them, and will work hard to build the horse back up.

Great managers carry the torch; they have enough strength and belief to support the entire team if need be. This isn’t about “hiding” emotion – you should still be a real person with your team. Rather, the confidence should be deeply-rooted and far-reaching – both sincere and shared.

Love.
If you do not deeply care about your horse’s physical or mental well-being, then you have absolutely no business working with him. Obviously the same goes for people.

I have said before that the absolute most important thing is that you treat your team right. They are your everything. If you don’t understand this or don’t agree with it, then you should not be managing one. Embody your team’s cares and concerns; get them what they need; protect them against distress. Above all, take care of them.

In short: do right by those with whom you work – especially those you are entrusted to guide – and they will probably do right by you.


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The beauty of Lent and why it works for anyone

…”Lent?”

Yeah… in lay terms, the practice of “giving something up” for the “40″ days (it’s really more; Sundays aren’t counted) between Ash Wednesday (the day after Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras) and Easter.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Lent is meant to “prepare men for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ.” Wikipedia describes it as “the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence.”

That’s pretty heavy. (I mean, “the preparation of the believer?” Yikes.) And I guess that’s not too surprising, since the Christians – particularly the Catholics – are, overall, not really the positive, party animals of the religious realm. (I can say this – I was raised as one.)

But while the idea conventionally comes from Catholicism, its application is not confined by it.

Everyone can adopt Lent as their own.

If you strip away the Christian connotations (sacrilegious, perhaps, but hear me out), I think you’re still left with something pretty damn legit.

“[Lent] is time for introspection, mindfulness, a deeper connection to our spiritual nature and letting go of things that do not serve us.” – Kathy Gottberg, Lent…6 Powerful Ways Believers and Non-Believers Can Benefit

Introspection. Letting go of things that do no serve us. In my mind, that’s not really about religion, per say.  It doesn’t need to be, anyway, because, fundamentally, this whole thing is really about the human spirit. (Religion is always just the avenue for much bigger things.)

It’s about becoming a better person.

Okay. But why call it “Lent” if you’re not Catholic?

Oh, I don’t know. You don’t have to. But I do. And I think a lot of other non-Christians do as well, mostly because people thrive in contexts that:

1. Align our values with like-minded others… or, in the very least,
2. Offer “common diction” with which to discuss them. (“Lent” comes prepackaged with meaning, so we don’t have to explain as much when talking about what we’re doing.)

If you don’t like it, then use a different term – or use no term at all. You don’t owe anything to anybody – in fact, you don’t have to talk about it at all, if you don’t want to. If you would rather approach it differently, then do.

What Lent is not about:

Suffering or “beating yourself up” - tons of Catholics would probably disagree with me here – the Catholics love their guilt – but I really argue that Lent is not about focusing on the negative. It’s about self-improvement through self-discipline and self-awareness, not self-punishment. It’s about bettering the human spirit – namely, your own.

Strengthening will power or “badassery” Yeah, okay – “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” True in general, definitely true here, and a valid benefit of “doing Lent.” But even so, it shouldn’t be the primary focus. This isn’t simply about “toughing it out.” It’s bigger than that.

“Comparing notes”  – if a Catholic gives up chocolate and doesn’t tell anyone about it, is it still Lent? Yep. Most definitely. In fact, one can even go vegan without broadcasting it. This all really shouldn’t be “for show.” You can quit smoking, start meditating, stay sober, go raw vegan, forgive, repent, and/or abstain – all without having to tell anybody.

What Lent is about: spring-cleaning the human spirit

The word “Lent” fundamentally means “spring” – much like German’s Lenz and Dutch’s lente – and is derived from the Germanic root for long, as the days (hours of sunlight) lengthen during this time of year. At its core, it is a time of rejuvenation and regrowth.

 a.) Simplicity, focus, and appreciation

It has to do with minimalism; focusing on necessities over indulgences; gaining appreciation for the things in life that actually matter. These are the upsides.

In order to focus more on one thing, one must also learn to focus less on other things… because our lives are increasingly complex, something has to change in order for us to get out of the continual spin cycle of life… Giving up something that is a regular part of your life… allows you to focus more.” – Todd Peperkorn, Why Lent Should Matter to Everyone.

