Just Build It

1*NXMN5dYXkx3wRDIrRHgayw@2xRaise your hand if you, or someone you know has ever run into this scenario… Everyone? Yep, it happens often, and it’s the worst. In some orgs it doesn’t matter how many red flags you wave, or if you wave them so hard and so long that your arms fall off. There are stakeholders who flat out refuse to invest in the research necessary to ensure that you’re building something your audience actually needs.

And then getting blamed for the product’s failure is just the icing on the cake. If you run into this there are 2 things you should know:

A. You tried. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

B. It’s not your fault, don’t get down on yourself.

You can push and push and push but if the stakeholders in your org refuse to understand the power of design thinking and the value in user research and usability testing, there’s not much you can do other than bounce and look for a job at a more design centric org. Or at least an org that is open to learning more about the value of design.

You could build the best product in the world, but if there is no audience for it, it’s going to fail. If you encounter this situation, just keep your head up and continue moving forward in your current job or toward a new one, your choice. 🙌

(Or come work at InVision, because we don’t have this problem!) 🙂

The Career Building Power of “No”

I was chatting with some friends this week, and we got on the topic of how hard it can be to fire clients.

I mean, they’re giving you their money, and you obviously want to keep a strong freelance following and your good reputation.

Here’s the thing. Keeping a client who is a holy nightmare to work with is counter productive on soooo many levels.

Give yourself full permission to fire terrible clients, guilt free.

If you’re considering firing them, one or more of the following are probably true:

#1 They suck as human beings.

#2 They’re taking advantage of you by trying to make you feel guilty about your fees/the amount of time it takes to finish their project.

#3 They’re the actual worst at communicating, which means you’re wasting time you could be working on other projects waiting for them to respond/wrestling decisions from them.

#4 They’re paying you late/refusing to pay for something you’ve already completed.

#5 You’re just not vibing, and it’s frustrating both you and the client in a big way.

Toxic clients are detrimental to ALL of your design work—not just the work you’re doing for that one client.

If any of these issues are occurring, give yourself 1000% permission to fire them, guilt free. Why? The stress they’re adding to your life is taking away from the other awesome clients you’re working with. They’re negatively affecting the quality of ALL of your work, not just the work you’re doing for them.

Keeping a toxic client will not have a positive impact on your career.

Choosing to keep a toxic client around to “keep your good name” isn’t going to have that effect. The rest of your work back sliding is going to damage your reputation, and there’s a high chance that they’re not going to recommend you to their peers anyway after the fact.

It’s always ok to respectfully fire awful clients.

When firing a client needs to happen, don’t just tell them to take a long leap off a short pier — have an open and honest conversation about your concerns.

Sometimes that conversation on it’s own will resolve the issues you’re encountering. If it doesn’t, tell them that you’re sorry, but they’ll need to find a designer who will better fit their needs for the remainder of the project and issue a refund for any project work you haven’t completed yet. That way you’re not “blaming them” for the issue, and you’re not saying you refuse to work with jerks. You’re just peacefully parting ways.

Fear of bad press isn’t worth destroying your sanity and your career.

Even if they rage out and try to blast your reputation afterward, there is a good chance that others in the industry will already be aware of how awful they are to work with. And if people aren’t aware, they will be when they see the client publicly blasting someone. Consider it a public service if that happens. Other designers will know to steer clear. The benefit of removing the negativity from your life is worth the gamble regardless.

Sometimes you can finish the current project and just gracefully decline additional work with the tried and true, “I apologize, but I won’t be able to take on this new project.” You don’t have to make up excuses, you don’t have to lie about a huge workload (especially since you’ll be looking for additional work), it’s ok to just say no.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to pay your bills. And you’ll always have clients that are difficult, it’s just part of being a freelancer.

But you need to know where you draw the line between difficult and toxic (and that line will be different for every freelancer). ID that line and stick to it. Saying “no” and firing awful clients will save both your sanity and the quality of your work (and your career) long term.

The Powerhouse Leader Your Org Is Probably Missing

So there are all kinds of manager vs. boss vs. person-in-charge-who-you-hate posts kicking around. They define the difference between the various types, talk about their flaws and positive traits etc.

I’m going to skip all of that since it’s been hashed out a billion times, and bring a powerful leader that is often overlooked to your attention instead. A few of the initial traits I describe are going to sound familiar, but the last one is what really defines this type of leadership style.

