Besides Hours, What Can We Use to Measure Performance?

Measuring work in time is a topic that has interested me for a while now. Work is iterative and collaborative and yet we reduce it to the simple unit of an hour. As an anthropologist, I’m a champion of qualitative data. I love the gray areas, the “messiness” of emotion, the complexity of the human thought process. I look for individual stories behind statistics. But I also like to create order and I enjoy the productive tension between simplicity and nuance. Measuring productivity in a company is a great example of this challenge. How can a business measure its performance without glossing over the nuance involved in the process? 

Time is the dominant metric for performance: there’s a time you’re expected to get to work in the morning, there’s a time it’s ok to leave, you log the number of hours you spend at the office and you log the number of hours you spend on a specific project. The New York Times recently featured a “Room for Debate” on the 40 hour work week. Its articles discussed historical understandings of work and pleasure, the health and ecological costs of overworking and the most effective incentives for working. But my favorite contribution turned the topic on its head by questioning the use of time as our main metric for success. Dharmesh Shah’s article “Don’t Watch the Clock; Watch your Business” reminds us that time is just one quantitative shortcut to understanding productivity: “Exceptional employees count their successes in code shipped, projects completed, people inspired and impact, not the minutes they’ve spent at their desks.” There are other factors and outcomes - both quantitative and qualitative - to be measuring.


Who are we measuring?

First off, who’s behind these hours? No matter how much an organization acts like a well-oiled machine, there are individuals who are making it run that way. Each person has their own way of working, upholds their own set of responsibilities, requires access to a specific type of equipment, and commits to their unique priorities involving both work things and outside life things (that rarely stay outside). Office-wide rules might not bring out the best work in all employees. In his New York Times opinion article, “Be More Productive. Take Time Off,” Jason Fried of 37signals wrote about shortening his company’s work week to four days May through October. While this is an appealing and generous policy in and of itself, what most impresses me is that he lets each staff worker choose the day they take off in addition to Saturday and Sunday. Allowing individuals to define their own schedule, responsibilities and methods of measurement can honor individualities.


 What are we measuring?

What are we creating? Companies offer a variety of services and deliverables that each require specific time, materials and effort. The billable hour originated in the Industrial Age when manufacturing was the dominant industry in our economy. Jon Lax of Teehan+Lax gave a terrific history of the billable hour for Creative Mornings Toronto last month, pointing out: “It’s impossible to really account for time in a linear way. We’re not moving pig iron, we do things in a disjointed way.” We need metrics that allow for this iterative process. 

The popularity of startups and entrepreneurialism is also on the rise, blurring the line between professional services and production/manufacturing. In 2012, Fried tried what he calls a “June-on-your-own experiment,” giving his staff the month of June to work on whatever they wanted. He described the outcome as “the greatest burst of creativity I’ve seen from our 34-member staff. It was fun, and it was a big morale booster. It was also ultraproductive.”  Measuring client satisfaction will be just as important as measuring the number of products launched. 


What are we striving for?

How do our products affect the world? What are we striving for besides quickly completing a project? Shah highlights “solving big problems,” “doing work [we] truly love doing” and having “a significant impact on the business.” These goals are at a high level, relating to the vision of a company. Lax calls for talking about “how effective we are, not efficient.” From the client perspective, he explains “clients shouldn’t be buying time. It doesn’t tell you how good the work is...if it’s doing what you need it to do.” He doesn’t want another time tracking tool, he wants “better tools to understand if the work is valuable to the larger world.” What if we added these goals to “time” sheets? Having a ritual at the end of the week to take stock of what you accomplished and what comes next is a valuable ritual to have. But that sheet can include much more than quantified hours. 

Lax reminds us that “the majority of what we manage cannot be measured.” But he goes on to say, “what you measure defines what you value, what you value is intrinsically tied to what you sell and that in turns shapes you and your culture.” Metrics are about so much more than performance and bottom lines. They’re about people, creation and impact. Defining metrics distills a company’s complex values and strengthens its culture. With this clarity, you can set goals and reach them. 


Harvard xDesign 2014

Harvard Graduate School of Design

How to design a design conference? That question was still floating in the air at the 2014 Harvard xDesign conference. Aside from the nuts and bolts of format and logistics, these conference organizers are grappling with the design community’s own identity crisis: what exactly is design? Or, more importantly, what isn’t design? Because design seems to encompass everything and everyone. And that makes for a disjointed conference. The day’s speakers were individually compelling, but it was impossible to find a common thread across panelists. Depth was sacrificed for breadth. The contrast between Marimekko’s graceful, ethereal printmaking and Viacom’s “Tampy” the tampon ad campaign was jarring.

