How to write better personal work goals

As managers, we require our employees to set goals, and then we measure them against those goals during annual performance reviews. While this is common and sounds reasonable, the goals often end up disconnected from real performance.

This is a waste. (Managers: it’s okay to nod your head in grim agreement.)

Why does goal-setting fail, and what can we do about it? Well, I connected a few dots recently, and have a plan. It requires us to rethink the shape of the goals themselves.

How workplace goals typically fail

This is a real 6-month goal from an employee from about two years ago.

Maintain weekly focus on defining billing business rules.

Not bad, right? Seems do-able. There’s a time-frame. The action is simple: to maintain focus on the topic. It basically means get work done on it every week.

But here’s the thing: That goal failed, but by no fault of the employee.

Instead, that project to work on business rules was scuttled by management (okay, I confess: I did it). So, according to the preset goals for that period, I would mark the employee as having failed that goal. Well, I couldn’t in fairness do that! So while I didn’t penalize the employee, the goal itself became worthless.

I trust that other managers out there agree that this is not an uncommon situation.

I’ve found that my employees’ goals fail most often in these two ways.

  1. The goal is based on a project, but the project changes or is even canceled.
  2. The goal requires another person’s action, but that other person doesn’t take the action.

Is it always a simple dependency problem? Not purely. There are other factors, such as the goal being too large to get done or too generic to measure. In that case I shrug and make my best estimation as to whether it was met.

Another problem is that goals sometimes aren’t that important. We dumb them down to something that we’re sure will happen anyway, but it ends up having little to do with the most important work.

Why would we do this? It’s a play-it-safe reaction to being beaten up by all the previously failed goals. Name it: dysfunction.

But should I gauge an employee’s performance based on unimportant goals? Of course not. That’s small-minded, desperate thinking, yet our typical goal-setting systems prod us into those sorts of goals.

So, let’s see this from the angle of sports goal-setting.

Since 1990 I have been a competitive pistol shooter. Goals are pretty important—and effective.

In that sport, I use two types of goals: achievement and process goals.

My achievement goals are based on scores, and are obvious. For example, at the next match, my goal is to shoot at least a 2430. When I shoot a 2440, I know that I’ve achieved that goal. Easy to track.

But what can I do to make that achievement happen?

That’s where process goals come into play. For this, I point to Lanny Bassham’s Mental Management program outlined in his book “With Winning in Mind.” The book is worth reading, especially if you compete in most any sport.

Couched in the methodology from Bassham, let me explain a process goal that I use when target shooting.

In preparation for firing a shot, I plan and visualize the shot, then I do it. Here are some details.

  1. Gun is on the bench, and I’ve already settled my stance and grip.
  2. I look down at the gun, glance at the rear of the gun and see that the bolt is forward.
  3. I focus my eyes on my gunbox, which is with me at the shooting bench. I’m probably seeing a cut-out X-ring, and a step-by-step shot plan I’ve taped to the inside of the box.
  4. I close my eyes, tilt my head up just slightly, and breathe in and then out, fairly deeply.
  5. As I’m breathing I visualize the gun raising, my eyes finding the sight picture, I see a good sight alignment as the gun is rising, as I start to exhale I settle the gun so the sight picture is aligned to the target at which point my breathing pauses. I confirm that my middle and ring-fingers are putting pressure straight back into the grip while my thumb is lined up parallel to the barrel towards the target. At the pause in breath, I continue maintaining solid sight alignment to the slow count of 1-2-3 as I’m applying smooth, straight-back pressure to the trigger. I don’t get to 3 because the gun has fired and I know it is a good shot.
  6. Then I open my eyes at the end of an exhalation and act out what I just visualized. (If I get to three, I put the gun down and start that shot over.)

So, my process goal is to do that for every shot. It’s an easy-to-do goal that I control, and it is up to me to do it each time. When I do, the results are unmistakable.

That’s the key. When I have the discipline to do that process goal for every shot, my overall performance goes way up. It’s a behavior that I can control that produces a result. This past summer I shot my best 50 yard slow-fire score ever, a 97 out of 100, doing that.

