Sharpening the saw

January 5, 2015

For many years during my early career I was immune (or certainly resistant) to business and professional development books. The thought of them repelled me; indeed many still do. The particular brand of let’s say ‘bravado’, as pedaled by the likes of Tony Robbins, leaves me utterly cold.

The later discovery then of how different Stephen Covey’s philosophy and writing is became all the more significant. And for me, that revelation came in the form of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

It is a shame how listicles – the click-bait articles that appear daily around the web (“11 awesome ideas your website must include!”) – have served to cheapen any ideas put forward in a numbered list. I say a shame, because “7 Habits…” is essential reading for any professional, and should in no way be categorised with all the poor relations in print and on the web, which mimic its title.

One of the principles Covey introduces in the book is the 7th habit, that of ‘sharpening the saw’. The phrase derives from an allegory of a wood-cutter who cuts through logs for a living, sawing all day. He’s so busy sawing he doesn’t have time to maintain the saw. With inevitable consequences.

My career has taken me in a number of directions, each of them self-initiated, and generally fuelled by a relentless fear of getting lazy, or growing complacent. Covey’s words and ideas have helped me in any number of situations over the years, and he continues to inspire. This last year though, it strikes me that I’ve fallen well short when it comes to the 7th habit.

Earlier in the year I had one of those forehead-slapping moments of clarity: the unchallengeable fact that everything we choose to do in turn means not doing something else. We have a finite amount of time available to us – as illustrated with stark clarity in a post earlier today from Chris Murphy – and if we are fortunate, then we choose how to fill that time. As competition for time and attention increases, so too does the need to differentiate between activity that helps to develop you as a person, and activity that you simply feel obliged to take part in.

As an example, after signing up in 2008 Twitter very quickly became an essential professional tool for me, a discovery engine that has without question enhanced my professional life. But at its worst Twitter becomes just a way of filling up time. “Catching up on Twitter” was at one point an additional task to fit into the day, just in case anything was missed – a link, a conversation, an announcement – that would leave me disadvantaged. Ludicrous when put as bluntly as that, but a fact nonetheless.

So it’s important then to make sure that activity is nourishing, and encourages the right kind of thinking. And overall I feel like I’ve fallen behind over the course of the last year, littered as it has been with books and articles unread, and no end of unfinished writing.  Somewhere along the line, I’ve made bad choices about what to give my time and attention to, at a time when competition for both has increased exponentially. As with everything in life, it is all about choices.

This coming year, I commit myself once again to sharpening the saw – and never letting it get to the state it fell into last year.

You can read a short passage on the 7th habit, plus the other six, here. See if they makes sense to you. It does for me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

Best behaviour

September 29, 2014

Stating the obvious, lifting a smartphone and tapping any app’s icon represents a choice for the device owner – a choice between using the app, and doing literally anything else. For successful apps, use becomes habitual. More than that – for successful apps, it must become habitual.

One of the best insights I’ve seen on this topic (I don’t recall the source so unfortunately can’t give due credit) correctly stated that establishing a new habit means creating time for it. By implication, that will almost certainly require taking time and attention away from something else.

The assumption that a product will simply be used is an optimism bias that afflicts so many entrepreneurs and technologists. Viewing the challenge of designing products as not only the creation of a compelling experience, but one that impels someone to make room in their life to use it, is a sobering thought.

The ability of an app to achieve this place in someone’s life can go beyond what it offers in terms of functionality, and certainly how it looks. Every investment in a product or app, as noted by the BufferApp blog earlier this year, is an investment in a future self; a better self. For use of an app to become a habit, it must be able to deliver a desired transformation. The transformative potential of interactive technologies is something I’ve been immersed in on a number of key projects this year at Fathom.

First alerted to the resource by a blog post from Joe Leech, BJ Fogg’s Behavioural Model has been nothing short of a revelation. Like so much of what user-centred thinking brings to the table, it comes across as simple common sense, clearly articulated. And like so many of the best tools in UX work, it offers a framework around which to plan and execute design and content strategies. Think of it as an ‘Elements of User Experience‘ for behaviour change.

Fogg is a computer scientist and founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. Although not intended specifically for UX work, the Behavioural Model finds a natural home in the user-centred design process.

The link with Stanford certainly imbues the model with academic credibility, putting it alongside the work of Weinschenck, Kahnemann et al as a reference point for designers wanting to leverage the power of psychology in their work. In use, the model excels as a starting point in assessing the nature of a challenge, and pointing the way to the response without authoring it outright.

Work on the models sadly appear to have stalled with no updates in a couple of years, and the detailed resource guides withdrawn from the website. But what remains is left is a godsend for designers hungry for another framework to bring structure to the design process.

UX Scotland 2014

July 11, 2014

It’s a couple of weeks already since UX Scotland; such is the pace of work these days that my brain has barely had time to process the whole experience.

I was again delighted to speak at the conference, which remains a favourite of all UX-related gathering I’ve been fortunate enough to attend. Without repeating every word from last year’s post, it’s just a lovely event. The city itself was looking great, the venue was again the unorthdox yet perfectly fitting setting, and the programme of talks & workshops again struck the right balance between aspirtational theory and gritty practical.

Feedback on my talk, Managing Complexity – UX vs the business model has been really satisfying. I was a little apprehensive about being quite so candid about a particular project I brought into the talk, but comments have completely vindicated that decision.

