2013 Main Conference Talk
A Crash Course on Thriving in Organizations That Don’t Know What to Do with You
You’ve landed your dream job and can’t wait to roll up your sleeves and start making things better. What happens when it becomes clear that nobody understands what it is you do or why you’re even there? How do you tackle the first task on your to-do list—communicating the value of IA and UX to stakeholders?
I will explain how I went about transforming a rigidly scientific, data-driven and very uninformed academic research department into an organization that now insists on usability testing as a project requirement.
I will demonstrate my approach, identify the roadblocks, and share the techniques I have employed to foster change and convert the uninitiated.
In this presentation, which will take you from “Where the Wild Things Are” to “Office Space” and beyond, you will learn that delivering outstanding experiences outside of the agency world doesn’t have to mean moving mountains.
About the speaker(s)
An incorrigible nomad, Alberta has lived and worked in Italy and California and is now based in London, UK.
As Transformation Design Director, specializing in service design and systems thinking, she focuses on the creation and delivery of future-friendly services and outcomes that are rooted in systemic understanding and deliver value to both business and customers. She is driven by the opportunity to make a real impact, by looking after the big picture as well as paying attention to the very small things that, she says, ‘matter a lot’.
Unafraid of challenging conventions, Alberta puts people at the heart of her design process and contends that you should always under promise and then over deliver. In her natural habitat, she’s sitting on the floor surrounded by bits of paper and post-its or standing in front of a whiteboard with a handful of markers.
Prior to Lloyds Banking Group, Alberta was experience design director at digital agencies in London and at UCLA in California. She has a long track record of leading strategic projects for global brands, including Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, UCLA, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, RBS, BUPA, The Co-operative Group, EDF, Nuffield Health and T.Rowe Price.
When she’s looking to escape the world of design, Alberta plays ice hockey, lifts weights and tries to keep up with the crazy life of her teenage daughters.
Alberta Soranzo: Hi. That’s me, and I am an INTJ. This is interesting. As an INTJ, I have a hard time talking to people in large settings, and a job interview is a large setting. You have to do it. We all have to do it, and when I go to a job interview, the thing that gives me reassurance is that I’m hoping that the people that I’m going to be working for are people that know what I’m supposed to do.
I like to stick this Andy Warhol quote in my purse, and if I get the job, I stick it on my wall, which is not always a good idea, but I do it. A boss who could tell me what to do because that makes everything easy when you’re working, and that is very, very true.
Now I would like to take a look at this job description. This job description is a little crazy, I don’t expect you to read everything. There are some key words, project management, web design, innovative data dissemination, usability issue. There’s a little bit of everything.
Why did I apply for this job? Because I wanted a chance with the data that the research center, that now I work for, provided. Does it make me a unicorn? Possibly. Now, where…
Alberta: That’s my pet unicorn. I had to bring him with me.
That’s us. We’re normal people. We have skill sets. We have things that we do in organization. We bring value. Somehow, communicating the value to the people that we work with is hard when we’re that normal and they see us like wild things. We’re scary. We come across…
Alberta: You see this one? She looks tame, but she really is frightening.
Alberta: When you go into an organization that can see you for who you are, an organization that perceives you as frightening, you might have all the best intentions, you might have done all of your homework, but they don’t get you, and you have to take a step back after those meetings where you go in, full of notes, full of ideas, and you’re met with blank stares, and you need to ask yourself, “What is it that people want?”
Richard: I personally want to understand. I don’t think about the great washed or the great unwashed or everybody else, I just want clarity.
Alberta: All right. You can’t hear it, because it’s probably in the wrong plug.
Alberta: Richard [inaudible 02:51] is here, and his interview with the economy says that all he wants is clarity. He doesn’t want to think about big problems. He wants to understand. What are the roadblocks to understanding? What is it that we’re fighting?
I identified three main roadblocks on the path to understanding, and they are ignorance, unrealistic expectations, and resistance. Ignorance has a negative commendation and it really means lack of information. When people do not know what you’re doing and how you’re contribution can benefit the organization, there is no communication possible.
Ignorance is also bliss. These people do not know. They don’t see the need to change things. They’ve always done it that way. Here you come, and you’re telling them that you want to do this and you want to do that, they turn into ostriches. They do not want to get that head out of the sand.
Now expectations are tricky, because they are subjective, and with ignorance, where the lack of information can be filled with information. How do we handle expectation?
I’m sure that a lot of have been in situations where we’ve been advocating for projects that require intensive resources. Someone comes to you and says, “Well, but my cousin’s nephew who has a side business doing websites says, that this can be done in two weeks and with $10,000.
Here you’re telling me it’s six months and half a million dollars.” How do you get out of that situation without coming across as trying to get out of something that you cannot handle?
Now resistance is another big one. We are creatures of habits. We do things in a certain way. Organizations are exactly the same way, and even those organizations that advertise as being rebellious and nonconforming. They follow processes and those processes might not be codified on paper, but they are codified in someone else’s mind.
Again, how do we change that? I think the key to change is given by understanding.
This is a presentation. We have to have a diagram and here is a diagram.
Alberta: What is the common element between ignorance, resistance to change, and expectations? What is also the product? Fear.
Fear is an unpleasant feeling. It’s a feeling that is triggered when something is perceived as a threat. It really does not matter what we’re afraid of. It does matter if it’s fear of losing status, if it’s fear of losing faith, or if it’s fear of losing your red stapler.