Don’t get me wrong - it’s wonderful that “design” and “design thinking” are becoming household terms. A materialistic culture is gaining awareness of the intentionality behind how the things in our lives are made. I don’t want to get possessive about the word “design.” But in order to avoid diluting the concept, I want us to use more words along with it. I want designers and creatives and commentators and conference organizers to dig into what’s going on in the nebulous “design community.” So I’m picking out one common theme I heard across the panelists that resonated with me: If design will be everywhere, then designers will be everywhere, and we need to know how to create supportive working relationships across disciplines.


Pairing Creatives with Marketers, Bookkeepers and Mad Scientists


Minna Kemell-Kutvonen and Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, representing Marimekko’s design and marketing teams respectively, explained how the two divisions work together. They break with the familiar paradigm where marketing and sales teams work outside of the design process. Instead, the Finnish textile company’s marketing team uses the designers’ original inspiration to tell the story of the line to the world. The two teams each have their own creative processes that run parallel, stemming from the same inspiration. This means the result is the company’s product as well as the core inspirational experience that customers can engage with using their own emotions and imaginations. The line between creative and non-creative is blurred. The design is truly inclusive.


Marimekko Weather Diary Collection from Cocoa on Vimeo.


Mary Howard Studio

Beth Jenkins, studio manager of Mary Howard Studio and Mary Howard herself have a classic “yin and yang” relationship. The two have completely contrasting communication styles. Mary explained how non-verbal she is: “I don’t think there are many truly articulate people on our set. We express through mood boards and visuals. Direction will often just be ‘Is it too...’ and that’s it.” While Beth identified as very verbal, playing a crucial role in communicating with and calming clients. Beth described Mary as “reactionary” and “impatient,” a “drill sergeant,” “perfectionist,” seemingly a quintessential finicky and oppressive Creative Genius. And yet, Beth recited these descriptions with a smile on her face as Mary stood right at her elbow. As I listened to them, I wondered what it takes to bridge a creative and non-creative. And it seems to be a humility and mutual respect that keeps them from tearing out their (and each other’s) hair. Beth went on to explain how she loves providing order and business savvy to the chaotic lives of creatives. Mary explained she owed it to Beth for building the studio into a well-oiled machine that has become a global brand. Other designers must bow to Mary’s eccentricities (all start off as her assistant), but Beth has an independent skill set that is crucial and complementary.


Mary Howard interviews with Style


Google Creative Lab

Jessica Brillhart joined Google’s Creative Lab in 2009, when the company was realizing it needed a consistent aesthetic and compelling video materials. As a filmmaker, Jessica’s task was to make Google’s often deeply technical work accessible to the general populous. Before her time, videos involved panoramas of power plant sites and used animated arrows to focus the viewer’s attention. How do you find relatable human story in scientific, inanimate data? Jessica took a personal approach: to find the human story, she found the humans. She did her homework on quantum mechanics and she spent time with the individuals behind the data. Through this process, she has invited viewers into Google’s boundary-pushing developments and she has built vital bridges within Google’s diverse organization.


Google+: Virtual Star Party from Jessica Brillhart on Vimeo.


Finding the Gray between Yins and Yangs

These five women and these three companies modeled for the audience what creative and non-creative might look like. There are verbal people and there are non-verbal, there are linear and there are iterative, there are calculated and there are improvisational, there are those who focus on things and there are those who focus on feelings. Listening to them, we could suss out what this dichotomy might involve. But we could also see how that dichotomy can be a false one, the chasm between the two sides only a perceived one. It’s these bridges and gray areas that we need to pay attention to as design becomes ubiquitous but personalities, working styles and (especially relevant to the graduate school setting) training differences persist. Let’s step beyond insisting design is everywhere and explore how it can exist everywhere productively.





Research Journey

Three months ago, as a recent graduate with a degree in human-centered design and a passion for a career in research, I started an adventure with the Essential Design family. Here is a condensed list of necessary tactics that I have learned. 

Sustain an approach: Sustaining a holistic, empathic, and descriptive approach in capturing the user context is fundamental. As researchers we require to absorb every detail by avoiding distractions of our surroundings and being present in the moment. Even note taking is about postponing interpretation and capturing word by word of the participants.

Manage a conversation flow: Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of a conversation that is not related to the topic of the research. So, it is important to understand when it is necessary to direct a conversation to the next question without offending interviewees; by expressing how much we appreciates participants’ thoughts, and due to the time or necessity of another topic we need to move on.

Dive deep: “Tell me more” and “why” are the magic words to reach to the deepest thoughts of interviewees. The Five whys method is a great approach to explore a problem in a greater depth, but the challenge is in keeping the questions relevant and addressing participants’ frustration on time.

Stay focused on objectives: Debriefing after each session is an effective way to get the team on the same page about what has been learned and what can be improved. Debriefing with all stakeholders is an ideal way of getting productive feedback from clients while triggering them to open up about what they like or want to change. Also, a simultaneous analysis during research while thoughts are fresh in our minds supports a foundation for analysis and builds a rapport with future participants.