  1. This leader is someone who naturally earns the respect of a team, by respecting the team. If a team member does something disrespectful, out of line, or just wrong, the leader handles it immediately in a manner that is fair. (Stern talking to, probation, kicking them out the door, whatever needs to be done to ensure the rest of the team culture can continue rocking along.)
  2. This leader is someone who notices when something stupid happens. They have the skill to either identify the stupid thing immediately themselves, or they listen when another teammate comes to them to point out the stupid thing.
  3. This leader can make someone realize that they’ve done something stupid without actually making them FEEL stupid. This is a rare trait. It’s possible to coach people without making them feel like morons when they make a mistake. Obviously if someone is making repetitive mistakes that are negatively impacting your business, you need to take a different approach (up to and including letting them go) but when someone makes an honest mistake these leaders can coach them to improve without making them feel small. They empower people to succeed rather than scaring them into a state of constant fear of losing their job if they do one thing wrong. 
  4. This leader can diffuse raging battles like a champ. They march in and activate their mad (and sincere) empathy skills and magically resolve the issue at hand without making any party feel slighted

This is the secret sauce I was talking about.

I say they do it magically because it seriously SEEMS magical. I’ve had the opportunity to work for several people in my life who had this skill set, and it’s mind blowing to watch.

At my previous startup, we had a VP named Patti DiSanto and another VP named Jason Coudriet with this power, and I SWEAR they could walk into the middle of a riot and their mere presence would make everyone immediately calm down.

They’d ask the people to hug, and they’d do it. Then the people on both sides would offer them their first born children and left kidneys as a token of their thanks. (I work with incredible leaders with the same skill set now, but I won’t embarrass them by mentioning names.) 😉

This skill-set isn’t just an “HR rep” thing. Putting people with this level of empathetic skill in the position to lead a team and impact business decisions is a benefit to your culture, to every employee who ever has the opportunity to work for and learn business practice from them, AND your to bottom line. These folks are an absolute POWERHOUSE when it comes to building strong client relationships that last. ($$$)

You typically can’t identify these people with a resume, “Magical conflict resolving/make clients love us skills” isn’t a common resume bullet point, but when you meet or interview one, you’ll know immediately.

Often times, the person doesn’t even realize how powerful their skill-set could be in a business environment.

If you immediately thought of someone you know when you read this post, encourage them to pursue a position in leadership if they have any interest in it—they have the potential to make a huge, positive impact.

Companies (ESPECIALLY startups) need more of this form of leadership to survive and flourish.

I really don’t think it’s any coincidence that my last 2 back to back startups have gone on to be extremely successful. Both companies had a variety of powerhouse leadership styles including this one in the mix.

Without this person in a startup leadership team, when you hit the rapid growth stage and everyone starts to freak out, panic, and turn on one another due to stress, you’re dealing with sheer mayhem that can topple an entire company.

I’m not trying to say that hiring someone with this skill-set is the only thing you need to make your startup succeed, but hiring them WILL get you to the finish line with less permanent business & interdepartmental relationship casualties than you would have incurred otherwise.

Picking the right combination of inspiring, powerful Senior Leadership team members is key to any business’s success—make your choices wisely.

This Design Life Contribution: Designers, Are You Special?

Hi All! Recently folks have been asking me to let them know when contribution pieces I’ve written for other publications go live, so I’m going to post them here on the blog so that subscribers are notified. Thank you again for all of your support and for checking out my posts! It means the world to me!

This Design Life Contribution: Designers, are You Special?




Work-Life Balance: Workaholic Designer Edition

workaholicI’m a workaholic. Finding a solid work-life balance has been a lifelong battle for me. My brain never shuts off, and I have a really hard time pulling myself away from something I’m passionate about. And it seems to be a REALLY common trait among designers, both the guys and women I’ve talked to in the industry. We work extremely hard, and that’s great… as long as we also take time to enjoy the fruits of that hard work.

I will NEVER forget the day my daughter walked into my office and asked me if we could play, and I snapped back, “I’m working overtime right now so you can have your toys and video games! Please stop interrupting me!”

Her face fell and her eyes welled up with tears, and she said very quietly, “I don’t care about those things. I care about spending time with you.”

And then my heart shattered into a million pieces and I took a step back. I asked myself 3 tough questions in that moment and thought they may help another workaholic realign in the future.

Workaholic Reset Questions

1. Why am I working overtime?

The answer? Because I wanted to. I didn’t NEED the money. It wasn’t going to make or break my financial situation. It would mean more cash in my savings account, which is fine and good, but I didn’t NEED the cash. There was a time in my life when I was working 3 jobs to survive and the OT was absolutely necessary, but that wasn’t the case at this point in my career. We were fine financially—I had worked my ass off for many, many years to get to that point. But I still had that lingering voice in the back of my mind telling me that I had to work myself into an early grave to live comfortably. It simply isn’t true.

2. Is the project I’m working on more important than my kid?

Obviously not. The reason I’m working is to provide an awesome life for my kiddo. Putting in crazy, uneccesary hours and missing her childhood was robbing her of one of the most important parts of that awesome life—quality time spent with a parent.

