Category: strategy

The UX of why people hate their new job after three months

a row of doors

My first-day advice to new members of the team boils down to, “Don’t worry, you are going to be totally miserable in about three months.”

We all know the excitement of that first day at work. There are new people to meet, new projects to learn and new roles and responsibilities to master. Part of the intoxication of those early weeks is they are often the only time in our adult lives we are allowed to ask stupid questions and not have to pretend to know everything.

And despite that opportunity our learning plan is often simply, “Give me a few weeks to get up to speed and I will own the place.” That approach boosts our short-term confidence but also sets unrealistic expectations for our ability to quickly understand and master the complexity of the organization and its needs.

In UX research, we think a lot about mental models – how a user believes a process works v.s. the system model of how it was actually designed; and framing – the context in which an interaction is interpreted. In essence, your satisfaction within an experience can depend a lot on your initial expectations.

For new employees, the expectation we need to set is that while the initial learning curve is steep, the on-boarding process actually never ends nor does it move in a predictably straight line.

I describe it like this:

The first month is like sitting in a waiting-room. There are lots of doors with people passing through, plenty to read and free coffee if you can figure out how to operate the machine.

And while reading and caffeinating is great, you will soon be excited to pick a door, enter a side room and get down to work. This is a most glorious time. You will start to feel productive, in control, valued and effective.

Then one afternoon, maybe three months later, you will inevitably walk up to another door. Behind it lie some unpleasant new realities. Maybe your first big project missed a deadline and you feel responsible. Or your boss has grown distant since those early days of interviewing, training and goal setting. Or your commute is worse than you thought. Whatever the cause, the honeymoon is over and some early doubts creep in.

Deciding how to open this door is key. Because everyone experiences it. And after months of gaining competence and confidence, you are going to feel a bit miserable realizing you don’t know nearly as much as you thought. How could you have been so mistaken? So self-deluded? So in the wrong career? It can feel like an actual crisis in the moment.

Fortunately, at this point most of us actively re-invest in the job. With effort, the organization reveals new puzzle pieces (system model) and we improve our understanding (mental model) of how to navigate the challenges. We open the door, discover new skills and grow more confident and productive than we had before.

But here is the trick: This cycle repeats itself endlessly. Maybe first at three months, then 18 months, then four years. Each time the door seems heavier and the crisis more dire. Each time you will feel miserable and each time you will wonder if you should go update your LinkedIn profile.

We can’t avoid the doors and we can’t avoid some amount of psychic pain and misery each time. But learning to recognize the pattern is transformative. It can turn a month’s worth of anxious lunch hours lost to checking monster.com into a few days of introspection followed by a fulfilling action plan.

The challenge is, people often think their crisis of confidence in these situations is a personal failing. That their impostor syndrome is showing. That they have picked the wrong job or career. This is almost never true. So how do we avoid people falling for that conceit?

Tell them well in advance you know they will find some doors too heavy to open alone. “Don’t worry, you are going to be totally miserable in about three months. But it won’t last – if you see it coming.”

Tell them how you think it might happen and when. Set the expectation so they can recognize the pattern. And then give them a hand when they do. In this case, knowing is half the battle.

Shining a light in Plato’s Product Office

One of my favorite things about ONA is the session pitch. It is a great chance to wonder, “do I actually have anything to say?” but more importantly “what do I want to learn more about?”

The suggestion box opened recently and I am still thinking about this post from October on the challenges of building great products at legacy news organizations.

Here’s the pitch:

Shining a light in Plato’s Product Office

We can all agree – creating great products requires an understanding of and empathy for our users. That is a core tenet of Design Thinking and all Human Centered Design approaches to product development.

But empathy for users (readers, viewers, customers?) is not enough. The products we develop are an emergent property of the people, processes and cultures of our teams. And creating great products in any organization, especially one with a hundred-plus years of history, requires understanding ourselves as much as it does users.

We will talk about Plato’s Cave, empathy, fundamental attribution error, and the unique challenges of shepherding ideas through the complex web of intra-organizational boundaries, stakeholders, silos and workflows that are typical in modern media companies.

The Product Solution Stack Test

(tldr; A product strategy is only as strong as its weakest link.)

The Twitter dust-up this week ostensibly about digital having been a mistake for newspapers felt a bit like Groundhog Day (the movie.) New day, same argument, same result.

Steve Buttry and Mathew Ingram both posted eloquent rebuttals:

Buttry:  The newspaper industry’s colossal mistake was a defensive digital strategy

The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.

Ingram: Sticking With Print Would Not Have Helped Newspapers Avoid Death

Shafer’s piece assumes there was some magical Eden in which newspapers were unassailable, and that it would have been possible to remain there if not for the sin of pushing too hard into digital. But that simply isn’t the case.

Newspapers were never likely to dominate digital in the way they had print. Many of the causes are secular – the Internet is a supremely disruptive force that inherently flattens structures, eliminates middlemen and creates value at scale.

Newspapers on the other hand were middlemen built to extract local value from news and advertising. The worth of local journalism aside, the future of the print delivery business was always going to be problematic.