What if I can use that kind of process goal at work?

I was re-reading Bassham’s book as I was mulling over these ideas, and came across a section where he writes:

A habit that separates the top five percent of competitors who win from the other 95 percent who just play is the practice of carefully setting goals. Most people never set them. No surprise there. However, every major corporation sets goals. Every government sets goals. Every builder who builds has a blueprint. Every banker has a written contract on how the borrower is going to pay back the loan. But among individuals, normally only the super successful ever bother to set personal goals and plan their work. (“With Winning in Mind,” Lanny Bassham, pp. 65-66.)

So I wondered to myself, “You’re doing alright professionally, do you set goals?” And it dawned on me that I do, all the time.

I just never think of them as goals. This was the Ah-ha! moment.

So, for illustration, here’s what I already do.

My 2013 Strategic Objectives

Near the end of the year, I review my own annual strategic objectives and identify those that I have for the coming year. I do this in order to maintain a clear head about work.

  • UX: Mature the UX team’s expertise
  • UX: Improve the sustainability of UX @ CE
  • Company: Ship (That one word to me means delivering valuable updates to our services for the benefit of our members. But in notes to myself, I just write “ship.”)
  • Company: Learn to manage the business better
  • Company: Prepare CE for future growth

I know these are not attainable on my own, but I expect of myself to influence our corporate progress towards those objectives more than one might imagine. They are generic enough to leave the tactics open, but clear enough to me that I can look at any period of time and tell if I’ve seen the rate of improvement that I’m okay with.

I’ve done this same thing for 2011 and 2012, and I’ve seen the benefits for the company, although from the outside it must be difficult to see the connections.

These annual objectives provide me some needed focus and an ability to feel like I’ve actually made a difference. Without that, I’d be pretty grouchy.

My Process Goals

When I read that section in Bassham, I suddenly realized that I already have process goals, but I’ve never thought of them as goals. I just know to do them in order to be effective at the level I expect of myself.

Photo of my notebook showing a prioritized daily list.
Using a daily 6-item list is one of my process goals. A simple, thin, pocket-sized notebook is extremely handy for this. I’ve found it better than using apps on my iPhone.

My most frequently used process goal is this:

  • Every day write in my small notebook the top 6 things that I will get done that day.
  • Prioritize them, 1–6.
  • Think of how and when I need to prepare for each item.
  • Keep that notebook on me and refer to it as a guide for my day.
  • Check the items off as I do them.

I use another process goal when I’m sitting in a meeting and I know the presenter will ask for feedback at the end. This too is easy: I use my notebook to jot down reminders of the feedback I want to provide. It’s basic, but effective. Here are two benefits.

  • I can say “I have three concerns.” When conversation ensues over point 1, others already know to bring it back around for point 2 and 3.
  • I don’t waste others’ time as I stumble over my words and try to remember what I was going to say. My memory is frail, and this technique overcomes that.

Are process goals SMART?

If you’ve ever talked with an HR person about goals, no doubt you’ve heard of the SMART acronym. SMART goals are:

  • specific
  • measurable
  • achievable
  • relevant
  • timely

My process goal of using the daily list may, in fact, be the most SMART goal I’ve ever had at work. It is specific, measurable (just flip through my notebook to see the success rate), achievable (it is easy…I just need to have the daily discipline to do it), it is definitely relevant, and by its very nature it is timely.

Whoa. Now that acronym actually makes sense.

And while it isn’t on the SMART checklist, these process goals are activities that I don’t have to rely on anyone else for. If I don’t do them, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

What if goals can be expressed instead as habits?

So, like thousands of others, I’ve been through BJ Fogg’s 3 Tiny Habits program, and I actually use that lesson on how to form habits. The daily list is one thing I’ve used the 3 Tiny Habits program to help me do better. So, before I considered these to be process goals, I just considered them to be habits. These process goals are also habits.

If you haven’t yet, go through Fogg’s program. Process goals may make a whole lot more sense and you will have the knowledge to actually train yourself to do them. I’m going to predict that most good process goals, which are probably better as daily processes, could be implemented as though they are habits you are trying to form.

