This week on the Boagworld show we are joined by Abby Covert to discuss availability, gaining respect and the customers perspective.
Paul: Hello and welcome to the Boagworld show, the podcast about user experience, digital strategy and digital management or whatever the hell I feel like talking about this week. Joining me as always, on this week’s show is Marcus. Hello Marcus!
Marcus: Hello Paul, how are you?
Paul: I’m very well on this glorious sunny summer’s day.
Marcus: It’s one of the two that we get.
Paul: Yes, let’s make the most of it while we can, and Abbie Covert. Hello Abbie, how are you?
Abbie: Hello, I’m good, thanks to having me on.
Paul: Now, you see today is 26°, is that what it is for you Marcus?
Marcus: It might be 27° up here. In American that might be 85°, which is superhot for us.
Paul: Oh unbelievably so, but as I remember Abbie from our previous conversation, I seem to remember that your childhood consisted of growing up in some italic Caribbean island, is that right?
Abbie: You did not imagine that. I grew up on an island called St Croix in the US Virgin Islands.
Paul: So this isn’t very hot for you then?
Abbie: No, not at all. I actually just relocated with my husband to Melbourne, Florida. So I’m back to tropical living.
Paul: Are, I see.
Marcus: Well we get two days a year and is today and tomorrow.
Paul: Is that it? Is that all be allowed?
Marcus: Pretty much.
Paul: What I don’t understand and what confuses me, I’ve got a question. Humidity right? Florida is humid as well and when we get some days like this it is very humid too. I don’t understand how they measure humidity. I was thinking about this earlier the kind of thing I was thinking about when I sit in a beer garden.
Marcus: Not a lot of work on at the moment then Paul?
Paul: No, I’m writing my book. I’m writing the latest book which involves a lot of sitting around and thinking about unrelated things when I get stuck. Anything that I want to know is if zero humidity, because they always measure humidity in percentages, is no moisture in the air, does that mean 100% humidity is that were swimming in water?
Marcus: No Paul.
Abbie: I don’t think that’s the way it works.
Paul: So what is 100% humidity then? Is it just some random arbitrary value that they have signed?
Abbie: I think is the amount of humidity that the area is capable of handling. So it’s not water, its still air. Right now in Florida were up in the 90s in terms of percentages of humidity and I assure you it is not like living underwater. Is not quite that way but it does mean that there is no more moisture that the air can take.
Paul: Without it starting to rain one presumes?
Abbie: Oh I don’t know, maybe you should have meteorologist on the show?
Marcus: Let’s change the subject to the one of the podcast.
Paul: I am bored were talking about project management stuff so I figured what’s more interesting than that and I thought, meteorology. I’m sorry, seriously I was sitting in the beer garden drinking my point of cider that I do when I write and that was what went through my head. I thought he better to ask about that than IA expert, Abbie Covert.
Marcus: You had a better reply response than I had. I was just going to say would feel wetter or something like that. But before we move on and like to thank Abbie because she agreed to move the podcast and the reason why I asked you to do that was because I got last-minute tickets to go and see a big cricket match which probably doesn’t mean anything to you but it’s at the home of cricket in London and I got tickets last-minute and I would have not been able to go if you hadn’t agreed to move the podcast, so thank you.
Abbie: I am glad that a Caribbean girl could give you a chance to see cricket because we also play cricket there.
Marcus: Of course you do, sorry I didn’t make the connection.
Paul: So they you go. So was it a good match?
Marcus: It was day two of four days and England didn’t win but it was still a good game and a good day.
Paul: But then if it’s a four-day game and you only saw one day…
Marcus: We don’t have long enough for me to explain test cricket to you Paul.
Paul: It strikes me that’s like watching one episode of game of thrones – deeply unsatisfying and no idea what’s going on.
Marcus: Well, we haven’t got long enough and you wouldn’t understand so it’s just not worth it.
Paul: So Abbie, if relocated to Florida have you?
Abbie: Yes that’s true.
Paul: Where were you before that? You were in New York weren’t you?
Abbie: Yes New York City. I live in the most opposite placed to New York City now that’s possible.
Paul: So how did that come about, was a family decision or what was the plan?
Abbie: I’ve been travelling a lot over the last few years and living in New York was great from the perspective of having access to many airports but wasn’t spending a tremendous amount of time in New York so we started question the lifestyle choice of being in a city, specifically around having a tiny apartment that I lived and worked in. My husband is from Melbourne in Florida and so we started looking at houses and found a great house allows me to have a separate workspace from the rest of the house and that’s been my dream for the last few years of an independent. So we’ve been here three months now and it’s really great.
