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Iteration Builds Momentum

Bryan wrote this on August 11, 2015 in . It has 196 reactions

Last year we set out to challenge what people believed to be Design Thinking. Since then we committed ourselves to defining a design methodology that pulled from our two decades of design knowledge. We realized that the lessons and methods we discovered since our beginnings in 1998 would make it easier for millions of designers to take advantage of our insights and help their design teams create more value in their organizations. We found that in Progressive Design.

We've defined two principles of Progressive Design- Design for Influence and Lead by Design. In this blog post, we define our third principle, Iteration Builds Momentum. Design is a balance of doing, presenting, collecting feedback and collaborating with teams to push ideas forward. Great design happens when we build momentum with rapid design iterations.

Failure helps us get into a flow

Industrialized, rigid production processes aim to remove failure to create a consistent result. But this ultimately harms a designer's development and stifles creativity. The best design happens when we harness the power of failure to propel us forward. Far from being the enemy, learning to overcome failure is what fuels great design. It pushes us to solve HUGE problems, but it must be regulated.

Psychologically, increasing amounts of failure can crush people. Instead of taking on huge failures all at once, we break them into smaller, digestible chunks. Let's call that iteration. Teams can further help individuals overcome their own saboteurs as it relates to failure with structured debate. This regulates the pressure from growing too strong, keeping it at a healthy level. By keeping failures small and building up confidence by overcoming them as both individuals and teams, we create unstoppable momentum and get into a flow.

Don't do the big reveal

Steve Jobs was a masterful showman. With each successful product release, he made every company CEO jealous by ingraining the idea of "...and one more thing." The problem with this thinking, however, is that the surprise and delight of an Apple product release is not the same thing as magically arriving at that solution. When we see Apple doing the big reveal, this is a marketing technique, not a process to design a great product. We mistake the presentation approach with the design process to get to that idea. It's a psychological trick.

Designing for 'one best answer' isn't how great design happens. This design trapping is based on the idea of causal reasoning, "To the extent that we can predict the future, we can control it." states Saras Sarasvathy. Design agencies have perpetuated this concept for a century by removing the messy failures from the client engagement, and in doing so, obscure an important component of doing great work. The lack of a shared understanding of failure, and the pressure that comes with it, prevents teams from truly creating momentum together.

The big reveal leads companies to believe that with the use of a designer, they can arrive at a perfect solution through skills, reasoning and a plan. Most often this is not the case. In actuality, Steve Jobs pushed a highly iterative approach that sweated the details by consistently and constantly using a process of reduction to get to the essence of an idea with his team. Michael Lopp, senior engineering manager at Apple, described this as 10 to 3 to 1 as a process to get to one strong answer.

Get started with a volume of ideas


So if there isn't a single perfect answer, how do teams get started finding the best design answers? Start exploring ideas. Lot's of them. Producing in volume works because we can't predict what the final answer is going to be- we're creating a new reality by exploring the boundaries of an idea. Bill Hewlett said HP needed to make 100 small bets on products to identify six that could be breakthroughs. Sir James Dyson spent 15 years creating 5,126 failures to land on one that worked!

In fact, by producing in volume, the results can be fascinating. In one classroom experiment, a teacher challenged two sides of his class. Half of the class was tasked with creating 50 pounds of pots to get an A. The other half was tasked with creating a single, awesome specimen. The results showed that the half of the class that created in volume actually produced better pots. Students that produced in volume, and focused less on the craft, made incremental adjustments based on continuous learning.

Students that made adjustments based on their learnings let go of the assumption that there would be one perfect pot. There are many pathways to success through the process of effectual reasoning, which challenges the assumption that there is a perfect answer. Studies show that entrepreneurs have been using these techniques for a long time. The most successful entrepreneurs use this technique to filter through the volume of ideas to create momentum. They're able to do this because they know 'who they are', 'what they know' and 'whom they know'.

Momentum is created through small wins. It's a mindset

Creating in volume is necessary for iteration, but getting started can be the biggest challenge. Momentum requires an impetus. In design, we start creating by applying design methods. In sketching, that's finding a pen and paper. In code, it's jumpstarting the process by scaffolding with Foundation. We start by quickly removing barriers so the real work can begin.

