Ghost in the Pixel

Uday Gajendar's musings on interaction design

First month “start-up insights”

Wow, that went really fast! Hard to believe it’s already been over a month at my gig leading UX at CloudPhysics in Silicon Valley. So, what are my big insights and learnings so far? Quite a few that I’m still processing… but I’ll summarize with three words: Speed, Impact, and Contradiction.

// Living in a state of blur

First overall observation: the sheer speed with which stuff happens. It’s both disorienting and extremely gratifying to see live code generated and reviewed in just a few hours or a couple days at most, and pushed out frequently—hey, it’s all SaaS web-based apps anyway, right?! ;-)

As a consequence, I feel as if I’m living in a state of “blur”, where I’ve lost my sense of time—confusing yesterday for last week, or vice versa! The torrents of emerging and interwoven threads (strategy, research, hiring, designing a new vision, marathon 2-week sprints, spec’ing UIs, meeting customers) slam you forward with intensity and focus. The high frequency context-shifting is like watching hummingbird wings—just an ambient swash of activity that zooms ahead. It’s exhilarating and exhausting, all at once!

// The burden of making solo impact

Being a “Team of One” is wonderfully exciting and can be an overwhelming challenge, no question. Admittedly the level of authority to make significant impact is unprecedented in my career–and I gladly welcome it! I do feel prepared to handle this kind of influence, which is not for everyone. I had to undergo certain experiences in my career development to reach this point. Also, I’m very lucky to have total executive backing and a willing, supportive team who realize the product crucially needs design value. Sitting with our team— I literally sit in the middle of the room overhearing the chatter, jumping in to discuss and sketch solutions—is fantastic for maximum visibility and contact. And it’s an impressive array accomplished in just 30 days, with team support: Conducted a UX Audit, Defined a Customer Experience framework, Defined draft principles and strategy, Delivered UI Specs for features, Defining a concept vision for what’s “next”, Joining in customer calls, and Hiring UX Interns! Whew. I need a drink, or two ;-)

I must admit, however, one of the big things I definitely miss from corporate, is having access to a great, diverse in-house design team that I can tap into as a “sounding board” for ideas, and of course, resources to assist me. It’s a real trade-off.

// Swimming with contradictions

There’s this odd set of contradictions or “dialectical tensions” (via R Buchanan) I’ve been grappling to absorb and master. It’s not easy to do it all. Here’s a few of them:

* Now vs Next: There are immediate demands to deliver UI specs per preset 2-week sprints (“cohort cycles”) so there’s a need to focus on the “Now” designs. Yet I’m also pushing what could be, shaping a future vision & conceptual direction that leads us forward. Balancing both, while finding moments to draw them together, as connective threads, has been an interesting challenge. How do we ensure a progressively built path to overall coherence & consistency?

* Macro vs Micro: This is the classic “forest vs trees” problem, trying to say aloft at the high level of strategic oversight and broad perspective—discussing abstract product/UX issues with CEO and CTO, for instance, while diving deep into pixel-level production for specific UI controls with the engineers. Maintaining a parallel, dual vision of both is tough, especially when you have to deliver “tomorrow” (e.g., often late night ;-)

* Direction vs Production: Sure, I own the “title” of UX Director but I’m cranking comps and spec’ing pixels with sliced graphics, like a production intern. Obviously, somebody has to do it. And there’s no better way to deliver specific tangible value that garners respect from the team. Yet I’m shaping strategy, principles, and conceptual approaches that blend high-level customer experience thinking…about who our users are, and what kind of world do we want to offer them. This also involves direction in terms of design process, aligning with the Agile development model, which takes time to evolve as a team practice.

* Leading vs Following: This is the hardest of all for me, to balance the image of being the knowledgeable, competent leader projecting a posture of conviction, yet be an awe-inspired follower of this new company, culture, technology, etc. It’s a funny blend of humility to follow wiser folks, with the natural desire to drive and set a tone–while knowing when to do either! I’m still learning daily about the technology and business as well, no question. This is just something that takes time to cultivate, but it gets better every day!

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A new vocabulary for start-up UX

While leading design-oriented cultural change at Citrix, a global 9k person company, I whole-heartedly espoused the vocabulary of “design thinking” & “customer experience” drawn from Stanford d.school and Forrester —including “workshops”, “catalysts”, “empathy”, and so forth. Such phrases epitomize a certain POV for customer-centric advocacy and education, tuned for a corporate, distributed constituency not familiar with “design”…and often skeptical of its business value!

Now that I’m leading design at a dramatically smaller start-up of just 20+ people, where “massive cultural change” is simply not the order of the day, a different vocabulary is warranted. A set of phrases & concepts that foster the pursuit of tight integration of design strategy within sales and engineering cycles, one that speaks to pragmatic efficiency and iterative learning. So here’s what I’ve been diving into lately…

** Hooked framework: How do you create a habitually addictive product— minus chemical enhancements? ;-) Nir Eyal advocates his “hooked” model of “Trigger > Action > Reward > Investment” as a way to re-interpret your offering in a more autotelic sense of self-generated desire to satisfy needs/goals—and it’s habitual. The most interesting part for me is the notion of “variable delights” that engender repeat visits with a sense of surprise.

** Jobs-to-be-Done model: Clayton Christensen’s latest thinking around innovation, grounded in the notion of someone has a “job” that needs to be fulfilled by using your product or service. Not entirely revolutionary for the UX industry, I realize, but this frames the product or service offering in a very task-oriented manner. Does your offering deserve to be “hired” by the user for their “job”? What are other candidates for that context? And so forth…

** UX Debt: When there’s a gap between what has been delivered and what was intended to be shipped, in terms of the quality of the UX, there’s some UX debt incurred. This can be itemized, measured, and tracked accordingly per decisions made and circumstances that led to it (ex: deferred a simplified navigation due to lack of time or headcount from engineering). Debt piles up and there may be a reckoning! This is a great discussion point in project meetings: are we ready to accumulate more UX debt by making this or that compromise?