But blaming our travails entirely on those outside forces risks ignoring the mistakes we do own. And at the product and development level, we failed at some basic digital blocking and tackling. Those failures can be attributed to a lack of systems thinking in our strategies, and a lack of respect for just how difficult the ‘system’ of a legacy media company can be to navigate.

Developers have a concept of the ‘tech stack’ to describe the collection of software and subsystems required for a project. A typical example is ‘LAMP’ representing Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP in a common combination of operating system, web server, database and application/template software for a web site. Each component is dependent on the other and works together as a single system.

In product development, we also attempt to design coherent systems. But unlike a standard software stack, product solutions are emergent properties that reflect the desires, needs and constraints of a wide range of constituencies including humans, machines, cost and time.

  1. Reader Need (desirability)
  2. Business Need (viability)
  3. Visual Design (on brand and articulate)
  4. User Experience (function, usability)
  5. Development Effort (feasibility)
  6. Systems Integration (between disparate services and tools)
  7. Workflow (process for creating & publishing)
  8. Culture (shared assumptions that govern behavior)

Note that some of those layers (desirability, feasibility and viability) are typical human-centered design concepts. The others represent the people and processes necessary to actually bring a product to life including designers, developers and journalists.  To succeed, any product must ‘pass the test’ of at least minimally satisfying the requirements for each of the eight layers in that stack. And, because the stack crosses multiple organizational boundaries, creative and strategic conflicts will typically abound.

And more to the point, each layer in the stack is entirely capable of vetoing a product decision considered ‘solved’ in any or all of the layers above it. So, solving for seven is still a failing grade.

For instance, readers would undoubtedly prefer (level 1. Reader Need/desirability) a news site with no ads. But that would violate the need for revenues (level 2. Business Need/viability.)

And the further apart the levels the more complex the negotiations and solution will be.

Imagine a preferred design that dictated the use of triangular photos on the homepage. We could undoubtedly build the template and create a script to automatically crop images and avoid manual effort. But triangular photos are such a radical departure from accepted journalism norms the newsroom would likely reject the idea. (Possibly rightfully so.) So, all of the work to develop a product solution that worked from levels 3 to 7 would have been wasted, because we failed to solve for culture (level 8.)

So why have newspapers struggled with digital?

  1. Our guide star is often an internal business need, not an external customer need.
  2. We have failed to modernize many of our backend systems (starting with the CMS) causing many product strategies to fail at that level.
  3. In the name of expedience we launch features and products that do not meet the minimum requirements of all eight levels of the product stack.
  4. Our organizations are often siloed in a way that can return ‘false positives’ in the product stack test due to the inaccessibility of data.
  5. We have not explicitly enough discussed the complexity of the full product solution stack, so we have under-estimated the difficulty involved.
  6. We have failed to invest in the product and development resources that could help identify and resolve these issues.

When we solve those issues and are building products that ‘pass the test’ then we can go back to arguing about the ‘original sin‘ of digital journalism. Until then, we are still learning how to do digital media and are not ready to write the post mortem. Time is short, but the solutions are at hand if we take advantage.

 

Timing is everything

As the old joke goes, you have three options for any project: “Quick, Cheap or Good. Pick two.”

For better or worse, at least those are affirmative choices – assuming you make them well enough in advance of the deadline. But wait till you have a month or a week left and the equation changes. Now you can only pick one. And “Cheap or Good” have already left the building.

Why personalization is hard (and why you need to aggregate.)

zite

 

Since it launched, Zite has been one of my favorite apps. Keying off my Twitter stream the product does an absolutely amazing job of finding stories I am 1) interested in; 2) had not seen already; 3) from sources I was unlikely to stumble across.

That sort of personalization – saving time by accurately filtering information –  is of huge value to readers. If you can reduce the number of clicks (the currency of the web) needed to find stories of interest, I am likely to return. No surprise that most media organizations have recommended story lists on their websites.

But in many cases these lists are of minimal value. Browsing Salon.com just now – five of the suggested stories were more than four months old. And I was reading about the Affordable Health Care Act.

The challenge is, even the most prolific news sites (say the NYT) only publish 1000 – 1500 stories daily. Even over a week or a month, there is not enough variety to make an effective recommendation in every case. So, older or less relevant stories are surfaced. But as a pure aggregator Zite is not restricted to a single news source. A billion new pages are added to the world wide web daily. That is more than enough to recommend 50 – 100 highly relevant stories to me each day.

Doing some news math, the filtering value (or number of potential clicks saved) to the user is not comparable:

Zite: (one billion possible stories / 100 filtered stories) = 10,000,000 clicks saved.
News site: (one thousand possible stories / 10 filtered stories) = 100 clicks saved.

Yes, that is a farcical equation and the news site still returns a positive value — but not enough to be competitive.

For news publishers, there are three ways to improve our odds: 1) Improve the algorithms to eliminate outdated or irrelevant articles; 2) Reach outside your own CMS and aggregate stores from other sources; 3) Start focusing your metrics less on raw page views, and more on efficiency and value created for the reader ‘clicks saved.’ (See Cory Bergman’s ‘time saved’ take on this earlier this year.)

Yes, those aggregated links will need to be highly relevant (see improve the algorithm above) and they will lead visitors away from your site. But, all Zite does is send me away. And yet I return every day.