Lent is a tremendous opportunity to slim down your life and your luxuries; gain an increased overall well-being; restore focus on what matters, and ultimately restore a deep appreciation for whatever it is that we are giving up – and our lives overall.

b.) Emotional well-being for you and others

It’s about stripping out all of the baggage and beefing ourselves – and others – up with the good; doing away with negative emotions and projections, and emphasizing the positive ones in their place:

IMG_20140329_140112_780

We can weigh ourselves down with a lot if we’re not careful; a big part of Lent is realigning ourselves with what’s actually important, fixing what’s wrong, and soothing what’s hurt. Grieve if you need to grieve. Apologize if you have wronged someone, sink into repentance for as long as it makes sense… and then move on and unburden yourself. Lean into the good things.

Ultimately, Lent is about learning to live a better existence – working toward “Life’ing” more successfully.


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How to manage projects properly (hint: people > process)

So, here’s something that’s sort of off this blog’s beaten path, but something I (obviously) care a great deal about: there are a lot of bad Project Managers out there. And it sort of… baffles me. We, as a group, can sometimes be pretty grossly off base and/or misaligned in our line of sight and prioritization of the things.

It’s kind of amazing how many people call themselves a project manager and yet somehow fail catastrophically at actually, properly managing projects. It’s remarkable that we as a group haven’t made a worse name for ourselves by now (though maybe we have and I’m just willfully, woefully unaware.)

Either way, I would really like to speak on behalf of all PMs out there who suck slightly less – or perhaps, if we really nail it, don’t even suck at all – and share some thoughts on what I think are key differences: namely, the things that we care to prioritize.

Here’s how to not fail at PM:

IMG_20140302_174407_360

At one end of the scale (i.e., the top priorities):

Here’s what should be at the very top of your list, when it comes to what you actually, actively, aggressively manage:

>> your team.
Treat your team right. They are your everything. If you don’t understand this or don’t agree with it, then – quite frankly – you should not be managing one. You are not above your team; you are a member of it. Don’t mistreat them on personal or professional levels, and don’t ask them to do anything that you yourself are not willing to do. Your team members are not a collective unit at your arm’s-length disposal – they are an extension of you; your worth is what you, as a group, do, and you are only as good as you allow them to be. Trust their expertise. Go to bat for them. Carry their torch.

If they’re working sixteen-hour days at the office, you should be too. If they are going into the office on Saturdays, then you are as well. If they are making a very strong recommendation for something and aren’t getting traction, throw your weight behind it, too. Embody what they do. You’ll have a richer, deeper, more complex knowledge of the project’s status and health; you’ll be able to resolve blockers in real time; and you’ll share the experience of what’s actually being sacrificed and invested by your team – and if they’re being pushed too much. Because if they fail? So do you.

>> your client or customers.
Your second job, after taking care of your team, is doing right by your client or customers. Have face to face conversations. Spend time onsite, in their offices, and learn to speak their language. Treat their time and money as your own time and money, and learn to see them as friends. If they bug you four times to go get drinks - especially if it’s done at the peak of the project – go. get. drinks. The client is trying to tell you that you matter more than the project; do them a solid and grant them the same consideration. Recognize the privilege of rapport, and make investments in the relationship. These people – not their projects – are your company’s long-term lifeline, and their project is simply the result of a relationship well-managed. Care for them accordingly.

The middle of the scale:

>> your product.
Know what’s up. Intuitively understand what the product is and learn how to care about its success.  Your client has likely invested a lot of time, money and resources to get where they are bringing your team on board, and they are probably more invested in the product than you can ever be. Regardless, do the right thing and try to get partway there. If you know of a better solution, offer it. If you think they’d be better off with a different approach, say so. It’s not just a matter of not planting landmines – it’s also a matter of paving the way for their future growth, after you.

>> your timeline, budget, or milestones.
Too many project managers out there blindly manage to black and white metrics. And I argue that they’ve got it all wrong.

