Category Archives: Life

Open Office Floor Plans: Fueling Animosity

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I was chatting with a buddy of mine from a mid size software company recently, and he mentioned that they had converted to an open floor plan model a few years ago. Open floor plans are so hot right now that I was really interested in hearing his experience.

Initially The Open Floor Plan Was Awesome

He said that when they initially launched the open floor plan model, it was awesome. They had a giant open space with designers on one side of the room and developers on the other side of the room with ample space between. The designers would get rowdy from time to time, laughing and joking around, but it didn’t phase the developers because they had their quiet peaceful side of the room to work in. All was well in the world. Both teams were more productive than ever.

They had great interdepartmental relationships, folks in both departments worked really well together, and even had great personal relationships. They had lots of happy smiley coworkers all over the place, who enjoyed coming in to the office.

After Time Passed And They Experienced Rapid Growth, The Open Floor Plan Started To Suck

Then the company grew. And grew some more. and grew even more.

All of a sudden, team members were packed in to the room like sardines. The developers were starting to resent the designers for being rowdy while they were trying to code, because the peace keeping buffer zone was gone. The designers were starting to resent the developers because they were complaining about “all of the noise” being made by the design team while they were collaborating, and feeding off of one another’s creative energy by sharing stories about side projects.

Random Side Convos Fuel Design Team Innovation and Creativity 

You’d be surprised how much creativity comes out of regular old conversations and laughter. Some of our design team’s best ideas have come out of random conversation.

“I spent the weekend at my kid’s basketball tournament, he is basically a free throw rockstar. Oh, by the way, did you see this new basketball stat tracking app? The gestures are freaking awesome, let me show you.”

If the random convo about the basketball tourney hadn’t taken place, the discovery of the gestures wouldn’t have happened, and the innovative integration of those gestures in the team’s latest app project wouldn’t have happened either.

Folks can’t be creative and innovative when they are all covered in cones of silence. Design teams require a very different work place culture than developers, one that’s open to constant open collaboration and creativity.

I’m not saying you need a water slide in the middle of the office and daily breaks to hold hands and sing campfire songs, I’m just saying that design teams need an environment in which they can create and innovate and collaborate freely.

Random Side Convos Make Developers Want To Brutally Destroy People

Now the flip side. Developers who are working on on projects in new languages (or intricate projects in languages they can code in their sleep) basically want to murder loud people.

You miss a semi colon because someone distracts you with their obnoxiously loud laughter, and your whole string of code fails. Then you spend an hour trying to figure out why on earth your hours of work crashed and burned.

When you finally do, you’re filled with rage and want to duct tape all of the designers mouths shut, and throw them in a pit of silence for all of eternity.

Rapidly Escalating Resentment = Not Cool

So back to my buddy’s story. Things got worse and worse. The previously happy go lucky, collaborative teams who had great interdepartmental relationships and great personal relationships disintegrated within a matter of months.

Developers were complaining about volume, designers felt like the devs were jealous of their awesome team culture, devs thought the designers were being disrespectful by not following their need for silence, designers thought the devs were being uptight and disrespectful by complaining about their personalities.

The crazy part that was NOTHING HAD CHANGED, other than that the two teams with drastically different team cultures had been smashed into a room that no longer gave them space to work the way they needed to work to be the most productive.

Failed Attempts To Fix Things

The initial solution his company came up with was to tell the dev team to wear noise canceling headphones. The developers expressed feeling that the company didn’t care about them as much as they cared about the designers. They also felt the designers were being disrespectful jerks, and that they should just shut up and act like normal corporate employees and that then everything would be fine. They thought it was stupid that they were being forced to compensate for their coworkers obnoxiousness.

When that didn’t work the company told the design team they could no longer discuss things out loud, it all needed to be done through chat so as not to disturb the dev team. At that point design team expressed feeling like they’d been slapped in the face and then suffocated. They expressed feeling that all of the creative energy had been abruptly sucked out of their workplace. They also felt they were being told that they were unprofessional for working the way they’d been working for years and that their awesome workplace culture had been stripped away.