Paul: That’s for me, when we moved, my office is like a garage that joins the house. That’s the best thing ever.
Abbie: Yes mind to. You can actually shut the door on the work. Before for the last five years I’ve been living in a 400 ft.² apartment with a sleeping loft and my office was underneath the bed. It was like this strange little hole which was great but it was time to branch out and get some separate space.
Paul: What did it for me was when we had our son and he was a little baby and I was trying to work in the middle of the house while he was screaming his head off. Oh no, that was bad. Anyway we’re beyond such things now.
So you are still operating as an independent consultant, give people an idea what kind of clients you work with and kind of work you do.
Abbie: I work with companies of all sizes. Just this year alone I’ve worked with companies with hundreds of thousands of employees that have been around for 40 years and have also worked with small and mid-size start-ups that are growing and my focus is the same regardless of the company size. I’m helping them to understand how they can make more resilient structures and how they can be clearer with the language that they are speaking internally as well as externally with the customers.
Paul: So it’s quite interesting isn’t it because I found talking to you very interesting when we first met because I went into the conversation with you having quite a narrow view of what I considered information architecture. When you described yourself as an information architect I made certain presumptions that you quickly dispelled to me of. So can you talk a little bit about where information architecture starts and stops you because I think that’s quite any lightning subject.
Abbie: I think that a lot of times when I run into someone, especially those that be working in the web specifically, the assumption is that an information architect is directly responsible and only responsible for web navigation system design. So what does your top nav has the world divided into in terms of sections and then if you have other navigational devices, what are they and what are they called? And that is a form of information architecture and I would say if you’re working in digital that is the most prevalent form of information architecture that’s practised. But from a historical perspective information architecture is a lot broader than that. So something that came about simultaneously from the technology industry as well as from the design and architecture landscape so essentially it’s any time that you’re describing the parts of a whole in terms of how they are going to come together around the intention of your business. That can apply to things outside of websites and applications and in my career I have helped to do a lot of things that are considered more on the business process side.
Paul: I suspect people sitting at home listening to this thinking, hang on a minute I thought the season of the pod cast was about digital management and digital business processes and that kind of stuff. Everybody else the pool has talked to this season has been digital project managers and people like that. Why on earth is Abbie on the show and why on earth are we talking about information architecture all of a sudden? But the one thing that stuck with me, is that you were talking about how your job leads you down the rabbit hole. That you start with something potentially quite superficial in terms of a website navigational structure before you know it you’re digging into much deeper issues about how an organisation is structured, how it thinks, how it sees itself and that kind of stuff. So that’s the context in terms of why I thought it would be great to get you on the show and I presume you’re still doing a lot of that kind of stuff.
Abbie: Yes, absolutely. I think more and more as I go through projects with companies of all different sizes I become even more convinced that how you do anything is how you do everything. I do feel like often the way that you are organised ends up on your organisational structures on the things that you make. Some people call that shipping the org chart and I do see that happening quite a bit and also I feel like in a lot of cases as an external consultant I can come in and tell you what’s wrong but if I’m not able to tell you why, fixing it might not actually have the effect long-term that would actually fix the problem. We might fix the navigational scheme of your website six months later if you haven’t fixed the why behind that problem is just going to have atrophied back to that original point. So I do spend quite a bit of time with companies I work with talking about the way that they themselves are organised and also the mental models within the organisations and the employees that work on these problems and have those mental models deeply impacted the ability for them to reach their customers in a clear way.
Paul: That is so true, it almost feels a bit like an elastic band to me sometimes working with a company that yes, you can stretch them to fit something that is more appropriate but if you let go for minute it will spring back to its natural state. You see that all the time where I’ve seen organisations that bring in some kind of digital leader to head up their new digital initiative and this person fights against the system of the organisation and they bring about change and they make it work and they make it happen through strength of will. Eventually they get tired out, they have to move on from the organisation and the organisation just springs back to its natural state. And that’s what you’re saying isn’t it, if you can’t change the underlying culture then things will basically revert back to their natural state.
Abbie: Yes, nothing is really difficult for people to be okay with especially in the design capacity where you really want to see immediate change and I think the kind of change that doesn’t bounce back over time is the kind that is so slow and thankless and it’s almost invisible sometimes. I think as a consultant that something I’ve had to get really comfortable with. It’s a strong case study years later with the immediate effects being almost negligible. It can be hard for some people to grasp.