I don’t mean that timeline and budgets and milestones don’t matter – they absolutely do! But managing to them is only meaningful once the other things – your team, your client, your product – are taken care of. And if you forget this and you are destroying a team or producing a faulty product for the sake of getting it to market “on time; if you are killing morale and mistreating people for the sake of hitting a deadline, you are failing and you have already lost. You may be able to check off a box – “under budget!” – but in the context of life, no checkbox is as “real” as the way you made your team members or customers feel if you ran them over in the process. Their feelings and the way they will perceive you will last far longer than your status report.

It’s fine and fun to play The Career Games and be ambitious and productive, but ultimately, when you consider the bigger picture of What’s Actually Important in Life, timelines and budgets don’t actually qualify. That milestone you were shooting for? It may matter a great deal to the project, the program, and the people with whom you work in the short term, but in The Grand Scheme of Life, it’s all “fake.” And if you lose sight of this context, you’re losing at the biggest game of them all – that being our shared short existence.

And at the low end of the scale:

>> your documents.
Success doesn’t happen in Microsoft Project or Powerpoint. Success is evidenced in them. Pull your head out of your artifacts and go sit in the trenches with your team. Go have a face to face, heart to heart conversation with your client. If you haven’t done right in the relationships and haven’t reached reasonable rapport, haven’t committed yourself to producing a good product and don’t internalize the metrics within which you’re doing so, then you done messed up and probably need to start over – do not pass “Go;” do not collect $200. It’s only after successfully doing all of these other things that a project manager can sit down to document what’s going on.

>> your process.
I am continually surprised by the number of managers out there who make it their job to preserve and protect a process; to serve as crusader of some convention, even though it may or may not be working for their current project. If you are a Project Manager, it’s your job to manage the heart of the project, not its paperwork or process.

Here’s the final word: if your prescribed process is pulling you away from any of these other things, the decision between which one to foster and which one to disregard should, I think, be self-evident: if you choose Process over People, you’re failing hard. If, on the other hand, there’s no conflict between following your process and taking care of everything else – if everything is working in perfect harmony – then chances are good that you probably didn’t need the process spelled out to begin with.

In the end, if you have your priorities straight, and you care for people, a lot of other things sort of work themselves out.


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good, better, best UX

User Experience is a delicate thing in a project life cycle. Though the end result is (ideally) beautiful and good, the process of getting there can be a bit tumultuous… and though there is a lovely complexity to the discipline (and final product), I have noticed a few key distinctions that seem to make all the difference in how effective the process seems to be, for me and the teams with whom I have worked…

First, the negative end of the spectrum – how it looks when things don’t go so well:

IMG_20140301_180742_491

the good:

i.e., “The Default;” “The Expectation.” As a product owner or other major stakeholder, I explain WHAT and WHY. I articulate the things that we are thinking of and the reason that we are thinking we (or our users) might like them. Iterations and dialogue ensues.

the bad:

As product owner, I not only explain WHAT and WHY, but also weigh in with the HOW. In addition to asking for certain things and explaining the reason behind them, I suggest or push for specific design solutions, techniques, and ideas. The fallout here – and how “bad” it actually is – varies, and the reason may be anything from a distrustful client to a UX team member who is new to either UX or the client product. And the end result – and how “bad” that is – may range from strained communication and weakened working relationship to a poorly-executed, misguided solution that took longer than necessary to reach.

the ugly:

Explanations just don’t get us there. As a product owner or stakeholder, I may offer a WHAT, a WHY, and a HOW, but things just aren’t working. Maybe I don’t know what I want, or my communication is poor; designs come back too late or with too little product-relevant tie-in; there’s no natural rapport between us and one or both of us is lacking enough expertise and energy to get the other person there.

IMG_20140301_180837_335

But how about the other end of the spectrum? Here’s what it looks like when things are working well:

(still) good:

(see above) I still explain WHAT and WHY. It’s fine. It’s expected. It’ll get the job done.

better:

As a product owner or stakeholder, I just articulate the WHAT. I explain the things that I am looking for – what I think we would like to see – and the UXer inherently understands the WHY and definitely has a few ideas on HOW we are going to get there. This is an evolution, attained once the UXer is more familiar with the product and inherently gets what’s going on. The client is good at being a client, inherently trusts the UXer, and lets them do their job. There’s some good rapport happening here. It’s a beautiful place to be.

best:

If you thought “better” was beautiful, just wait til the real magic happens… when things are running as a well-oiled machine and, as a product owner or stakeholder, I “explain” very little. I don’t have to, because the UXer and I have formed a partnership. We get where the other one is coming from; we know what each person is bringing to the table, and we both understand what’s going on with the product overall. Perhaps the most magical thing here is that the UXer ultimately brings suggestions – the WHAT - to the client team, too. And, by god, they’re good.