Angry Resentment Abounds

So in a nutshell, at that point every single member of both teams were angry and frustrated and hated everything. My buddy said that suddenly meetings turned into arena’s for battle. Every team member on both sides went in ready to wage war. Where there used to be easy collaboration folks started digging their heels in and not willingly compromising on anything at all.

The workplace culture completely tanked, and really talented members of both the design team and the dev team started applying for other jobs. And the craziest part was, folks went from genuinely enjoying one another on a personal basis, to glaring at one another across the room and ignoring one another in the break room. Nothing personal had occurred, all of the animosity was stemming from the two teams just having vastly different workspace needs.

So how do you keep this from happening at your company?

The key is to give teams that require different workplace cultures appropriate workspaces to do their thing.

Split Open Office Floor Plans – Provide a Focus Workspace & a Collaborate Workspace

I’m going to label this concept the split open office floor plan. You provide a “Focus” workspace for folks who need silence to accomplish what they need to do. You provide a “Collaborate” workspace for folks who need to chat and laugh and get a little rowdy while they work to achieve maximum levels of productivity and creativity. Give team members the option to bounce between workplaces as needed. Maybe a designer needs a day to focus on a specific solution, and they’re feeling easily distracted instead of fueled by interaction, let them go chill in the focus room. Maybe a dev is ready to tear out hair because of all of the silence, let them go work in the collaborate room.

Everything Is Awesome… Seriously, It Worked Wonders In Our Company

You’ll wind up with better products, higher levels of employee workplace culture satisfaction and killer interdepartmental collaboration. I know this for a fact because our company used the split open floor plan model for years, and it worked beautifully. The design team had space to be rowdy, the dev team had space to be silent, and both teams were genuinely happy and productive.

If your company is experiencing rapid growth, keep an eye on your seating arrangements. They can truly make the difference between people loving their jobs and looking forward to going in to work in the morning, and despising their jobs and wanting to strangle folks all day long.

What Happened With My Buddy’s Company? 

I shared our killer split open office layout arrangement with him, and he said he was going to take it back to his senior staff immediately. He didn’t want to lose any more talent to something as silly as a poor seating arrangements. He mentioned that it was going to cost the company a ridiculous amount of money to hire and train replacements for the employees they had lost. It was definitely going to cost far more than rearranging seating in the office would have cost them.

Fix It. 

So did your company convert to an open floor plan when it became hot? At the end of the day your goal should be giving your teams the optimal work environments that they require to achieve the highest level of productivity and success. There’s no reason to let something as small as seating arrangements tank your company’s productivity, workplace culture and employee satisfaction. Fix it and get on with making awesome products.

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UX Thinking: It’s Contagious!

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This past weekend my daughter and I walked into a restaurant and they had a napkin dispenser on the counter.

When you tried to pull out a napkin, about 45 more came out with it.

After attempting to use it for a second time with the same irritating result, my daughter looked up and said very seriously, “You need to take a picture of this for your blog.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the UX is horrible!” She replied. “It would be so easy to fix! They just need to make it work more like a tissue box!”

I’m deeming that a parenting win.

UX thinking is contagious, and family members are especially susceptible!

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When Your MacBook Won’t Boot First Thing In The Morning

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I just had one of those extreme panic moments. I grabbed my morning cup of coffee, hit the power button on my Mac… and it spun and spun and spun and spun… and didn’t boot. Thank goodness for Dropbox or I probably would have had a coronary on the spot. I legit felt like someone had sawed off my right arm.

I wound up having to steal my daughter’s Windows 8 machine for about an hour… and I after using it for about 10 minutes I wanted to die. I didn’t really realize how deeply immersed in Apple land I am, until I tried to actually get work done in a Windows 8 environment.