Paul: I know exactly the same thing as you get people saying to you, can you point at organisations that have done this and been successful? Like appointed organisations that have started it and failed because you get to see those but those that are succeeding are still in the process. It’s ongoing and it’s hard to know whether that cultural change has actually taken root. The book that I’m writing at the moment is Building a User Experience Culture, that’s the name of the book and if I said once in that book, look this is a marathon and not a sprint, I must as editor half a dozen times. Because all the time you feel this need to manage expectations, if you follow what’s in this book is not righteously all going to be great but it’s something that’s going to take years to achieve.
Abbie: Absolutely nothing also one of things that I’ve started to notice in our industry is that we are very willing to talk about best practices once they are done but it’s very hard to talk about cultural change because you have to admit your dirty laundry. You have to admit that you were a culture of fear and then you decided to go in a different direction. No one wants to admit they had a culture of fear and that their employees were maybe turning over to higher rates than wanting to admit. There’s lot of secret keeping that I feel keeps us from talking about these things in a broader sense and looking at examples. You can only see what’s on a companies face, it’s very difficult to see what’s going on underlying.
Paul: It’s funny that you mention a culture of fear there because I’m working with the client at the moment who has exactly that. What’s really funny is that I can’t get to the root of where that fear comes from. The whole of senior management are saying go for it, we really want it and were supporting you but is an organisation that’s been around a while and somewhere in the past this fear has established itself and is really hard to shake that even when people are saying the right things. Those big cultural changes are very frustrating because sometimes it can be hard just finding out where they come from if nothing else.
Abbie: Yes and is the finding out yourself and then there’s the actual showing them, the hand mirror aspect of what external consultants are able to do. Find that’s often the part that, the night before the presentation I’m often like, gosh I’m telling them things they already know, it’s like Capt Obvious called and he wants his presentation back and all that stuff. In reality what happens is often that those people have never sat in a room together and heard the truth said at the same time. They might have all had side conversations about it or one on ones about its and heard bits and pieces but actually getting them all in the same room and saying, hey you know what, this might seem obvious to some of you and not others but you actually all agree that this needs to change. I find that that’s a really powerful moment that may be too many people avoid because they think is obvious. You have to be willing to put yourself into that position of seeming like, doh! We know that. So far I’ve never had that happen.
Paul: It’s really weird. There’s also the element of where everyone in the organisation is basically saying good positive things and yet they think everyone else is not thinking those things.
Abbie: Yes, oh my gosh I am working on a project right now that is exactly like that. Everyone in the organisation is convinced that there is some other group in the organisation that’s really against the change and then you talk to the people in that group and they want the same thing. And so you’re like, where is this coming from? I feel like if you continue to dig eventually you will hear that one story. And then you are like, oh my gosh, light bulbs, this is the reason and is just telling them that story back so that they can move on. Is just like any other form of therapy I suppose.
Paul: Oh it does feel like therapy sometimes as well doesn’t it? I’ve just written a bit in the book about how I worked with one company where there was very stereotypically a conflict between marketing and IT. When you try and dig into it and you dug down to what was going on there it was nothing to do with anybody that was still at the company. It was two previous heads of those two departments that hated each other with a passion. It just stuck in the culture of the organisation, the weirdest thing.
Abbie: They are like little sponges organisations.
Paul: You’re not going to get a word in edgeways Marcus, were both very overexcited about sharing our pain.
Marcus: That’s absolutely fine but the one thing that you haven’t mentioned is people tend to tell you what they think you want to hear and then push off to whatever it is they do every day and think that they’ve answered the question correctly. That’s something that I’ve come up against which is slightly different what we talking about here.
Abbie: That comes back to when you ask questions, sometimes it’s not actually the answer at its face value that you are looking for, it’s the way that they answer the question and reading between the lines of the answer that’s actually going to get you to the place that you need to be with that person. I do find that a lot of times that breaking through that, we know what we’re doing executive shell, is a really important aspect. I have a couple of questions that are my go to for that and one of them is that I ask them if they had a magic wand and they could change anything in the organisation, it doesn’t have to be with the project that I’m working on anything, what would it be and why? Usually they give you an answer that actually wouldn’t take magic to fix. And you can usually within two clicks, get back to the project that you’re working on because everything is inter-twingled.
Paul: Anyway, all of that is a complete tangent but it’s not as it is all what we should be talking about. So many of these things affect projects that we work on day by day and that is the following of the rabbit hole or can of worms or whatever analogy you want to use, you think that you are building a website but actually this has become the Nexus, the battleground for all of these other things that are going on within the organisation and you end up having to get into. So it’s amazing how many of these kind of cultural things are actually the underlying problems and make projects so hard some of the time.
