Carl Smith at Converge SE - photo credit Jason Beaird
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Redesign our Design Thinking

ConvergeSE is one of my favorite events. It’s generally swarming with smart people sharing smart ideas. But all this talk about design thinking has me thinking about design thinking.

We need to rethink how we think about design. We focus too much on aesthetics, not enough on outcomes. Focus should be on pleasurable and frictionless achievement of the user’s goals. Sometimes we let visuals get in the way. We have to leave our design aesthetic ego at the door and focus on positive outcomes for the user.

Just as the great Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Form follows function”.

Photo Credit – Jason Beaird

lemonade
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Lemonade

The balmy afternoons of summer are coming. Kids will be out of school and some of them — the enterprising ones, at least — will be hauling card tables down to the curb to peddle their homemade versions of that cool refreshing drink.

Remember when you were a kid? Sitting on the sidewalk waving at passing cars, hoping one of them would stop and trade you a quarter for a dixie cup of liquid sunshine. Me too. It was the first venture into business for many of us. Our first taste of capitalism, powered by sugar, water, lemon juice, and little hutzpah.

There was no excitement like seeing someone pull their car over, stop, and walk over to that little table. And no reward like counting the quarters at the end of the day.

So the next time you see a lemonade stand, stop and buy a cup. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like or if you actually drink it. You’re encouraging a kid to pursue business, to understand commerce, to do things for themselves.

That empowerment is worth far more than the price of a cup.

theracingline
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A Dangerous Groove

Racing drivers call it “the line”. It’s the fastest way around the track. Each driver might have a slightly different line that works for them, and that’s okay. Finding it can be difficult, but the payoff is massive when you do.

Running a business is a lot like motor racing. You must constantly push your machine to the limits. You want the best parts on your car, and every one of them to perform at it’s best. You can’t afford to take it easy. The competition is in your mirrors and victory awaits.

If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.

Mario Andretti

It feels great when things are going well and business is smooth, consistent, and predictable. You’re in a groove.

You settle in and push the throttle. Lap after lap, things are working. The machine is running beautifully. Business is doing well.

It’s easy to stay in a groove. It’s comfortable. And dangerous.

Dangerous?

Like everything else, grooves change over time. It’s gradual, but they start to deteriorate. Before you know it, the groove has deepened to the point it’s difficult to get out of. It’s become a rut. And at that point it’s too late. You’ve lost performance, or worse, crashed.

The most damaging phrase in business is “We’ve always done it this way!”

Grace Hopper

Just like in racing, if you stay committed to one way of doing things — one groove — for too long you risk getting trapped in a rut that slows you down.

Sector Times

Racing drivers measure the time of every lap around the track. Then they break the lap down into sectors of the track to understand their performance with even greater precision. The sector time is a metric. A racing driver looks at many data points, their KPIs, to determine where performance can be found (or lost).

ferrari-telemetry
Telemetry from a Ferrari F1 car at the Hungaroring

This chart shows throttle, braking, steering angle, speed, and several other KPIs. Drivers and teams analyze this data on a lap-by-lap basis to understand where they can improve performance. This steady and ongoing analysis is how they ensure they’re not falling into a rut.

Watch Your Metrics

You must constantly analyze your metrics to make sure your groove is still performing. Otherwise, you risk settling into a rut. Maybe it’s resource utilization, sales pipeline efficiency, shopping cart abandonment, or click-through rates. Your metrics might be on-boarding rates, search rankings, or any other of myriad ways to measure the performance of your business. It’s important to identify which metrics matter, and keep a close eye on them.

The only way to improve your business is to measure the right things and monitor those measurements closely. Things might feel great in the groove, and they are. Stay in that groove as long as it’s working for you. Just make sure you’re not digging a rut in the process.

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Jerk

I feel like a jerk. Airing my trials and tribulations out on the open Internet. It feels undignified.

“Nobody cares about your problems” they say.

“We have to maintain appearances” they say.

Well, maybe it’s time to say “screw that”. As Greg put it recently, we’re losing the web we once knew. The one that was personal, casual, and authentic. Sure, people post all over Facegram and Instabook and Tweeternet, but it’s just not the same. It’s too homogenized. Yuck.

Maybe I’m just succumbing to my inevitable inner curmudgeon, but like Greg, I miss the days when people posted authentic thoughts and commentary on a site of their own design (or at least their own domain). Going to someone’s site felt friendlier, more real, like visiting their home. You could easily see the other things they said and did. It was one-on-one, like a conversation.