I am happy to report that after some doctoring my beloved MacBook Pro has returned to its fully functioning happy self, but holy adrenaline rush first thing in the morning.

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Women Outnumber Men In Our Product Design Team

“So wait… you have more women than men in your product design team?”

“Yep. Why do you ask?”

“Well, that’s just really unique!”

Before I attended my first conference, I legit didn’t realize that it was considered “unique” to have more women than men on a product design team. And honestly, for the longest time I didn’t even notice it.

We have 2 female mobile & web engineers/architects (one of whom is a manager & a product design genius, the other is an API addict), and 3 female product designers.

We have 3 men on our team, 2 engineers/architects & a fab VP.

Why am I mentioning this? I’m not going to go off on a weird rant about lack of opportunity for women in this industry, because I legitimately haven’t experienced it here. Our ratio of women to men is 5:3. It’s just a true statement about the gender make up of our team. Skill wise we’re nailing 100% awesome.

What I AM going to say is if you are a woman who has worked in an environment where the ratio of men to women was vastly off balance and made you uncomfortable, know that there are design teams out there that are more equally balanced, or in our case tipped the other way.  Don’t just toss out a “oh well, it’s this way everywhere,” because it’s really not at all.

Both the women and the men I work with are crazy talented and are just generally awesome human beings. More men than women or more women than men isn’t a thing here. It’s a – get the most talented group of people possible on this team to make amazing products – thing… as it should be everywhere.

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Poor UX: Creator of Pain & Instant Rage

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Insert thumb and lift to open? It’s a dirty lie!

You know what happens when I need to open one of these bad boys? I poke it with my thumb and the cardboard collapses into an infuriating tent.

Then I poke it with a few other fingers, thinking one of them must be the “right” finger, until ultimately I jam one & curse (poor UX can be literally painful).

By this point I’m legitimately angry, so I grab the nearest knife and stab the box an unhealthy number of times.

Afterward I feel some remorse for taking out my unbridled rage on a box of noodles & chemically enhanced cheese sauce, but by then the damage is already done.

A detail as small as poor packaging can legit destroy an otherwise positive user experience. Every time I see a box of mac and cheese in the store, I feel annoyed. Negative user experiences leak into the subconscious and color the way people view entire brands.

Don’t let your product become the mac and cheese box of user experience, keep an eye on the little big details!

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UX Pros: Offending New Car Buyers Everywhere

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So this definitely happened last week. A good friend bought a brand new car.

I went for a ride in it for the first time: smooth ride, sexy interior, and the entire time I was analyzing ways they could have improved the layout of the digital controls, the cup holders and the seat adjustment apparatus.

Does anyone else ever occasionally wish that there was an off switch for the UX pro portion of your brain? But at the end of the day, that part makes us great at our jobs. Some days I just feel like it’s just a blessing/curse!

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How to Build An Amazing In-House Product Design Team

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While conversing with some of my UX pro peers recently, I discovered that in-house design teams at software companies are extremely varied in make up. Some places have great team dynamics and others really don’t. At my company Schoolwires, we have a completely awesome Design & Innovation team with members that work incredibly well together, not only from a personality stance, but from a combined powerhouse of skills stance. So today, I’m going to focus on answering  the question:

What does it take to create a killer in-house Design and Innovation team?

1.      An Incredibly Innovative Vice President

At my company we have a VP of Product Design and Innovation who is one of the most contagiously creative, innovative people I have ever met. You go into what should be a mundane meeting with him, and come out feeling inspired every single time. He also has a vision of the future of technology that reaches out decades. He’s always thinking about the next next, with his finger on the pulse of the latest and greatest apps and software and technology trends.

2.      A UX Manager Who Thinks in Wireframes and Dreams Code

Our Manager of User Experience literally thinks in wireframes and dreams code. She hears a concept and immediately starts brainstorming the wireframes in her mind. She is incredibly talented, and has a background in code, so she not only pictures design in her mind, she knows how to MAKE the things she envisions. She’s also a mobile developing/designing genius. Cap that off with being a phenomenal, supportive manager and you’ve got Sara.