Before we get onto the actual questions that were going to be answering today, just want to quickly talk about our sponsor, Invision. Invision have been supporting us all the way through the season and it’s really appreciated. They got an amazing suite of prototyping and design tools and if you are doing things like prototyping a website and if you want to start engaging with stakeholders over the approaches that you’re taking then something like Invision is a great tool. It’s got some great features built into it for prototyping but they’ve got some really cool features in beta–2 which is quite interesting. For example, you can now create pixel perfect comps within Invision rather than just uploading them from whatever graphics will that you currently using, you can actually work within the application. This is really interesting because that then enables you to create instant handoff documentation the people like developers because they can see the underlying CSS that Invision has created. They probably won’t want to use that for the actual build but it will at least give them all the values and colours and fonts and other kind of stuff that you need. So there’s some really interesting stuff going on from that side of things which is going to make the handoff and working relationship with your developer so much easier. You can get three free months – try saying that after you’ve been sitting in the beer garden drinking cider – of unlimited prototypes, mobile user testing, the boards and all the cool stuff that they offer. Just go to boag.world/invision and you enter the code INV-BOAG and you will get three free months.
Discussion with Abbie
Paul: So let’s move on to some of the questions that people have been submitting in regards to digital management and working on digital projects. So Abbie, from your point of view this entire season, with very conscious that there is loads of great material out there for designers and is great material for developers, places you can go for help in both of those areas but is very little for those of us who have to manage the logistics of the digital projects. So what we’ve been asking is for people to send in their questions and we will deal with them. Now sometimes it’s client relationship type questions, sometimes its internal team structures – it’s a whole mix of stuff so I picked out three questions that I thought I would discuss with you that’s all right?
Abbie: Yes, sounds great.
Paul: Number one is from John. He says ‘how do you deal with clients who have availability issues, when you need to get feedback, ask a question or get domain knowledge about specific detail and they are unavailable to contribute?’
This is such a big problem isn’t it, getting the right people at the right time and especially with big decision-makers. How do you deal with that being your situation because you must need to work with some of these people that are incredibly busy?
Abbie: Yes, and that something that I run into quite often. I would say that the salesman in me doesn’t like the answer that I have but it’s still the answer. And that is that I wait. I often see projects slide because of unavailability and I feel that the best course of action is to communicate that the project sliding and the reason is because of availability. If it’s the person is hired you is unavailable that’s a little bit easier to sell than some other person that they’re trying to put you in contact with that is unavailable. I automatically like the risk of moving forward without the input is greater than the risk to the timeline of pushing. So like I said, the salesman in me does not like the answer because I love the things to fit so neatly on the calendar the way that they are portrayed in the beginning of the project but often what happens up actually happening is that things are sliding because of availability. So I don’t like to work on the assumption instead of waiting around for that person to actually be available.
That’s one part in the other part I would say is don’t be afraid of encouraging off time availability so sometimes the executive that you want to get access to can’t possibly meet with you between the nine and five but they can meet with you at 6.30 in the morning – I have definitely had that circumstance where I am meeting them at some ungodly time. I also had quite a bit of luck especially with stakeholder interviews catching people when they are on their commute or doing something that has nothing to do with work, like being at home and you can catch them at a different time. And if you’re just on the phone with them you can sometimes get a good relaxed perspective from them at that point.
Paul: I like that second one of catching them outside of work. That’s quite a good one although 6.30 in the morning I don’t think I would be able to ask intelligent questions at 630 in the morning.
Abbie: That’s not my favourite as well but is always 6.30 in the morning somewhere.
Paul: That must be a logistical nightmare for you mind if you’re waiting around the clients because you’ve not got a big team behind you so if a project slips, surely that creates all kinds of headaches for you?
Abbie: I try to have lots of padding between my projects, that’s a big function of just the way I’ve organised my business. I don’t fill my schedule and I tend to work on a pretty lengthy pipe project work. I don’t have to push off other clients to push out the one that I’m working on right now. It’s just not the way that I tend to structure the work that I do. I’ve also over the years I’ve noticed this sliding calendar time so much that I arrange my business to be cash flow agnostic to what’s going on right now which gives you a lot more ability to be flexible. If you can make it so that the payment milestones are not affecting your stress level, it’s easy to say okay, but that’s fine, we can wait a week.
I find a lot of people, especially people who are working independently, haven’t gotten to that place in the business but they figured that part out yet and that can be very, very stressful.
Paul: Feel free to tell me to keep my nose out of it can I ask how you do that? Is it that you work on a retainer basis or your payment milestones are not connected to milestones in the project? How to get around that one?
