Scaling Through Quality

In my professional life, I’m always finding myself needing to do more. Needing to scale. I’m sure everyone runs into this eventually. As you get better at your craft, develop a reputation, amass more clients, etc., your time becomes more and more limited.

A lot of people approach this by working faster, pumping out more and more work, all while quality is slowly slipping away. This is the danger zone. A slippery slope.

Don’t do this.

Instead, work slow. Be methodical in your craft. Focus on the process. Enjoy the work. Produce the highest quality work your craft demands.

Now, when it’s time to scale, look back to your past work and use that as a lever, a pattern of good work, that can inform and speed your task at hand.

This is why design patterns are all the rage—they work.

Have an Opinion

Seth Godin says one of the greatest things you can do is run a blog because it forces you to have an opinon. Time and time again I see confirmation that having an opinion leads to better career opportunities.

You become the expert on a topic. Or the critic who can always find the fetal flaw in the plan, and having your blessing is the first step towards success. Or people want you at their conference or event to hear your opinions. You get the point...

Of course, having an opinion doesn’t mean you’re always right. People often ask ‘but what if I’m wrong?’. Well, then you’re wrong. Life goes on. Even better, someone who lays out the research and facts to why they’re changing their opinion is fantastic. It helps others to learn with you. It shows maturity, growth, and mindfulness.

Anyway you slice it, having an opinion is a good thing.

Point of view is worth 80 IQ points –Alan Kay

Sometimes it's hard to have an opinion. Opinions come from experience. From seeing successes and failures. From watching things fall apart from the inside. You wouldn't expect someone to have an opinion about a book they've never read, right? It's hard to form opinions without experiencing.

It means creating things, and more importantly, sharing them with the world. It means talking with other and deciding if you agree. It means trying new things. It means getting out of your comfort zone. It means learning how other fields can impact and influence your field. Forming opinions means having experiences.

Back to Seth’s advice; it’s no use in having opinions if you’re not sharing them. Whether it’s in meetings, on your blog, in conferences, or when mentoring. How will you learn if you don’t share and get feedback? Worse, how will others learn if you don’t share?

You’re already an expert in something. And you know a great deal about other things. Give back to the world and share your thoughts. We’re waiting.

The Case for Outputs

Scrolling through twitter I stumbled across Barry’s post—Your Mission is to Produce Outcomes, Not Outputs—it got my interest immediately. As I was reading Barry’s post, I found myself nodding my head. A lot of good points. But I think it’s easy to miss what Barry is stressing, which is essentially to deliver value you can measure. So many people interpret this as ‘skip documentation and just ship something’. But that’s not the case at all. Sure, outputs aren’t typically a business model, but they’re tools that enable speed and quality.

In many cases, the maturity and size of the team determine the need for outputs. For a small, stable team, where the vision is clear and there are no blockers, many outputs could be skipped. But for large teams, often with various layers of stakeholders, outputs can help a team fire on all cylinders, reduce duplication, and quickly transfer context.

Yes, businesses survive on outcomes

Essentially Barry is saying the only real deliverable that matters is the outcome—the thing that moves the needle. Process maps don’t generate value, but a product that eliminates those process pain points might be worth more than gold. Outcome-based businesses value results. If your customers don’t succeed your effort is wasted—regardless of all the output you create along the way.

So many times, teams are showing dashboards of vanity metrics, or chart porn. These outputs make the team look busy, but it’s the same type of busy as hamsters on their wheels.

However, there can be a case made for outputs with outcomes. Outputs can be key to making sure outcomes are targeted, relevant, and impactful.

Outputs help makes success repeatable

Some products just work—AirBNB, Instagram, etc. There was a clear hole, the founders knew the space and how to solve it, and they nailed it. In these cases, the founders were scratching their own itch—they knew the problem space well. So why doesn’t everyone just do that? Well, it’s hard. And often times, teams are paid to scratch someone else’s itch. A lot of teams have found that a process can help them repeatedly hone a solution into a valuable product. A process, or checklist, is a way of ensuring you don’t forget key steps when you’re tired, excited, or just pressed for time.

These checklists often generate outputs that serve as inputs into next steps. For example, in the product design world, we generate personas to better understand the type of users we’re targeting—these are typically in the form of presentation slides or poster outputs. We then use those personas to map their journey in a given scenario and highlight their pain points (typically delivered as a poster). Then we co-create solutions around those pain points, validate, then integrate those solutions into our product. We follow this process whether it’s a new product or existing, digital or physical. It always works. If we jumped right into the journey map, we might gloss over one of our most important personas.

But checklists aren’t just for product development or innovation. Many industries use checklists to ensure a thorough job is complete—safety inspectors, pilots, and even busy shoppers. In fact, pilots depend on them for every flight. Yet we don’t say ‘a pilots job is to fly, not check lists’.

Checklists help us stay on track, and follow a process we’ve proven to work.

Outputs can reduce duplication

Often times different products within a business or organization will share similar users, scenarios, workflows, etc. In those cases, teams often dig up past project outputs to get a better understanding of what we know, what we don’t know, and what to validate. Now, typically we don’t take those old outputs as gospel, but it provides a baseline to validate and build on.

Without those past outputs, we start over fresh. This not only burns additional cycles, but it can start to negatively impact your stakeholders. If you interview a key executive every year asking similar questions each time, by the third time they might not accept your call.