As researchers we must be quick on our feet and not chase perfection. Obviously we set our goals for perfection but it is essential to be flexible in our approach, such as shrinking the content of a 2-hour session to an hour for the price of not losing that session. Goal prioritization, a backup plan, and going with the flow are keys to making logical decisions in an ambiguous world of research.

Make the most out of initial moments: The first informal moments are the best chance to humanize the conversations with participants. Our job is to help people feel comfortable and excited about the session.

Regain the trust: In challenging sessions, patiently explaining the research objectives and the reasons behind naive questions to the frustrated participants will redirect the session to a positive one. It is all about the power of empathetic understanding and as has already been said “putting ourselves in their shoes.” Recapping major points of the conversation without interpretation proves to people that their opinions have been understood correctly.

Think visually: In the analysis phase, making data visible and writing all the thoughts from objectives to conceptual frameworks on the board are collaborative tactics for making sense of data and finding patterns.

Seek extra opinions: Sharing our thinking process from early steps can be very insightful. People who have not been deeply involved in our project with fresh perspectives are helpful in discovering hidden insights, even if we are comfortable with the initial results.

Craft your story: A research will not be complete without a rich presentation of the findings; storytelling is the essence of any presentation. In crafting our story it is important to consider who the audience is and what should be communicated through the story. Simple, fluent, and clear information design improves storytelling and audience engagement.

From the outside world, research may not be a shiny and attractive career like industrial design, but its power and pleasure lie in communicating with people, discovering their needs, and having the ability to tell their story ethically and meaningfully.



Using Reference Points to Understand Rituals

As a human being that happens to be a design researcher, I have to acknowledge that I may introduce my own biases to round out  participants' experience stories. At work, I have spoken with users and consumers that may have the same life practices or experiences I have (i.e., rituals), and in my translation of anecdotes to action items, the participant's lived reality can easily be lost. It is because of this that I like to introduce reference points into my interviews. These reference points ground the discussion in that participant's expectations and frame of mind, rather than leaving me with enough guesswork to introduce my own later on. Although this technique can make for a more complicated analysis (everyone's reference point is different!) I have the comfort of knowing that my assumptions aren't muddying the findings. 

Below are a few examples of how I've used reference points:

1. Talking with facilities and building managers on the topic of monitoring alternative energy resources. Prior to getting feedback on what and how these participants want to monitor alternative energy sources, which is typically not monitored today, we began by asking them to talk about something they keep track of, the goal of keeping track, and how it impacts their work. We received answers that helped us determine what kinds of monitoring needs to be proactive, the different tiers of information exposure (i.e., who should see what), and expectations around communication streams.
RITUAL REFERENCE POINT: What do you keep track of today at work? How? Why? What's the goal?
FOLLOWED UP WITH: What kinds of information you want to keep track of regarding alternative energy? 

2. Speaking with cell phone trade-in customers to understand their needs from a trade-in service. Trading in consumer electronics is a fairly new consumer paradigm, and many of our participants tried it out on a lark, meaning it wasn't an established behavior. Speaking with them in their homes, we asked them to tell us about how they think about the lifecycle of the things they have in their home. We learned that one-of-a-kind collectibles, family heirlooms, and furniture had the longest lifecycle and were primarily associated with feelings of guilt and nostalgia. Items with shorter lifecycles tended to have a more rational connection to the consumer and often they had a place to be when they were finished being used (i.e., the trash). This information helped us identify triggers for introducing this new paradigm like awareness at the right time, and channels for effective outreach like bumping up communication in big box stores.
RITUAL REFERENCE POINT: Tell me about something in your home that has a long lifecycle, and one that does not. What makes the distinction? Show me how this product exists in your home.
FOLLOWED UP WITH: Where do you keep your old electronics? Tell me about how and why you buy, use, keep/dispose of them. 

3. Talking with DIYers on their experiences undertaking electrical projects in their homes. Although many people relate to the DIYer, we began with the hypotehsis that most avoid projects that require electrical work. Rather than carrying this assumption into our research, we asked participants to complete two collages: a project they would do, and project they would never do. We often found that projects that felt out of reach were sometimes associated with time, while others were associated with fear of getting hurt or screwing it up. This became the basis for personas, which then helped define who would be a compelling target customer.
RITUAL REFERENCE POINT: Tell me about a DIY project that you feel is within reach, and one you feel is not. What makes them feel this way? 
FOLLOWED UP WITH: Where does electrical DIY projects fall on this scale, and why? 


