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User Experience

Creative Leadership Isn’t for Everyone… and That’s Okay

Originally published at GiantUX

I’ve experienced three distinct types of leadership in my career; business, technology, and creative.  Most leaders are business leaders, coming from a finance or business administration background.  Business leaders are critical to the success of… well, business.  They understand finance. They understand human resources. They understand capitalism, supply & demand and finding the right products for the right consumers.  Necessary, right?  Completely.

Technology leaders are the backbone of most tech-oriented companies and startups.  They keep teams of programmers, DBA’s and network admins on task and working toward a common goal.  Technology leaders are great at what they do because they command respect out of their ability not only to understand what their technologists do, but to also have the ability to do what they do.  Most technology leaders I’ve known will also step in and code from time to time, as a corrective measure, because they’re inspired, or simply because they miss it.

Creative leaders are not terribly different from a core description, but they come from a different place.  Creative leaders have creative backgrounds.  They’ve shown an ability, a capacity, a competency performing a role within a creative field.  Typically, they’ve excelled.  This is often how a creative leader is initially offered the opportunity to move into a management role, to hone their leadership skills.  The assumption is that because someone is a great designer, they’ll be a great leader. This doesn’t always hold true.  Leadership is an additional skill-set, beyond what designers, writers, and architects are typically taught.  Some people find they just don’t enjoy leadership and would much rather move into a more intense version of what they already do.

Their past work is what gets their foot in the door, but it doesn’t command respect.  A creative leader has to show that they understand the process the team works in, and then have the trust in the team to let them do that work. It’s not trust in the vein of “Don’t tell anyone my secret.” It’s not grade school.  It’s trust in the sense that your team was hired because they’re capable.  Let them be capable.  More challenging for most creative leaders is that they have to step away from the work.  Particularly in designing experiences, the creative leader should be coaching and guiding, but not directing.  The work is the work of the creative team, collaboratively generating a solution.  The creative leader is there to keep it on track, but not to lay the track for the team.

Good leaders share common traits, and there’s plenty written about that.  Good leaders treat employees like people.  They treat customers like people.  They understand multiple facets of the business.  They inspire.  They see the big picture.  I’m not challenging the notion that a capable leader isn’t a capable leader, but good leaders have a good understanding of those they lead.  Without some additional education and true practice in the craft, I wouldn’t expect anyone to put me in front of a finance team, given my background emphasis on creative and technology.  The same should hold true for creative leaders.

Gone are the days where a manager was a manager; a director was a director.  It is possible, of course, for some leaders to transcend the inherent roadblocks associated with not understanding the core disciplines behind what they lead, but it’s particularly challenging.  Associates want leaders who understand what they do and can be a coach and a mentor, as well as someone who approves their vacation time.  As technology and creative disciplines generate more prominence in today’s companies, so should those who lead them.


Hey. I want to get into UX…

Over time I’ve been asked once or twice what people should “start looking at” if they “want to get into UX.”  I’m not trying to call this list definitive or somehow say that this is the only list that would ever be helpful.  I also consider this a starting point and there’s a heavy emphasis on self-learning through this.  I highly recommend conversation with people in the field in order to get some better context on anything you read.

It’s also worth noting this is a significant list because this isn’t a one-size-fits-all, take a 12 hour course, and you’re done kind of field.

Also, practice.  Doing is always enlightening.

Oh, and what we do is often redefined by changing technology within 6-18 months, so, there’s that.  And I *might* update this once or twice, reflecting changes.

UX borrows philosophy and data from many different disciplines, including but not limited to the following, so look up these terms first.  You should know what they mean in a broad sense, at the least:

Ergonomics, Decision Theory, Cognitive Psychology, Marketing/Service Design, Communications, Human Factors, Art, Design, Usability, Semiotics, Organizational Behavior, Taxonomy, Architecture, Web Development… I could probably keep going.  A theme I’ve found in UX is that our behaviors tend to all relate back.

What is User Experience?
Some perspectives regarding the “What is UX?” question:
(I know this is IA, but it’s highly relevant)

Other Guides on Starting:
Some folks have already put together good starting points for getting into UX.  Here’s a couple.

So You Wanna Be a User Experience Designer – Part 1 (Whitney Hess)
So You Wanna Be a User Experience Designer – Part 2 (Whitney Hess)

Groups of Interest:

  • Unicorn Institute – Jared Spool & Leslie Jensen-Inman
  • The Nerdery & UX Apprenticeship – Fred Beecher
  • Always look for local UX Meetups (YourCityHere UX Meetup; google it)
  • IAI (Information Architecture Institute)
  • UXPA (User Experience Professionals Association)
  • IxDA (Interaction Design Association)
  • ACM SIG-CHI (Often just CHI) (Association for Computer Machinery – Special Interest Group Computer-Human Interaction)