Similar to history, if you don’t learn from your past outputs, you’re doomed to repeat the same discovery.

Outputs transfer knowledge

But the most powerful use of outputs is to preserve the context of the work. It could be helping the customer understand the impact of your findings or vision, or merely to educate so they can empathize better.

In large enterprise companies, it’s not usual for teams to morph over time—team members get promoted, move to other teams, or even other companies. Outputs help the team document knowledge along the project in meaningful ways, onboard new team members, and quickly answer ‘why are we doing this?’.

Rather than depending on tribal knowledge over time, new team members can review a few key outputs and get up to speed in no time.

Outputs create the outcome

Okay, not really. But often times, a proven process often generates and iterates outputs, and those outputs become inputs for future steps, and so-on. Those outputs and iterations will help ensure you’re making good decisions. It will help make sure your final solution is on point. It will help track your success, and know when you get there.

Move fast but don’t break things

Facebook’s motto used to be ‘Move Fast and Break Things’. Now, I have no idea how Facebook actually works, but hearing that motto and things like ‘Outcomes over Outputs’ always conjures images of bus-boys rushing to clean tables and get dirty dishes back to the kitchen only to have a bin full of broken dishware.

Barry is right—don’t fetishize outputs, because outcomes are the real value. But don’t throw outputs out the window; just find the right output. Realize they’re tools that can often help large teams get to value faster and more often.

Student Portfolio Review

I get asked to review a lot of student or recent graduate portfolios, and I see a lot more come through our online career board. Many people, regardless of experience, often overlook some of the basics every portfolio should have.

Think about a portfolio—what is it’s purpose? It’s not a time capsule or a year book, merely capturing how you spent your time. It’s purpose it to show me the type of work you love doing, and the type of work you want to keep doing.

Tell me about the process

In almost every job interview, the interviewer will say ‘Now, let’s take a look at your portfolio...’. Your portfolio should tell a story. It can be how you’ve matured as a designer. Or how multi-faceted you are. Or how your unique process or point of view separates you from the rest. Whatever that story is, know it. When building your portfolio, plan the narrative of how you will walk people through it.

I want to know how you did all this great work, and that you can do it again for my team. So tell me. Tell me how you came to the refined problem, and how you came to the final solution.

Notice I say how you came to the solution, rather than what the solution is. In most cases, I don’t care about the final product concept. And as you get further in your career, non disclosure agreements might prevent you from telling me what the solution is. Rather, I want to know how you got there. What was the process? What methods did you use? What challenges did you have to overcome? What did you learn from a process and self-improvement perspective?

As you explain your process, I can get a clear glimpse of how you’d contribute on my team.

Tell me what you did

College is full of group projects—they’re invaluable at teaching you real-world lessons, both about your topic of study and people. When showing work in your portfolio, tell me what role you played in each part. Sometimes you’re responsible for the big, sexy showpiece. Other times you’re more of a supporting actor, running the project management side of things, or digitizing copious amounts notes. That translates to the real world—we need team players that can do both, and strive to fill gaps and make the team better. This shows flexibility and teamwork. This is important.

Tell me why I need you

This one can be a little bit tricky. I don’t want you to sell me on you—that’s part of the interview. But I want to see how you would be able to fit on my team. What gap are you filling? How will you contribute?

I often tell younger designers and recent grads to think about implementation. Often times you’re designing work for a fictional company or nonprofit, which means the design work never go beyond the design. But tell me about what implementation would look like.

What documentation would you provide for the engineering team—these could be specs, red-lines, link to documentation, etc. How would it scale? How will other designers build on your work? Abstract-out the design language into a system. Show best practices on how to use existing design elements, and the rules for which to extend the design language. This will help mature your design work itself, and shows you’re able to fit in a larger design pipeline.

Tell me about you

Now that we got the hard part out of the way, tell me about you. I don’t mean tell me about your favorite vacation spot, or favorite band. But rather, what part of the design process is your favorite? What type of problems do you like to solve? What type of teams do you like working on? What role in the team do you thrive in?

Colleges focus on giving you a lot of different skills and experiences in hope one or two really click. Tell me what clicked for you, and what you want to continue doing.


Lastly, relax. A portfolio isn’t a legal document. It doesn’t have to be stuffy or dry. Let some of your personality seep through the words to give me an idea of who you are. Remember you audience, however; I wouldn’t go overboard. But it’s okay to have a little fun show through. That’s why we want to hire you, anyway.

Links for Week 22, 2018

Questions to ask a struggling employee
14 great questions to use in your next 1-on-1 with a struggling employee (or anyone).

Kandinsky in Space
Fly through one of Kandinsky's paintings and experience it like never before.

Preventing burnout on your team
People drive culture...

Best performing problem solving teams
Cognitively divers and psychologically safe.

How to be be a great junior team member

  1. Ask lots of questions.
  2. Don’t fear mistakes, just admit them quickly.
  3. Don’t get attached to the results of your work.
  4. Be patient and understanding.
  5. Understand a big picture.

Great employees leaving great cultures
Great culture is more than saying '...we have a great culture.'.

Building a design driven culture
Understand the customer, build empathy in the organization, don't design in a vacuum, act quickly

Mosaiq—organizing research
Using Wordpress to share your team's design research.