So, given this insight, how have I applied this?

I’ve talked with my staff about this approach, and we’ve updated some of their goals to follow this pattern.

Here’s what amazed me: In the very first week I saw improvements in performance and morale. For example, one of my staff wrote this process goal, “Every day, write down one thing I’m proud of.” I believe this simple goal improved this employee’s morale and it has spilled over to others, myself included.

But has the quality of work gone up? Difficult problems are solved by people who can easily think laterally as well as vertically, and a person’s emotional state has an effect on this. More stress means less lateral thinking. So, yes, I’m sure the quality of work has gone up.

Further, this kind of attitude can be trained over time and will help others want to work with this employee. Who wants to work with someone who doesn’t appreciate the chance to do quality work? I know I don’t.

How can you implement this change in setting goals?

Write process goals for yourself. If you are a manager, have your staff do this.

Process goals are:

  • Easy to do
  • Quick to do
  • Done frequently (e.g., daily)
  • About how you work or think of your work, not about the outcome
  • Done by you alone, so that you alone are responsible for doing them

I’ve listed a few examples in this post. Have others? Feel free to share them in the comments on this post.

I’ll close with another quote from Bassham: “The BEST years of the BEST players are rarely foreseen in advance. Why? I believe it is because the elite are not thinking about outcome. They are thinking about process.” (62)

Attitude-adjusting pointers for professionals

Over the years, others have shared a few attitude-adjusting pointers with me about work. They’ve stood the test of time for me in a number of different jobs. Here they are.

1. Remember, you don’t need this job. You need a job, but not this one.

In my first full-time, salaried position, my boss shared this nugget of wisdom with me. (He shared the next one too.) I had to chew on this one for a bit, repeating it to myself in different ways for it to sink in. But once it did, it changed how I looked at my job.

The biggest change is that it removed a fear. I didn’t fear losing the job, because, after all, I didn’t need this job. With that gone, my attitude shifted to where I was willingly giving my time to the job. It was my choice to work there, so in a way, it gave me back some power, emotionally. I wasn’t dependent on the job, and I wasn’t begging for the chance to do that job. Instead, I had the freedom to focus instead on what I needed to in order to get the job done.

It also has helped me to not worry about the inevitable politics of an office, and instead more clearly relate to the people I work with. It helps me better respect my colleagues as the human beings we all are.

There is a simple, yet powerful, proverb that stands hand-in-hand with this pointer: “Do you work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men.” Attitude-wise, taking this proverb seriously means that I crave honor from God, not from my boss, coworkers, clients, or employees. This has been profound for me, and I encourage all who read this to take this proverb to heart.

This first pointer is probably the biggest of these for me.

2. If you want to seem invaluable, find a problem and solve it. See a vacuum? Fill it.

This one is obviously simple, I think, but sometimes I wonder if it just hasn’t occurred to people. If you want to be valuable, do something valuable. Keep your eyes open for that thing that clearly needs doing that you have a shot at doing, and figure it out. If it happens to make sense with your job description, great. If not, just do it anyway.

3. A secret part of your job is to make your boss look good.

This is an interesting one because it still applies when you aren’t happy with your boss.

How do you do this one? You give your boss credit for good work, good decisions, whatever, to others. You don’t have to overdo it, but keep it in mind. Also, I’ve been in situations where I’ve been asked to help prepare a presentation or a proposal for my boss, and even though I may not be the one delivering the presentation, I can try to make sure that my boss will seem  organized, coherent, and smart.

This pointer is helpful because, by making this part of my job, it forces me to check myself when I have a bad attitude about the person I report to.

4. Bring an alternate idea along when you bring a critique. (And if you can’t, then think twice about offering your critique.)

The point of feedback, of critique, is to make something better. I get the feeling that people forget this, and think that the point of critique is to look smart, to make someone else look dumb, and to thrill in the dark joy of shredding someone else’s work.

