Thursday, September 27, 2007

Work space

I love to visit artist's work spaces, and the San Francisco Bay Area provides several opportunities throughout the year to do just that -- when multiple artists open their studios to the public for a weekend.

I particularly look forward to San Francisco's Mission Open Studios, which largely features artists in old industrial buildings that have been converted into multiple floors of spacious artist studios, most with lots of wall space and configurable as needed for different activities, both solo and involving several people.

Two years ago, I wrote about the value of ample wall space and of open, reconfigurable work spaces in a blog posting about the impact of "walls" on working "in the world of user experience." Some of that value is captured very nicely in a 1998 quote I included in that blog posting -- words from Judy Olson and collegues:
"Collocation of cognitive artifacts and team members offers the broadest bandwidth for cooperative work. Team members developed shared documents together, making the work tangible. Artifacts helped coordination and motivation as well. The key feature was that they were persistent, allowing easy access (by a glance, not a file retrieval) and large enough to allow cross connections to be perceived. The presence of one's co-workers helped with coordination, implicit learning, easy transitions from one phase of work to another, and social facilitation."
Bill Buxton says much the same in his terrific 2007 book, "Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design," and cautions:
"simply plunking a bunch of corkboards or foamboards around your work space does not magically turn it into a design studio. These are artifacts with certain affordances, but their effective use requires as much attention to the cultivation of the culture of the studio as to the detailing of the architectural space."
Such cultures and work spaces are far from the norm in companies where user experience needs to play a much larger role, but they are appearing here and there as special areas designated for special "innovation" activities. Kaiser Permanente's impressive Sidney R. Garfield Health Care Innovation Center, occupying a huge warehouse, is one example; P&G's Clay Street Project, occupying "a brick-walled loft in a gritty Cincinatti neighborhood," is another.

Recently, I visited Adobe in San Jose California for a tour of a work space of a similar nature, except that it is used ongoing (i.e., not just for special projects) by user experience personnel (and those that join them to collaborate) and wasn't constructed apart in some funky location. Until this past spring, the work area looked like that in the photo at left of a hallway lined by small offices with doors, still the norm in the building. But now, a large part of one floor is as depicted in the composite photo -- an open, multi-use work space, with whiteboards and "foamboards" on long spacious walls, on walls on wheels, and even on horizontal work surfaces.

At Stanford University this past spring, Claudia Kotchka, VP of Design Innovation & Strategy at P&G (where they have the Clay Street Project) , spoke of attempts at convincing her company to replace existing seas of cubicles with such work spaces, but has found that the mindset regarding appropriate, corporate office space is not easy to change.

Years ago, Karen Holtzblatt argued, "If you want your team to be creative, give them a room." But a conventional conference room, even when used as thoroughly as the one shown in the image from Karen, is often not enough.

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My thanks to Julie Baher, Experience Design Manager, for the tour of the Adobe work space. Thanks also to Claudia Brenner, Implementation Manager, for a tour of the Garfield Innovation Center.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Who should you hire?

Recently, I've been reading resum├ęs and interviewing potential candidates to help a client make some hiring decisions.

I've always enjoyed the process of interviewing and considering candidates, and of ultimately hiring people as I've done in past management roles. And in most of my experiences, the process has gone very smoothly. However, there have been a couple of interesting exceptions.

One of those exceptions was when most of the members of a particular user experience functional group were not necessarily convinced a particular candidate was right for the group. Additionally, the director of the group, to whom I reported as a consulting manager, was thoroughly convinced this candidate was not a good fit. Well, guess what? I thought this candidate was essential for the group.

The director and group members were concerned that the candidate did not have enough experience with and, hence, would be less competent at doing the kind of work that the group members were doing most of the time. I was confident the candidate could do that kind of work adequately, but I was most excited that the candidate was better prepared to do the kind of work that others in the group needed to be doing more so that the group would become more effective -- more impactful in the business.

It took some time, and, because of that, the candidate had made arrangements to enter another job in the company for which he already worked, but I convinced the director and the group of the benefits of hiring this candidate, and hire him I did.

Adding this person to the group was an important part of a process of changing the nature of some of the work the group did. And by example and other means, this person's subsequent work in the group did exactly that, and, indeed, enabled the group to become more impactful in the business.

What all to look for in potential hires has been the subject of many discussions and debates. One which occurred late last month on the IxDA discussion list focused mostly on the importance (or lack thereof) of a candidate's field of study in school and of the candidate's portfolio. Around the edges of this debate was advocation of the importance of a candidate's personality, particularly of whether it is the right personality to work with the team the candidate would be joining.

IDEO has long advocated the importance of working in teams in which people can "check their disciplines at the door" when beneficial, and to facilitate that, they have advocated hiring "T-shaped people":
"Regardless of whether your goal is to innovate around a product, service, or business opportunity, you get good insights by having an observant and empathetic view of the world. You can't just stand in your own shoes; you've got to be able to stand in the shoes of others. Empathy allows you to have original insights about the world. It also enables you to build better teams.

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they're willing to try to do what you do. We call them 'T-shaped people.' They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T -- they're mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That's what you're after at this point -- patterns that yield ideas."
However, last month, Peter Merholz challenged that recommendation to some extent:
"…you don’t necessarily want a team of all T-shaped people. The reality of the world is that you have T- and I- and bar-shaped people, and I suspect that the strongest teams are comprised of all three that work in concert. Me, I’m a bar-shaped person. I’m all about the connections between disciplines, and being able to articulate the power of that integration. Obviously, T-shaped people are important, too, people who can bridge that synthesis and go deep. But perhaps most important is that we no longer marginalize I-shaped people. It’s easy to dismiss I-shaped folks, people who simply want to focus on, geek out to, their particular passion. But these people can be amazing on teams, because once you give them a bit of a direction, they can do amazing work."
Other people have suggested that you should look for yet other "shapes" of people, including "pi," "sun," and "kidney" (see comment #9). However, others have argued the advisability of looking beyond any of these types of classifications of people.

Here is a random collection of recommendations from some of the many user experience managers, directors, and executives with whom I've discussed the topic of who to hire:
“be opportunistic; make adjustments to what you are looking for based on the skills, background, interests, etc. of those who apply”

“hire for motivational and thinking skills, rather than for whether they have done the same thing before”

“hire ‘commercial’ designers, not artists”

“a good ‘aesthetic’ is not enough; creative thinking needs to be married with analytical thinking”

“needed are collaborative people -- people who are participatory, flexible, facilitative, consultative (i.e., can ask the right questions, create a dialogue, reflect back, etc.)”

“consider where you want to take your group, and hire people who will be able to do what you want them to do at that later point”
I remember smiling to myself when hearing that final piece of advice, in part because that was pretty much the argument I was making in support of hiring the candidate I referenced in the story I told at the beginning of this blog posting. What made me smile most, however, was the fact that this piece of advice came from the director I referenced in that story -- the one who almost nixed the hire I believed was essential to moving the group forward and making it more impactful. (The advice was being given a couple years later.)

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My thanks to Mary Quandt for bringing the concept of "pi-shaped people" to my attention.