Startup Years = Dog Years

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We were in a meeting recently and someone made a comment about startup years being like dog years. Definitely an accurate statement!

If you analyze the progress made by a successful fast growth startup in sales & revenue, feature additions & product growth, and staffing additions, each year is often equivalent to about a decade (or more) of large corporation progress.

One of the biggest thrills of working for a startup is the breakneck pace. It’s not for the faint of heart, but man is it ever a fun ride!

Innovation: Let Go Of The Ball And Chain, And Jump!

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Have 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.

If you keep yourself tethered to 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.

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.

Then my kiddo asked, “What is innovation?”

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Have you ever had a child ask you the meaning of a word, but really it’s more than just a word? I ran into that situation earlier this week when my daughter asked me what “innovation” is. I work in the Product Design & Innovation department at my company, and she saw it in my title.

I had to really think about my response for a while. I could have just rattled off the dictionary definition:  “a new idea, device, or method” (thanks Merriam Webster dictionary), but to me innovation is much more than that. Innovation is looking at the world around you, and constantly envisioning ways it can improve. An innovative idea doesn’t have to be something brand new that has never existed, it can just be a new way of improving an old product.

Take the Coolest cooler for example. A group of designers looked at a boring old cooler whose core design hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years and said, “Man, coolers are pretty lame. Let’s make an awesome one.” As of today their Kickstarter campaign has hit $1 MILLION dollars in funding.

Innovation doesn’t have to mean making something brand new that has never existed. It can simply mean making something that already exists, extraordinary.

Does your job fuel your creative energy?

You know what I love about my job as a Content Strategist and UX Editor for our Product Design and Innovation team? Everything.

One of my favorite aspects is definitely working with a team of incredibly creative, innovative people. We have photographers, print makers, font addicts, nature lovers, writers, painters, craft makers, house flippers, code dreamers, you name it. It’s an eclectic group of people who all bring their own perspective and spin to our products.

One of the coolest things about working with such an incredible group of folks, is that the creativity is almost palpable. You can feel it humming around the team when we’re  in the office. We work extremely hard, but in the downtime during coffee breaks we chat about our latest creative hobbies, share pictures of pieces we’ve done, sneak previews of things that are in progress, and it’s just generally an incredibly creative atmosphere.

After a particularly inspiring day at the office (our next project is completely awesome, can’t wait for launch!!!) I  had one of those nights, where I experienced the spine tingling creative compulsion make something beautiful. Ever get that feeling, that if you don’t create something beautiful immediately, you’re going to explode?

I picked up a camera and started shooting things (fall foliage, trees, the crescent moon) and spent the evening editing.  When I was done, and had a few pieces I loved, I realized that I had been attacked by a fit of creative energy that stemmed from working in a job that FUELS my creativity, rather than a job that detracts from it. I get to spend my days thinking of new innovative ways to do things, and the job is actually multiplying my creative energy exponentially. Add to that the fact that spending time with the awesome team of people I work with is like being perpetually wrapped in a cloud of creative innovation,  and you’ve got a definite win.

When you get home from work, are you energized? Are you inspired? Do you have those fits of creativity that crawl through your spine demanding that you create something amazing?

If you’re drained, exhausted, mentally fried, or creatively sapped when you get home, there’s a good chance that you’re in the wrong field, or in a toxic work environment.

Free yourself and find a position and team that inspire and fuel your creativity! Then you’ll never “work” another day in your life. You’ll just spend your days doing something you love with “your people” while making bank! Life doesn’t get much better than that.

UX and Design Tools That Will Improve Your Productivity

This is a list of some of my favorite UX, design and accessibility testing tools at the moment! I hope you find them useful!

Tools for Collaboration

Tools for Usability Testing

Usability Testing Services That Provide Testers

Tools for Mobile Usability Testing & Prototyping

Tools for Usability Tester Recruiting

Mac Tools for Demoing Apps

Tools for Stat Tracking

Tools for Accessibility Testing

Miscellaneous Tools I Love

If any of your favorite tools aren’t listed, please feel free to leave them in the comments! I love testing out new tools! 🙂

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! 🙂

Open Your Mind & Build Better Products: Persona Centered Design Brainstorming

The company I work for is incredible. I have an amazingly talented manager and an incredibly innovative, creative Vice President. Both are huge advocates for UX, usability testing and cutting edge user research methods. Another area in which they are very supportive, is the area of persona research. We have spent a good amount of time on our persona research, and it’s proven to be worth its weight in gold. We have been able to leverage the persona research in some really cool ways. I wanted to share with you a persona centered brainstorming method that has been particularly effective.

Our company’s flagship product is a CMS that allows school districts to maintain web properties with ease. Recently we created an end user layer called MyView, which functions as a dashboard for parents, students, staff members and community members. It’s an extremely powerful feature, and that is in large part due to our initial persona centered design brainstorming session. I’m going to outline the process we followed in hopes that it can aid some other organizations in the future.

Step 1: Get out of the office.
We met offsite. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s huge. In office meetings are great, but when you want to get the creative juices flowing being in a remote area with no “pop in” distractions can really aid in focusing on the task at hand.

Step 2: Respect one another.
We have a team dynamic in which every team member is free to share ideas without fear of judgment. Every member of our team has respect for one another and feels comfortable sharing ideas.

Step 3: Integrate user personas in your design brainstorming.
We did a really cool exercise in which each member of our team adopted a key user persona, complete with name tag. Each of us then looked at the design from our adopted persona’s point of view. You wouldn’t believe how different your mental design process ends up when you’re looking at a concept from a specific persona point of view, rather than your own.

Step 4: Draw Pictures.
I have less than zero talent when it comes to drawing. Seriously, even my stick figures are pitiful. Asking every member of the team (Architects, Content Strategists, UX Designers, Vice Presidents I’m talking EVERY member) to draw what they envision the product to look like, and asking them to integrate the features they feel would be most important to their adopted user persona, is a really cool way to come up with innovative user centered ideas. Break out grid paper and sharpies for those who, like me, can’t even draw a straight line, and have at it.

Step 5. Create your V1 mockups on the spot.
How many times have you had a fantastic productive brainstorming meeting, gone home, come back the next day and you can’t figure out what in the world your notes mean? Create your V1 mockups before you leave while the ideas are still fresh in your mind.

We wound up with a completely killer design, and later an equally killer product enhancement using this method. I hope your company can benefit from it as well! May your products live long and prosper… with a little help from persona centered design brainstorming sessions. 🙂