So where does one start to find momentum in a design process? Sports is a great place to pull from- psychological momentum is defined as a state of mind where an individual or teams feel like things are going unstoppably their way. Success breeds success. Chris Myers further explains, "The impact is so strong, studies have shown that football coaches frequently change their overall behavior and adopt a more aggressive strategy after a single successful play early in the game."

Successful coaches are willing to accept small failures to gain this momentum. Relating this back to entrepreneurs and effectual reasoning, great coaches understand how to make these bets based on their skill limitations and team abilities. Coaches capitalize on small wins to create a favorable environment knowing that they can't completely control the outcome. This in turn creates a greater sense positivism within their teams and produces better results. Science backs this up through a concept called the As If Principle.

Structured debates through a repeatable process

If momentum requires small wins, creating an endless volume of ideas, however, won't dictate success. It's a start. Building momentum requires structure to keep creating product success. Again, the sports analogy is great for highlighting how to build a strong product team. Lebron James, the world's number one basketball player, started this past season with a losing team that eventually made it to the NBA finals. He described winning as a process:

We have to understand what it takes to win. It's going to be a long process, man. There's been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years. So a lot of guys that are going to help us win ultimately haven't played a lot of meaningful basketball games in our league. When we get to that point when every possession matters , no possessions off -- we got to share the ball, we got to move the ball, we got to be a team and be unselfish -- we'll be a better team.

Teams must learn to create small wins through consistent collaboration and practice- it's a process. Creating great ideas through design collaboration isn't just about brainstorming. Nor is momentum created by designers just sitting around coming up with ideas (this is a fallacy based on the lone genius myth). It's structured debate with a team. And as Lebron points out, every possession matters.

Structured debate helps teams move a creative process forward and creative debates can happen in lots of different ways. Pixar uses the idea of Plusing where ideas are considered gifts, not something to close down. Feedback sessions are an opportunity to make your partner and team look good. Randy Nelson suggests that we shouldn't judge ideas- it's an opportunity for the creator to say, "here's where I am starting, " and the critiquer to add, "yes, and." What's important here is consistency and a culture that supports the approach.

Charlan Nemeth's research, on the other hand, suggests that the rule "not to criticize" another's ideas is distracting and actually has the unintended consequence of thwarting creative ideas. But rather than randomly critiquing a sketch or shooting down an idea, the general rule is that you may only criticize an idea if you also add a constructive suggestion. Daniel Gogek further expands on this approach:

Science backs up the idea that structured debate is far superior to simply brainstorming. A study led by UC Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth found that when a team used structured debate, it significantly outperformed a team instructed to merely 'brainstorm.' Nemeth concluded that "debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them." What might be even more significant is that after the teams disbanded, the team that used structured debate continued to generate further ideas. It seems that the experience of a constructive debate lingers, and people continue to come up with new ideas.

In Progressive Design, we've come up with a system that produces amazing results. We've synthesized the best practices through 1000's of design projects into The Design Feedback Loop which facilitates a simple and repeatable design process. Momentum requires a consistent feeding of ideas and feedback. Without learning, we get stuck in one place. By using the The Design Feedback Loop through the entire design process, teams can gain understanding of the problem through consistent practice to uncover better ideas. This iteration reveals opportunities and problems using both convergent and divergent thinking.

Failing fast helps us move forward

In theory, working through a repeatable process should consistently produce better results through practice. And indeed, it does. But creating great products also requires constantly dealing with changing circumstances- markets are dynamic, which means teams must continually challenge their assumptions. Challenging these assumptions feels risky and can reveal that teams might not have all the answers. But when we are willing to overcome these potential failures, growth and momentum happen.

Fail fast, one of our values at ZURB, provides everyone an opportunity to learn through failure. It also allows us the opportunity to keep moving forward when we perceive something to be a failure. Are we really trying to fail? No. We're making it acceptable to fail- it's a mental technique to help us push forward. John Maeda captured this recently in a tweet, "Fail fast" and "embrace failure" miss the fact that failing isn't the goal. "Recover fast" and "learn from failure" matter way more.