** HEART and GSM frameworks: Very nice frameworks from Google on measuring user satisfaction, this is an acronym of Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention, and Task Success. Also, GSM is a corollary to determine which Goals, Signals and Metrics would be useful for a feature or product, thus enabling informed decisions in an earnestly data-oriented manner. Sure, A/B testing is fun and fashionable, but what metric are you trying to improve and why? Let’s be clear and open about it.

Finally, I’ve mostly avoided the word “Process”, which conveys negative tones of bureaucracy–definitely not desired in a start-up context. Instead, I speak of “Discipline” and “Focus”, echoing the intense drive of Steve Jobs in shipping the first Mac, and subsequent breakthroughs.

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Fostering a sense of “visual empathy”

Visuals are powerful tools for compelling teammates to recognize what’s important and useful, from sketches to mockups to prototypes. In this vein of thought, also valuable are quite simply giant posters of collages of graphical interfaces—literally big enough for a whole wall, to dramatically amplify both the examples of current state of affairs, as well as shape a fantasy of aspirations for the targeted customer market. Indeed, the power of visual volume (number of images) and scale (measured in feet) fosters a kind of “visual empathy”. For example, in trying to develop a novel visual design language for an enterprise IT app, it’s useful to feel out the current state of enterprise apps, that IT Admins inhabit. What kind of visuals (images, colors, type, diagrams, tables, etc.) do they immerse themselves with, surround themselves daily, and interact with frequently? This helps understand the kind of conventions and realities that define their world view, that shapes expectations and perceptions…as drawn from Bergson’s “assumptive worlds”. It’s the world that is normal and routine.

Likewise, it’s useful to shape a vision of what’s to come, a visual collage of aspirations that elevate the quality of information display and interactive potential. What kinds of colors, shapes, textures, atmospheres might suggest an improvement of that conventional state of affairs? Again, blowing up the collage to large-scale magnifies quite literally the sense of “living in this new world”, immersive and absorptive. Then step back and assess what qualities make for an improved sense of lifestyle, emotion, and satisfaction overall for the customer.

It may be obvious, but of course having these immersive collages juxtaposed further strengthens the sense of empathizing for that world that is, and what might come to be. The diligent designer will ascertain critical threads of progress and themes for defining principles and guidelines, all with a mindful sense of how the customer may strive to feel.

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Aligning value prop & customer goals

An immensely valuable discussion to hold with your key product stakeholders (like the Product, Sales, and Marketing leaders) involves a critical assessment of two essential ingredients of ascertaining your product/market fit: the product “value proposition” and the customer’s goals. Alignment between these two increases the likelihood of achieving a fit that enables business success (hey, there’s no guarantees!) but how to get there? First, ask basic questions among your stakeholders, all together if possible, for full transparency.

a) What is the product’s value prop…and how is that being messaged in the corporate website, as well as in the current application interface? Just jot down a key phrase or two, not some long-winded Dilbertian mission statement full of buzzwords! This is about the product’s purpose, raison d’être if you will. Chances are, various members of the product & company leadership team have varying perspectives…which is fine, as that speaks to a range of potential, but need to find the focus and identify any divergence or contradictions.

b) What are the customer’s goals? Actually, the antecedent assumption to this is identifying who exactly is the targeted customer per utility and revenue. Perhaps there’s a range or a single target—just be clear and fully in agreement. Then, via the devices of user profiles, contextual analyses, and personas, ascertain the aspirations and goals sought from using this product. What lifestyle qualities are enhanced? Which emotions are evoked and sustained? Who else benefits in terms of the “social life of information” extending from the product itself, but the broader ecosystem?

Capturing the responses to these basic yet critical questions will help determine if there’s mutual inter-dependence or crucial conflict in arriving at an appropriate product satisfying customers and driving business value.

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Reactive to proactive designing

In dealing with the perpetual quick-fire nature of a start-up, I’ve begun to develop and apply a useful approach to help manage the swirl of seemingly random chatter and work streams—and when you’re the sole person in charge of UX, it comes in fast! In particular is a mental model for handling the intensely reactive mode of “fix this UI problem” requests per some pre-determined project schedule. Instead of simply indulging in the face-value request of “fixing” a screen for an arbitrary deadline, I’m cultivating a more proactive approach, which hopefully demonstrates “good behavior” for non-designers on the team. There is a series of questions structured in the following manner:

* What appears to be the actual problem? Let’s frame and phrase it not in terms of “I don’t like” but in terms of the issue and consequence. Focus on the (de)merits that negatively impact the user’s task outcomes.

* Who will benefit the most from fixing this problem? The company? A buyer? A user? A middle tier partner or reseller? Let’s be clear about who’s really impacted here.

* What is the impact if this is not fixed? This will help prioritize and get a sanity check. Focus on facts (or reason, at least), not fears! This also shapes a dialogue around perceived needs and goals.

* What is the probability of this problem actually happening to the identified target? Is this really more of an edge case vs a frequent issue? Under what contexts or conditions does this problem occur?

* Is this problem entirely preventable via some other method or approach of changing various controls or options or wizard steps, etc.? This forces deeper look at how this problem is triggered in first place.

* Any other prior issues or precedents within the product related to this? This helps uncover broader thematic issues beyond this problem, expanding the scope of insight and looking a range of considerations, towards a more strategic outlook.

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