Perception is truth. How do we go on this path to changing perception? I’ve found this really interesting diagram on the web. The cool thing about this is that Dave Romano had it reversed.
His process was from, “Oh my God!” to “What the fuck?” I could not, for the life of me, understand what he meant. I sent him an email but he never responded. Maybe it was an old email address.
I decided to flip it. What concrete steps can we take to take people from looking at us like this, [puzzled moan] , and giving them that “Eureka!” moment where they finally see what we’re here for.
We could be like drill sergeants but that generally is not a good idea. It’s not a good idea because that doesn’t really foster understanding. It doesn’t foster communication. It doesn’t foster anything. However, this is a model that works, for instance, in the army where the success of a mission is contingent upon compliance and blind obedience to rules, at least at a lower level.
We, in our industry, employ a different technique. That technique is brought to you by the letter E. Empathy. Now, empathy is the ability…It’s a soft skill, right? It is the ability to understand and share feelings with other people. The cutest thing is that when we talk about empathy we always talk about empathy for the users.
I think that we should apply the same empathy to stakeholders and take it one step further, to our colleagues because if we cannot talk to the people that we work with, we cannot talk to our stakeholders, convince them, and turn them into our advocates.
I think that the key to resolving this big understanding problem is to become companions on a journey, much like Dorothy who not only helps the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man to achieve the goal that they want to achieve but also helps them find something about themselves and in the process learns something new about herself, too.
What is the plan? How do we do this?
The plan we have to have, one is simple. We prepare, we visualize, and we communicate.
Preparation means doing your homework. Learning about the goals and learning about the personalities and the organization. Because we’re talking about ignorance, a lack of information, we want to be our own backup.
We want to have validating finding, to use a polysyllabic word, that we can show when people ask, “Why is it that you’re suggesting that we do this? Why do you recommend that?” We want to be able to pull out that blog post, that article, whatever it is — it doesn’t matter — that backs it up.
We want to be able to say, “Here’s someone else who did it this way. This is what they achieved. We want to offer alternatives. Change is strange.
There’s a series of children’s books called “Change is Strange.” I wish I had the screenshot but they’re not on the web. They help parents navigate tricky circumstances. One of the key things with children is to make them feel in control. You want to make the people that you work with feel in control.
You do that by offering sensible alternatives. “Here’s two ways we can achieve this. Pick one.” You give ownership to the people you’re working with.
Visualization is important for designers, right? The point is we agonize over slides, fonts, colors. Visualization doesn’t have to be complex. Anything…We can use sketches, whiteboards. We can print out pages. We paste conference rooms with big posters.
Visualization works really well when we involve the people that we work with into the exercise. Visualize together.
We all have different learning styles. Some are auditory. Some are visual. I know I’m a kinesthetic. If I didn’t do the things, I don’t understand them. Some of the people that you work with might be exactly the same way. Anything that works.
Now, when we talk about communication, I want to go back to visualize. Do you see this last bullet point, when I say, “Anything really”? The key of communication really is translating what is in your mind into something that other people can relate to, and that’s the whole point.
We can be talking until we’re blue in the face, but if people don’t understand what we say, there is no way that we’re going to achieve anything. What I’m advocating…I come from a different country, so I came here. I spoke some English, but I had to learn to speak the jargon of the country I was in.
In the same way we should abandon our jargon, here we talk about mental models, if we talk about wireframes, we all know what that means. When we go out in the real world, they have no clue, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter if it we call a wireframe a chicken wire, which is something that I heard.
As long as we know what we’re talking about, we can get something done. [laughs] I think that our goal should be, before we tackle real projects, creating this common vocabulary and shared references that allow us to communicate effectively.
I’m also advocating for taking a chance. I’m running out of time, but Kim Miller, who’s here, published this really good article on US Magazine, and she was talking about the whole demonstrate the damn thing debate. If we follow that model, where we need to demonstrate before we can prove value, we’re always stuck in the first step of the cycle.
We need to earn respect before we can do anything else, but we’re designers. We can go out, we can do things, and we can prove value to people, and it doesn’t need to be fancy. If you look at this screenshot, this is from a project that I’m looking at. You look at those checkboxes and they’re hideous. If I were a user and looked at that without knowing what it is, I wouldn’t know what to do.
Just Photoshop it, use a pencil. Just show them how it can be done easily. That will lead to people understanding. This is the translation between abstract concept of lack of usability into the concrete. Now, before I go, there’s a secret that I have to tell you. These techniques are phenomenal. They work without fail.
What worked for me was that I was in a meeting once with my directors, and I loved being prepared. Remember the slide, “Prepare”? I loved to be prepared. At some points, we started talking about data visualization, and it wasn’t on the agenda.
I wasn’t prepared. In the course of the meeting, I started talking about this dating website, OkCupid, you might be familiar with that, that has a data blog.
They take their usage data and they turn it into beautiful visualizations. It’s phenomenal. I saw that people were starting to get excited, but they couldn’t quite picture what it would look like, so they asked me to send a link, and the URL is really easy, blog.okcupid.com. In the meeting, I sent an email, with a link, to the people that were there, and I went home.
That evening I’m home, and I said, “Well, let me take a look at what the latest blog post is,” and this is what I sent them.