In design, failure itself isn't really the problem, it's getting over the mental impact. Richard Branson equates overcoming failure with addressing fear, "I've always found that the first step in overcoming fear is figuring out exactly what you're afraid of. In your case, I wonder: Is your anxiety a reflection of doubts about your business plan? Or is it rooted in your experience with your previous venture?" It's not as easy as just moving forward from failure, we need to recognize the wounds failure inflicts. Failure makes our goals seem tougher, our abilities seem weaker, damages our motivation, makes us risk averse, limits our creativity and eventually just makes us feel helpless. It's no wonder momentum is so hard to achieve.

But let's take this concept further- it's not just overcoming failure, it's embracing failure. "Achieving resilience in the face of failure, perseverance in the face of adversity is a central part of any ultimate success, and part of our own evolution, " says Agustin Fuentes Ph.D. Design teams must embrace the uncertainty of failure to truly create great products. They must push their companies to embrace Antifragility. Nassim Taleb states in his book Antifragile, "Firms become very weak during long periods of steady prosperity devoid of setbacks, and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate silently under the surface, so delaying crises is not a very good idea." Further, we must seek out failure, "When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free'by a mechanism called stochastic resonance, adding random noise to the background makes you hear the sounds (say music) with more accuracy."

What coping mechanisms do we have to help design teams embrace failure? Perhaps it's focusing less on the actual failure, and helping teams work more like entrepreneurs. In my experiences at ZURB, many employees believe my decision making is sometimes delusional- but I don't stress because many of these feelings are based on embracing failure as a way to fuel us forward. As it turns out, it's a thing. Saras Sarasvathy points out that we can only expect to move forward through small risk taking, something she defines as "affordable losses." She discovered seasoned entrepreneurs will tend to determine in advance what they are willing to lose, rather than calculating expected gains. Her paper explains how effectual reasoning emphasizes affordable loss.

Deliver better results by timeboxing

If embracing failure helps us drive a design process forward, timeboxing helps us keep our bets small so that our failures don't overwhelm us. Decisions are made faster by reviewing design work, even if the work is not polished. At ZURB, timeboxing helps us deliver better results by constraining our time and focusing on a goal in each phase of The Design Feedback Loop. This happens in small intervals over a few days. Timing depends on the scope of the design task.

Each small, defined design task provides an opportunity to build momentum by helping the team react to the lessons learned. Small iteration cycles give teams an opportunity to work through small failures and wins. Timeboxing helps us create focus and keeps the team constantly aware of the next deadline so each decision pushes us towards a goal.

Peter Sims determined it's better to make a bunch of small bets through his research of some of the most successful companies. Companies have figured out different ways to apply this concept to their design teams. Google uses a technique of design sprints to arrive at solutions in a fixed week. By making the expansion and closure of ideas happen together, Apple is able to create a type of timebox through a process of paired design meetings.

A design process in motion stays in motion

Getting a design effort started requires doing! And in large volume. We must not worry early on about getting to single, great answer. Instead, teams must optimize for small wins to help catapult themselves forward in the design process. Through a structured process of giving and receiving feedback, we can find the wins necessary to fuel our momentum and keep our design teams on the right pathway.

The Design Feedback Loop in Progressive Design helps us structure the creative debate. A solid design process can help us build momentum, but we also shouldn't overthink the process- instead focus on keeping momentum by overcoming obstacles and failure that stop iteration from happening. When we accept failure as a part of the design process, we truly put our team in a place to learn. Iteration is an endless endeavor in a design organization, but as part of a design process, we must learn to timebox to complete our work.


chief instigator bryan z

Bryan Zmijewski

Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
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How The Next Web Redesign Puts Content First

Daniel wrote this on July 30, 2015 in . It has 419 reactions

Boris and Alex of The Next Web

(From left to right: CEO and Co-founder Boris Veldhuijzen and Lead Designer Alexander Griffioen)

It's always thrilling to find others who share our passion for design and aren't afraid to take risks. We've worked relentlessly since 1998 to establish ourselves as leaders in the industry and are constantly looking for new ways to improve and take design further. Our Foundation family of open source frameworks has helped push the web forward, University has trained thousands of designers around the globe, 300 of the most innovative companies in the world have partnered with us to build better websites, products and services through our Studios business, and our design platform Notable has helped our team and others create better products. In order to maintain this level of quality and innovation, we're always on the lookout for new inspiration which is why we were so eager to dive into The Next Web's bold new redesign.

