Category Archives: Management

Project updates

I must have tried as many different ways as I have had projects in my career. I don’t know what is the problem, but I just suck at consistently keeping people informed in the same way.

The bigger problem is that if I am not providing updates to other people than it is likely I am doing a bad job keeping track for myself. That really should be the central reason for doing it in the first place but without external accountability I’m just a lazy ass.

Today I had 5 minutes so I decided to write my boss an email just to give him a glimpse into where I am with things. I used this model:

I am working on 7 projects at the same time right now at different stages of development so I wanted to give him just a taste of what is going on where.

Project name and a one liner about the last thing I accomplished was the bare minimum I thought was necessary. Two bullets indicating what is going to happen next and what risks may be incurred seemed to be the additional two most relevant pieces of information.

Finally, the red/yellow/green flags are really just to make the one page scan-able so he can see that I have 2 projects on green, 1 on yellow and 4 on red and without my whining – but knowing what the issues highlighted are – see that there are blockers or resource problems making that happen.

How do you keep people up to date about what you’re working on on a regular basis? How do you provide project updates to your peers and bosses?

Lacking the right tool or the right perspective?

I have a pesky question that I’m trying to figure out. I thought maybe putting it out there would help me solve it. I would really appreciate your ideas.

Let’s say you are working on a project and your main goal is to solve an information access problem: “audience X does not have access to Y data sources which would help them do their job better”. The value of the information they would draw from these data sources is indisputable.

You know from some preliminary interviewing that audience X is made up of people in different roles that share the overall problem but are interested in different parts of those data sources available. You also learned that while access is the first barrier, other barriers to use are: domain knowledge (understanding that data, knowing what to do with it), language (different segments speak about the same data in different terms) and lastly, some tool knowledge issues: the majority of people feels overwhelmed by the poor ways this data is accessible today (reports, databases, online systems, etc) when/if it is accessible to them.

From that, you feel sufficienctly confident to say you need to do something that is not just optimizing the solutions that (sorta) exist for these people, rather, you have enough information to justify that a good candidate solution to this problem is to make it easier for people to get to these data sources by creating a mechanism that democratizes access (aka provides them with a starting point to the many sources, at the very least), simplifies the consumption of said data (using plain language, removing decorations, providing relevant visualization, making it clear what the sources are, etc) and make their use of this data more pleasurable, understandable, meaningful, usable, and that ultimately becomes part of their day-to-day work (at the most ambitious).

So you are ready to go for that: How do you actually plan this “product”? (will use this term to make it easier to describe the solution). How do you make the leap from this cursory understanding to a level of “this is the stuff we need to build”? I generally have many answers for this question, but here’s where I’m stumped:

  • This is an internal project and I don’t have many resources at all to get started with (thought I know that once some success is shown, I can get more resources). That includes time for the type of research I would normally like to do for this.
  • The volume of data available is just insane. Simply building a “flexible” system that could accommodate any and all scenarios would be a very stupid idea and I know would not accomplish any of the goals above.
  • The audience I’m talking about doesn’t know what they want. They definitely expressed all the values and attributes of what they want, but this doesn’t exist and they never had anything that did this for them, so I don’t have good hints as to what are the pieces of this puzzle I need to put together (read: features).
  • In my mind, if I had a mental model map where I could align features to user tasks, I would have the right tool to be able to select what to start building first in order to make some headway. I, however, don’t know how to go through the process of creating a mental model from thin air (or my preliminary interviews). I can’t really think of how I would structure the research interviews that I would use to comb tasks from. Also, never done that for something that is entirely new (nothing to validate against).

In short, I can’t think of a better way to get from “knowing about these people pains, desires and expectations” to “here are my priorities for what to build”. I am seeing this is a new product management challenge for me in addition to UX problem to solve. Not only do I have to figure out how to create a solution that meets those goals, but I have to do this over and over for a long long time, because the success/failure of this effort = my success/failure, which is very different accountability than solving someone else’s problem. I am really enjoying that challenge, but need to learn how to bridge the gap in my own expectations and tools I would normally use to resolve this.

So, what do you think? I may not have given all the information that would help resolve this, but ask away and I’ll clarify any points.

Am I lacking tool or perspective?

Learning how to make UX decisions

I just had a great time recording a Userability Podcast where Jared Spool and Robert Hoekman answer my questions about how UX practitioners can learn to make good decisions about which methods to employ in their work.