Abbie: So there are two types of projects that I will operate generally on. One is fixed contracts where there is 50% paid upfront regardless of work achieved and then 50% paid on delivery. Then the other projects I work on are more on the ongoing coaching and delivery models where I am invoicing them for time worked. I don’t have a preference one over the other is all depends on the type of project was going on, on the type of relationship that I have with the client but I think a bigger part of it has nothing to do with the statement of work and more to do with the way that I have architected my finances over time. I am a strong believer of having the year in a bank, to have the flexibility and that something that you have to sometimes build up and make sure that your making the correct decisions for your life overall to make that work. I do find that gives me the flexibility to say no to projects that don’t make sense to me and also push things out when they need to be put out to do the work properly as opposed to rushing things to get the 50% pay off.
Paul: Yes, that is so true and we always used to struggle with at a bit and I suppose you still do Marcus. Do you struggle with that at Headscape, of whether you push hard to meet that next milestone so that this month meets target would you allow that to roll over to the next month?
Marcus: I’m quite a lot more relaxed about that at the moment because we had a really good year. June was a good example of a month where we, for various reasons things slipped, but I wasn’t concerned about that at all because we had such a good Q1 and Q2 to that point some I was quite happy to let it slip. I think I bet the very first thing that you said there Abbie was that you’ve got to communicate with the project manager that you’re working with that the timeline, if I can’t meet this person by this point then the project is going to slip and that may be an issue for you. I found out recently that suddenly you do get access to people when you say that.
Abbie: Absolutely and that’s something I don’t have fear about putting into the contract itself. One of the sections that I added to a contract the first time about three years ago was expectations of the client. One of the bullet points is availability and I’m very specific about it. I’ve asked in that proposal process who I would be expected to include from a stakeholder standpoint and make sure that they are being realistic about it by looking at their org chart and say, okay why am I not talking to anyone from marketing is pretty sure that person is going to pop up at some point like a big surprise, and we get them in there. Then making sure it’s documented when I need those meetings and how much of those people’s time I’m going to be asking for. If they can’t provide that the least were talking about the time slide in the beginning of the project.
Things still go wrong as I had a project recently where a very important person in the product organisation that is trying to interview went out on paternity leave three weeks early because his wife went into labour three weeks early. He wasn’t going to be back for three months so there was no way we were going to be able to hold the project for that long. It was still a communications thing where we had to document and communicate to the rest of the team that this person’s input was deemed valuable enough to be a critical stakeholder in the process of proposing this project. What are we going to do in the wake of this? It was decided somebody else in his organisation can step in for him and that turned out to be the decision that the team made.
Paul: That is another solution to the problem. If you’ve got somebody that is incredibly busy then they can delegate authority to another individual. The only hesitancy in my voice there is that whether they really follow through on that. If the person they delegate to makes a decision that they don’t like, are they going to change their minds later? That’s quite a hard thing to judge upfront but it can work in some situations.
Abbie: They have to delegate more than their participation at the moment in the projects. They actually have to delegate their decision-making ability and I think being really clear about that when the moment a delegation happens, saying that you’re not just sending a note taker to my workshop so that you don’t have to attend, you are actually sending a delegate who has delegate responsibility for making decisions in your stead. And that something that when you say it like that, boldly, that’s when they have the opportunity to say well actually know that person doesn’t have that authority. Why don’t I actually set up a half an hour to talk to you in person after that meeting, and I’ve talked to that person to come to terms and those things can be worked out on an as needed basis.
Paul: That’s one of the things that I’ve taken away every time I had a conversation with you Abbie, is that you are unafraid to save other things that most people would just let go. Do not I mean? Things like that, most of us would go fair enough they delegated him but you seem to constantly push the clarification. You constantly push to make things clearer which I think is absolutely crucial and I guess comes from your information architecture background.
Abbie: Yes I pride myself on being brave but also to your point, I’m constantly striving to make things clear and the only fear I have is lack of clarity. So if I see something that even has a remote potential of being murky at some point to someone I just can’t help myself. To be honest when I was working for other people in your organisation, that was something that was both a blessing and a curse on my performance reviews. I remember very early in my career I got a lot of flak for not having respect for authority because I tend to ask questions that maybe shouldn’t be asked of people at certain levels of certain organisations and that’s ultimately how I figured out I shouldn’t work within organisations because I was never going to fit into that management model and nor did I want to be a manager.
Paul: You and me both Abbie, that applies to both of us. Let’s do our next question which is from Rachel. ‘What’s the best way to help a colleague understand the importance of approaching things from a customer’s perspective rather than their own internal views?’