Seeing their post on [insert social site here] feels like a passing comment in a crowded room. And who knows how the bots decide what to show you? Meh.

Maybe we, the people who helped build this thing, have failed. We should have seen this coming. Maybe we did and couldn’t act fast enough. Maybe our collective hubris clouded our vision.

What goes around…

Life — and everything in it — is cyclical. Computing was once done in a hub and spoke system where distributed weakling terminals connected to powerful centralized mainframes. Then the personal computer decentralized the world and put all that power on our desk, and later in the palms of our hands. Now we’re putting everything in the cloud and in the hands of a few giant companies, centralized again. Who knows what they’ll do with it all.

Our Internet lives used to be decentralized, too. Personal websites and blogs were the norm. Now we’re centralized on social networks and blogging is a dying art. My hope is that like everything else, we see the cycle come around. That a renaissance of thoughtfully designed personal websites will make the web fun and entertaining again.

Just think of it. At the very least we’ll be in control of our thoughts and photos. We’ll be producers again instead of a commodity being sold to advertisers.

There’s still hope. At least I’d like to think there is.

Q&A

Presentation Tips

A friend of mine recently emailed me with a question:

I’m leading a workshop at an upcoming conference and I’d love to pick your brain a wee bit.

Do you have any advice, recommended reading, or informational wisdom-nuggets that helped you along in your presentation path?

Sincerely,

A humble speaker newb

My Response

I’m not the most qualified to give advice on public speaking, but here are my quick thoughts anyway.

Best bet is just be yourself. Practice your talk at least 10 times in private. Speak slowly and pronounce everything clearly. If you can, make a video of you giving your talk. You’ll notice any strange mannerisms or verbal oddities you’ll want to correct.

Keep your slides simple. An evocative image with a few words is better than a paragraph. Don’t read from your slides, read from your notes (or better, memorize your material).

In a workshop format just try to keep things casual and conversational. You might be crazy nervous the first few times and that’s okay. The butterflies never go away completely.

Recommended Reading

(disclosure: these are affiliate links)

Hope that helps, and best of luck!

shhh
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Non-Disclosure Agreements

“We need you to sign our NDA before we can discuss the project with you.”

From time to time a potential client will say this or something like it. I get it, they want to protect their intellectual property from the competition or the general public. This is an understandable concern, and we don’t take our client’s concerns lightly. We work with some startups, and they seem to be more sensitive than most companies. Larger companies are oftern trying to protect something they’ve already invested a lot of time and effort into. However, NDAs are not a great tool for protecting information. Mark Suster covered this in 2009, saying…

You shouldn’t worry about NDAs because they’re mostly unenforceable or unprovable anyways.

No matter the reasoning for deciding to sign an NDA, being careless about signing them can lead to trouble, so we’ve decided to simplify the process. Here’s the how and why.

Most NDAs Are Too Complicated

The problem is no two NDAs are the same. Different attorneys put emphasis on different things, or use slightly different language to describe similar things. If you sign every NDA someone asks you to it can get messy real fast.

At Nine Labs if we sign an NDA for the courtship phase we use this simple one. Here’s the entire thing:

Nine Labs hereby agrees upon receipt of materials from __________________ (“Client”), which contain information of a confidential and proprietary nature, to make all reasonable efforts to prevent unauthorized disclosure, copying or publication of concerned information and to protect it as its own. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, Nine Labs agrees to take such actions as may be reasonable to limit disclosure by advisers, associates and/or co-workers who may gain access to the concerned information.

Nine Labs agrees to use the information solely for evaluation of the project concerned and for no other purpose without the prior written permission of Client.

Nine Labs shall not be held responsible for information already in the public domain, information which becomes public domain through no action or omission of Nine Labs, or information obtained legally from a third party.

This non-disclosure agreement ends one (1) year after date of signature.

That’s it. No craziness. Simple enough that a layman can read and understand it.

Reviewing Legal Documents Is Expensive

Signing different NDAs with different bits of language simply isn’t practical for a small team without in-house counsel. We’d have pay our attorney to read, interpret, and advise us on each one so we know what we’re signing. 99 times of 100 that’s not a justifiable cost.

Our Master Services Agreement Covers it Anyway

Our Master Services Agreement has robust language surrounding the issues of IP Assignment, non-disclosure, etc., so having multiple agreements which address the same issues is difficult for either side to enforce legally, should that become necessary.