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Cue some or all of the things.

dirty nails

A woman lifts a bottle of chemicals, dyed milky blue, into the frame. She smiles, moves her mouth around some words, smiles some more. A child – not her child; someone else’s child; a child of an unknown person – runs into the frame, blonde hair bouncing, and then back out of it; a dog follows; the sound of laughter and barking is dubbed over their movements. They are gone.

The woman blinks; pauses… offers a theatrical sigh, and then smiles again. “At least I have this” She gestures to the bottle – her product – her arm sweeping across the frame. “This, I can always rely on.”

Cut to her swallowing her pills with a glass of milky-blue liquid while waiting for the wash cycle to finish. She retches, regains composure, finishes the glass. Never was the same after the third – maybe fourth – miscarriage… she doesn’t bother now to count.

A man is in the park. He has a sickness; his clothes no longer clothes, hanging off of him, barely covering the parts which they are meant to cover. He claws at the tree bark, his fingers dirty and then shiny on top of the dirty. He mumbles obscenities to himself and no one; shouts them in long, ropey sentences that cling to people as they pass him.

He has a lot to say but is saying nothing.

Cue overuse of every obscene, offensive, gruesome or otherwise unpleasant word in vocabulary, just for effect, so that audience understands the very vulgarity of situation. These things are hundreds of insects and all imagery of black; things draped too heavily over everything; things like suffocation and/or subtle feeling of slime. Stress sadism; include all references to death; kill characters off by hanging or “instant heart attacks on the spot.”

Cut back to imagery of a dog lapping up the milky blue.

How is your “wholesome” now?

I wrote this after finishing Naked Lunch. This is about the most that I thought of it. I could think of little else while reading. Cue overuse of everything. Cue repulse and cue despair.

And I think now, looking back… this is literature? I don’t know. It is, obviously. It obviously is. But somehow, I guess, I think that we deserve something… better? I think we can leave ourselves with feelings better than this. And why not? Why shouldn’t we expect to have something better than sadness when we set down a book? Does instilling dread and darkness in a reader make the work somehow more valid? Maybe it does. After all, these are real feelings that have validity in the human spectrum of emotions. They “count” just as much as any other; perhaps setting down a book that steps outside the bounds of “reassuring” is more important to our being. I don’t know.

Cue uncertainty. Such being human.


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On Being Human

da vinci's Our existence can be so incredibly rich. We can create. We can destroy. We can do and think all sorts of new things into the world around us, and we can build for ourselves some beautifully complex lives – if only we view ourselves and our short time with a fair; appreciative; constructive; honest eye.

Woodrow Wilson, in his work “On Being Human,” covers a few key aspects of what it means “to be human” – and, furthermore, a few things to bear in mind if you want to do this thing “well”…

1. Humans are messy and we make mistakes. Though we may fancy ourselves rational, intelligent, steadfast individuals who are fully capable of making excellent decisions for ourselves (and probably others), the reality is that we aren’t.

“Man is much more than a rational being, and lives more by sympathies and impressions than by conclusions. It darkens his eyes and dries up the wells of his humanity to be forever in search of doctrine.”

2. Humans are “best” when genuine. Life is most meaningful when we saturate it with authenticity. The art of being human and the way to get “good” at life is to unfurl apprehensions and false pretenses; relinquish the “should’s” and “should not’s,” and fight for what feels real rather than flounder through what isn’t.

“Genuineness is not mere simplicity, for that may lack vitality… Genuineness is a quality which we sometimes mean to include when we speak of individuality. Individuality is lost the moment you submit to passing modes or fashions, the creations of an artificial society, and so is genuineness.” 

3. Humans are privileged to be able to make our own decisions. We can build our lives however we want; this is something

“Each has that choice, which is man’s alone, of the life he shall live, and finds out first or last that the art in living is not only to be genuine and one’s own master…”

4.  … But we are also responsible for making decisions well.

