Saturday, April 25, 2009

Why Failure Isn't Working for Me

A response to a number of posts and talks on failure recently, particularly this one by Michael Krigsman, Five Reasons to Discuss Project Failure, linked from Scott Berkun's blog.

Based on Krigsman's points, I wonder, Is failure really instructive? In my observation, there are a lot of people who don't learn from other people, or even hear what they say. Maybe they're "experiential" learners. Maybe they don't think like researchers--who are trained to build on other work--or they aren't smart. I personally hope they are genetic dead-ends. It seems a rare person who takes on board the lessons or advice from others; at least, it takes a listener, and someone who isn't arrogant.

On the subject of arrogance: A lot of organizations suffer from "not invented here" syndrome. They're in successful companies, don't see why they should do anything different, don't think they need to do other than tweak their current environment. And they're unlikely to hear from outsiders or new people. No matter how much they say they embrace change, learning, growth, new ideas... in general, in practice, it's not so true. Or it's better coming from someone internal with an extremely tailored message for that environment.

Do success stories really not work? The fun book Made to Stick doesn't entirely agree. One of my issues with stories of failure is that they end up being a lot like usability test results: Show you everything you did wrong, but provide no solutions for how to fix things. And it's hard to get the "right" lesson, because lessons are almost always hypothetical. IF we hadn't cut this feature, it would have sold better. IF we had done user testing earlier, we would have caught this. IF we'd had longer to develop the right architecture, this would be faster and people wouldn't be complaining about performance. IF IF IF. No one really knows, it's all just opinion.

If you don't understand your successes, you can't replicate them. And you can't use them to inspire anyone. You had a project team that cleaned up a disaster in record time and shipped something people loved. What was different about that team? What did they do better? Okay, it may be partly a comparison with the failure before, but it's surely instructive!

Root cause analysis of failure always has to skirt around sticky, difficult, subjective personality issues. This is often unproductive to discuss, and doesn't lead to positive outcomes. The people who name names look bad, and often suffer for it later. That guy who's the blocker for a zillion projects - everyone hates working with him, but he's critical path. Yes, it's been elevated to his boss before. VPs have been involved. Multiple VPs, on one occasion, during which ego bristles poked everyone. Nothing has changed. That guy is going to continue being a root cause problem on a lot of things. Talking about it means VPs and bosses are implicated too. And isn't it just personality issues for everyone involved? (Note, I advocate firing his ass, or moving him to another role; but I'm not in charge. The organizational dysfunction, which is usually just human nature, is in charge.)

design is invisible, till it fails.

Now, to switch onto on the subject of design failure. A hot topic among design gurus right now (see Spool on "Failure is Not an Option, It's a Requirement" and Scott's recent talk on "Why Designers Fail"), we're being told that good design involves failure and failure is important for innovation. I'd argue that designers themselves often know that design is iterative and exploratory, with important dead-ends that lead to strong results, but their managers or other necessary stakeholders don't know this. I hope Scott and Jared are being heard by these other folks, too, and not just by designers.

The people with the money are the ones that matter. They determine what constitutes failure, in the short term, like it or not. Many design consultants worry that client judgments don't take this iterative process into account. We are paid to be fast, creative, and accurate, all at the same time. Mistakes or dead-end work aren't seen as productive value for the money by many hiring managers. And their own sometimes flawed design judgments are at play in their judgments of our work. What should be a success is seen as a failure, through the squinty eyes of a manager that doesn't get it. It takes design talent to recognize design talent, yet most hiring managers aren't skilled or talented in this way.

This phenomenon leads to failures that shouldn't have been failures - good work was thrown out, bad work was done instead. Happens all the time. Happens on every dialog, every icon, every wording argument. Most of us live with failure very regularly: The little voice inside blaming us for not arguing the point just a little longer, for not standing up to that bully on the team about this important issue, for not getting to that other issue that's probably more controversial and yet more important for the user in the long run, for not making one more mockup to try to show how it could be better, or moving to Flash to show how it would work for real.... Oh yeah, we've got a lot of failure all the time. And our failures are much more visible than the guy writing some code on the backend that thrown an uncaught exception, which may not be noticed for years!

My point of greatest concern about these homages to failure right now is that they don't take into account power dynamics in most engineering organizations. (To be fair, Scott's talk does, and he found that managers who aren't skilled in design are a major cause of failures.) Designers are a minority discipline, and often we're trying to change processes and methods while also delivering on our work. We're trying to set an example with our deliverables and methods. The odds of success are already long against, given the weight of org history and number of people we need to convince. As minorities, we're often trying to argue for more headcount, and every misstep can be seen as another argument against hiring more of us.

Visible failures aren't generally a positive option, when disciplinary credibility is at stake.

Friday, April 10, 2009

CHI 09 Panel: Moving UX Into Strategic Importance

At CHI 2009, I took a lot of notes at the panel "Figuring Out the 'One Thing' That Will Move UX Into a Position of Strategic Importance." This is a rather random summary of it; see a similar topic in my post on User Experience Organizations discussed at BostonCHI a couple years ago.