Through several conversations and a Notable annotated set of screens, we asked Co-Founder and CEO Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Lead Designer Alexander Griffioen some tough questions about why they made specific decisions, what kind of data was influencing their design and how the new design was helping them achieve their goals.

Bringing the Homepage Back from the Dead

Ironically, the thing that makes sites like The Next Web so much fun to read, constantly fresh content, is also one of their biggest problems. With new content coming in on a regular basis, sometimes by the hour, great articles were getting pushed off the front page and away from the eyes of readers.

We wanted to show more posts on the front page and have the option to move things around a bit and keep posts promoted for hours or even days. - Boris
Notable Annotations Set of The Next Web Redesign

(Click on the image above to view the Notable Annotation set and see the conversation between our Design Principal Alina Senderzon and The Next Web Design Lead Alex Griffioen)

For many publishers, the homepage is dead as most traffic goes directly to articles from social sharing and other sources. The team at TNW viewed this problem as an opportunity, the perfect place to try some new ideas and address some longstanding issues.

We feel having a single news stream with all content pouring in chronologically no longer makes sense. Tech has become too ubiquitous for a single stream to be relevant to everyone, so we split our front page news stream up into categories. - Alex

One of the first parts of the redesign that Boris and Alex started sketching out was the cover, an area that is so dynamic in traditional print but ironically stagnant on the web.

We found it striking that somehow newspaper publishers can completely overhaul their front pages every single day, yet us tech-savvy new media guys seem to be stuck with a single template. When Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $ 19 billion, didn't that merit a full-page announcement for at least a couple of hours? We wanted that freedom. - Alex

Boris, an ideas man, dreamed out loud of 'a Minority Report-esque interface that the editor-in-chief would resize and rearrange stories as they develop.' This novel idea inspired Alex and an elegant and versatile solution was born, the cover editor. Consisting of 6 pre-designed layouts, the cover editor gives editors the freedom to pick a layout that works best for the current news offering and fill the slots by dropping posts from the editor right into the cover.

Illustration of all of the different cover image styles

(The six predesigned layouts in the cover editor)

The cover/hero section doesn't necessarily display our latest content. It could be stuff that we feel deserves more 'frontpage time' than it would otherwise get. - Alex

The New Navigation Situation

Notable Annotations Set of The Next Web Redesign

The Next Web is more than just a tech blog, they've got a wide range of other offerings that need to be easily accessible yet clearly differentiated to the user. The solution? A well labeled dropdown under the TNW logo.

The Next Web Navigation

In addition to that main navigation component, all of The Next Web's articles are now divided into 9 categories, the naming of which are guided by two simple criteria:

  1. The name has to be short, yet leave no doubt as to what type of content to expect there.
  2. Each section should have no or minimal overlap with the other sections

Nav is always a contentious subject, and this was no different for the The Next Web team.

This selection was actually months in the making and is probably the most updated Google Spreadsheet in the project. - Alex

Content is King

Notable Annotations Set of The Next Web Redesign

Ditching the content stream synonymous with the blog format, The Next Web divides their articles by subject and places them in neat rows they call 'shelves.'

Boris came up with the bookshelf metaphor; a horizontal list of latest stories. The irregular heights of the cards, akin to actual books on bookshelf, make for a 'pleasantly messy' UI. - Alex

Changes have also been made to the content in posts themselves. Instead of purely longform articles with the conventional title, image and body of text, posts can now consist of videos, galleries, columns, deals, quotes, etc., all represented with a distinct design that helps identify their nature.

Other design changes include a slick new sharing feature that automatically reduces the URL length and improved related article suggestions, but Alex is especially proud of of the updates in typography.

