If there’s nothing else you remember from this post, spend 15 minutes writing down your goals for your next project so that you explain them better to the people who matter. The simple act of writing down your goals is a powerful organizer for you, the people you are interacting with in your project, and the people you want to benefit.
Build the Big Picture
When you paint the picture of a problem, a high-level reason why that problem needs to be solved, and a proposed end state that is a great start. That statement doesn’t explain the How, or the resources and tactics you use to get from “project not done” to “project done” within a known amount of time and effort.
So spend a few minutes writing down the ideal state and how you want to get there. Your way will probably be different than mine, which follows a template of prompts. STOP and go do that, then come back.
It seems silly to focus on such a small goal, because knowing what you’re going to do for your project, feature, or idea is obvious.
Test that theory the next time you feel you have alignment on “what is my project” or “what is my feature” by asking someone else to tell you what they think your project is, what benefits it will deliver, and to state the goal you’re both working to achieve.
When the goal of the project, the definition for that project, and the benefits of that project are clear(er), it’s a lot easier to know where to start.
What does this look like in practice?
Consider this example: “Build a new web site Widget.”
If you know: “we have never introduced a thing like this before onto one of our pages,” you might want to test that results differently to make sure there is no required dependency in your environment.
If you know: “we use these things all of the time, and this is a new instance of a thing we do already,” your comfort level will be increased.
And if you know: “we have already described the ‘look and feel’ of this widget in the fonts, colors, and information architecture of our website, for example page xyz,” you will have made it much easier to know what the thing is that you are building.
Stating the benefits for your project helps you to understand the measurement you’ll need to quantify these benefits. Then, find the measurement as it stands today. Yes, it does seem elementary to find a baseline, and you need one to prove that something change. If there is no baseline, state your assumptions and move on.
Getting Started …
In the spirit of a brief solution, I’ll keep this post short too. When you’re ready to make your next project better, set a timer for 15 minutes and write the overall goal, 3 things you want to do toward that goal, a statement for how you will measure your progress, and any questions you have about the project. This simple exercise makes it easier to share what you’re doing, how you’re thinking about it, and how to make progress.
Admit it — it’s really great to get the message you want, when you want it, and in the time and place that you want it. And that vision is usually hard to match.
Most Messaging is not Like This
And it’s really horrible to get most unwanted messages. It should be simple (and of course it’s not) to find the right balance of messaging across various clients — be they email, iMessage/SMS, or social — so that you get more signal than noise. The reality is that everyone sends you all of their messages all of the time. Unless you filter communication aggressively, split your contact lists into “family”, “friends”, “acquaintances”, and “block that”, you’re going to have a hard time finding the zen of messaging.
The Unrestricted Inbox is No Fun
The irony of messaging as a category is that as it gets more popular it gets more awful (thanks Nir Eyal for this visual of Message Hell). Yet almost every app and remote communication method needs messaging, because messaging solves the problem of communicating 1:1 (or 1:many) when we are all not physically in the same place and need to respond to each other. We all want the (algorithmically-delivered or not) perfect signal of “need to know” and “just in time” messages while also wanting desperately to avoid the inverse: “crying wolf while seemingly urgent and important”, “informational but not urgent”, or just plain spam.
But Blocking Email is Not A Solution
What will we do to keep the best parts of messaging across clients and channels and remake the part we don’t like that causes inefficiency, anger, and frustration?
Clay Shirky, in the well-known talk above (watch it if you’ve never seen it before), talks of “filter failure” and poses that as an antidote to information overload. However, that talk was several years ago. Things have gottne a lot worse with the volume and speed of information since then.
A Modest Proposal
Here’s the problem as I see it — we have information overload and filter failure. Some of this is bacn — “email you want but not right now”, and we have spam (we all know what that looks like). We have communication from different groups: home, family, work, social, and commercial communications. And we have the very real problem of multiple identity disorder, because there is no universal namespace for messaging someone that would create a “phone number” for all communications.
Most people would say, “I’m not sure I like this but this is sort of fine, because the idea of a universal mailing address sounds even worse.” The whole purpose of messaging, they might say, is “to have varying degrees of anonymity and intimacy based on the level of familiarity and trust you have with the individual who’s contacting you.”
The Typical Answer: Don’t Cross The Streams
This “trust” issue is the crux of the problem we face when we want more signal and less noise in our messaging and in our communication in general. We all have internal business rules we use to govern how we respond to different types of messages.
