What I learned about management from redesigning my home

2017 has been an interesting and varied year for me, and one of the things I’ve achieved is a renovation project to modernise my home. It was a completely new experience and despite a very steep learning curve, I ended up with a space that I designed myself and learned some useful lessons along the way. At the centre was the collaboration with a builder to realise my ambitions of creating a brand new environment. This involved remodelling the internal structure, demolishing the old and installing all new fittings. After the dust settled (so much dust!), I realised many of the situations we encountered had taught me new ways of thinking about people and team management.

Trust is the foundation

Although I sought recommendations for who to work with, negotiating at the start of the project was stressful. I had a budget and rough timescales agreed, but we needed to figure out a way of working together. In much the same way as onboarding a new team member, I had to explain the current situation, outline objectives for the future and what the end goal was. It was a lot of work, so the builder and I broke the project down into weekly chunks. We agreed the best order for tackling things and I wrote the schedule down on one of the walls. As well as tasks to be achieved, we identified dependencies that could delay the work (e.g. if the shower hadn’t arrived, we could not complete the bathroom). We both committed to the plan and trust was established. Learning: have more open discussions about project goals and the potential blockers to establish mutual responsibility and trust asap.

Open lines of communication

There was so much about construction that I didn’t know and every day a new question arose. How far in advance do you need to order a kitchen? What size of boiler is appropriate? How many plug sockets and light fittings? I was regularly on site to meet the latest question and try to work out the answer. I was never far from my mobile phone either, so that the builder could text or call me any time. We started to learn each others’ short-hand; I became adept at visualising a 60mm gap for a cabinet and he predicted the type of tile trim I would want. Decisions could be made quickly. As we had so much regular dialogue, it was easy to flag up problems or clarify misunderstandings. Learning: Find out how your team wants to communicate and keep listening.

Facilitate problem-solving but don’t micro manage

Whilst I made sure I was on site for daily updates, I also got out of the way promptly to allow progress to made. When we ran into inevitable complications, the builder would explain to me what the problem was and how it was challenging. I would collect as much information as possible, we’d discuss the solutions and then I would privately panic. I’d spend hours researching online and asking amongst my friends to try to identify the fix. But often when I next spoke to the builder, he had already identified the best option. I came to realise that my role was to understand problems, hear the frustration, offer support but also give space to allow a solution to be found. This was the toughest and perhaps most useful lesson. Learning: it is not easy, but you can facilitate problem-solving without being the one to solve the problem.

So by building trust, openly communicating and facilitating problem-solving we got there and I moved in after 6 weeks.

In Praise of Retrospectives

‘Don’t look back in anger’ I found myself singing in a karaoke bar in Tokyo earlier this year (Oasis forever). But actually looking back, or retrospectives, have become an important part of how I work.

In business we often search for ways to save time and deliver more quickly. When things get busy, it can be tempting to jump straight from one project to the next ticking those items triumphantly off our to-do lists. Yet if we don’t take the time to reflect on what we’ve achieved and how we work periodically, we may miss opportunities to refine our processes and become more efficient next time.

I first noted the value of retrospectives when working with one of our development teams. Their sprints culminated in a showcase of their work to stakeholders, which was followed by a retrospective with exercises to gauge the mood of the team, what was working well and what they wanted to improve. Giving them space to discuss these points seemed to help bond the group together and lead to action plans for what to focus on next time. I made a note to introduce them into more of my projects.

There are different ways to run retrospectives and they can provide a great addition to a workshop agenda. You could be asking a team to reflect on a specific project or the way they have been working for a period of time. My preferred approach is to ask two simple questions: What has gone well? and What could be improved? The group will be given time to write their answers individually on post-it notes, then we’ll stick them on the wall so we can discuss detail and themes. There is usually a nice rhythm of finding positive points to celebrate, getting negative points out on the table and using them as guidance for improvements we can make in future. I have also experimented with variations on this theme. One example is Speedboat (see Innovation Games) where an image of a speedboat is used to get the team thinking about the anchors holding them back and the propellers allowing them to move forward. Substitute for whatever image works. This exercise can fit well in strategy or planning sessions.

Another way in which regular reflection has added value is via our UX graduate placements. We run a graduate scheme where UX designers move to different business units after a fixed period. They summarise and present back the projects they have worked on, what they have learned and what they would like to improve. It always offers a fresh perspective and ideas for ways of working, and we steadily improve how we run our placements.