3. Will the entire project burst into flames if I step away for 15 minutes to play with my kid?

No. No, it won’t. Tight deadline? Still no.

As you’re pouring your heart and soul into your projects, don’t forget to keep some on tap to actually enjoy life. Spend time with family and friends. Life is short and kids grow up really, really fast.

Is adding some extra cash to your retirement fund really worth letting life completely pass you by?

Design Thinking Combat Zone: Undermining Decades of Industry Progress

img_5489Recently the design community has developed a giant central rift over the concept of Design Thinking. There are those who absolutely love Design Thinking, what it stands for, and practical applications they’ve been able to employ in their workplaces.

There are others who are blowing the whistle on Design Thinking and are trying to explain the reasons why, “It doesn’t exist.”

Here’s the thing. For decades, designers have been silo-ed away in dark rooms and viewed as tortured artists. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an artist, in fact, many designers are incredible artists, but their skillsets also extend far beyond. Designers are problem solvers, business leaders, execs, founders, innovators driving the future of technology, the list goes on.

Design Thinking really took off because for the first time in decades, designers had a way to explain and then clearly demonstrate why they should be permitted to exit the dark room and contribute to the high level conversations. Instead of being given instructions on what to create, they were given the opportunity to actually design solutions to the problems companies and clients were facing.

Design Thinking gave designers the vehicle they needed to have conversations with C-level staffers around why they needed a (I hate this phrase so much but I’m going to use it here for dramatic effect… wait for it…) seat at the table. (Blech. But You get the idea.)

Prior to Design Thinking taking off, it was EXTREMELY difficult for designers to break out of the design room into a space where they could help guide business decisions.

And the companies that embraced design leadership and let them join the conversation? They have been making it rain when quarterly earnings reports come around.

Not going to lie, you hear the occasional horror story about how a company embraced a really terrible design leader and wrote off the entire industry as a result. But those stories are few and far between these days given the high bar put forth by the industry.

Talented design leaders are absolutely crushing it right now in senior staffer positions.

So what’s the big deal about this whole Design Thinking fight? Who cares right? It’s conceptual.

Except it’s not folks. Design Thinking is the crowbar that opened the door to enterprise companies letting designers in to help guide business decisions in addition to product design decisions. People who are discounting it now, aren’t discounting it in a designer only vacuum.

Enterprise companies and C-level leaders are now paying more attention to the design industry than ever before. This argument that previously may have gone unnoticed beyond our immediate design community is being seen by C-level staffers and they’re starting to question their investments in design leadership in general. They aren’t paying attention to the nuances of the language being used, they’re just seeing a headline that says Design Thinking is dead. Then they’re giving their design leaders the side eye in board meetings. We’re undermining our own industry, and we need to knock that ish off before we sink ourselves back into the dark silo-ed off hole from whence we came.

If we want to fight about nomenclature, and specifics, and concepts surrounding methodology and what is and isn’t design, it’s fine. If we want to redefine Design Thinking, and create new terms and descriptors it’s cool. But loudly and proudly shouting that Design Thinking is BS, is… well it’s BS. It needs to stop before any more damage is done to designers on the threshold of pushing through to having the opportunity to make their products better from the top down.

And seriously, there are still enormous enterprise companies that don’t even HAVE product designers. At all. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

So designers, let’s not distract ourselves so much with internal arguments that we lose our footing in the corporate world. We can evolve our thinking, adjust our methods and keep moving forward without cutting each other down. Let’s just do our best to keep kicking ass in the board room and keep our sights on our mission as an industry: Improving the world around us for the next generation, one project at a time.

5 Books Every Designer Needs

Recently I’ve been asked for design and UX book recommendations fairly often, so I thought I’d put together a list of 5 of my favorite design books. I hope you love them as much as I do!

And just in time for the holiday season! Feel free to direct that family member who keeps buying you socks to this list for gift inspiration. 😉 Enjoy!

The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition

Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (3rd Edition) (Voices That Matter)

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days


Bonus: I also adore the A Book Apart Series. You really can’t go wrong with those. My very favorite one in the series is Designing for Emotion.

Why Medium Should Thank Twitter For Pulling Share Counts From The New Tweet Button

twitterWe have become a society that places major weight on peer validation. Product reviews, Facebook likes, Twitter shares etc, have become a way for us to score the value of any given product, service or publication.

Twitter’s recent decision to pull share counts from the new tweet button has thrown a lot of people/companies into a tailspin. A heavily relied on and socially accepted marker for success has been yanked out from under the industry.

People who have written articles that were shared thousands of times, have now lost their symbol of baller status, and they are angry about it.

What does this have to do with Medium?

When I first began blogging on the Medium platform, I found it odd (and admittedly annoying) that the only marker of social interaction they shared publicly was the number of Medium recommendations a piece received. They don’t display social network share stats at all. You can pull referrer stats in the reports area, but they aren’t publicly associated with any of your posts.

