Alignment above all

Gears in an engine

Technology may change rapidly, but the fundamentals of effective communication not so much.

The role played by clarity in achieving successful results should not be a surprise. What is surprising is how often it can be overlooked.

Regardless of its nature, the success or failure of any initiative will rely to a large extent on the degree of alignment amongst those involved. The question “what are we building” can yield as many answers as there are factions, and this is true of teams from enterprises to startups.

Executive decisions are rightly expected to be followed by action. But the fear that accompanies an instruction to proceed often kills the opportunity to think deeply about desired outcomes. Agile dogma tells us we need to move fast. The fear of being seen to not be moving can generate countless docs and meetings as attempts are made to assert the rightness of one set of priorities over another. Lots of noise, very little signal, and a dearth of alignment. 

The lure of consensus always looms large. After all, consensus can begin to get everyone moving. At its worst consensus is a form of groupthink. It may be capable of placating a fractious group and get them through to the next meeting. It is unlikely to impress customers however, who won’t care if you reached consensus, but will certainly sense a lack of alignment in the construction of their product or service.

Consensus is tactical; alignment is strategic.

Alignment involves orientation to a direction and commitment to a purpose. It can’t be articulated in purely marketing terms. Or design terms. Or engineering terms. And it must embody unambiguous support, across functions, to the aims of the project. Alignment should release every discipline to plan its contribution to clearly understood outcomes.

The good news is that achieving alignment is not alchemy. Any number of tools or frameworks can assist with driving a team, or multiple teams, towards an aligned state.

As both an exponent and practitioner I will always promote the design thinking process as a fast track to alignment. Your mileage may vary; anything capable of cutting across disciplines and reframing a challenge in objective terms is a positive step.

The most successful teams I have encountered used value as the ultimate framing – specifically, how is it being created or enhanced for the business, and for customers. Anything less than clarity around both of these will lead to muddy goals and unsatisfactory outcomes. We all deal with ambiguity in our working lives. But where this translates to vagueness, danger lies.

“What problem are we solving?” is an easy – even obvious – question to ask, but it can be problematic to answer definitively. It may even take an unpopular pause for breath to do it. To quote Covey, “With people, slow is fast and fast is slow.” 

An aligned team will move faster, and with greater precision, than one without it. 

The investment of time and rigour in achieving true alignment will repay itself many times over. It is worth fighting for.

Designing systems, not UI

Graphical representation of a computer displaying an alert

I’ve written a piece for the Puppet blog on the thinking behind an alerts & notifications system for a new product. I’ve had great feedback on the article, which serves to remind me that I should lift the lid a little more often on the work we’re doing.

Covey’s prioritisation matrix is referenced as part of the piece. This is, of course, a commonly known and commonly-referenced framework. Increasingly though I find myself seeking out new models and frameworks to assist decision-making. They are very much part of the toolkit. I hope the system I’ve outlined here makes it into someone else’s.

https://puppet.com/blog/designing-systems-not-just-ui-alerts-notifications/

Top 5 books 2019

A tough year to pick a top five from, but here goes.


Tragic Design

Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier

Shariat and Saucier explain how poorly designed products can anger, sadden, exclude, and even kill people who use them. Through a series of historical case studies, the errors of design become woefully apparent. The designers responsible certainly didn’t intend harm, so what can we do to avoid making similar mistakes? For a taste of where the book goes, and how high the stakes for bad design can be, try Googling “ford pinto design flaw”. One of two books on the list where I was fortunate enough to interview the authors for the UX Belfast meetup during 2019.

https://www.tragicdesign.com

Tech Humanist

Kate O’Neill

Ethics and human-centredness in design have been a noticeable emerging theme in the last two years. Here, Kate O’Neill highlights the importance of meaning and purpose in tech. “The Tech Humanist proposal is to ensure that business objectives and human objectives are as aligned as possible so that as automated experiences scale, they scale human values with them, and a sense of what is meaningful to humans surrounds us.” Highly recommended for anyone seeking greater meaning in their work.

Factfulness

Hans Rosling

What a refreshing read. We can become despairing sometimes at the state of the world. And yes, a lot of what we understand in the world is wrong. However, this book by (now deceased) author Hans Rosling illustrates how much the world is improving over time. How quality of life is improving for those in the bottom tiers of society. Yes, there’s a lot wrong with the world, but this book teaches us to appreciate where and how things are getting better. And how we must bring critical thinking to our view of the world. Rosling’s children are continuing his work – see https://www.gapminder.org for more information.