We’ve made a decision to use our Simple NDA for the courtship phase, and let our MSA govern these issues once we actually decide to work together.

It’s Also About Focus

We don’t want to spend out time talking to attorneys. It’s nauseating and costs too much (sorry, Marc). Keeping the NDA process clean and simple allows us to spend more time doing what we’re good at, and what we love.

Next time you get an NDA request, see if you can simplify the process. You’ll be glad you did.

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Blog

Swim Lanes

Two meters is much narrower than you think. Maybe it’s fine if you’re just lounging around. But if you’re trying to accomplish something, like, say, winning 22 gold medals, it’s a pretty small space to work in. There’s definitely no room for distractions.

Distractions are Toxic

According to Gloria Mark, a leader in interruption science, “once distracted, a worker takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task”. There are numerous articles on how we’re actually not wired for multitasking, and how distractions kill productivity. We claim to know these things in the modern workplace, yet we fall into the same old habits of distracting ourselves and each other on a near daily basis.

This leads me to one of our core maxims at Nine Labs:

Don’t ask a question you can find the answer to in less than 20 minutes.

The idea is simple, if you can find the answer to your question in less time than it would take to distract someone else and for them to get back on task, don’t distract your team mate with the question. Now back to the swimming pool.

Whether it’s visual design or company strategy, everyone on the team has a specific range of skills and does their best work when they are allowed to focus on performing in that arena. Performance of each of these skills is necessary for the success of a project, and ultimately, the success of the business. These are the swim lanes defined for each team member. Everyone on the team should do their best to stay in their lane and – perhaps more importantly – not drag someone else out of theirs.

Being in your swim lane as staying is a state of flow; focused and productive. Getting out of your lane leaves you blurry and ineffective.

Easier vs. Better

While it might feel easier to ask a team mate a simple question about a project, if the answer lies somewhere in Basecamp, HipChat, or a Google Doc, go find it there. Chances are it will just take a few minutes to find it, you’ll know where the answer is, and you won’t have pulled a team mate from their swim lane.

“But isn’t having the ability to ask for help part of the benefit of being on a team?”

Sure it is. Here are a few tips to try (they work for us):

  1. Have a time on the schedule for open team discussion and collaboration. This can be as frequent as you like. Find a rhythm that works for your team.
  2. Create clear signals for when it is and isn’t okay to inturrupt you. For us, it’s having your headphones in. Status messages are also good (that’s why all the chat apps have them). Set your status to ‘Do not Disturb’ when you need to focus. Conversely, you have to respect these signals when you see them and not distract your team mate.
  3. Have a bat signal, use it sparingly. Create a clear structure for what constitutes an emergency and how to communicate that to your team. Don’t abuse it, though. If you cry wolf too much your team won’t take you seriously when you do need help.

What if I can’t find the answer in 20 minutes?

This is bound to happen, so your team should have a plan for what to do when it does.

  1. Poke your head up and see if the person who has the answer is readily available.
  2. Ask if they have a moment to help (this is super-important).
  3. If they say yes, ask the question as accurately and concisely as possible (see: how to ask good questions).
  4. If they don’t know and need to get back to you, unless it’s urgent, post it in your project management system and tag a time to follow up.

Respect People’s Time

There’s a lot more to being an effective team than just getting your own work done. A lot of it is allowing other people to get their work done, too. This could mean overcoming your reflexive tendency to ask for help. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s hard at first. But after putting some structure around how and when you ask questions, you’ll see the team’s performance increase in short order.

So next time you think of asking a team mate something simple, first ask yourself “Can I figure this out?”. You probably can, and that’s better for everyone.

Blog

Deposits

At Nine Labs, we have a standard Master Services Agreement which all our clients sign before we begin work. Every once in a while a potential client comes along who wants to change the terms to suit their needs.

A common issue is the deposit.

We take a deposit on every project regardless of size. On anything under $10,000 (which is rare) we request the full budget up front (more on this later).

Calculating the Deposit is a pretty simple process with slight variations based on how the project is setup.

Value Based Projects

We split the total project budget into three pieces: 50% up front, 25% at the projected midway point of the project (determined by date, not deliverables), and the final 25% at the projected end of the project (again, determined by date). For projects over $100,000 we’ll sometimes change this to 30/30/30/10 depending on the exact deliverables and scope of the project.

Retainer Arrangements

When it’s a retainer relationship, we take the first month’s retainer as the deposit and immediately send the invoice for the 2nd month on Net 15 terms so that the payment arrives ahead of the month for which it’s due.