“Each has that choice, which is man’s alone, of the life he shall live, and finds out first or last that the art in living is not only to be genuine and one’s own master… but also to learn mastery in perception and preference.”

We are naturally drawn to things in life that appeal to our “humanness;” those things that are created by others who sit back into their own “humanness” in putting them together.

Our experiences are made better when they feel natural; easy. We like it when others present things to us in this way. And, in turn, our experience is enriched when we ourselves lean on our own “human” tendencies; when we develop and exercise an ease and naturalness in the way we interact with our day to day lives.


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From UX Booth: Intention vs. Interpretation

UX Booth published a great article recently on the fallout between intention and interpretation in design.

“Both interaction designers and information architects want to design objects with a singular meaning. It’s a noble, albeit impossible goal. The best we can hope for is to create more consistently meaningful experiences. To do that, designers must better understand the interplay between designer intention and user interpretation: the ways that we can influence – but not dictate – user interpretation.”

INTENTION

Giving more consideration to our intentions as designers puts us in a better position to create their manifestations. This begins with asking “what are we assuming?,” “what are our design principles?,” “what will this work affect?,” and “what else effects our user’s perceptions?”

INTERPRETATION

The next step – often overlooked – is to examine how users interpret those manifestations; to consider the direct, indirect, and contextual interpretations of our work. This includes asking questions like “what is the content?” and “what is the direct textual material we’re designing?,” “what is the indirect textual material?,” and “what are the contents in which this product is used?”

Bridging this gap will, of course, largely depend understanding context and strengthening communication…

Read the rest of the article on UX Booth


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“Becoming a unicorn” (according to a nerd)

In the interest and spirit of celebrating my very first week with my new firm, The Nerdery, I would like to present to you one of their most recent webinars. It features two of my fellow Nerds who, over the course of about an hour, discuss the science of “Becoming a Unicorn” …that is: “Going From Visual to UX Design.”

Curious about UX? Fascinated? Impassioned and yet isolated outside? Beguiled on the barrier to entry? Look no further than Fred Beecher’s advice, gathered up for you here:

Want to see a little (or a lot) more of The Nerdery blog? You can!

Alternatively, if you would like to join in on future Design Science webinars from The Nerdery, get signed up, yo.


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When something “great” isn’t good

steak

Imagine sitting down at a classy restaurant and the waiter slides a juicy steak in front of you. Several of your friends had recommended this place, so you can hardly cut the meat fast enough to get that medium-rare beauty into your mouth. But as soon at it hits your tongue, it’s bitter. And tough. Stringy with tendons. Dirt crunches between your molars as your gag reflex makes your stomach heave.

Sweat beads on your forehead, but you keep chewing because you remember that several food critics have described this as one of the most important steaks of the twentieth century. But after a few minutes of hopeless chomping, you lean over your plate and spit out the slimy wad of flesh. You cut off pieces from different ends of the steak hoping for something palatable, but it’s all the same—maybe even a little worse. Hours later, as you look down at a plate of chewed-up meat, you realize you should’ve bought the steak second-hand off Amazon and saved a few bucks.

This obviously does not paint a very appealing picture. And yet this is precisely how some products – many of them “highly esteemed” – make their audiences feel.

The response quoted above was actually the reaction one reader had to William S. Burrough’s book Naked Lunch, a piece which has been called “one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, a book that redefined not just literature but American culture” – as well as “extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of obscene language,” with a writing style that, given the nature of the book, is fundamentally difficult to follow. Despite its “literary acclaim” and “cultural importance,” countless readers have come away from the text feeling, as our quoted reader, Dave Reuss, did: confused, repulsed, offended and frustrated.

There are, of course, a few people who side with “the experts” in loving the book. But for the most part, people find it unpalatable; tough. Some reviewers on Amazon admit that they “didn’t get some of it,” while others warn “you’ll have to read it 6-8 times and you still might not understand it,” And yet, for over fifty years, readers continue to try to muddle through it. Why? Because we continue to hear – and tell others – how “great” it’s supposed to be.