So, if the point of critique is to make something better, doesn’t it make sense to point out a problem and immediately follow it with at least one idea to overcome that problem? Maybe it isn’t the idea that will be chosen, but by offering that idea, you make yourself a collaborator with the person who receives the critique. You offering an idea can spur more creative thinking on the problem. Plus, offering an idea is brave, because your idea can now receive critique. If all you ever do is critique but never add ideas, you’re probably a coward and are making things worse, not better.

Closing

I know there are all kinds of other thoughts on work that I have, and I’m sure many of my blog readers have their own life lessons to share.

Please comment with your reactions or additions!

The “Pause.” Cup Escapades, June 2010

The "Pause." cup in front of a Vader figurine.
The cup and Vader, courtesy of Alaina and Lisa.

I have a coffee cup at work. It resembles a jumbo marshmallow with a handle and “Pause.” printed on the side. There’s a small story behind the cup itself, but today I write for another reason. It was abducted, and I received a series of sinister photos.

Due to a back problem, I had to leave work for a few days. It was during this absence that two of my co-workers showed their true colors. Dark, dark evil.

Read their confessions and view the evidence for yourself.

My 2.5 days in San Francisco: MX 2010

Red stone church near green trees, surrounded by skyscrapers.
View from top of Yerbe Buena Gardens, San Francisco, March 2010.

Saturday PM: Sunshine!

I actually began to sweat under my blazer from the warm sun shining brightly through the window.

I had arrived in San Francisco a little early on Saturday, dropped my suitcase off at the Intercontinental Hotel, and walked around the corner to a sandwich shop for a bite to eat and to get online. As I draped my coat over the back of the chair, I decided I really like San Francisco. It’s the sun, I admit it. Oh, and I had already noted that the two billboards I noticed on the taxi from the airport were pure tech: one for an enterprise search system and another for PGP. Billboards talking to me? Amazing.

After settling in at the hotel, I had dinner with my old colleague Chris Burley and his girfriend at a nice Italian restaurant. Chris is awesome. I love talking with him because he has such passion for what he does, which currently is to help lead efforts like urban farming in the Bay area.

Sunday AM: 3 good things

The next morning I woke early due to the time zone difference, and I had three excellent experiences:

  1. In the aching fog of caffeine deprivation, had the best cup of coffee of my life, thanks to the Blue Bottle Café. (I admit, I ordered a second cup to go.)
  2. Paused in the Yerbe Buena Gardens where some elderly practiced tai chi and parents snapped photos as their little children hid behind a waterfall. I stood on a bridge and watched the morning sun ripple on the glass of San Francisco skyscrapers.
  3. Crashed a church service at a music venue called Mezzanine put on by a group that calls itself IKON. I was the oldest person there, amidst a crowd of art school students. We sang, we listened to a teaching from the Word, we had communion. It was good.

Sunday PM: MX day 1

Sunday afternoon saw the start of the 2010 MX Conference.

MX2010 is largely focused on managing user experience and less on the tactical end of UX practice, and there were some thought-provoking presentations from people who have been managing user experience for a number of years, in a number of different types of companies. Off the top of my head, presenters represented firms in financial industries (Vanguard), publishing (Harvard Business Review), retail sporting goods, and online media (Youtube).

The series of talks was fantastic, and was kicked off with a keynote by Jared Spool in which he shared insights like that Gallup’s Customer Engagement (CE11) metric has high correlation to the quality of user experience. Spool’s keynote actually turned out to predict some themes that carried throughout the many presentations. Among them were the importance of establishing a vision for user experience and that experience ultimately must be addressed well across multiple channels (web, mobile, physical space, etc.).

Spool talked about three core attributes necessary for great user experience: Vision, Feedback, and Culture. He posed three questions that UX managers should ask.

  1. VISION: Can everyone on the team describe the experience of using your design 5 years from now?
  2. FEEDBACK: In the last six weeks have you spent more than two hours watching someone use your design or a competitor’s design?
  3. CULTURE: In the last six weeks have you rewarded a team member for creating a major design failure?