You talked about shipping the org chart earlier which is a great example of this. What kind of methods do you use the helping people switch that perspective to be customer focused?
Abbie: I would say this goes way back to the first time that I ever saw a usability test. Usability testing is probably an easy go to and is warranted in this question because in a lot of cases what I see is that for time and brevity we will give a deck of results from something being tested to our clients or our colleagues and will say this didn’t work and here’s the proof, I watched these people do it and it did not work. They’ll say, oh that’s a shame. But I’ve seen so many instances where you actually have that person witness the test and it’s so much different. When you see a person who’s worked on something and believe something so deeply to be usable and you see them sitting behind the glass are watching that video of that participant struggling, you just see them wanting to yell at that person like they are a TV character. That’s when I think the lightbulb really goes on for people. So I would say show, don’t tell if you’re really struggling with those reports, not getting it across, go to the video and make them sit behind the glass and watch it. Get a paper prototype test done in front of them and have them serve as your note taker for a few tests to get that point across.
Paul: Absolutely. One of my favourites is lowlight reels where I record the user session and then afterwards edits the worst moments together. It’s very compelling. But it’s interesting again, you talked about show, don’t tell. That’s exactly the name of one of the sections in the book that I’ve written and there is something very compelling about actually showing people stuff.
Marcus: I’ve found that nagging works really well. What I mean by that is people do get the idea of being customer focused on putting users first but they still come back to personal preference and things like that. So all we do is just continually remind people that’s a bit internally focused and you can hear them sighing every time you say it. But it works and bit by bit you are saying, you need to think about this and you need to think about this. So that seems to work really well for us, nagging.
Abbie: That reminds me when I am working on language issues with organisations. I have often relied on a gym whistle. I know it sounds ridiculous but it all started when I was working for a very large company and I was running these big workshops where we had published this list of words that we do not say. They were all historical words that had been used in the organisation and had traditionally caused a lot of confusion specifically around the move from analogue processes to digital processes and we had all decided that we were not going to say these things any more. But they had become so ingrained in the way that these people talk that the only way to train them out of it was with a whistle. Every time somebody said a word that was wrong, I would blow the whistle and over time you started to catch them catch themselves. They would start to say the word and they didn’t want to hear the whistle so they would stop.
Paul: Also something like that becomes quite fun as well. You say like that it sounds like you’re being a miserable schoolmistress and I’m sure you weren’t doing it like that, you turn it into a joke and you turn it into a fun activity. It sticks with people and it makes a huge difference doing it like that.
Abbie: I think it also goes past your involvement to which is really important for the work that I do, to leave something behind and I have definitely heard from a couple of people that have worked in the organisation that still happened after I was out of the project, that people would still be like, oh don’t say that or Abbie is going to jump out from behind the curtain with a whistle.
Paul: I tell you another little trick that’s worked for me in the past is if there was one person, one or two individuals that really don’t get the user perspective, one of the things that I’ve found that has worked for me is actually to make them responsible for being the user advocate. Your job is to be the user advocate. By making that their responsibility rather than your responsibility, it makes them thinking that way. It makes them start considering things from the user’s perspective rather than their personal perspective. And you can reinforce that by saying, okay, how do you think the user will react in that situation? So you are forcing a level of empathy upon someone by making them responsible for the role.
Abbie: That brings on a really interesting discussion about incentives. If you were working with a company on user experience improvement initiative but they are only incentivised towards profitability good luck. That’s not necessarily a correlation that is easy to bridge and so often I do feel like you have to ask questions about incentive and sometimes that means changing people are responsible for, whether they believe their job to be about and communicating that clearly as part of the work that you do is a big part of what we can do to really make lasting change is opposing to everybody nodding their heads at that particular moment of the project.
Paul: I’ve experienced that recently when I was working for an organisation and one of the things that we wanted to do was put up a blog. It was just a quick and dirty job and I said, well let’s use square space just a get this blog up and running. It only takes 10 minutes to get square space running. Two weeks later nothing happened and I was pushing as to what went wrong. Oh, it was blocked by the IT security people. They were worried about its vulnerability and so it went on. Now I said this and used this as an example in a training session that I was doing at that company. A very angry woman came up to me afterwards and said that she was the one that blocked it. She said, what would happen if ISIS would have hacked that website and how badly that would reflect on our brand. But it basically came down to when you got rid of all the personalities and all the rest of it was that her job was assessed on security. That was how she was judged as an individual. If ISIS had hacked that website, however obscure and ridiculous that scenario is, she would have been fired. And so if you are assessed only on that criteria, then you are going to be incredibly risk adverse and you do get these ridiculous scenarios and situations like that.