Jim Nieters, Director of UX at Yahoo!, advocated speaking the language of business, and addressing business concerns in our design work and priorities. UX at Yahoo is now in marketing, after another reorganization. They will be providing input on the product funnel, helping to prioritize company efforts.

He reminded us that even at the executive level, it's a life or death battle, and everyone has someone to answer to at the end of the day. Convincing stakeholders of the design profession's value is less important than delivering as individuals; we need to be personally accountable for our work and stay focused on the right projects.

Regarding the standard issue of having too few resources: Invest in projects carefully. A team too diluted on too many projects can't be as visibly effective. Turn things down, and focus on the most important. Work on the revenue generators, and work with the business to understand the right problems and the solutions that can come from design.

During questions, he revealed that for products to move forward at Yahoo, they need "3 in a box": key stakeholders from Product Management, Engineering, and UX have to all be in agreement before work proceeds. Sounds good to me!

Laurie Pattison, Senior Director of UX at Oracle, was up next. Her message was that you get one chance, and have to sell yourself well. You only get one chance to make that first impression. At the management level, you have a calendar quarter to make an impact. Since you can't succeed at everything, you need to pick projects carefully, and provide business value. Businesses are in the business of money, after all.

As part of the sales process, deliver something other peers at the company can't do themselves. Make smarter wireframes, prototypes, or more attractive deliverables. Come up with innovative ideas that they can't think of themselves and the value will be clear.

Her example case study was a project to help reduce tech support calls. The team did simple usability studies and discovered that users couldn't find answers to items that were in the documentation. Their redesign put answers in context and reduced the need for the search functionality; the number of calls reduced as a result, and the bottom line was visible. The CEO was educated about the process and methods and it was a clear win for the team and their methods.

One questioner asked her why not just do this on every project, it's the standard research and design process. But resources limit what you can work on. "Pick projects that matter to the bottom line. You pick mind share or market share."

In a somewhat depressing note, several panelists agreed that your team (or your contributors) are only as good as the most recent success, that failure follows them around forever otherwise. "If you spend only ten minutes working on something because you don't have time, and it fails, people will remember you were associated with it and blame you. Better not to work on it at all." I'm disappointed when I hear this sentiment, given the recent discussions in other places about taking risks and embracing failure during design. I'm afraid failure may be a luxury for very well established teams.

Craig Peters, consulting as Awasu Design, argued that we need to pay more attention to the individual contributors in our organizations and their basic skills and effectiveness. "No matter what the strategy, if we don't think about the individual level interactions, the big picture won't be helped." He described a situation at Wells Fargo in which a UX team had reached a limit on their effectiveness; and he investigated and found that non-UX colleagues had had varying types of interactions with the team and found no consistency in their expertise or work. (I'm reading this in - Craig was pretty vague about the actual details of the findings and recommendations for improvement.)

During the questions, the panel and audience debated some on whether we count as a "young" field after 20 years of CHI conferences. Regardless, it does seem that different skills may be needed to convince different organization types and sizes.

Lauri represented the absent Killian Evers, UX Program Manager at PayPal, who argues for the need for program management skills in larger companies. Program managers can successfully bring metrics and rigor to UX and bridge UX and development. (I myself agree with the need for project management everywhere, but think that UX teams need to be able to work with software culture metrics, processes and tools, and there's no excuse for requiring a third party to manage this. But I may have misunderstood the points here.)

Some comments made during the question period, not all of which I was on board with:

  • If your company doesn't value your contributions, move on to another one. Corporate Darwinism works.
  • Don't waste too much time on ROI attempts. Testimonials from internal folks can go a long way. If you can find someone who needs something and you make an improvement, communicate it afterward with a story. Could even create internal portfolio of examples to help support your value.
  • "If you're in a confrontation or argument, you're already lost." (I find this of some concern; many dev cultures produce lots of argument and confrontations, and if UX people aren't allowed to play in those, the field is not level and we're really handicapped.)
  • The impression of many UX teams is "often you come in too late, you don't understand our jobs, our deadlines, our deliverables." My comment: Who's fault is this, actually? Bring us in earlier, etc.
  • UX teams without domain knowledge can be seen as liabilities. Response: Get them educated about the domain, it's part of onboarding.
Finally, there was an acknowledged tension between the desirability of being an outsider brought in for point expertise ("like a lawyer") or a team member long term. These are obviously very different models, for staffing, for hiring, for seeking positions of corporate influence.

At this panel and at the one on "Fault Lines of UX," individual contributors asked how they can make change as single UX people alone in non-UCD environments. There were no simple answers for these folks. I particularly feel for the student who said to me after the Fault Lines panel, "I was taught UCD very rigorously in school, and I thought everyone did it. Now I find out most companies don't. How can I proceed, what should I be doing?"

An ongoing exercise for our profession, as mentors, educators, and colleagues... We need to help her.