A typeface, to me, is like a voice narrating your content. The typeface determines whether the same words sound deep and masculine like George Clooney, or witty and quirky like Michael Cera. - Alex

Alex looked high and low for the perfect typeface, but the inspiration came from the strangest place. While riding past a Dutch employment agency, Alex spotted this window and fell in love. He snapped this pic and sent it to Boris immediately.

Window that inspired The Next Web's font choice

Serendipitously, the typeface is ARS Maquette by ARS Type, a one-man foundry situated a few streets away from TNW HQ.

I'm pleased to say our content now sounds like Bill Murray; witty, charming, and not without a sense of humor. - Alex

This passion for typography is shared among the team. Boris told us this hilarious story about a disagreement he had with the team about font size.

I remember I pushed hard for bigger font size on one part of the site, and after much heated debate I decided a certain font size really had to be 18pt and not 16pt. Alex hated it so much he talked to Laura and they made the changes as I wanted them but then every day from that moment on decreased that font size with 0.1pt. It was so subtle I didn't notice, but after 20 days it was at 16pt and we ended up launching the new site with that. They only recently told me about that and I thought it was hilarious and also very cool they really fought for what they thought was the better solution. - Boris

Ads That Can Be Confused With Art

Notable Annotations Set of The Next Web Redesign

A major challenge for any site collecting ad revenue are the size, location and behavior of ads. It's no secret that click through rates are dropping as people develop 'ad blindness' and use of adblockers rises every year. But more prominent or flashy ads take away from the user experience and can irritate users. There needed to be a way to increase the effectiveness of ads without being obnoxious. Boris was determined to figure out a solution that benefited everyone.

I challenged the team to think about an ad solution that was so cool that some readers would forget about the article they wanted to read because they were distracted by the beauty and interaction with the ad. If they would go so far as to even tweet about the ad we would've reached that goal. - Boris

With that challenge issued and the goals coming clearly into focus, Alex and his team jumped into action. The solution is one of the coolest parts of the the redesign, a bold concept they call 'Canvas Ads.' These gorgeous images typically incorporate bold photography and occupy the whole background of the article. Many slide the article to the right to give the ad full attention. Each canvas ad has 4 triggers that bring back the content for users, giving it an interactive feel. An interesting detail are the social sharing buttons directly on the ad itself. We know what you're probably thinking, 'Share buttons on an ad!?!' But according to Boris and Alex, it's working. The trick is the ingenious way the ads are selected. The ads don't always display commercial ads; about half contain art and portfolios from artists The Next Web team chooses. There are a few reasons behind this:

This has three advantages: the first advantage is for those artists we promote. They see their traffic grow and suddenly reach millions of readers around the world. The second advantage is for our readers. They see beautiful art works instead of ads. The third advantage is that it encourages our advertisers to produce really good looking ads. They compete with artwork so their ads better be works of art as well. - Boris

So the ads look nice and all, but are they performing? We pressed Alex for some numbers.

The results of the first series of canvas ads are well beyond everyone's expectations. Whereas the industry average CTR for display ads (i.e. rectangles, leaderboards) is around 0.2%, our canvas ads are doing between 4% and 8%. Our best performing ad so far had a 15% CTR. - Alex

Shaping the Future

All said and done, the redesign took about 8 months. No change was made lightly, as the team debated over even the smallest details like the number of milliseconds for the transition of canvas ads. The redesign is bold and in many ways bucks conventions, forging a new path for online media. This thinking, to leave no stone unturned and not be limited by status quo was intentional.

Once you decide you are free to do what you want you can challenge everything and things like 'but that's just how it's done' provoke only laughter. We constantly challenge ourselves and our industry to forget the old rules and really think about the best solution for everyone. It can be daunting and scary to not being able to rely on the past, but it also means you get to shape the future. - Boris

A bold design backed by solid data, The Next Web redesign does a great job of balancing business needs with a solid user experience and puts content front and center. We want to thank Boris and Alex for taking the time to chat with us about their redesign and all of the insights they provided.


Designers: Use'em or Lose'em!

Alina wrote this on July 17, 2015 in . It has 538 reactions

Design is hot. Companies have realized that good design is good for business, that technology alone isn't enough to get customers excited, and that today's consumers have come to expect a smart and delightful experience in every product they touch. Designers are a hot commodity these days. Companies are going all-in, scooping up talent so their competitors won't. The stakes have never been higher.

