Category Archives: TeamBuilding

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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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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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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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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Stop Sucking the Creative Energy Out of Your Design Brainstorming Sessions

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Have you ever woken up in the morning and thought, “It’s a bright new day! I’m going to go to work and suck the life out of the rest of my design team until every one of our designs is completely devoid of creativity!” I’m going with probably not.

Yet every time I go to a conference I encounter design team members who work with sarcastic jerks who disrespectfully crush their good ideas as well as their bad ideas.

I’m not saying that you should never say an idea won’t work, so you end up developing something awful. I am saying that team respect goes a long way in creating an incredibly creative, innovative work environment.

I recently wrote an article about how everyone on earth will have some great ideas and some terrible ones during their lives. The way you react to both the bad ideas and the good will make or break your team culture.

When someone tosses out an idea that won’t work, rather than rolling your eyes and publicly shooting them down and berating them (which effectively embarrasses them to the point they never want to pitch another idea), toss out something like, “That’s an interesting perspective, what if we tried XXXX instead? Or, that may not work for this particular project because of xxxx, but what if we took the idea a step further in this other direction?”

I’m not saying that you should never say no to an idea, or that you need to coddle your team. I’m saying that you should say no in a professional respectful way. Because at the end of the day, the person you just rolled your eyes at may have had an epic epiphany 2 minutes later, that you’ll never hear because you undermined his or her confidence.

Tone and attitude go a long way in design brainstorming sessions. Create a climate where designers are comfortable sharing all of their ideas without the judgement, the good and the bad, and the results of your brainstorming sessions will instantly increase in productivity.

I know this works, because I work on one of the most incredible teams on earth. We have the utmost respect for one another, we share ideas without fear of judgement, and as a result we come up with incredibly innovative ideas. And as an added bonus, every day for the last 4 years I’ve woken up excited to go to work in the morning.

At the end of the day, design team culture is the key to innovation.

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Creating a Killer In-house Design & Innovation Team

While conversing with some of my UX pro peers, I’ve discovered that design teams at software companies are extremely varied in make up. Some places have great team dynamics and others really 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. (Don’t even THINK about trying to headhunt Jay… He’s ours!!!) 🙂

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

Our Manager of User Experience literally thinks in wireframes and dreams code. I’m not even kidding. We recently had a discussion about it. She hears a concept and pictures 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. Cap that off with being a phenomenal, supportive manager and you’ve got Sara!

3.     Two Creative UX Architects Who Love to Design

We have two awesome architects 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! I’ve talked to folks who do not have architects on their design teams, and I can’t imagine designing without them! 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 stuff out, we’d end up with hours and hours of additional rework time. They are key to keeping us agile! Craig and Heather are incredibly talented!

4.      An Extremely Talented UX Designer With a Graphic Design Background

Our UX designer is absolutely fantastic! She can make a CMS interface look like a work of art, and can kick out gorgeous high res mockups on a dime! She too is constantly looking for the latest and greatest design tricks and tips, and brings fresh ideas and concepts to our products! Danelle is fabulous!

5.      A UX Editor/Content Strategist With a Background in Psychology

Our UX Editor/Content Strategist is completely obsessed with writing, statistics and discovering how we can make our clients lives easier through design. She is also a tech-blog-aholic and has an insatiable thirst for all knowledge related to UX, Usability and Content Strategy. She loves design brainstorming and working in wireframes more than most things in life!

The 6 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 the good ideas and the bad leads to incredible collaboration and ultimately stronger, more innovative, user friendly products.

To cap it off, there is a level of completely contagious excitement that spreads throughout the team while we work on new design concepts. You can almost feel the wave of excitement crashing around you while the team is brainstorming and tweaking and perfecting. It is the most amazing work environment I’ve ever experienced.

As proof, our current design project is incredible. I can’t wait for it to hit the market! I’m like a kid on Christmas morning, it’s so exciting! 🙂

In summary, I hope that this article helps you to envision your dream in-house design and innovation team. I’ve found mine, now it’s time for you to create yours! And remember, you don’t have to go freelance to love your job! Our team is living proof that in-house design team utopia does exist! 🙂

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