After the conference reception, I wound down the evening by taking a walk around a few blocks and ending at a nearby bar. I ate a burger and watched the Academy Awards for a while. Back at the hotel I watched the end of a Clint Eastwood Western flick and fell asleep.

Monday AM+PM: MX day 2

I woke at 4 in the morning. I checked analytics, email, and my usual RSS feeds. I stretched, washed, dressed, and still had time to kill. I read a few chapters in The Shack, a book Adam gave me last week.

I chatted throughout the day with Haakon, a usability specialist attending from the design company Tarantell in Norway, and as he sipped his coffee, I decided to not mention my mere three hour time difference.

The rest of the day was another series of excellent presentations. Themes: customer (more than user) experience, vision that guides the business, new models for working in the network, UX leadership stories from Youtube, customer experience in renovation of thinking at Harvard Business Review Online, understanding the holistic customer, data-driven design decisions (and when not to rely on data for design decisions), experience design as business strategy, and operating as a chief experience officer in your company.

It was great to hear first-hand the stories from these user experience leaders. Now, for what to do with it all when returning to the office.

Tomorrow and then

Tomorrow morning I fly back to Michigan, and need to get my head back into product owner and user experience work. But I also need to hold onto the ideas from this conference, and shift into actively leading user (or is that customer) experience work at Covenant Eyes.

Argh! I’m pen-less!

Photocredit: Tony Hall. Click photo to visit Tony's photostream @ flickr.com

Pen-less. It’s 9:30 in the evening, and I need to write out some thoughts (about a split-complementary color set).

At work last Friday, the pen that I’ve had with me for some months now finally gave up its last ink. It was a Pilot Precise V5, black.

My habit has been to have that pen in my left front pants pocket, reliably at hand. I guarded it, making sure to have it back if I let a colleague or a daughter use it for a moment. I gave other pens like it away, but kept that one.

Of course I have other pens. Bic ball-point pens: the kind you get in bulk in the plastic bags during back-to-school sales. I hate those pens. They fail so often, and you have to drag the ink out of them, scraping across paper. Scribble in circles first just to get them warmed up. Lazy bastards. Then you have to draw across your strokes again, filling in ink on the empty indentations of your first pass at writing.

I’m irritated at myself for getting into this pen-less position. Luckily, I have Plan B: pencils and a sharpener.

Experience theme for Covenant Eyes

Cindy Chastain’s article, “Experience Themes,” at Boxes and Arrows outlines a neat way to package the concepts that help user experience designers put creative work into context.

When I was leading many design/development projects at a time, I’d write a creative brief for each—it helped me and the team stay clearheaded about each project. An experience theme seems like an alternative to a creative brief.

The following thoughts apply Chastain’s article to my work at Covenant Eyes.

Covenant Eyes is rich with stories

At Covenant Eyes, Inc., we have a full-time blogger, Luke. As I see it, Luke’s job is to draw out the stories surrounding Covenant Eyes and to share them using the Internet. He’s our storyteller.

What are the roles? There are so many stories, from people in so many places in life.

  • husbands, fathers
  • wives, mothers
  • children
  • pastors, rabbis
  • counselors
  • porn addicts, recovering porn addicts, people who have beaten the addiction
  • and the list continues

What are some theme concepts?

  • For people fighting a problem with pornography: Learn to be honest again (These words come from Michael Leahy’s mouth while he was visiting our offices.)
  • For mothers with children who use the Internet: Protect my family
  • For fathers with a teenage son: Teach him to be responsible for his actions

Experience transcends our services

What work do we do at our company? Although others I work with may claim we deliver software, I think we deliver information. Our software allows us to provide information-rich reports on Internet usage that can be used within relationships. I think of these as “accountability relationships.”

The theme concepts listed above have little to do with software or even our service. The real value we provide is that we can provide the sense for people that what could be their little secret is not actually hidden. That little bit of knowledge has proven its ability to change lives, and relationships, for the better.

