28 September 2015

I don't know

Braden Kowitz at Google Ventures HQ
After working at Google for about 6 months I was working on Google Finance and I invited a fellow UX designer to talk to the team I was working with about the importance of social; thinking about the user in the context of having a series of relationships rather than being an isolated individual. Braden Kowitz gained my endless respect that day not for what he knew, but for what he didn’t know. 

There is a running joke at Google about having ‘imposter syndrome’ where for a while after joining you feel that somehow your getting through the tough hiring process was an error and everyone you work with is smarter than you. It is easy to fall into that way of thinking with the confident people around you who always have an answer for everything. When Braden was being grilled by the skeptical team of engineers he sometimes didn’t just reply with a vague answer, but he just calmly said:

I don’t know

Such confidence and strength to admit ignorance, rather than think less of him due to the gaps in his knowledge I admired Braden’s ability to look someone squarely in the eye and unapologetically admit to not having all the answers without fearing that it would undermine people’s perception of his expertise.

So often you see people being questioned who will panic and just start talking nonsense or answer a different question in an effort to maintain a sense of power and authority. Most of us have done this in the past, but wouldn’t it be great if we all stopped wasting each other’s time and have it be OK to say “I don’t know” without any need to be apologetic or feel a sense of failure.

One thing that helps is the understanding that not knowing is not a permanent state of being. As when we are designing products, we are constantly in a state of identifying what we don’t know and filling those gaps with research in order to have confidence in our design decisions. When training students in TaeKwon-Do I am in the habit of correcting students who say “I can’t do that” or “I don’t know that” by encouraging them to add the word “yet” on to the end. 

Understanding what you don’t know is a critical step in mastery and then it just takes time, effort and perseverance to change it. “I don’t know” isn’t an end state of ignorance but the first step in understanding. Changing our relationship to the phrase may help us feel more confident to use it in conversation.

14 September 2015

Process not product

Over the last few weeks I have experienced frustration that while I have moved to London to set up a UX team to support the rapidly growing Search engineering team here, there has been no commitment to assign any headcount to the team. Also right now is performance management time where everyone gives and receives 360 feedback, at this time promotions and performance scores are given. This time forces you to focus on what you have delivered for the company and this is directly compared to your peers who you are ranked against. Peers who have more team resources supporting them. 

I have been pre-occupied on the lack of commitment to support my UX team, complaining about the problem and trying to practice the classic ninja spirit of endurance.  The word ninja comes from two Kanji characters, shinobi and mono, which can be read in two different ways. The words shinobi and nin mean "stealth" or "quiet action" but they also mean "to endure”. Sha means "person" (Nin Sha). So the Kanji characters mean "a person skilled in stealth" or "one who endures."
Ninja: Stealth or to endure

But I think this has been the wrong approach, too much focus on the end result of getting sufficient support and recognition. While patience is having the capacity of calm endurance, my focus could have been on giving myself time. 

Giving yourself time is actively working towards a goal without setting a limit on how long you will work.

It reminded me of being frustrated when I started to work towards my second degree black belt in TaeKwon-Do. Younger people in the school who did not have the time restrictions of a busy work and family life were progressing faster than me, and I was struggling to remember all the fine details of movement to perfect the necessary patterns (forms). After I was able to eliminate my own deadline from my mind it was like removing a weight from my body.

Mr Suska, 5th Dan, performing Ge-Baek (2nd Dan pattern)

So what can we design ninjas do differently? We can work towards our goals but remove our own self-imposed pressures and give ourselves time to achieve them. For me right now means re-focusing my negative energy to create an environment where UX team members can be successful and being transparent about the consequences of not having these additional resources the team will most likely grow. 

7 September 2015

Drawing your own chalk circle

Your safe space

When Bruce Lee taught in the US he had a student called Joe Hyams who was struggling with tensing up in sparring and it slowed his moves and made it hard for him to react in time. Bruce invited Joe to his house on on the driveway, asked him to stand still and extend one leg out as far as it would go. Joe then pivoted slowly around as Bruce drew a chalk circle around him, the radius was the length of the extended leg.

Bruce stood back from the circle and made some aggressive moves and Joe stiffened awaiting the attack. Bruce asked why he was so tense as because from that distance he could not cause any harm.  He then went to the edge of the circle, Joe started to tense up again and Bruce chided him “I’m still not close enough to do you any harm, so why don’t you relax?” 

Bruce then stepped into the circle and Joe instinctively retreated. “Good” Bruce said, “you have moved your circle back so I am not a threat to you.”