Finally on a personal level, I’ve been using 1 second everyday app this year on the recommendation of a team member. Each day you record one second of video footage, building up short clips of everyday life. I’ve remembered to do this most days in 2017 and each month I look back on what I did. It’s become a really useful reminder of the adventures, the challenges, the highs and lows. Just how much we manage to cram into our lives. And just how quickly it all becomes a blur. Those short moments of reflection are helping me to recognise how far I’ve come.

So take the time to reflect and give your teams the space to do so. You may be surprised by the results!

Increasing diversity in tech

Last week saw the annual WebSummit conference take place in Lisbon, Portugal. WebSummit is described as ‘where the tech world meets’ and attracts a huge number of attendees (60,000+ of which 68% are senior managers, according to their website). Two things particularly interest me about WebSummit: the focus on startups and innovation, and its attempts to increase gender diversity.

WebSummit includes a vast number of startups who are exhibiting and pitching their ideas, as well as talks from more established companies and individuals. A cursory glance at the technology / business ideas being discussed includes everything from co-working space, blockchain, digital marketing, SAAS, smart home systems, the sharing economy and of course lots of AI. There are a number of presentations, panel discussions and workshops but the real USP lies in networking - talking to people from all over the world about the ideas they are working on, making connections with other professionals, investors, mentors or potential collaborators.

For the last two years, WebSummit has offered free or heavily discounted tickets to women in tech (a broad definition). Tech companies are still struggling with diversity, both in terms of attracting candidates and creating cultures that allow everyone equal opportunity to progress. Latest figures suggest that in the best cases women account for 30% of leadership or technical roles, and often far lower percentages are reported. So it stands to reason that tech conferences would suffer the same problem without such initatives as WebSummit have introduced. If it seems controversial to offer women cheaper tickets, consider that on average women still earn less than men for the same work. Women are also less likely to be entrepreneurs overall, though there are signs that this is changing. Giving women easier access to the networking and learning opportunities afforded by conferences like WebSummit can only be a step in the right direction towards increasing diversity.

Outside of the main conference event, social media gives the potential for anyone to set up their own related group, make connections and arrange meetings. It was through a WebSummit Facebook group that I heard about a UX meetup, which attracted UXers from Malaysia, The Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and the UK working in agencies, large corporates, startups and the public sector. A pretty diverse mix that made for interesting conversations! Also of great value was a mentoring session offered as part of the women in tech initative. The sheer amount of people and topics at WebSummit is overwhelming so you have to find ways to navigate and seek out what’s of interest to you. And I’m pleased more of us are having the opportunity.

Read more about the content of WebSummit 2017 here and here.

Leading Design: Getting practical

I’ve written about the value of the community aspect to the Leading Design conference. There is really nothing like the reassurance and inspiration you get from hearing from industry peers and leaders. Design is still a relatively new discipline for many organisations, so we also need practical tips on how to make it work. That’s what I took from the second day and the workshops at Leading Design.

Org charts matter

UX / Design is positioned in different departments according to the organisation. This relates to a number of factors including the type of business, its size and how the design function is perceived. Older organisations often talk about the ‘digital transformation’ they are undertaking or have completed, whereas startups generally see technology and design as crucial elements from day one. One clear message from the conference is design needs to have a seat at the boardroom table and a senior advocate. A UX Director or, as is becoming increasingly common, a VP of Design. Without this, it falls between different departments and can end up being more of a service than a strategic partner. We need to have goals we can understand and leaders who can drive change. Peter Merholz’s Org Design for Design Orgs is a great resource on many of the topics I talk about here.

Management goes in multiple directions

Several speakers mentioned the different roles that design leaders have to fulfil. Like most managers, they have to manage downwards to guide the team, across as part of cross-functional groups and upwards to their own management. This can seem overwhelming. The rising sense of panic over your Outlook calendar is real! One recommendation was proactive diary management. Set aside half a day for management stuff advised Ben Terrett. Not (just) for regularly scheduled catch-ups, but also for the thinking around people development and strategy. Taking control of your time sounds simple but it can be easily forgotten under pressure. Another tactic is improving how we work with other departments. Collaboration involves moving away from an agency model to a partnership where we are all accountable. Kim Lenoxadvocating being part of the solution and staying optimistic about people’s intentions. It’s surprisingly difficult when managing a team not to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture. But this rarely helps you to achieve the wider business goals.

DesignOps — a new role?

There was a lot of talk about DesignOps, which is a role that seems to be emerging. As design teams are growing fast in many companies, there are tasks which need to be done to keep everything working smoothly. Scheduling projects, getting the right equipment and tools, identifying process efficiencies to name a few. With up to approximately 15 designers, the leader can just about stay on top of this and/or the team can self-manage. With larger teams, introducing this role helps to allow the leader to focus on strategy, recruitment, career development and ensuring the team’s output is of a high quality. I don’t think our industry is in complete agreement on exactly what DesignOps is yet, but I expect to hear more about it as it seems to offer great potential.