Deferred Payment

Sometimes a client will ask to defer payment on the deposit citing Net 30 terms or some other reason, and usually that reason makes complete sense to them. In this case we tell them we’re happy to wait for the check to arrive, but we won’t begin work until it does.

Partial Payment

A cousin of the deferred payment, taking part the money now and the other part in 30 days puts you in the same boat as waiting for all of it. In the case, we tell them that we’ll just wait until the full deposit has arrived before we begin work.

Small Budget Projects

Occasionally a really cool project with a very small budget (e.g. under $10,000) comes along. This might be a local indie shop, a non-profit, or something else that really gets the team excited. If the team really wants to do the work we’ll take these projects on and generally try to complete them in one or two sprints. In these cases we request payment in full before the project begins.

The main reason is that the administrative costs of getting a project up and running alone can run several hundred dollars, and paying the team for work on a single sprint can easily get into the low four figures. We don’t want to be held up from making progress on things while we wait for another payment from the client. Getting the entire budget up front eliminates these bottlenecks and allows us to get to work.

Beginning work without payment is dangerous.

From a cashflow perspective, not having money in the bank to pay your team puts you in a very bad position. By not taking a deposit, you’re using budget from previous projects to pay for the work product of the current one. That puts you in a perpetual cycle of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, and, trust me, that’s a downward spiral you don’t want to ride. What if the current client doesn’t pay (for whatever reason)? You’ve delivered a work product and paid your team, and are left holding the debt. Some might say that’s the risk of running a business. I say mitigating risk (especially financial) is being smart about how you run your business.

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User Feedback and Product Design

Occasionally people invite me to talk at their conferences, workshops, etc (you can invite me, too). After a recent talk at ATDC, one of the attendees sent this email asking about user feedback.

What are your thoughts on how much user feedback/input should be involved in product UX design and at what point should you seek the feedback? So for example, should the functionality and “polish” be 50% there or 95% there before putting it in front of users or somewhere in between? We want to start collecting user feedback in an alpha release soon, but also don’t want to ruin our first impressions from users until it’s more polished. It seems like a balancing act of timing.

This is a somewhat common question in conversations I have, so I figured it’s a good idea to answer it here.

How much user feedback should be involved in product design?

The easy answer is “as much as possible”, but that’s not the whole picture. You can go get feedback on your product from dozens of people tomorrow. Just walk out on the street and start asking people questions. You have to be careful, though, and not just because you might get pepper sprayed.

You have to ask the right people.

Before you ask anyone a question about the thing you’re building you have to make sure they are the target person your product is for. It’s an extreme example, but you wouldn’t ask a 23 year woman about a product for 67 year old men. She isn’t who the product is for, so why would she have any valuable feedback to give?!

If you don’t know who you’re designing for, you’re doomed to fail from the start. Start by defining your target market, then define personas within that market who define and fit the profile of your ideal customer. Once you’ve done that you can go find people in the real world who fit that description. There are a handful of ways to find them, most of which are pretty easy and low cost.

Now back to the question…

The sooner you get an initial round of user feedback the better. Just be careful not to ask people about too many things at once. Keep your research very focused. You can ask about the overall aesthetic of the product, OR ask about a specific workflow or feature, but don’t ask people too much or the answers will start to skew.

About First Impressions

While it’s true that you can’t ever get them back, you can’t allow yourself to think that one handful of people’s first impressions will set the reputation of your product for life. Literally every product you use today started as a crappy drawing on a napkin, paper prototype, or sketch on a whiteboard. Then someone took a photo and started iterating. Slowly the product evolved into the thing you’re using today. Having doubts? Have a look at how some popular websites looked at launch.

Ask Early. Ask Often. Vary Your Audience.

Bottom line, ask (the right) people about what you’re building as soon as you can. Then get them to come back in a few weeks once you’ve made some progress and ask them how it works. This is user-centered design and it’s proven to work well in a variety of environments.

Don’t ask the same people over and over and over! Get different groups of people together (make sure they represent your target market and defined personas) as you build. The more people you can show your product to as you build it, and make them a part of the design process, the more chance you’ll have at building a loyal audience for the product once it actually launches.

Happy user testing!

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A Place to Call Home

Since moving back to Atlanta in 2008 I’ve seen the web / tech / creative community landscape change quite a bit. There are undoubtedly more groups, meetups, events, and activity now. We’re growing as a community, and with growth come growing pains.