3.     Three Creative UX Architects Who Love to Design

We have three fantastic architects on our team who really enjoy designing. Our architects do the data layer/api/business layer work for all of our projects, but they also lead designs and create wireframes at times.They are able to tell us at a glance if what we hope can happen is actually feasible. If we had to wait until our designs were passed off to development to find that information out, we’d end up with hours and hours of additional rework time. Don, Heather and Craig are the key to keeping us agile.

4.     Two Extremely Talented UX Designers 

Our UX designers are fantastic.

Danelle makes our CMS interface and our mobile apps look like works of art, and can kick out gorgeous high res mockups on a dime! She is constantly looking for the latest and greatest design tricks and tips, and brings fresh ideas and concepts to our products on a regular basis to ensure positive user experiences.

Kelly is an epic interaction designer. She comes up with new innovative ways to make our products even more interesting and user friendly! She focuses on a user centered design approach to ensure that our latest features and product enhancements will positively impact the lives of our clients.

5.      A Content Strategist With A Background in Psychology

Our Content Strategist & UX Editor Jennifer loves conducting user research & usability testing regularly, writing user friendly microcopy to ensure consistent voice and tone,  reviewing and collaborating on designs to ensure usability, analyzing product statistics to identify trends, and discovering all the ways we can make our clients lives easier through design.

The 8 of us work together exceptionally well because we work in an environment that supports open sharing of ideas. We all have the utmost respect for one another, and our leadership team has made it clear that every member of the team is valued, as are their opinions.

It’s also accepted team wide that no one is perfect, nor are they expected to be. Sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re wrong but the safe environment for sharing both good and bad ideas leads to incredible collaboration and ultimately stronger, more innovative, user friendly products.

You don’t have to go freelance to love your job! Our department is living proof that in-house design team utopia does exist.

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How much money is your life actually worth?

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to video chat with a friend who I haven’t seen in years, we just recently reconnected. 

When I met him he loved his line of work and the company he worked for. He worked as a designer at a startup with an awesome culture and amazing management. He was healthy mentally and physically and his eyes sparkled when he talked about his job, which he found very fulfilling.  He had a great work/life balance. His love for his job and the work he was doing directly affected every aspect of his life in a positive way.

When I video chatted with him yesterday I hardly recognized him. His company had experienced rapid growth, which you’d expect to be a good thing. He was making much more money than he had been 5 years ago when we met, but during the course of the rapid expansion, new management had been put into place. The new management had removed the flexibility & work life balance and had sucked all of the joy out of the workplace culture. As an added bonus the new management was verbally and emotionally abusive to employees. 

The company was doing great financially, and paid extremely well, but nearly every employee in my friend’s department had grown to hate their jobs and going into the office. The employees had started to leave the department in a steady stream. Rather than identifying the source of the problem (management), even when people leaving directly pointed it out, the HR department took the stance that the people leaving just “couldn’t adapt to rapid growth.”

My friend’s eyes have lost their sparkle, they’re dull and empty now. His health is failing due to high blood pressure induced by extreme stress. His doctor basically told him that if he can’t get his levels of stress under control that he’s at great risk for a heart attack. 

I was stunned. I asked him why in the world he still works at the company. He said that he’s looked for other jobs but can’t find anywhere that he can make as much money as he’s making now in his area, and that he hates to leave a place he’s invested so much time in. 

My next question was, “How much money is your life worth?”

I then followed with, “This job is literally killing you. Could you take a pay cut and do a less stressful job at a company with a better work life balance and still live comfortably? If not, could you downsize your home and trade your car in for a cheaper model and live comfortably making less money? If so, then what is the point of staying where you are in that horribly toxic work environment that is destroying your life? Is cutting your life shorter by 10, 20 or 30 years worth an extra 5-10k a year while you’re still alive? Is dying in your early 50’s really worth staying at this place?”