Meeting Design

Kevin Hoffman

This book needed to be written, given the amount of collective time we invest in sitting in rooms together, physically or virtually. This book treats meetings as a design problem, and offers highly practical advice on agendas, facilitation and actions. Favourite quote: “Meetings are usability tests for organizations themselves”. ‘Nuff said.

Ego is the Enemy

Ryan Holiday

A great treatise on objectivity and not becoming attached to anything you feel defines you, either as an individual, or as an organization. “…at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation [which] the incumbent interest will be incapable of responding to. Why can’t businesses change or adapt? A large part of it is because they have lost the ability to learn, they stopped being students. The second this happens, your knowledge becomes fragile.” Sobering stuff, and a useful prompt to re-assess some core beliefs about oneself.


Work-related books only this time round. So much great fiction featured during the year also, but these are the books that really stuck with me.

‘She Rocks!’ Awards 2019

Last week I was stunned to receive a nomination in the Women Who Code Belfast ‘She Rocks!’ awards.

The Honorary Changemaker award was introduced this year “to recognise men who have actively committed to the advancement, sponsorship or championing the progress of women in tech. We rise by lifting others, and allies are a vital component in our mission to inspire women to excel in technology careers.”

I appreciate that these awards focus on recognising positive human qualities in and around the tech, making it all the more of an honour to be included. I hope that the decisions and actions across my career have been worthy of the nomination. And it’s a reminder to keep trying to be a better ally.

Silo mentality: where great customer experience goes to die

decrepit machines

Despite working in experience design, I don’t go around looking for opportunities to criticise products or services. Like most people, I just want to get on with what I need to do and accept that occasional lapses in service are bound to happen now and then. Ten minutes in to a recent hotel stay, however, I was already making notes.

  • After taking my name, the receptionist promptly disappeared through a door and left me standing for 5 minutes. What they had omitted to say was that they were checking if the room was ready.
  • The room key card I was issued didn’t work, requiring a return trip to reception to report it. Then a wait for another to be prepared.
  • A wifi password supplied in the guest welcome pack didn’t let me connect. The correct one was written on the keycard holder, something I was expected to discover.

It turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable stay. In those first few minutes though, I was questioning the wisdom of booking. It was a small example of how seemingly unrelated lapses by a vendor added up to poor overall customer experience.

Some 10 years ago, I switched my bank due to a series of let-downs. I was prepared to go through the pain (at that time) of moving current and savings accounts away from a bank of 12+ years. During a protracted series of phonecalls, one explanation offered for the difficulties I was facing was: “that’s another department… we don’t deal with that here.” 

Departments are a reality in any organisation of course. But as conduits of conflicting priorities or processes, silos are self-serving, destructive entities. Variations on Conway’s Law litter our daily physical and digital interactions. Customers are not interested in how your organisation is structured. When it becomes visible to them, it is usually at the cost of a cohesive experience.

A common problem is that teams working on a product or service know intimately how everything hangs together; they are well versed in the complexity of what’s being created. This awareness can surface as a tendency to see difficult challenges as insurmountable obstacles. Very often, process is wheeled out as a defence of current practices, or a cure-all elixir. Cross-departmental initiatives are hard work, which tends to make them unattractive. The result can be a culture that simply accepts ways of working that do not deliver value. 

Naturally, this is all rich, raw material for designers, and service design in particular. Time and again as a design consultant the most radical thing I could do was to reflect what customers were going through back at the organisation. A lack of focus on, or understanding of, creating value for customers is a fundamental issue.

A customer-centered perspective can be the unifying force in the relentless struggle against imposed friction, while also providing a guiding light for new initiatives. Leadership should look to clear the way for ideas to thrive across divisions. Individuals or teams are required with sufficient drive and resilience to face down inertia and defensiveness, even the rampant virus of cynicism.

Siloed organisations are machines of aimless intent, efficient only at generating endless reasons why customer and user experience can’t be made better. Silos are anti-customer and anti-value.

Hard work it may be, but the option not to get rid of such barriers is all but gone. Ultimately every organisation needs to decide – consciously – whether defending silos and siloed thinking is more important than creating and retaining customers.