[I’ll update this with a link once it’s published]

My question is an old concern about how new practitioners are being introduced to User Experience Design and Research practices by being fed a multitude of methods and not given much support about how to decide the right circumstances to use them.

It is not sufficient just to know how a certain method works. It is also not sufficient having used that method once or twice. What is it about our experience as practitioners that makes us better or worse decision makers? How do we choose to dedicate time and money to an 8-week long project to produce personas instead of a different approach?

What distinguishes the practitioners that not only choose methods and know how to apply them, but choose the methods that are most effective for a given problem?

A few years ago, Jared himself told me a story about an experiment where two distinct research teams (unaware of each other I believe) were given the exact same research goal and employed the same methodology to achieve it, and came up with different results and findings.

When that sort of thing happens, I wonder: Can we really trust our methods? But more importantly, if we accept that our methods are not really scientific and that we can’t really have a high level of confidence about the results we end up with, how do we choose one over another?

Somehow we just do. But some do better than others. Some do MUCH better than MANY others. If you have the opportunity to work with practitioners with enough experience and knowledge, you see excellent arguments for why to do A versus B for a given set of circumstances. So yes, only experience will help one make better choices, but everyone’s experiences are different. As a way to try to educate new practitioners we coach and mentor by teaching the methods and also giving advice such as “be flexible” and “don’t marry a particular process” and “figure out what kind of problem you are trying to solve first”, which are all excellent advice, but not strategic enough and often not practical enough that it can really help someone make a decision when they are faced with a new challenge.

Jared’s opinion is that our field is still too young and we haven’t yet been able to articulate the criteria we use in that decision-making process. I agree, however, it worries me that many think they are advancing in their practice because they know more, when in fact, they just learned new methods, but don’t really have the skills to assess risks, and benefits, between choosing one over another.

Being a runner gets you to the finish line, knowing which way to run wins the race. I really hope we become better equipped to pass on knowledge about how we make choices and why because, paraphrasing Jared, knowing a lot of recipes a restauranteur does not make.

Hello World, I’m Back

Today I have the great pleasure to announce I’m concluding an extremely important phase in my life, managing the Information Architecture and Usability for Comcast Interactive Media, and starting a new one, as Principal of Information Architecture for the same Comcast Interactive Media.

Yes, you read that right: I’m not going anywhere, yet, I’m going forward!

Coming to Comcast was a great opportunity for me – I wanted to work for a large organization and experience the trials and tribulations that my clients expressed when I worked as a consultant. I also wanted to manage a larger team and experience the challenges of long-term people management. Comcast welcomed me with an opportunity to do all that and more. Not only to manage people, but to start and build a team from scratch; not to just be in a large corporate environment, but establishing a new competency (information architecture and usability) across a very large organization.

This was a very enriching experience and I’m extremely satisfied with the outcome. What a learning experience! Fortunately for me, realizing that I reached this point didn’t mean I’d come across a dead-end at Comcast. Comcast Interactive Media is continuing to grow and so we came up with the Principal position, allowing me to keep growing and focus on new strategic challenges.

As Principal of Information Architecture I’ll be responsible for evolving the vision and establishing UX best practices across Comcast Interactive Media properties. Those include Comcast.net, Fancast, Ziddio.com, GameInvasion, Chill and all Comcast Cable, High-Speed Internet and Voice services.

I couldn’t possibly do that without passing on the baton of managing team and practice to someone else. That is a hard call to make given that this is “my baby” and I want the very best. Which is why I’m THRILLED that my dear friend Dennis Schleicher stepped in to take on the Director of IA role. Dennis is one of the nicest people I know. I’m not just saying that because we share a love of cheese. He’s also very talented and inspiring to be around – nothing seems impossible or hard when you discuss it with Dennis – you know you are talking to an anthropologist when you start answering your own questions. Welcome Dennis!

I’m very excited about all this so I’ll try and blog a little more frequently to talk about what I’m up to. The last I’ll add today is really the only reason I decided to write this post, to say thanks to the absolutely fantastic team that made this possible for me. Crystal Kubitsky, Eddie James, Austin Govella, Aparna Ramchandran, Paul Kali, Cynthia Hoffa and David Fiorito. You all rock. I hope I have reminded you of that frequently enough and I hope you are as proud of this team as I am. I can’t wait to continue working with you.