Companies collecting their designers illustration

However, it's clear that not many companies seem to know how to play their hand and they just haven't figured out what do with their design teams. Product managers are still at the helm, doing most of the decision-making, and passing their credo down to the design team to execute on. Too often, designers get put in a waterfall production line, stuck working on a sliver of the customer experience they so want to impact.

The Dull Reality

Many of us who pursued the career of design did so looking for an outlet for our creative ambitions. It's extremely exciting to design products, and we want a piece of the action (and glory for the product's success). The bigger the piece the better.

Companies betting on design illustration

One might argue that when the pieces do get put together, the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts. The production line is very efficient, no doubt. Everyone is focused on their part — just UX, just visuals, just marketing, just mobile. Except as work gets passed from one designer or team to another, decisions get lost in translation. UXers can't quite vouch for the strategy, visual designers can't quite articulate the workflows.

It's a game of design telephone. A designer who's invested in a single part of the process can't possibly have full context for the solution they're designing. Every team layers in their own interpretation, and designers get stuck working on artifacts instead of having an opportunity to influence the relationship between the business and its customer.

Something Has to Change

To design cohesive customer experiences, designers must touch every part of the design process. Simple as that. But that's just not always possible, you might say. Many businesses are just not set up for that. At certain size, they have to rely on an org chart to keep accountability in check, and changing organizations is hard. We face this often in our Studios business, when a team is trying to move products and meet roadblocks the large org bought into their vision. So where to start?

You can start with transparency — the smallest step toward awareness. When full-on collaboration isn't possible, teams just have to share what they're working on. Say, when there's a place to see what everyone is doing (shameless Notable plug) — from strategists to marketers to designers — the onus is then on the team to be aware of where the product's been and where it's going.

Transparency opens the door to communication. For example, the marketing team shares their strategy, the onboarding team runs with the marketing concept, the product team incorporates the messaging from both in the app. Yes, it's still technically a waterfall. But it's a waterfall that talks to each other. Hopefully a lot! Which in turn creates trust and opens the opportunity for honest feedback. So teams can stop working on isolated features and together design a complex, cohesive, emotive experiences.

Change Is a Choice

It's easy to sit back and complain about lack of design leadership. It's not so easy to do something about it. Every member of the team is on the hook for having the guts to change the company culture. Driven people don't just sit around and wait for someone to rescue them. They fight or flee.

Designers must choose between fight or flight illustration

Change from the top can be met with resistance and resentment, unless operation pieces are in place to support this change, i.e. a process for holding the middle management layer accountable for follow-through. Small shifts at the team level can prove more sticky with less effort — that's how Slack got into big orgs, actually — when teams start being proactive and taking charge. Hiding behind the retina display isn't going to create the influence designers desire.

(Side anecdote: In advertising, why more copywriters become creative directors? Because when it comes to putting final touches on the presentation, the art director is pushing pixels while the copywriter talks up the ECD.)

Designers need to keep fighting for their seat at the table. Ask more questions. Learn the product marketing strategy. Talk to people on other teams, grab coffee with leads. Pick up the phone and talk to a group of customers, collect feedback and have a candid conversation with decision-makers.

And in reality, it won't always work. So what then? Ambitious designers will move on and find a place that will let them create impact. Maybe if more designers stopped putting up with being parked in front of their monitors and upped the ante, more companies would start paying attention to what design can offer to their business.

The Shift Will Happen

We've watched the appreciation for design grow over the last decade, and it's only the beginning. Businesses know they need good design to compete for customer dollars. And they're willing for fork up a lot of cash to bring great talent to their team. They just haven't quite figured out how to use it. Yet.

Designers are looking for the jackpot of mastery, autonomy and purpose illustration

It will happen. It must. Because there's no amount of culture or resume clout that can tie down a passionate designer in a place where they can't practice and expand their skill. Instead of just accepting what they've been dealt, they'll find ways to create impact and hit it big or go looking for a place where they can. You can bet on it.