Whether we have enumerated these “rules” or not, they might look like:
“Answer the phone call on the second or third ring when my spouse or partner calls”
“Text my friend in an hour if I’m busy, or immediately if we are in the process of meeting for coffee or a meal”
“Ignore that spammy message from someone or some business I don’t know.”
“Never look at LinkedIn connection requests (ok, I kid — but this might be a special category for a segment of the population).”
Get More Quiet, Based on Our Actions
Our messaging apps and messaging platforms in general do a poor job of interpreting our own behavior and in translating that behavior (and future, intended behavior) into human-readable business rules that govern apps and give us more signal than noise.
We don’t live in a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your worldview) future when we have universal messaging or aggregate delivery of messages to a single client or brain box and a system to rules to respond automatically or manually to those messages. But given the overall desire to reduce noise and increase signal in the messaging conversations we do have, I propose the following suggestions:
Turn off notifications on your phone or tablet. This seems like a no-brainer but the struggle to fight “notification creep” is real. It only takes a few app-created nudges to generate a storm of messages you don’t need or want, generated by app developers and not by your own actions.
Unsubscribe from information you don’t need or want. Try Unroll and Sanebox to clean up your email — future you will thank you.
Aggressively filter the information you get. Your mileage may vary depending upon your style, so this might mean uninstalling apps, unfriending certain people, using email filtering rules, or just not looking at your devices so often.
Use text messages and iMessages to maintain ongoing, single-threaded conversations to the people who matter to you. What’s better than email? Having only one conversation to respond to, stacked in chronological order. If that person is on your list (let’s say … in your top 25 people), they should either leave that list by falling below a threshold or you will have a clear signal that you need to reach out to them because they’re not at the top of your list.
Think about simple rules and habits that make your life better. When you encounter product managers and other people who work on products and services, be sure to tell them what’s working and what’s not working in the products you use. (Hint: they would like to know what regular people feel.)
What could product managers and developers do to help with the message problem? A great start would be more levers and dials to adjust how we receive messaging. Don’t worry — I’m not suggesting that we create Advanced Settings Panels everywhere — but rather that the products themselves observe and respond to a series of behaviors derived from passive activity and active activity. Passive in this case might mean the messages I don’t respond to, and active could mean the messages I do respond to or arrange into folders or lists. The goal should be to develop a personalized set of rules that will automatically deliver message Air Traffic Control to the average user, not the power user.
What about Ads?
Building a personalized set of messaging rules will make easier to present promoted content in a clear and consistent manner, penalize spam, and highlight the important messages I’d like form the people that matter most. It could be an elusive goal, but I believe that improving messaging incrementally has amazing potential to increase happiness and productivity.The popularity of messaging need not cause its antithesis by creating messages we hate. We should be building new and clearer ways to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time, on the right communication channel.
Trying products early in their lifecycle is a rush. You get the thrill of access before a crowd, you feel like your feedback makes a tangible difference to the future of a nascent product, and you just feel … special. It’s almost like that feeling of finding a band or an athlete on the cusp of stardom and being able to share the knowledge selectively with a friend. Continue reading →
Websites are inherently anonymous. I don’t mean unknowable in the absolute sense of the word, but rather that when your first interaction with a customer is through email you can lose sight of that person’s humanity. When you talk to them on the phone things become a bit more real. And when you meet with them in person, you see them both as a customer and as a person.
In the words of Paul Graham, we need to do things that don’t scale. It doesn’t make any sense to talk to a single customer at scale. Except that the lessons you learn from any conversation do scale, and can be applied to your business. When things are starting, almost any customer is the most precious resource in the world. You can’t learn about their frustration, their success, and their failures until you talk to them and see the ways in which they react.
Today I met with a customer and we shared time over coffee. He learned a little bit more about the business I’m building and I learned more about his business. We both became a bit more human and continued building a relationship that started when I tried to fix a problem that happened with his order. I thought I knew a lot about his problem, and I learned new things about the solution and the problem when I spoke with him today.
Meeting a customer totally changed my day today. I left our meeting with great new ideas and a renewed sense that helping people can really matter. Whether the effort is small or large, think about the person on the other end of the conversation. When you’re sending an email, thinking about a feature, or just wondering: “what would make the customer have a good day?” you can use that experience as a guide for your next face to face customer meeting.
I don’t usually write about current events, but I can’t stop thinking about the one you’re thinking about, and need to share my thoughts. There have been some horrible things that happened this week. And you’ve tried to make sense of them. (I have too.)