Abbie: I think that’s part of getting at the heart of why something is the way it is, asking questions about incentives. Often in my stakeholder interviews I’m asking questions about how success is measured at the organisation. Often the reflecting question I get back is, do you mean how I am measured or how the whole company is measured? I asked them to reflect on both so I can see the difference is and where they fit into the grand scheme is often that’s the key as to why they feel about how they feel about all the answers they give me.
Paul: Let’s do our last question which is from Greg which is, ‘How do I get management to recognise that I am an expert and to take my opinion seriously? I seem to be nothing but a pixel pusher to them’. Oh Greg, I feel your pain. That’s quite a hard one to you and me to answer actually because being external consultants that carries a certain weight to it naturally but you have worked internally haven’t you?
Abbie: I would say that I got this question a lot in email and the advice that I give, take with a grain of salt and if you follow it to its end but it’s not my fault but I’ve often advised people to push so hard that you get fired because you’ll probably get promoted. That’s the reality of the situation. You’re most likely sheepishly interacting with people at that executive level to the point where they do see you as just another pixel pusher person. I would say in doing so, recognise that your opinions are no better than their opinions unless you have data support it. If you have data to support it, great but if you are going in there swinging your stick around, just be really careful. Those things are guideposts and not always the way that things are, and in context and I would say I do run into a lot of, I’m an expert because this is my job, you should listen to me, which is really insecurity about your job within the organisation. So Greg, I feel your pain but I would also say, check yourself make sure that your opinions are not getting in the way of collaborating with your colleagues, including these managers because maybe what you should be doing is a lot more asking and a lot less telling.
Paul: And that’s a really good point because the trouble is with being an expert in anything, it means that you’re not an expert in other things. When you’re working in an organisation it means that you have quite a narrow perspective of things. You may know everything there is to know about user experience but you know bugger all about business management and nothing about marketing or nothing about whatever else and so that’s where it comes back to having to be the one asking the questions, learning about what’s going on. But I also totally agree with keep on going until you get fired attitude.
Abbie: I also I feel like I say I am not an expert in organisational things, I am an expert in helping you to figure out how you should organise your things. That I feel is a small difference but it makes a huge impact because it reminds people that I don’t have the answer back at my IA warehouse waiting to dig it off the shelf and ship it to your organisation, it doesn’t work that way. I feel like the work we do is so subjective that we really need to remain focused on figuring out the right way together as opposed to selling our way to everyone who is in our organisation.
Paul: So the kind of thing about the getting fired thing and pushing, it shocks me how many people within organisations give up without ever trying. We make huge assumptions about what our managers and our colleagues will or will not agree to all the time. All the time I hear that, I going to an organisation and they go, oh you’ll never get that past so-and-so. But they are making assumptions about how that person will react. Also, where they may be have tried something in the past that didn’t work, but then it’s a different moment in time and just because something didn’t work in the past doesn’t mean it won’t work today. I think people do self-centred themselves. And you’re right, what’s the worst that can happen? You can get fired. There’s not exactly a shortage of jobs for people like us out those that really?
Abbie: The other parties that I just think it’s funny that if you have ever spent any time in a large organisation, you know that there’s plenty of incompetent people that aren’t getting fired for not being very good at their job, so in reality it takes so much to get fired. To actually get fired you really need to do something pretty aggressively wrong and a lot of times and it needs to be documented otherwise they get in trouble with lots of regulations. I would say it’s a little tongue in cheek to push so hard that you get fired but I do believe that often that’s kind of like the release of anxiety that people need to say things that maybe they think are going to get them into hot water, especially in that executive and management layer. What I found as I was saying before in performance reviews I often got, one of the best quotes was that one of my managers said Abbie is not afraid to go right for the throat. And it’s totally true. I will call somebody out and say a spade is a spade. I’ll say, hey, when you say this thing and I say that thing, you are not actually saying the same thing and you’re resting on assumptions to get through the conversation. It never got me fired but it got me into the uncomfortable position of hearing that feedback on myself. I think that’s another thing that keeps people from taking risks, they just want to be safe and they want people to say, good job. They don’t want people to say, you try that it didn’t work or your rubbing people up the wrong way.
An employer of mine sent me to a management ‘work with people better’ class and at the time that happened I was in my mid 20s and I was really offended that I had been called out enough times by my co-workers that I had to go to this training. When I look back on it, it gave me a lot of the skills that I use now to do my job and one of them was not to assume that you’re smarter than anybody or right. If you can let go of those two things, being right and being the smartest person in the room, you can get a lot of really good work done. It took that experience for me to really figure that out.