The hard part is carrying the experience theme across our touch points with users

I recently helped put together a spreadsheet to inventory the automated emails we send to users at various points. There were over 60 emails, and they fulfill needs ranging from billing concerns to helpful reminders after a few weeks of being a customer. Many of these messages should be revised, and keeping the theme in mind will help create a coherent experience for our users.

Covenant Eyes has multiple touch points with its users.
Covenant Eyes has multiple touch points with its users.

Beyond these emails is a myriad of other touch points:

  • sign up form
  • help documents
  • filter settings controls
  • accountability reports
  • tech support phone calls
  • blog posts
  • and so on

Taken all together, these communications can benefit from an experience theme.

I suspect the key to pulling this off is to have all those involved with crafting these touch points understand the experience theme and leave it to them to carry it through. As the company’s user experience lead, my job may be to facilitate the definition and adoption of an experience theme, and motivate and lead by example so others will carry the vision.

A Sad Tale of Pagination

I imagine some professional chefs are accused of over-analyzing a bowl of soup now and then. Like that, as a user experience designer, I get caught up in little pieces of user interface on a regular basis.

This particular story concerns a navigation system that utilizes pagination in what at first seems an obvious choice, but upon observation it is clear that this is a very poor approach.

Background: Company setting

Covenant Eyes, Inc., is an  8 year old software company in Michigan with about 50 employees. About a dozen are customer service representatives, some for enterprise customers and some for individual or family accounts. There are about 10 in the IT team, which includes myself.

Background: What service does our company provide? Internet accountability.

Take 2 actors, George and his friend Paul. George is addicted to online porn, but he really wants to beat his addiction because he feels it is wrong and could really mess up his life. To attack his problem, George installs our software on his computer. The software keeps tabs on George’s activity, and once a week sends a report of that activity over to Paul. Paul can then talk with George about George’s Internet activity. It seems simple, but removing the anonymity of his addiction is powerful.

The point, in a nutshell, is accountability. If George is trying to kick some bad online habits, his friend Paul now has information in these reports that he can use to hold George accountable.

The current design calls for pagination

These Accountability Reports are like executive summaries that include links over to what we call the “Detailed Logs.” This log is a full list of URLs that George visited.

Depending on the amount of activity, the log may have thousands of entries for Paul to navigate.

When these logs first became available, customers’ download speeds were more of an issue than they are today, so the developers knew that they could not simply put all the entries on a single page because the pages would take far too long to load.

Pagination to the rescue! The developers broke up the long list of URLs into pages, each page having 50 URLs. To help Paul navigate this long series of pages, numbered page links and “Previous” and “Next” links were placed at the top and bottom of each page.

So, let’s say Paul is looking at page 50. He would see something like the pagination navigation shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Pagination
Figure 1: Pagination

This seems a good approach on two fronts.

  1. Paul won’t wait to download one page with over 8,000 URLs on it, but if we divide that time into, in this case, 165 separate downloads, each page will seem pretty quick.
  2. Pagination will work for Paul because he uses pagination on nearly every search engine results page. It’s nothing new to him.

Bingo. Problem solved. Right?

But why does it take so many clicks to find the right info?

I was standing next to Mike, one of our Customer Service Representatives, and asked him a seemingly simple question. “Mike, can you bring up that log and show me what was going on last Tuesday at 11:32 AM?”

I did not intend it to be a usability test, but it might as well have been. Mike helps people every day by walking them through reports and logs, so he is as expert as anyone gets at navigating these logs. Yet, the basic task of finding a page with a specific time on it was accomplished by a series of guesses, each slightly more informed than the previous guess. It took 8 tries before Mike got us to the right page.

Since then, I have seen people repeatedly click the “Next” button, flipping through each page to find the one page they want. With 165 or so pages in a log, this can take far more than 8 clicks.

If someone knows the date and time they want to view in a Detailed Log, shouldn’t they be able to get to that page without guessing on the first try?

20/20 hindsight: Why is it so hard to find the right page?

Pagination is a valid interface design pattern, and is perhaps most often seen on search engine result pages. Still, it does not work well here.

So, why doesn’t pagination work here? Thinking in information architecture terms can help answer the question.