He emailed me this morning to let me know that he had started applying for other jobs when we ended our chat session. 

Are you feeling trapped in a toxic work environment? Get out of it. You’re never actually as trapped as you feel. Evaluate your priorities. Bump health and quality of life above money. If you’re having trouble moving money lower on your list of priorities, look in the mirror and ask yourself: “How much money is my life actually worth?” 

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Titanic Workflow Mentality: How To Lose Talent & Sink Your Company

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Today I had a sad conversation with another UX pro who is battling a really tough workplace culture problem. I have now dubbed it “Titanic Workflow Mentality”.

Sometimes you come across a person in an organization, or a band of people who slam on the brakes when new workflow ideas come through. Rather than constructively reviewing pros and cons, or keeping the positive aspects and tossing the negatives, they shut the door in your face, lock it and throw away the key.

Change is scary. Very few people on earth like the idea of change. Some changes are bad. Some are great. But if you stay stagnant, especially if your company is experiencing rapid growth,and keep doing things the way you always have for old times sake, your talent will leave and your competitors will zoom past you and laugh when you choke on their dust.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that is packed full of extremely talented people who are visionaries in the fields of software and mobile design, development and architecture. I legitimately feel pity for people who are trapped in team cultures like the one I described in the first paragraph.

If you’re starting to sense a “Titanic Workflow Mentality” coming from above (God himself could not make our old school work flows more perfect!), then it may be time to jump in a life raft and row like crazy toward a new company. Otherwise, you’ll wind up going down with the rest of the ship. And likely, the sinking experience will be full of stress, anger, extreme levels of frustration and lots of finger pointing, before it finally goes under.

If you do choose to stay and wait it out, or really feel that things could improve, get with other folks with positive attitudes in your organization and protect your positive small team culture like your company’s success depends on it (because it may). Even in the worst situations, a pocket of positive energy can go a long way in turning things around.

If you are full of anxiety and dread, are grinding your teeth to powdery nubs and have lost the will to get out of bed to go into work in the morning, start applying elsewhere though. Life is too short to work long term in a place that makes you miserable.

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Hollywood celebs? Meh. Famous tech industry peeps? Insta-starstuck!

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Somebody please tell me I’m not the only one who turns into a tongue tied secret picture taking star struck weirdo when famous tech industry folks are near. Lol.

I had the opportunity to attend a book signing by Karen McGrane at the 2013 Web Conference at Penn State. I definitely walked up to the table, handed her my copy of Content Strategy for Mobile, and blurted out, “I LOVE YOU!”

Karen was really cool about it, and just grinned and said, “Thanks!” while she signed the book.

This year I attended ConvergeSE in Columbia. During one of the sessions I looked up and realized Ethan Marcotte was SITTING RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!

Instead of, you know, introducing myself, I snuck my cell phone out and took a completely creeper-ish picture of him that he was definitely not aware of. My coworker thought it was hilarious and picked on me for months about it. 🙂

A week ago I spoke at the Web Conference at Penn State where Ethan was also a speaker. I was again, mega shy (#introvertproblems) and saw him but didn’t actually approach him. (I did not, however, take any more creepy pictures. 😉 )

During Luke W’s session break, I went out to grab a cup of coffee and ran into Ethan. I was all, “You’re Ethan Marcotte!” after I recovered from the shock. He grinned and said, “Yes I am, it’s very nice to meet you!”

This time I actually shook his hand and introduced myself like a normal human. I later publicly admitted on Twitter to my ConvergeSE secret picture taking covert activity.  Ethan responded with a very kind tweet, and didn’t seem overly creeped out. lol

Please, please tell me there are others who suffer from this awkward affliction?

Seriously though, Hollywood celebs? Meh. Famous tech industry peeps? Insta-starstruck.

 

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