When the opponent is inside your circle and you cannot retreat any further you must fight. Until then you should maintain your control.

Bruce Lee showing the edge of his circle

Google can be an intense, high pressure place to work now and then it gets to the best of us and we lash out at others around us. Recently a Product Manager (PM) was frustrated with the speed of the project which was slowed down by the large number of groups involved, all with their own agendas. He made personal attacks and threatened to remove me from the project unless I did exactly the UI he wanted rather than take the time to gather sufficient research evidence to make sure it was the right UI for the product. 

My natural instinct is to react to bullies with aggression and attack back meeting hostility with hostility. As design ninjas, we have faced down dangerous people who want to do us physical harm in sparring competitions and this helps us keep perspective in situations like this where the hostility is no real threat. There is no need to react aggressively when you can keep them at the edge of your mental circle. 

A would-be intimidator thrives on evoking a response from his intended victim. When there is none he quickly wears out and this happened in the conversation with the PM. I clearly stated all the facts in the defense of the UX team, and also calmly talked about ways we can evolve our process to show the PM he was heard. Once the aggression died down we were in a position where we could have an agreement of how to move forward effectively and try to avoid the frustration building up in the future. 

I am not saying it always goes like this for me, you have to be in the right state of mind to have a mental circle with any width to stay calm within and this can be a hard state to exist in with project pressures. It is something that can grow with regular martial arts training and meditation.

1 September 2015

5 psychology books which UX designers should read

Megan Fox vs reptile brain

What was the first thing you looked at when you saw this web page? I doubt it was the title of the blog, I bet it wasn’t even the picture of that handsome chap on the right side showing an audience how big the fish he caught was. Admit it, you looked at the sexy picture of Megan Fox before anything else, even though you might normally (assuming you are from a left to right reading culture) start scanning the page on the top left your vision probably anchored to Ms Fox and you scanned down from there. You might have only followed the link to this blog in the first place because the picture made you curious, or probably its the only reason you noticed the link in the first place.

You are not alone, you can’t help it as you are under the influence of the reptilian part of your brain that is quite intent on making little versions of yourself and also wants to check out the face for signs of threat. Its a cheap trick which has been used to attract your attention and get you to buy things for an awful long time now.

About 5 years ago I had the pleasure of partnering with Peter Hong on Google Search for the mobile web. Peter is a great design thinker, has a talent for persuading teams to adopt his ideas, and he taught me a valuable lesson. His background was in biology and he has a love of cognitive psychology which he used to explain to the engineers not just what he was recommending but also why based on scientific principles.

Good guy Peter

I mentioned this briefly in a previous post:

  • Rather than spend your valuable spare time learning the latest prototyping tool, consider investing time in learning cognitive psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. There will always be a new prototyping tool, but humans won't change that much.

It is exciting to start exploring psychology as a UX designer, these behaviors we have been observing our users doing while using our products start to get an explanation. Additionally your persuasion powers get a boost as you can point to scientific papers in additional to the rest of the tools in your design ninja tool belt.

How to get started

Many other approaches are possible, but this is how I got a start: 

To watch

Watch Yale’s Introduction to Psychology course on Open Yale Courses. Also available on iTunes university and the whole course can be downloaded from the link.

Professor Paul Bloom being amusing and informative

To read

If you read nothing else

Start with Susan Weinschenk’s 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People. It is as much of a bible for design ninjas as Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think which I have given out to stakeholders, PM and eng partners over the years as a UX primer. A couple of years ago it was updated and worth another look if it has been a while for you.

On a side note, I had the great fortune to have a 30 mins 1:1 session with Steve Krug when he visited Google a few years back. It was just after we had launched a tablet-optimized version of Search and I had lead the UX team for this project. Steve didn’t like one of the design decisions we had made; preventing the default browser pinch-to-zoom behavior (behaving like a native app) in order to have a different landscape-optimized layout. As soon as he found out I was responsible for the decision he took up our time expressing his frustration about it and I didn’t get the opportunity to ask my prepared questions I was excited to ask. So that sucked.

Not cool, Steve Krug

No martial arts metaphors?

I spent the whole blog post without using a single martial arts metaphor. Well humans are complex and unpredictable, and just as getting drawn to Ms Fox is likely, there are two other layers in the brain wrapping that oldest part which could also influence your reaction. 

As in combat we need to enter without expectation in order for our movements to be fast and fluid. The unpredictability of combat means that if we at any point have the intention of using a specific technique then we get in our own way and are caught out when the unexpected happens.