Essential visits MIT D-Lab

On October 9th, 2013, Essential Co-Founder and Partner, Scott Stropkay and I (a design researcher at Essential), spoke with unique group of students at MIT’s D-Lab. MIT describes the D-Lab as "building a global network of innovators to design and disseminate technologies that meaningfully improve the lives of people living in poverty." The semester long class has students in four project groups- each tackling a different design challenge (from bicycle powered recycling trucks to water purification systems). Scott and I were asked to speak about the role of design research in the product development process and how it could be leveraged within the context of D-Lab's mission.

After Scott provided an overview of Essential’s design process, I had the opportunity to present a case study in which I used design research to assist Partners In Health develop an electronic medical record (EMR) system in Haiti. I spoke about how important stakeholder buy-in is, especially when working remotely (as is the case with the student’s semester projects). I also touched upon method selection, specifically how the triangulation of methods is beneficial in probing different perspectives, painting a more dynamic picture of a situation than any one method.

To further bring the conversation to life, the group went hands on, applying the content to their own projects. We asked the students to think of people who might use their system, then pick one person to do a deeper analysis on. Before running out of time, we also examined key problems the target user may have, in an effort to better craft a potential design research plan.

Design research and its many forms, clearly have a role in effective product development – perhaps never more importantly than in D-Lab’s case. Big thank you to MIT, specifically Prof. Quintus-Bosz for the opportunity!    


College ThinkTank Boston

College Thinktank Boston, an event started by the City of Boston and Wentworth Institute of Technology brings together college students from 19 different colleges and universities for a one day event to brainstorm a challenge facing the city of Boston. Essential was asked to participate and send a few folks over to lead as facilitators for a group of bright college students coming together from the surrounding schools. 

A slow and somewhat awkward start of sleepy college students rolled into the MassChallenge office. The day progressed into lively banter, insightful comments and great collaboration between a very diverse group of individuals who had never met prior to ThinkTank. 

The Challenge presented from the city of Boston:

How do we make the rather boring operational and working capital funding needs of small businesses interesting and exciting enough to attract funds from a broad enough group of people and relationships to create a new sustainable funding channel for our small business community.

As facilitators, Essential's Marketing Director, Danielle Perretty and I implemented some brainstorming tactics to direct the groups focus on problem areas and opportunities facing all parties involved in the process of small business funding. As the post-it notes flew around the table, the group started to leverage their thoughts to come up with meaningful solutions that would benefit all individuals involved in the small business funding process. After a quick lunch we started to blend the teams ideas to frame up a cohesive and concise system called "My Boston" a platform to connect lenders/supporters with businesses/companies who had similar interests and motivations around the transfer of funds. 

At the end of the day, each team presented their ideas to the broader group of 7 particpating teams and over a 100 students. A few common threads reverberated across the presentations along with some unique ideas around implementation. In summary, it was a awesome day with some great creative thinkers.

For me I found this event was a great opportunity to break from my standard workflow that often revolves around physical things. Being able to think so broadly about a financial problem facing so many small businesses and trying to tune into their motivations, fears, and solutions was refreshing and enlightening. As I was biking home I thought.. "I will definitely be doing this again!" 


Software to Soft-Everywhere

Stuck in a long checkout line at the supermarket a few days ago, I spotted a glimpse of the future: a shopper wearing Google’s most recent take on personal tech, Google Glass. Indoctrinated by sleek photos and videos praising of the subtlety of the mini-computer embedded glasses, I was shocked to see how large and ostentatious Glass really is. As consumers start to see software as a more integral part of their lives, technology companies are exploring new design solutions to fit their needs.

Despite their sometimes clunky appearance, smart-accessories are a hot new trend in the now saturating smartphone market. Most recently Samsung has released their Galaxy Gear watch, which works as an alternate interface for your Samsung smartphone. Despite mixed reviews, Glass and Gear are part of growing trend that started with the Nike+ Fuelband and the Jawbone Up, two bracelets that allow users to monitor their exercise routines with integrated software.


This boom of integrated tech accessories highlights the search for tech manufacturers to invent ‘the next big thing’ as the smartphone market in the US is predicted to reach full saturation by 2015.

As users integrate technology more and more into their day to day lives, high-tech companies are starting to respond with radical new user experiences and devices. One common theme is that many of these tech accessories no longer require users to use touchscreens to interact with their apps and the internet.  Instead of poking buttons on a glass surface, users may soon have a wide array of hardware and software to seamlessly overlay their digital world onto the real world.

While touchscreens and beautiful, ergonomic hardware are still essential in selling (and branding) expensive technology, users may one day choose the immersive experience of integrated software over the cache of owning a smartphone. Tech companies will face new challenges in designing minimal hardware solutions that enhance seamless integration of software into user’s lives, freeing them from using only handheld screens to experience their digital world.

For now, we may be stuck with early adopters showing off their clunky tech as fashion statements in the supermarket, but someday in the future we may reminisce about how silly it once was to have to pull a smartphone out of our pocket to use the internet.