Diversity and uniqueness

As we grow bigger teams, we will be designing new career paths and we need to encourage further diversity, rather than recruiting from the same backgrounds every time. Diverse teams simply work better. There are so many skills designers can bring to projects: storytelling, facilitation, and a different angle on problem solving for example. We need to hone which ones add most value for our organisations and learn how to promote them. And finally, we need to preserve the uniqueness our people have — ‘Keep design weird’ as Peter said.

Leading Design: You’re not alone

I’m reflecting on Day One of the Leading Design conference in London. The event is targeted towards leaders of UX and Design teams and is in its second year of running. Talk topics ranged from how to create the right habits and develop teams, to lessons learned on the way to becoming a leader.

Personal stories

My favourite parts of the talks so far were the insights into speakers’ personal journeys towards career success. There is a strange trajectory for many of us, where we start working in a job because we are passionate about the subject or craft, increase our skills and experience, then become managers and find ourselves with a new set of challenges. It can often feel like you are isolated when dealing with these, so it was heartening to hear that many of us face the same problems. Russ Maschmeyer told a great story about his development from a designer to a manager of designers. He was initially excited to be offered additional responsibility and felt that he didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity, but over time realised that the type of work involved in management had become less inspiring to him. He found a way to return to being a designer but still offering leadership in different ways. Stanley Woodalso talked about his own journey towards design leadership, which involved working out what kind of leader he wanted to be and speaking to other companies to see how they ran design teams. It was great to hear both talk about the challenge of being an introvert and a leader. The two are not incompatible but you have to acknowledge your personality type and figure out how to make it work with the tasks you need to do.

Psychological safety

Julia Whitney used the term psychological safety in her talk ‘The Human Blueprint’ to describe the factor which research has shown enables teams to perform well. They have to feel comfortable being able to take risks, make mistakes and discuss them openly. Leaders have to be vulnerable, willing to fail and learn. The problem is that often whilst running teams and ensuring everyone has support and mentoring, the leader’s own development can slow down. Several speakers recommended taking time to reflect, finding a network and asking for help. I have found being part of a small community of other UX leaders a useful sense-check in making decisions and exploring solutions. It’s worth remembering that we do have common challenges and admitting we need support is a step towards learning and becoming even better. Irene Au discussed the challenges faced by design leaders in different company cultures and her article on the health of design teams is a great reminder of how detrimental lack of morale can be.

Creating strong, diverse teams

Having spent the past few years working on a graduate scheme for UX designers, it was excellent to hear how other companies are approaching the task of recruiting the next generation. Adam Cutler talked about IBM recruiting 1,500 designers and lessons learned in the process. It was interesting to hear about the culture evolving as the new designers were influenced by those already in place. Having the right mix of experienced designers to new graduates was important. I was also enthused by GE’s UX Leadership Program which Samantha Soma discussed. This is a two year scheme involving rotations around the company, which is the format we also use for our graduate scheme. Many tips were familar, such as the need to manage the transition into the business environment and create stretch opportunities. Janice Fraser gave a very clear summary of why it is more difficult for women to advance to senior leadership positions. This reinforced the need to have a strategy, be a sponsor and find a sponsor to support your development. Lots of inspiration and actions to work on!

The stages of UX maturity

How do you measure the maturity of UX in your organisation? This is a question I have often considered whilst developing a UX function. What are the signs that show we are moving forward? Nielsen’s stages of corporate UX maturity provide the original framework and are still relevant. More recently Jared Spool has some great observations about what takes organisations beyond the UX tipping point. Here is another take:

The first step is admitting you have a problem

In Nielsen’s 8 levels of corporate UX maturity, stage 1 is characterised as Hostility Toward Usability. Now it’s unlikely that many companies could take this attitude and survive today, but there are still organisations where UX is not fully understood or valued. In order to build a UX function, there needs to be a fundamental acknowledgement that you want to deliver a better experience for your users. This will deliver a commercial and competitive advantage, and it is the right thing to do.

Show me the money

A crucial turning point is when the powers that be recognise and value UX enough to invest in resources, equipment and training. I still hear from designers in the wider community the old chestnut ‘I wanted to do user research but we had no budget’. This tells me that the project is not utilising all aspects of the UX process and the design decisions have not been tested. Once you secure the budget to conduct regular user research and you have at least one UX person or you are training someone in UX, you’ve shown the investment that comes with a degree of UX maturity.

