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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