The 'I' in Team

Shawna wrote this on July 14, 2015 in . It has 162 reactions

Team of Meerkats

The origin of the English word 'team' comes from a word that referred to a group of draft animals all working together to pull something forward. Back in ye olden days, the best 'teams' were animals that were the same species, the same size and moving in the same direction. But that doesn't really work when it comes to humans. Teams are made up of different people with different skills, weaknesses, goals, values, etc. How do all these individuals work together to do something more complicated than pull a plough, something like say, designing and building a successful product?

Companies, especially in the competitive world of tech, have been trying to figure out the answer to that question for a while now. It seems like the best solution they've come up with is issuing matching hoodies with company logos on them. While these 'Zuck-xedos' are cool and all, faithfully wearing matching sweatshirts doesn't mean you're a team.

Real teamwork requires investment and consistent effort from every individual involved. Contrary to popular belief, there is an 'i' in team, you and everyone else. Each team member should ask themselves 'What can I contribute to the team?' and expect the same from others.

Here at ZURB we have a set of values that we look for and cultivate in our team members. They keep us focused on our common goals, but also inspire us to think about what we can contribute as individuals for the greater good. This results in a strong team that can do mighty things. We just went through the process of refining our values. Here are a few of the simple ideas that inspired them and can help you become a valuable member of any team you join:

1. Pull Your Weight

A Meerkat Lifting a Heavy Rock

Every member in the team needs to be contributing value. This doesn't mean we always need to do everything perfectly or have all the answers, nobody can rightly expect that. But everyone on the team should be seeing us put forth effort. This is closely related to the ZURBian value 'Make It Happen.' Sometimes in order to make things happen we need to go above and beyond. A few late nights might be necessary to wrap up a project and earn that win!

But what if we're trying but struggling? Take initiative and reach out to the team, don't just ignore or avoid the problem. Asking a lot of questions and reaching out for help early and often shows others that we're serious about solving the issue and are willing to put in the work to learn new things.

2. Stick Together

Meerkats wearing the same sweatshirt

It's easy to stay close to each other when a product is doing well or a project wraps up to rave reviews. It's when things don't go right, when the team fails, that everyone has an opportunity to show they are real team members, a.k.a. ride or dies. Losing, whether as a team or as an individual, is never easy, but it's always an opportunity to learn. When faced with a fail, we try to step up and point out the silver lining in the loss. Doing this can help the team pull a win from the experience. When the team does achieve a win, it's embraced as a team. ZURBians use the mighty 'we' when celebrating our victories and look for ways to highlight the efforts of everyone involved. This is closely related to our value of 'Find Wins Together.' Focusing only on raising your own profile usually backfires and breaks up team solidarity.

3. Lend A Hand

Meerkats supporting each other

Every ZURBian is encouraged to 'Be a Coach,' not just the partners or leads. If someone has the skills or know-how that can benefit others, we share it and elevate the team without hesitation. While everyone would probably like to think they are 100% awesome by our own design, the truth is we've all had mentors throughout our careers that helped us along the way. Remember that and pay it forward.

When others ask for help, it can be tempting to reply back with "Sorry, I've got stuff to do." But guess what? We all have stuff to do, but we try to make time to be there for your teammates. We also try not to hesitate to reach out if we're having trouble. It can be difficult to admit when you're struggling, but get over yourself. No one is perfect and no one should expect you to be, just tell your team how you're struggling. And when help is offered, let go of the ego and allow people help you do things better.

4. Improve Yourself, Improve the Team

Meearkats teaching each other

Sometimes new learning doesn't happen during the 9 to 5. We may need to put forth extra effort to build up some skills or learn some new things. We also need to continually improve our communication because it's the glue that holds teams together. Learn to work with people, not just alongside them. Real teamwork isn't just about getting work done it's working to accomplish a goal together. You'll need to communicate. A lot.

Look for ways to add more value, and help your teammates do the same. This is related to our value 'Build on Opportunity.' Be advised, the side effects of teamwork may result in extreme frustration, anger, euphoric happiness, hi-fiving, cheering, and possible group chants. If you experience one or more of these symptoms do not discontinue, you're doing it right.

