What are we missing here?

With fearsome speed the covid-19 global pandemic has prompted some radical transformations, not mere changes, that will have long-standing effects — as a true “black swan” event like 9/11. A new normalcy will prevail, demanding profound adjustments to our behaviors, and attitudes. This is true across many facets of our lives — but  I’d like to focus on the area of hi-tech office work, especially as a designer in “three in a box” collaboration with peers in engineering and product management.

In my LinkedIn feed, I’ve seen what’s currently happening described as “strange times” or “bizarre circumstances” —  perhaps a polite way of hinting at new difficulties for hi-tech workers, forced to continue their work from self-isolated contexts (aka, “home”). Putting aside inevitable disruptions to home life with awkward, fraught “blurring of (actual) boundaries” , a key aspect of the uncertainty involves the challenge of how to sustain such business continuity…and one’s own sense of self.

Yes, there are plenty of good videoconferencing apps with chat and team features, as well collaborative docs/apps like G-Suite and Office 365. For designers there’s Figma and online whiteboarding/brainstorming apps like Mural or Miro. But those are tools and tactics.

What’s really being upended, and what are we really missing? 

To enable continuity of work across contexts, there needs to be means of ensuring communications, which involve dialogues to debate issues, frame up and generate ideas, prioritizing points, come to closure and making decisions. Much of this involves storytelling and engagement with audiences in a high-fidelity (facial and bodily gestures, “reading the room”) and coordinated manner. The higher order goals of enabling collective partnership and genuine respectful collaboration still matter. We must ensure those are not merely supplanted by virtual tools, or that the tools (and their inherent frictions) become the focus at the risk of losing the cohesion of “working together” towards a goal or mission. 

In addition, as a cross-functional designer, I worry about missing or losing the following, which I find essential to team success:

  • Pictures are a thousand words — especially drawn in the moment in front of people for immediate reactions and iterations, to clarify a point or suggest an idea. And not just UI sketches, but also diagrams of relationships.
  • Serendipitous encounters with non-UX colleagues, like when you go to the kitchen or restroom or going from the conference room to your desk. Those moments when you truly bump into someone, which leads to some clarity about an issue or realization we need a working session, or maybe new information about the project comes to light (the deadline changes, etc.)
  • Doing a quick huddle with people as you look around you and spot a few folks available and realize we need to chat about an impending issue or prepare for a session coming up this afternoon — fluidly, flexibly, with minimal “tool friction”.
  • Holding an impromptu brainstorm by grabbing a couple folks and running to a wall or whiteboard, even for just 15 minutes! 
  • And many others…

Modes of presence, levels of fidelity, visual presentation, live/real-time debates and spontaneous creativity — these are all essential underlying aspects of continuous business and design work that we need to consider as we’re wrangling with the tools and “work from home” setups. But at least knowing what we’re missing can help us discover what needs to be retained and valued amid radical transformation…and how it might live in new forms. 

So, as a designer, I wonder… How Might We… introduce and sustain those unique qualities of physical in-person, shared physical space interactions and communications amid virtual contexts, across geographic areas and time zones? How could we manipulate the digital tools for online work to enable what we miss in the real world? And more likely, how may we create new ways of interacting that speak to underlying needs for social interaction, collaboration, moments of joy and surprise? More on this soon… 

Sense-making what doesn’t make sense

I often joke that Friday is when I can finally catch my breath after a hectic week at work, and survey the damage. With so much context-shifting and decision-making — it’s a head-holding moment of “what the hell happened”? Well, these last couple Fridays (and perhaps into the foreseeable future) this joke has taken a more dramatic and serious note, with various covid-19 (novel coronavirus) global pandemic impacts upon markets, societal norms, sports, school schedules, travel/tourism, office work… and especially upon healthcare systems. This has become a once-in-a-century situation that almost nobody alive today has dealt with before at such spread and speed, prompting a range of emotions, generally in the zone of anxiety / dread / fear / panic. 

My next few posts will try to tackle this with a designer’s lens, especially the impact upon what it means to go fully self-isolated and virtualized when doing the work of design. Aside from “top tips for working at home” — there’s plenty of those already! — there’s an abundance of interlocking nuances & issues worth pointing out when work (or design) is virtually conducted. 

For now, however, I can’t help but recall my own 2020 New Year’s Resolution of selecting three interrelated keywords to focus on for the year, as a fresh way to commence a new year and decade, described in a post here. Indeed, we are in some trying times where those three words I picked — ambiguity, synthesis, and resilience — are now kinda paramount! Who knew?? These words, as I’m realizing now, could possibly serve as a framework for making sense, or at least offer guidance, on how to navigate these anxious, uncertain times.

Here’s an attempt at articulating that below:

  • Ambiguity: We are certainly deep in the heart of being uncertain about what happens next, whether thinking about one’s self, loved ones, our community, general society…or, even human civilization! Swift changes of daily routines amid exponential virus growth curves tend to stoke up anxiety & uncertainty. We don’t know yet how this will all end; even medical experts are learning literally each passing hour. And our own daily lives are changing rapidly, too. So, let’s admit the ambiguity — acknowledge it exists, we’re all in this, but don’t let it overwhelm. Own the ambiguity, don’t let it own you. As adjustments to daily routines occur, regard them as opportunities to experiment, try new approaches to socializing, working, teaching, while recognizing unknown frictions therein. And since we’re all in this together, we can be hopeful of forgiveness from partners & colleagues as we try new thing — and mess up! Turn the ambiguity of “what do I do”, or “how do I do this”, into moments to be creative and learn and respond to the moment. Make the ambiguity productive. 
  • Synthesis: This is about connecting dots, and interpreting information in a way that’s responsible and self-empowering. With non-stop social media feeds and 24/7 cable news, it’s way too easy to get sucked in and then obsess over the ominous anxiety all around us. Hurriedly bouncing from link to tweet to texts to TV show constantly… not good! Instead, let’s be informed about what truly matters, and use that information to prepare as needed, and instill confidence. Connect dots with others via safe social distancing means, virtually over video and yes, even phone calls! Have open dialogues about what’s going on, and how we can help each other and tackle the challenges ahead. And, to further our creativity, synthesize other pieces of information of various sources — as more webinars and talks are becoming freely accessible in this newly virtualized era, let’s take advantage! 
  • Resilience: This is about getting back up stronger and better after minor setbacks — or that’s what I originally thought in those halcyon days of January 2020! I realize now this really goes deeper into a sense of systemic strength amid volatility, preserving one’s own internal integrity — mentally, physically, spiritually — thus keeping yourself upbeat and well, sane. Focused and disciplined. Making forward progress. Again, it’s easy to go adrift with anxiety and alarm. So, keeping certain anchors like daily (adjusted) routines, certain habits like reading/playing music/working out, dedicated spaces (virtual and physical), constant social contacts via virtual means, measuring your progress on goals, recognizing what’s working and good, etc. can all help keep you resilient in the face of uncertainty. 

So that’s how I see those three key words for 2020 working out as a potential framework to address the current situation we’re all in. Hopefully this is useful for you and others.

Paradoxes of (design) leadership

Being a design leader is worthwhile challenge — rewarding yet difficult. Indeed, it involves a mix of paradoxical qualities that take practice & effort to master, over much time!

  • Be humble in receiving inputs, yet defend a point of view
  • Know when to say you don’t know, yet project confidence in knowing the path to steer everyone forward
  • Enable a cooperative team dynamic, yet be (or project) that you’re the clear leader or owner — who’s ready to take the hits!
  • Admit fault/mistakes/failures, yet inspire your team to do what’s risky or boldly novel
  • Acknowledge team uncertainty or anxiety, yet guide the team with reassuring confidence 
    • (sidenote: I remember reading long ago that one definition of leadership is the “reduction of uncertainty” about a situation)
  • Keep your emotions in check, yet don’t be a cold robot — acknowledge others’ emotional vibes
  • Know what’s worth fighting for, yet don’t be a doormat (or an always raging bulldog) 

And on and on… there’s a certain deft, intuitive knowledge of the limits or extremes; and thus maintaining a sustainable balance to enable your team’s success while pursuing your own goals with an optimistic and enjoyable spirit. It’s definitely not easy but with patience, practice, and peer support it’s doable.

From ambiguity to clarity…

As designers, we’re constantly being thrown into situations whereby we must help a team — who often believes that having “some screens” will fix everything — go through a (not-so-straightforward) journey of understanding and discovery…and ultimately resolution. We all know it’s not easy and often takes multiple iterative attempts, usually with changing players and adjusted timelines — not to mention shifting political temperatures. Yet aside from all that, a major responsibility of guiding a cross-functional team is helping everyone move from a state of ambiguity to clarity. Clarity equals assurance and confidence. Nobody in business likes the “fuzziness” of not knowing, the uncertainty of not having “the solution”. But you can’t just throw together “some screens” for a Powerpoint … The journey requires a scaffolding, a framework to give order/structure/assurance to the team.

Here’s what I’ve used in the past, a set of questions, for clients and in-house teams to get that journey started…to spark productive, if somewhat provocative, dialogues:

  • What’s the “felt difficulty” users are facing? 
    • This is the friction, frustration, anxiety, something just not quite right, but could be better…latent or explicit.
  • What’s the critical question we’re addressing?
    • From the user’s POV but also from a business strategy angle, and how do they intersect, if at all?
  • What’s the core problem? Why is it a problem?
    • And it’s good to itemize the range of problems (biz, tech, human, social, etc.) and start to discuss the classic Eisenhower matrix (urgent vs important) which leads to…
  • What’s the consequences of not solving it? 
    • A problem is when there’s consequences, especially if it’s not solved in a timely way. Else it’s just an issue or a complaint. Again, consider scopes of impact, going back to Eames’ Powers of Ten or Eliel Saarinen’s famous line about designing a chair in a house.

This line of questioning will open up latent assumptions and most likely mixed/conflicting POVs — but that’s a good thing to get them out early on. What all this does is elevate the discourse from “gimme the answer” towards a strategic place of deep questioning of purpose & value. Uncomfortable? Sure. But it’s essential for getting design to influence and shape the collective realization of what’s really at the heart of the matter. And it’s not a Powerpoint slide deck!

Being a UX Architect

My current title/role at Automation Anywhere is UX Architect — but what does this mean? Titles mean all kinds of things per various contexts to different people. For me and my team, I approach this role in terms of three pillars:

1 – Lead a joint ongoing effort (via our Design Ops team & coordinating with relevant UX managers / leads) to bring continuity & coherence to all our features and products through integrated frameworks, common principles, unified interaction models, etc.

2 – Mentor/coach/guide team members (including junior designers and non-UX members in Product, Engineering, Sales, etc.) in enhancing design capability & overall UX maturity within the overall organization. This is done through talks, workshops, articles, etc. …or even simply taking a walk outside with a peer, offering constructive advice!

3 – Participate in “next-generation” initiatives that reframe & innovate experience models, working directly with executive leadership team members in workshops.

As you can see, playing this kind of special leadership role has a range of challenges and learning opportunities as well. Watch this space for more as the journey continues…