Pagination is a metaphor from the print world

We’ve all grown up reading books and magazines, and so page numbers are a tool we take for granted. In print, they are used to keep track of where we left off so we can pick back up at the right point. They are also used as non-digital hypertext, like in a magazine where we see “continued on page 58.”

On the web, pagination has become something slightly different, but the metaphor carries over well enough to work for us. On search results pages, we now expect to see a pagination interface at the bottom of the search results to allow us to continue to the next page of 10 or 20 links. One difference on the web is that we expect those links on the first page to have higher relevancy than those on the following pages.

So, on the web pagination is an answer to a finding question, and is based on an underlying organizational system of quantity ordered by relevancy.

However, in this case, the list is ordered by time but paginated by quantity. In this case, people want to find by time, but quantity is not metered evenly against time. So, page 1 might have 50 entries that cover 5 seconds of activity, and page 2 might have 50 entries that cover 32 hours of activity. There is no predictability of how much time will be represented from page to page of results, and that is why people are left with so much guess-work.

Match the interface to the underlying information architecture and users’ information needs

In recent work, we’ve shifted to a time-based pagination (Figure 2) from a quantity-based pagination (Figure 1). We think this will go a long way towards helping people find what they want without having to guess.

Figure 2. Find-by-time instead of pagination.
Figure 2. Find-by-time instead of pagination.

I’ve observed a few users have their first contact with this revised interface, and it has worked well so far. We may have introduced other usability issues in the process, but this is a step in the right direction.

Moral of the story?

Before implementing a user interface design pattern, be sure you first understand the information architecture and users’ information needs. Otherwise you risk using the wrong pattern, hurting your users’ experiences, and missing out on an opportunity for innovation and good design.

Next week: IUE2009

I’ll be at the Internet User Experience 2009 conference in Ann Arbor, MI this week with a crew of coworkers.

In addition to the conference itself on Wednesday and Thursday, I’ll attend 2 full-day tutorials:

  • Use Cases in an Agile World
  • Field Research for User Experience Design

I’m looking forward to the events, and intend to blog about the highlights. Stay tuned!

I educate

Slightly over a year ago, I switched careers from website producer, consultant, and business owner to technology educator.

I entered an organization in the midst of its ongoing, subtle identity crisis. Do we think of ourselves as trainers? We are called that, sometimes, because we give short courses and workshops on various computing topics, and these topics are often thick with training on using specific software packages. For example, how to use Microsoft Access.

At first, I didn’t know what to call myself. Trainer? Instructor? Teacher?

Over the past months, as I’ve proceeded to teach courses on a variety of topics in computing, I know that I’m an educator. Even when teaching a course on Excel, I strive to not just have the learners practice with the software, but to understand why the software works as it does. My hope is that they leave the course not only with the knowledge of how to do the fairly mundane tasks of sorting columns and using functions, but to also conceptualize and understand their data in ways that empower them to creatively bend Excel to their own purposes.

Beyond that, I’ve always recoiled emotionally from the word “trainer.” I do not wear shiny black boots, a whip, and a whistle. “Right-click! Good boy. Have a treat.”

Please, stop. I expect far, far more out of my fellow humans than a simple ability to jump through hoops. I expect ingenuity, creativity, tenacity.

So, all that said, this morning I read an essay, Human-Centered Design by Mike Cooley, from “Information Design,” edited by Jacobsen (published in 1999 by The MIT Press). Here is an excerpt that I appreciate.

My hierachy of verbs in these matters is that you program a robot, you train an animal, but you educate human beings. Education in this sense is not just what occurs in schools or universities, where, so often, students and teachers are, as Ivan Illich points out, “schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new” (Illich 1971:9).

Well said.

Transitioning into this job

I thought I wanted a career, but it turns out I only wanted a paycheck.

I read that quote, it was taped to a cash register at Espresso Royale, back in July, about a month into my job as a technology trainer at the university, after having spent seven years producing web sites full-time.

Tomorrow marks six months into this job, and I’m beginning to work through the transition. Here are some ideas I’m starting to grasp—or at least wrestle with.