Employers who offer UX/IxD Internships:
… at least on a sporadic basis

  • IDEO
  • frog
  • HUGE (NYC)
  • Amazon
  • Google
  • Manifest Digital (CHI)

Sites to frequent:

Books to read:

  • Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Morville and Rosenfeld
  • Prototyping by Todd Zaki Warfel
  • Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
  • The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
  • Susan Weinschenk – 100 things you should know about people
  • How We Decide – Jonah Lehrer
  • Pervasive Information Architecture by Remini and Rosati
  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
  • Web Form Design by Luke Wroblewski
  • So What – Mark Magnacca
  • How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand
  • Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen
  • Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski
  • The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown
  • A Project Guide to UX Design by Unger and Chandler
  • Letting go of the words by Ginny Redish
  • Set Phasers on Stun -S. M. Casey
  • Engineering Psychology & Human Performance – Wickens & Hollands
  • Cognitive Psychology – Solso
  • Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert
  • Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
  • Inspired how to create products people love – Marty cagan
  • Designing the moment by robert hoekman, jr
  • Succeeding With Agile by Mike Cohn
  • Neuro Web Design – Susan Weinschenk
  • The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser
  • A Whole New Mind by Daniel H Pink
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
  • Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki
  • Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach, R.S. Pressman
  • Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig
  • Blink – Malcom Gladwell
  • The Innovator’s DNA by Clayton M Christensen
  • Excellent Book List put together by Fred Beecher

Personalities (in absolutely no order):

Why are they on this list?  I’ve either seen these people speak, read something they wrote, and/or had a conversation with them where they said something particularly insightful that impacted my worldview.

That’s a big list.  What can I say? I’m impressionable.

Complex or Complicated:
The Importance of Developing Common Language

“While shared understanding may always be an asymptote, striving for it is the mark of designer as facilitator.” – Erik Dahl (@eadahl)

“Precise language is lost if all don’t share the subtleties of meaning…” – Will Sansbury (@willsansbury)

The Need for Common Language
Common language has to be developed for almost any collaborative project to work. As soon as you have a team, instead of a person, communication becomes the cornerstone of everything you do. Pairing works much better once a common language is developed; without it, two people will sit together, but work independently. Once they develop a common language, a shared understanding, they work together, relying on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. That’s when you see the artifacts begin to go away and things get made, instead of just planned.

The responsibility for achieving a shared understanding should be paramount to everyone involved. Unfortunately, it often isn’t. Frequently, people are blinded by what they would like to push as an agenda, debilitating their communication skills instead of consolidating views to a better solution.

As a result of the empathy inherent in most UX designers, diplomacy is often tried until a common language is developed, unconsciously. Occasionally, the UX designer will stop at diplomacy, since it works and neutrality can produce results that are “good enough.” But if teams can find a way to speak at the same level as your audience and each other, they have a better opportunity to generate great results.

Sometimes you have 30 seconds to do this, and sometimes you have days. Sometimes it takes moments to find a communication style that resonates, and sometimes it takes years. No matter how long it takes, a UX designer should focus on achieving common language, first, in any setting. No matter the task or relationship at hand, your use of language can help set the tone for a successful conversation, leading to a successful solution.

Ubiquitous Language
Ubiquitous language is noble, but focuses a great deal on coders learning the language of the domain they are currently being immersed in. It’s a great applied practice toward coding, according to the nouns and adjectives that the domain (subject matter) experts use.

Unfortunately, this model is very focused on two types of people: programmers and non-programmers, and it’s written from a coder’s structured, logical perspective. It’s chock-full of great advice and practices, but for a UX designer, facilitating communication across the client, visual designers, content strategists, business analysts, financial consultants, product owners (and on and on), this is a first step. UX designers need to understand domain before the conversation begins. The real challenge comes in making sure that when we’re talking about “music,” that we’re talking Brahms, and not Bad Religion. Or vice-versa.

Common Language is similar to ubiquitous language from a “lofty goals” perspective, but less structured, and is much more prevalent in conversation and in visual cues. Ubiquitous language is a great start toward speaking about the same “things,” but it’s stiff and wanting, since it lacks a focus on what those “things” mean. An unfortunate side-effect of Ubiquitous Language is the well-intentioned convention of naming classes and routines based on domain terms. This works really well as long as there are no mistakes. Errors in shared understanding have the potential to create a coding system that attempts to re-educate the subject matter experts, based on the reality driven by the way the terms have been used in the Domain-driven model, devised by the technical team. This, in turn, alienates the business and many creative stakeholders. As a last resort, you end up relying heavily on infrastructure, programmers and those rare dual-language speaking project managers to “bridge the communication gap.”

It makes sense to close the gap rather than bridge it. Closing it is more of an art, than a science, but one that can be learned, applied and institutionalized. However, it has to be planned from the beginning.