This is not necessarily how we want creative work to be received. It really goes back to the argument of “what is ‘good?’” and who is this really for?” Because while the fellow designer may celebrate your work or your writing may receive acclaim in the literary world, this does not necessarily mean that your work offers real meaning to the layman, who instead is left feeling left out. Maybe this doesn’t matter to you. (I’m sure Burroughs didn’t necessarily care.) But if it does – if delivering a good product to the market at large is important – it is equally important to make your work appealing, accessible, and, yes, appetizing. It should be agreeable; believable. When it comes to a “market” product, the last thing you really want is a market that comes away wondering, “was it just me… or was that emperor wearing no clothes?

In other words, as Reuss puts it: “if someone tells a joke and nobody but the person who told it gets the punch line, is it still a joke?… I’m not advocating that work be dumbed down so everyone can easily understand it, but if you’re the only one laughing at your jokes… you might need to modify your routine.”

That, or run the risk of nobody – save the lone “expert” in the back of the room – applauding it.


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Don’t throw people against trees

a fish drawing in charcoal by artist stathis_mavrides

a fish drawing in charcoal by artist stathis_mavrides

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  -Einstein

Everyone has a unique strength; everyone is better than everyone else at something and everyone who is great at something is worse than most others at many other things. (Oprah crashed and burned in her first career as a news anchor. Many, many entrepreneurs have been fired from jobs, under the presumption that they are “inept.” Few of us would try to use a rubber spatula to cut a steak or a steak knife to brush our teeth.) None of us are good at everything; all of us are great at something.

In a recent UX Booth article, UX professional Marli Mesibov offers a single perspective on multiple intelligences. In it, she explores Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences - the argument that people “possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways.” Identify the way in which you – or any user – is intelligent, provide the appropriate channel, and you – or they – will lean into it to do greater things.

Just as teachers constantly seek out new ways to engage their students, UX designers constantly concern themselves with what best suits their users. It’s no surprise, then, that an educational theory such as Gardner’s is so valuable to our practice. It’s the next logical step to personalizing every application and website for its ideal user.

To make the most of this idea, there are a few techniques, all of which first start with identifying yourself (or your user)…

Visual-spatial

Prefer expression, creation and/or interpretation of images, understand relationships between image and meanings as well as the influence of space. Often architects, artists, photographers, designers (all kinds), planners, engineers, inventors. Respond strongly to imagery and visual mappings.

Bodily-kinesthetic

Highly coordinated and often athletic, demonstrate strengths in balance, agility and dexterity. Often athletes, dances, performers, actors, chefs, massage therapists, etc. Learn by doing things firsthand and are energized by physical movement.

Musical

Recognize and are highly receptive to sound, rhythm and music. Often musicians, but also producers, composers, voice coaches and acoustic engineers. Learn readily when information is set to rhythm or music (for example, the way in which we all learned the alphabet.)

Interpersonal

High social and emotional intelligence, with strengths in relationships, communications, and intuitive interpretation of behavior. Often work as therapists, HR professionals, politicians, managers, educators, doctors and coaches. Respond very well in team settings and learn readily when able to identify as part of a group.

Intrapersonal

Strong intuition for one’s self and, in some cases, “the individual” overall, as well as their relationship with the world and the influences on their own well-being. Professors, psychologists, writers, freelancers and most entrepreneurs. Appreciates and responds well to independent study, self-taught courses and alternative (unstructured) learning.

Linguistic

Excellent communicators, spoken and/or written. Writers, public relations professionals, lawyers, journalists, speakers, speech writers, translators. Learn by reading, writing, and presenting information. (Conventional education systems are based on this learning style.)

Logical-mathematical

Strongly prefer logic, analytics, numbers and critical thinking. Most often engineers, scientists, accountants, bankers, statisticians, insurance brokers, and programmers. Respond well to logical problems inviting analysis and complex solution design.

So… then what?

Mesibov suggests a number of really constructive ways to use this information in reaching, understanding and motivating your users, including: isolating user intelligence types, connecting the easy and the enjoyable, and incorporating prior knowledge. Read the rest of her article – and actionable applications to UX – here.

Alternatively, if you want to know your intelligence type, you can take an assessment here.

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