Colin Meney’s summary of the talk is available here, and I believe articulates the key points much more clearly and succunctly than the original talk did!

UX Scotland 2015 is already in the pipeline by all accounts. I look forward to making the regular trip across the Irish Sea once again, confident that I’ll be seeing as comprehensive a cross-section of the industry as I could wish for.

A criminal past

May 1, 2014

My name is Patrick Stuart Monro, and I have a criminal past.

Some weeks ago this thought occurred to me:

It had begun to feel that so much of what I was saying, whether on Twitter or off it, sounded like that old stereotype of the ex-smoker whose every utterance forms an unrelenting diatribe against their former habit.

Moving deeper into the wold of user experience research and user-centred design has turned my professional sensibilities on their head; I’m a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. From an inauspicious start at a design sweatshop, successive developments brought me to increasingly align with principles that should have been ingrained from day one, but were not.

I envy those who realise early in their design careers – perhaps through effective education – that people should be at the centre of their work, those who will consume the outputs from it. My early career was a series of exercises in aesthetic futility, recurring attempts to prove something about myself that rarely manifested itself in user-centred design of any variety.

Graphic work particularly was more often than not an exercise in Photoshop promenading. Maybe I would shoe-horn in a new typeface that I liked the look of, usually in wilful ignorance of the ultimate audience or purpose.

That said, no-one suffered, no-one died. Every piece of work I produced was signed off by a client as fit for purpose (not necessarily an endorsement of it being effective of course), and the work I was doing was no better or worse than numerous design projects created every day around the world.

What my tweet made me aware of was that I wish at times I could address my younger self (doesn’t everyone?), and begin to plant the seeds of responsible design earlier.

An opportunity has become available to do something approaching this, as a contributing lecturer to the Interactive Multimedia Design course at the University of Ulster. I can at least begin to make amends for my own lack of understanding (something I can’t solely attribute to poor levels of design education) by passing on some of what I’ve learned in 20+ years as a designer, albeit far too few of those spent as an effective one.

I find it cathartic to admit that I really haven’t been the designer I should have been for most of my career. But – as with all personal transformation – admitting aproblem is the first step. Followed by taking each day as it comes, and working to improve, one day at a time.

And I use each day to distance myself as far as possible from that younger version of me; the one who didn’t appreciate the privilege of working as a designer, and the responsibility that it brings with it.

I remain an eternal student of design. There are those in the industry (the ‘design’ industry in its widest possible sense), both globally and locally, that I look to now to help me make up for lost time. And it’s time I acknowledged them.

And with that, the subject of a future post becomes clear.

Get off the bandwagon and push

March 5, 2014

I loathe the term ‘UX’. It reeks of modish but shallow industry acronyms that come and go with changes in the wind. It devalues what user experience research and design represents, reducing it to a buzzword that is suddenly everywhere and which doesn’t even begin to communicate the value that, as with all design, it can deliver to businesses and organisations.

This was brought to my mind again during two enjoyable conversations in the past week with individuals just beginning their career in user experience design; one a recent graduate, the other a highly accomplished design professional making a shift to a new UX position.

Both admitted to wondering, as recently as a couple of years ago, what exactly UX had to offer – along the lines of “Is this not just…y’know, design?!” Having made the transition not too many years further back down the road I knew exactly what they meant.

I recall clearly the sense of indignation I used to feel at what user-centred design claimed to deliver – design fit for purpose for specific end users (forgive the over-simplification). “I do all that already” I thought, falling into that most narcissistic of designer traps – entertaining the thought that, by simply being a designer I was already doing everything right. Painful to think back to it now.

I can only imagine it must be galling for some UX veterans to watch as the discipline that they pioneered gains popular adoption, and in the process drawing to it the mainstream of the design world who now view ‘UX’ as some kind of new rock n’roll. After all, many will have been voices in the wilderness for years, while the rest of the design world mocked the overly considered approach that user-centred design demands. As it happens, user experience design now has a seat at the table, but we’re in esteemed company as just one of many diverse design disciplines.

Every industry will have its leaders and those who follow after; and both of these groups have particular responsibilities. The former must observe – and encourage – the expansion and diversification of the field which they helped to create with grace, and allow the new arrivals to help shape the future of this field.

The latter, though, have a greater responsibility. As commercial demand for the outputs and insights of user-centred design grows, so too does the imperative to ensure that UX practice truly evolves and flourishes. To put it another way, if UX represents a bandwagon of any kind, then the bandwagon cannot be allowed to slow down because we’re all clinging on just for the ride.

Common to both old and new practitioners is the need for humility. I’ve always loved this blog post from David Gillis; it articulates thoughts that I’m not sure I’ve read before or since.

The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness—a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong.

And, I would add to that sentiment, a willingness to contribute once we have learned from our experience.

We work with timeless principles; however the way in which we research, document and execute our work must keep evolving; no industry rests on its laurels. This is not the sole responsibility of those who made it into an industry at all. It is a joint responsibility with everyone who lays claim to the moniker of ‘UX’. Pioneers and Latecomers (and I will  include myself in the latter category), need to add to the toolkit – work out new deliverables, develop new insights and engender new thinking.

Anyone in an industry is entitled to a free ride every now and again, but we should  be prepared just as often to make effective contributions to the future of the industry, ensuring it is defined by integrity and humility. In short, get off and push.

 

  • About Rick Monro

    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX Director, designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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