Paul: Do you think that’s an age thing to some degree because there is a right and wrong way to do this. There is a right and a wrong way to be pushy. I certainly look at my 20-year-old something which Marcus can no doubt attest to as he’s worked with me for a very long time, and I could be so bloody stubborn and I still am to some extent but there are ways and means of doing it if that makes sense.
Abbie: You have to learn not only your craft, you have to learn what it’s like to be at work. Wind you get taught that? You don’t. Even if you read a book on it is not the same thing is going through it and I do think that when you get out of school and you know what you want to do and you’ve got this idea of the kind of designer or the kind of whatever it is that you want to be, you do want to be right and you do want to be praised, you do want to build your portfolio to what you wanted to be that it takes quite a lot of energy to protect that overtime. As I’ve gotten older, that’s one of the things that’s softened in me. My want to protect all of that. I just want to get my work done and I want the people that I work with to be equally pleased with the outcomes is what I am. That’s not necessarily clear at the beginning of a project, oh this is going to be like this and that predictive part goes away and becomes less important over time.
Paul: Wow, we could carry on forever. Abbie you are a pleasure to talk to.
I do need to talk about our second sponsor before we wrap up our show which is Shopify. Shopify is a leading multi-channel commerce software with over 275,000 merchants around the world that use Shopify. The company has created a partner program which is great if you are a freelancer or an agency into web design or development because you can create beautiful e-commerce solutions for businesses very, very simply and very straightforward. The Shopify partner program offers all kinds of benefits to you as a web professional including some great opportunities for passive income. One of the best things about shopper files the fact that they share all of this content to help you as a freelance or an agency grow your business and one example of that is a great book series that they’ve started called Grow.
The Grow book series was created to provide web design freelancers and agencies with insight as to how to grow their businesses to the next level and each book features individual chapters written on subject matter by experts across the industry including freelance unions, pop-up experts and it goes on and including me. Shopify partners have already published two books in the series. There is Grow volume 1 which I think is the one that I went with which is the beginner’s guide to growing your designer and development business and then there is volume 2 now which is about becoming a full stack freelancer. They are really great and you can check them out and get your hands on them. You can download them by going to Shopify.com/grow. Really good books and definitely worth checking out.
Okay Marcus. Abbie has been on the show before so she knows the horror that comes next.
Marcus: I’ve got two jokes and I’ve got a preferred one but what nationality is next week’s guest Paul?
Paul: I don’t know.
Marcus: Are they from the UK?
Paul: No I’m pretty sure they are not. Are you going to offend someone now?
Marcus: No, I’m going to use a product name that I don’t think means anything to anyone outside the UK. So just laughed politely.
Paul: That’s what I do every week.
Marcus: This is from Aslan again. And it’s on the bad jokes channel of the boagworld Slack channel.
A pilot walks into a bar with some chocolate on his head. He sits down and ordered some rum. The bartender asks, wide you have chocolate in your head? Ahh, says the pilot. He spotted the bounty on my head.
Paul: Do you have bounty’s?
Abbie: Yes coconut bars.
Marcus: Oh that’s okay then.
Paul: So Abbie, where can people find out more about you? Because no doubt after listening to you today they are desperate to find out all there is to know about Abbie.
Abbie: You can find me at Abbie Covert.
Paul: Oh that’s very straightforward and simple. I used to blogging a lot?
Abbie: I am, I am currently working on my second book that’s been taking a lot of my writing attention.
Paul: What are you writing about?
Abbie: I’m making a book called How to Make Time.
Paul: Cool. That sounds interesting.
Abbie: The reason is that I wrote my first book about information architecture and the number one piece of feedback I got was that yes, that sounds great but don’t have enough time for that.
Paul: Do you know that’s so funny? That’s exactly the same that I get and I’ve dedicated a section of my book to the same thing but not a whole book, so that’s impressive.
Abbie: Well we should definitely have another conversation about that.
Paul: So remind people about your first book, what was that called?
Abbie: It’s called How to Make Sense of Any Mess. And it’s a beginner’s guide to information architecture.
Paul: Except don’t let that put you off, sorry that was very badly worded. Even if you’re not into information architecture, what you think information architecture is, still get that book. It is just a brilliant read and really entertaining and it applies in so many aspects of life way beyond website navigation, so just get your hands on it is a really good book.
Okay, just a reminder to everybody to send in some more questions. You can post them as comments at boagworld.com/questions when you can email me at Paul@boagworld.com. But until next week, thank you Abbie, thank you Marcus and thanks to everybody listening to the show. Goodbye.