Collaboration and integration

Evangelising UX can be a long process! After initial investment, one or more people will typically start spreading the word about UX. This can take the form of events, talks, representation in meetings with stakeholders etc. Often by this point there is a UX team of sorts, but it can be isolated. This will typically mean UX work gets done on some projects but not others. There will be wins but the process is inconsistent. You need to sit with key stakeholders and find new ways of understanding their objectives. If things go well, the UX team start to embed themselves in other teams, working alongside Product Managers and Developers. Collaborative UX is another key milestone. As Nielsen says ‘To progress beyond…you must convince all managers and team members that user experience is part of their jobs and that user research results help them do better and more satisfying work’.


Does an organisation ever become fully user-driven? I’m not sure but there is a tipping point where all of the above becomes easier. A great sign is senior level UX appointments, giving users and design a seat at the table of critical business decisions. There will be regular recruitment and an established framework for careers in UX. But UX is also a team sport and projects will be typically highly collaborative, with user research, prototyping and testing happening regularly.

As Spool points out, it’s entirely possible and likely to find teams in the same organisation at different stages of maturity. Sometimes teams have worked with a particularly strong UX advocate who has embedded values that steer the product development and they may be more mature. Others may have experienced some commercial success despite usability issues in products, and they may not yet have realised the potential of a embedded UX process. The task of a UX leader then is to adapt the approach to each team, understanding that one size rarely fits all.

How mature is UX within your organisation?

When it works

In product development we talk a lot about overcoming challenges and improving processes. It is not easy to turn ideas into working products that add value to users and achieve business objectives. Tonight I’m thinking about a successful project where I was fortunate enough to work with an exceptionally talented product team and what happens when it works.

The customer problem is clearly articulated and the solution is flexible

The team had identified a niche where a new product could be launched. A number of potential customers had been involved in research to help them identify the problem. They knew the space they wanted to explore, but had not rigidly defined the solution or how it would be achieved. We had clear goals and a chance to create something different.

Room for experts to shine

This team knew their strengths and weaknesses. They had great experience in some areas, but wanted specialists to collaborate with in others. They were open and willing to hand over the reigns for chunks of the project to those with relevant skills. It made best use of resources and gave a feeling of ownership to all.

Experiments are time limited

We had a limited time frame to create the first prototype and ambitious deadlines throughout, to keep us focused. The attitude was do as much as we can, make it as good as possible, collect plenty of feedback, then stop and review. If at any point it wasn’t working for customers, the plan could change.

Keep the conversation going

As prototypes were developed and customers were engaged, the team kept a stream of communication with everyone involved in the project and the wider business. It allowed people to see the progress and secure further resources when needed. To see the launch happen was a great moment for everyone!

And when it works, it really feels great.

As a user…

This month the latest entrants to our UX graduate scheme started training on the fundamentals of UX. One of the sessions was about usability testing — why and how we do it: how to recruit, moderation and observation best practice and how to analyse the results.

I went along to the training session as a test participant. An informal usability lab was the setting. We were testing a prototype of a website designed for employees of a business.

As a UX team manager, I’ve moderated and observed user research many times but of course I’m rarely on the other side of the fence.

Here is what I experienced as a usability testing participant:

1. It is nerve-wracking!

Even though I know the script inside-out (thinkaloud principle, we are testing the design, not the user etc etc) I still felt a little under pressure completing the tasks. Why couldn’t I find that piece of information? Was I being slow? Did I need more coffee? It is human nature to place high expectations on ourselves to review, interpret and master technology quickly and to feel inadequate if we don’t. The gentle reassurance and patience of the moderator really was important. A powerful reminder of why empathy is the most important quality for a UXer. And don’t skip the script!

2. There is a lot of insight to be gained

We had a simple prototype with four navigation items, yet there were still plenty of times I got lost or needed to click several places to complete the task. There were also spontaneous observations about the way the design made me feel. Sometimes when we are under pressure as designers we can assume things are obvious, de-scope or postpone testing. Test early and often! It’s well-worn UX advice that still stands.

3. Participating can be fun

In this instance I was seeing a brand new design and I didn’t know what would happen next. Would I find new information or ideas that could make my life easier? Or a new product to add to my existing toolkit? Whether or not users are early-adopters, many are curious about the future and want to help shape it.

So overall a great reminder of why we work this way and I encourage everyone to try being a participant from time to time.

Thanks to the excellent team at Webcredible, our training partners!


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Workplaces can be daunting, and this is especially the case when you enter them for the first time or after taking time out. Dress for Success is a fantastic service to help women on the journey and there are lots of ways to get involved.

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