It’s easy to try to explain why policy should change, why people choose to do unspeakable things, why innocent children happen to die, and why the media is partly responsible for this tragedy (and for the fact that we’re even talking about it). It’s also easy to jump to conclusions about what might or might not fix this problem (I have my solutions, and I’m sure you have yours.)
But this post is not about gun control, the responsible use of guns, or the exploitation of tragedy. It’s a call to all of us to stop trying to explain what happened and to act to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
What does that mean for you? I can’t tell you – I can tell you that it means for me that I’m going to act the next time someone I know calls our for help – and that you should too. Sadly, in my experience I haven’t found a way to stop random, senseless acts of violence from happening. And I have found that when people take small actions to make the world better, at least their part of the world gets better.
Let the tragedy at Sandy Hook be a reminder that we are all responsible for each other, that problems like this can and could happen anywhere, and that we need to do everything non-violent in our power to act and stop more tragedies like this from becoming reality. And we need to tell all mass media outlets to behave more responsibly (I’m up for a debate here as to what this means.)
Perhaps Margaret Mead said it best:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead
In a word, intentional. I’ve been reading a lot about the dangers of sitting for many hours a day and I took the time to watch a video by James Levine on moving around more. I also read an article that suggested that sitting may be deadly and thought, “what’s a small thing that I can do to test this theory and to get a little bit more exercise at the same time?” So I took my drafting table and raised it to 40″ height, added a few books to prop up my monitor, and started standing.
Here are a few things I’ve learned after Day 1 of using a Standing Desk – I’m recording them here to see how I feel after week 1 and month 1 of this process.
It’s Hard to Stand Up All Day
This standing up thing is much harder than I thought. Previously in environments when I’ve been standing, it’s been at a trade show or at an environment where I knew there was a definite endpoint, not just a goal to change my lifestyle and a habit that I’ve been in for … (gulp) decades. Today, I kept looking around for my chair and wondering when I would reach my hour mark so that I could take a 5-10 minute break on a chair.
I feel much more focused
It might just be because the other stimuli involved in staying upright and trying to focus are distracting me less, but I feel much more focused and able to power through what I’m doing and stay on task. This is a potentially neat side effect that I really didn’t consider when I thought about the general goals of standing to improve health and overall posture.
I’m looking forward to the next steps
I like how I feel after day 1. I’m sure that the next few days and weeks are going to be challenging as I get tired or fatigued and think of lots of reasons why I’d like to stop doing this. So here’s what I’m doing to help myself keep this habit:
Keeping a time clock – I’ll continue to keep an idea on time and take a walking or sitting break every 45-60 minutes, which is probably good for me anyway;
Staying focused on a single task for at least 15-30 minute blocks – staying on task and focusing on one type of work at a time is also a good habit that I’d like to keep and refine;
Acquiring a bar-style chair to make it easier to rest for longer periods of time if necessary.
A goal I’d like to have longer term once I’ve been doing this for a few weeks or months is to consider getting a low-speed treadmill like The Tread – I’m a little wary of buying one without having a way to try it out but it seems like a great compromise between hacking up a used treadmill and buying a “treadmill desk” which is neither great for computing nor for being a treadmill. I hope the standing continues to feel intentional, and am looking forward to what’s next.
Building customer service at scale requires process, chiefly the establishment of roles, responsibilities, and an plan to activate in times of crisis. What do you do when there’s a problem with your product or service and how will you communicate with your customers to let them know what’s going on?
This doesn’t have to be a phone book of IS09000 process, but it should include the following ideas:
Process – what’s a “back of the napkin” idea for the way information flows within your system? How do customers contact you? What do you do when they contact you? And how do they know that an issue is finished?
Roles – for each person in your process, what role do they play and do they understand that role? Is the role primarily internally or externally facing during the regular functioning of your business, and does it change during a crisis?
Responsibilities – for each role that a person plays, are the key responsibilities spelled out in plain english (e.g. “communicate to our customers every 30 minutes on a particular communication channel having this basic message and format”)?
and finally, what’s the plan – how will you know that a crisis is happening; what’s your definition of the types of problems you might occur, and how will you communicate “Commander’s intent” – what’s going on, what are the goals, why do we think it’s important, and what are the basic guardrails to getting there?
This video with former U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal shares his philosophy of communicating in crisis, and is an excellent first step to understanding what your own crisis communications might look like (and maybe some of your every day communications as well.)