Now that Twitter has removed share counts from their tweet buttons, the reasoning finally clicked. The creators of Medium are geniuses. They’ve created a whole new metric of peer affirmation, that isn’t reliant on any 3rd party products. They OWN recommendations, and can do what they want with them for all of eternity.

The services who up until this point have been using the Tweet button to represent their clout in the market are in an uproar, and for Medium and the Medium community as a whole the change is a non event.

Add that to the fact that Medium doesn’t require membership or sign in to view content like other networks do right now, and you’ve once again got a very public marker of success and documented social approval.

Twitter just inadvertently launched Medium to a whole new level of desirability, and I believe that while that platform has been steadily gaining traction in the industry, this change will launch it rapidly to becoming one of the primary platforms for both personal and corporate publishing.

So basically what I’m saying is that the team at Medium should really send the Twitter team a fruit basket, because they just kicked down a wall that will give Medium range to take over the digital publishing industry.

That designer is so hot right now.

a6826-1wb0ktgqnxs2gg1u2n4rnhgEvery time I hear anyone say that phrase I think of the above clip from Zoolander. Every. Single. Time. And then I grin.

There are classic design principles that never go out of style. They’re the things you learn about in design school, or for the self taught crew, you read about them in design text books, and they give you a foundation to grow on.

Once you have that foundation in place, design gives you the opportunity to create anything. ANYTHING. The only limitation is your imagination. You can make things that previously lived only in your mind, exist in the real world. And it’s thrilling.

Some people are incredibly concerned about staying in the confines of current trends. They’re worried that if they don’t stay on trend, their work will be seen as irrelevant.

Here’s the thing: Do you know how current trends come to be? People try new things. They don’t color within the lines, they think outside the box and they GO FOR IT.

If people didn’t experiment, and go beyond the boundaries of what is in style, if they didn’t take those risks, there wouldn’t BE trends. Design would go from an exciting creative outlet to a run of the mill, boring machine that kicks out mediocrity.

My daughter and I were watching the news recently, and a segment came on about a hero who reached out and saved another man with headphones on from being hit by a car.

My daughter looked up and said, “But he’s not really a hero right? Because he only did one hero-ish thing.”

I thought about it for a sec and responded, “Actually, it only takes doing one heroic deed to become known as a hero.”

Then it dawned on me that the design world follows the same principle. Almost all of the most famous, iconic designers are known for creating one signature thing. It could be a concept, or a style, or a method, or a physical creation, but there is always that one single spark that ignites the bonfire that launches their career.

Once they become famous for their one brilliant contribution, many of the following things they accomplish in their careers are highlighted and given more weight than they would have been given pre-fame. (Some deservedly so.)

Even the previously unknown, brushed aside things they did before they became famous become part of their legacy, and those things are studied and dissected, and heralded as the beginnings of genius. And not all of the things they did before becoming famous are even remotely good. And that’s ok because a huge part of design is experimenting and creating new, different, terrible and fantastic things.

Let go of your death grip on current trends and what’s hot right now, and experiment and explore. If your clients don’t understand your vision, and they only want what’s on trend, give it to them (you do have to keep the lights on after all), but never stop experimenting and dreaming and being a maker of non-existent things.

Someone out there has to start the next hot new design trend, why not you?

Legacy Features: Let Go of the Ball and Chain and Jump

6074f-1km2fezup2x9yaspunxzxtaHave you ever been in a meeting and heard, “But how will this fit in with our legacy system?”

Legacy systems can be great. They may be the meat and potatoes of your business. They may pay your bills. They need to be up to date and work like champs.

But in order to let your company enter the wonderful world of creative, innovative design, you have to be willing to jump. And when I say jump, I mean jump away from your legacy product into the unknown. You may jump and land in a pile of cash. You may jump and land in a black hole of product death. (I recommend avoiding that one.)

Regardless of the end result, you need to have that urge to try, and test, and fail, and succeed in order to innovate and create amazing things.

I’m not suggesting that you gut your entire product and rip the rug out from under your customers. Replacing core functionality requires significant research, and major usability testing throughout every stage of the design and Dev process to ensure that the changes you make will improve your users experiences.

That said, you can’t keep such a death grip on every single legacy feature that you become frozen in time. Your product will become irrelevant.

If you keep yourself permanently tethered to every feature in your legacy ball and chain, when you jump, you’re going to swing over the edge and crash into the wall with no chance of reaching the next level of success.

Treat your legacy products with the respect they deserve, but don’t forget to occasionally jump. Because if you don’t jump, your competition will… and they’ll leapfrog right over you on their way down to that pile of cash that could have been yours.

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This post was originally published on UserExperienceRocks.com

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*Thank you for your comments that lead to clarification of key points in this post.