Storytelling & Cultural Cues
Beginning at the beginning usually starts with a story. This is the best place to immediately begin the creation of a mental dictionary for the team. Someone has to explain what they’re looking for; who the audience is, what the feature is, what the problem statement is. Something. Encourage the stakeholder to elaborate. They may not be the best story-teller, but you can get a story out of them by asking questions. The more questions you ask, the more terms you’ll hear. The more descriptions they’ll provide. Take note of the words they use and how they mean them. If there’s any ambiguity, circle back on the words and find out what the meaning is.

Storytelling is great as long as the person telling a story is using metaphors that aren’t lost on the audience. As a cultural device, stories have long closed the distance between groups in society. But stories can go horribly awry if the cultural implications for the audience or misunderstood by the storyteller. The best diplomats try to understand other cultures before trying to sway them. There are so many hooks, phrases, and words that carry weight and meaning with people. In the United States, we have three words for soda, depending on where in the country you are and there are some people who literally do not understand what the words mean when referenced from another region.

As ambassadors, we push for a certain culture but in order to effectively do that, we need to understand the culture that currently exists. We learn a new language and adhere to it in order to blend in with the culture and affect positive change by gradually introducing new terms and specific, distinct meanings to existing terms to the team’s mental dictionary.

It’s also important to keep tone and body language in mind. Things to think about as you communicate:

  • Human Resources employees are the only ones who think that pedantic, lilting-tone speech is soothing. (edit: I realize not all HR employees speak in such a manner. My favorites have always been the ones who didn’t speak so.)
  • Kindergarten teachers talk to parents the same way they talk to their students (and parents don’t like it)
  • The Welsh think you’re flipping them off unless your peace sign is done palm-out
  • Crossed arms tend to make people feel like you’re not listening to them
  • People from India point with their middle finger. They’re not insulting you.
LEGO Minimalist by Jung von Matt

The importance of cultural cues in establishing common language; how many of these mean something to you? (LEGO Minimalist by Jung von Matt)

Matching Your Communication Style
Everyone communicates differently based on who they are, where they’re from, what they do, how much experience they have. How do you recognize what to say, without compromising your passion? As UX professionals, we spend countless hours learning to understand our users to determine the best way to present and design an experience or interface. It follows suit that we should style this same approach in how we communicate in speech and writing with our teams, by identifying and adopting a common language.
So how do you find a way to speak a common language? I don’t believe in magic bullets. But I do believe in selective targets.

Taking written note of vocabulary and defining it as the team uses it helps. This can be an actual shared document, or you can just use it as guidelines for yourself, and rely on the mental dictionary. The shared document is much more transparent, while the mental dictionary model is much more incognito. In true “Undercover UX” style, the second method is likely your best option to expand the common language between two or more parties if you’re in an organization that doesn’t have an established culture or practice surrounding user experience, or hasn’t yet matured their user experience practice to include associates.

A requisite tool is to update your own vocabulary. Re-use words that you were previously unfamiliar with, after establishing what they mean to the person who initially used them. Re-use them repeatedly. Explain words as you speak to make their meanings more distinct. Not just the first time, but the first several times.

It’s critical to remember that common language isn’t just the words you use. It’s tone, style, volume, and cadence, also. It’s color, contours, and negative space. Every interaction you have, all points of collaboration with your team, will become part of your common language. You have to be prepared to response to personality types. Be prepared to respond to varying leadership levels/styles. Be prepared to immerse yourself in a multitude of personal cultures and have the flexibility to move between them in order to better communicate your message. Your goal is to establish a shared understanding, a shared culture, among your team.

Language is amazing. It provides us the richness to communicate, but we all have a different level of mastery. It provides us also the ability to conflate meaning, juxtapose ideas, and generally screw up relationships through miscommunication.

We struggle with language among UX, arguably the most empathic group of professionals that exists, because so many people are convinced they are right about the terms and definitions. We let academic musings that establish more concrete meanings among our “domain,” color the way we speak to our co-workers, who grew up on finance. While trying to embolden the meaningfulness of our chosen profession, we risk alienating our allies across the table, by assuming they share the same distinction between “complex” and “complicated” as we argue for why there’s no need to further simplify this particular interface, since according to Tesler and Norman, this would be appropriately complex.

In a perfect world, everyone would strive for shared understanding, but they don’t most of the time. Your business analyst likely won’t leave the meeting and look up Tesler’s Law. The VP likely isn’t going to ask you to elaborate on the distinction you’re driving to justify the complexity offset. We’re “cultural ambassadors.” (Hat-tip to Erik Dahl) Our job is to visit the different cultures that co-exist within the multiple dimensions that occur in a business and learn their languages. It’s incumbent on us, as facilitators, to bring those dimensions closer and closer to a singular existence. There’s a responsibility inherent in being a UX professional regarding diplomacy, but we can be passionate without being pissy or pedantic.

By developing a common language, our teams gain both a better communication culture and our team achieves better understanding of User Experience for our audience.