Over that time I’ve personally organized or helped organize over 200 events (that’s 3 events per month on average). Some might say I’m more event organizer than web professional, but we’re not here to talk about which hat I’m wearing.

The Good-ole Days

For a long time the AWDG was fortunate enough to have access to a large room at the Portfolio Center. It was easy to get to, there was ample parking, seating for 200 people, projector, audio, a good vibe, and it was close to a good variety of places to have a post-event cocktail with friends. During this time the group grew rapidly and the community became tighter. Having a consistent place to meet gave stability to the group. It was a great arrangement. But all good things come to an end. Enrollment at the school increased and they needed the space for their core business; teaching students.

Bouncing Around

Since AWDG left the Portfolio Center we’ve been using a variety of spaces. MailChimpHypepotamus, Ogilvy & Mather, Strongbox West, Georgia Tech, and a few others have all been gracious hosts. While these companies and organizations are all great friends to the group and a tremendous asset to the community, they each have unique constraints which make it difficult to “call them home”. As an example, it would be awkward to have someone from Campaign Monitor speak at MailChimp, or to hold an event about running your own agency at Ogilvy & Mather. You get the idea.

What about Atlanta Tech Village, you ask? They aren’t on this list for one simple reason. They’ve never hosted an AWDG event. It’s not that we haven’t tried, but ATV is startup focused. AWDG is not. Consequently their schedule is full of their own events and they don’t have space on the calendar for ours. I don’t fault them, they are focused on one constituency and serving them well. I appreciate the fortitude and rigor it takes to maintain that type of focus. ATV is for a different crowd and that’s cool with me. This brings me to our first obstacle…

Availability

Mostly, each organization has a mission which — while overlapping with — doesn’t perfectly align with that of the AWDG. Our use of their space will always be secondary to their needs for the space, and rightly so. It’s their space. They can use it however they like. No hard feelings. This can make scheduling difficult as we can’t predict when each space will be available.

But what about all the great ballrooms, event centers and similar spots around town? Glad you asked. That brings up my next point.

Cost

While many of the spaces mentioned above can be free, some are not. The economics of this are clear (or should be), so no need to dwell on that topic other than to say cost certainty is important to any organization, especially one which is run on razor thin margins. We can’t afford to spend thousands to rent an event space. Most of our events have between 60 and 150 attendees paying $10 each. We have to buy food and often pay for travel and hotel expenses for the speakers. Do the math.

“But there are free options”, you say. Yes. They also have their challenges.

Parking and Accessibility

We’ve looked at meeting rooms, empty office space, small theaters, etc. They all suffer from one of two things. Not enough parking or they’re way off the beaten path. Since the people who attend our events work all over the Atlanta area we need a location that is both central and easy to get to from the widest variety of places. Remember, these people have day jobs. Most our events start at 6:30, so people have to fight legendary Atlanta traffic to get there. Too much time spent on the road will keep people from attending.

Amenities

Even if a space is available, affordable, and easy to get to we have to consider if all the stuff we need will be there. Do they have enough seating? Is there a projector, podium, and audio in place? Is there a restaurant nearby that can provide catering? For that matter, are there tables, ice, coolers, and such available to hold the food when it arrives? What is the proximity to a post-event watering hole?

That’s a lot of unknowns to deal with for each and every event. Especially when you host as many as we do. When you look at cost, availability, location, and amenities it becomes very difficult to find a good space. I’m currently paying an assistant several hundred dollars a month to deal with finding venues and coordinating all the ancillary needs for events. It’s too much and it’s not sustainable.

What’s a guy to do?

Scratch your own itch, right? Instead of continuing to struggle with this problem we decided to try an solve it. The solution? Our own space. Not only would AWDG benefit, but all the other related meetups and groups would too. There are over 40 web, tech, and creative groups in Atlanta. I’ve talked to many of their leaders and organizers. We all suffer the from same issue. A new space all our groups could use would solve it. Not only that, we’d be able to hold a great number of events and help the community grow even larger and more robust.

We we’re looking at space in Midtown and West Midtown. There are a handful of interesting conversations taking place. It looks like this is going to happen, and soon.

We want to create a space that can seat 150 people with a small stage, big screen, clear sound, and fast wifi. Somewhere easy to get to, walking distance to coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and nightlife; and where parking will never be a problem.

If you’d like to participate in any way get on the email list. We’ll keep you posted as things develop.