Work can be easy and it can be slow-paced.

Compared to starting and running an Internet consulting company for the last three years, and managing multiple web site productions for the last six or seven years, this job is a snap. There are far fewer deadlines and there just isn’t a lot of complexity or change in the work.

Plus, my role is far narrower than it was. I don’t need to be concerend about managing client relationships, doing accounting and other paperwork (which I stink at anyway), doing sales, writing proposals. And, I have far more time to produce far less.

However, just because it is easier, doesn’t mean I’m less concerend about doing it well. I like teaching most of these short technology courses, and I’ve been able to create some new courses by drawing on my background. I want to increase the quality of the overall program, and since I am not in a management position, one way I can do this is by example and contribution.

Do I want a career or simply a paycheck?

So, I don’t have an answer to this one. I have had a career in the field of web production. I am no longer actively participating in that field, though I don’t really feel like I’ve grown rusty yet. I have been keeping up on industry news and have continued conversations with colleagues who are still active in the industry.

In a skilled trade, people would develop their careers roughly by becoming an Apprentice, then a Journeyman, then a Master. And they would live by their trade. It seems like switching to a different trade would be foolish after a point.

Yet, that is what I have done. And it seems common these days, doesn’t it? People reinvent themselves. They change careers several times in their lives, right? Some do, anyway.

I think I would rate myself a fairly advanced Journeyman web producer. I have built or led development on hundreds of web sites since 1995. I’ve specialized in web site usability, information architecture, project management, writing for the web, and semantic markup. I have mentored a handful of developers and designers, a few of whom continue to work in the field.

I am not sure what it would take to be a Master, and unlike former times, I was able to study under many Masters, without their knowledge. Names? In no particular order: J. Nielsen, D. Norman, E. Meyer, J. Zeldman, the pros at Adaptive Path (I found Peter Merholz’s blog years ago and later discovered some cool things that jjg was doing), L. Rosenfeld, P. Morville, and as I think, so many others.

What would possess me to make such a drastic move away from my career in web production? Desperate measures follow desperate times, so it goes.

So, at this point I’m much closer to a career in web production. But, if I spend a few years doing technology training then it might start looking like a career in technology training. Which would I like more? At this point, I prefer web production as it is more dynamic and challenging work.

But I don’t dislike what I’m doing now. It helps that I have a good supervisor, a steady income that can be budgeted (unlike the variations in income as a self-employed person), and benefits for my family. Oh, and tomorrow I get to start using vacation time. I haven’t had a vacation in about four years.

Which is to say, right now I’m working for the paycheck.

Stillness

Early last month, Andy Johanson retired from the university. He had worked here for nearly forty years.

Forty years in the same building, the same office. Incredible. Seriously, I’m in awe.

My work history shows much more frequent changes. I worked for four or five years at the MSU Writing Center, a year or so at the LCC Writing Center, three years at University Relations here at MSU, then three years in my company. And now, I’m half a year into this position.

How does someone stay in the same type of position for so long? Granted, Andy’s job itself must have gone through substantial changes as it is in the computing field. Still, how did he last forty years? One piece of that picture that impresses me is that he didn’t seem in a rut or all that burnt-out. Maybe he is just good at hiding it, but I’ve seen other people who’ve worked in university or state jobs for a long time, and God forbid I should ever become so cynical and detached.

At the risk of people at MSU reading this, I’ve already applied for a different job, though it didn’t work out. I saw a position open at a company in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a Manager of Interface Design and it really matched up with what I want to do. It involved managing and mentoring a team of interface designs for a company whose products are delivered via the web. When I’ve had the opportunity to, I have really enjoyed managing and mentoring web designers and developers, so that would suit me. And, it would involve not only interface design, but also getting to the root of the information architecture of their products. The company called and let me know that they had already decided to promote someone internally to that position. They asked if I was interested in an interface designer position. I’m not. If I move, it will need to be into a leadership and management position, I think.

I’m trying to quiet my spirit and accept where I am and my changed role, at least for the time being.