Being a real team requires hard work from everyone involved. You're only as strong as your weakest link. So invest in yourself and each other, and keep asking about the 'i' in your team. What can I do to help others? What can I do to improve my skills? What can I do to help my teammates? Get these things right and those matching hoodies will actually start to mean something.


Change the Way People Design

Bryan wrote this on July 09, 2015 in . It has 122 reactions

Six years ago we embarked on our first defined mission with a general sense of direction and cautious optimism. It was ambitious and pushed us to where we are today- an amazing design company that turned the idea of a consultancy upside down. We had the foresight to understand that solving digital design problems required more than just delivering some assets. Nothing about the mission was easy, but we did it. As a leader I was committed to making it happen for ZURB.

Today we're publishing our new mission. It's equally ambitious, but backed by the knowhow of seventeen years of design experience and the momentum of millions of designers around the world. We're excited to share our vision and hope that you can support us as we aim to provide the world with new and effective ways of solving design problems. The process of aligning everyone on the team around a set of statements that define our business wasn't an easy task. Quite frankly, it took numerous restarts to get things to stick.

Change the Way People Design Connected Products and Services

Our business purpose started with the idea of helping people design for people. It was easy to remember, but lacked the clarity our team wanted. This really was the spark that helped us get things moving to define the next phase of our business. It took about a year with commitment from our leaders and a desire to put a stake in the ground. As a team we dug deep and challenged our assumptions, and through a process of continuous iteration, we were able to define our mission and purpose statements! I'm so proud of our company.

We're a fun and intense group at ZURB, so our ambitions to change the way people design connected products and services shouldn't surprise many of our customers. We're dedicated to pushing the web forward, through frameworks like Foundation, training and design lessons, our design collaboration platform Notable and through our one-on-one Studios interactions with clients. When we pulled back to view our offerings, it was clear that everything we do is about inspiring people and teams to approach design problems in a different way.

Click on the image above to download our Mission and Purpose statements in PDF format.

This year we introduced a few of the ideas that capture this new design worldview- helping designers lead by design, finding ways to make design thinking practical for teams, and returning us to a place where we trust our design intuition. We call this Progressive Design and we're excited to share this with the world. It's captured in our mission:

Teach fifty million people how to effectively use progressive design to create better products & services through our consulting, training and software.

We believe Progressive Design will change the way designers and teams use design to create value for their users and business. We've put over a year into our thinking and can't wait to invite people into the conversation.

Finding Our Way

It's great having solid business goals. It's even more important to shape the way our team thinks about their role in this journey. We're a learning company that's based on a pod system, which means we give a lot of ownership directly to employees to solve problems. These core tenets at ZURB form the foundation of our success. We believe in our employees, and we want their success.

We've learned that finding a common purpose requires helping employees create pathways that align with the business. We've put a significant amount of time into defining these pieces. Without them, moving forward can feel downright scary and overwhelming. We want all employees to know that they're supported in this effort to change the way people design. This is the stuff that gets you all warm and fuzzy to start a day. It also creates friction that can make your head literally smoke. This isn't easy for ZURB or the employee, but we wouldn't have it any other way!

Together, We'll Make This Happen

Most businesses align their employees to products- at ZURB we put a heavy emphasis on team development to cross pollinate our ideas and skills. That means each team has a set of tenets they live by to create value for their teammates and the business. These are commitments to make ZURB stronger.

Teams also provide pathways in which ZURB can support individual career paths. Over the last year we've embarked on a new and exciting way to lead employees on a personal mission. Teams play a huge role in this effort and we're smitten with excitement to see our employees shine in this new system. Teams are the backbone of ZURB and we're committed to shaping the learning our employees get through this powerful organizational structure.

To the Future and Beyond

The next five to seven years will undoubtedly provide challenges we can't even envision yet. But with a strong purpose and vision for changing the way we think about design, we're confident we'll prosper as a team through all the changes that will come. With a solid direction, core values that help us find our center and a team committed to our goals, I can't see anything other than success. It's inspiring!

As a leader I'm filled with joy knowing the team worked hard to find common ground. Our leads created these ideas and our extended team shaped them. We're happy to share our vision and hope that you can help us on our mission.


chief instigator bryan z

Bryan Zmijewski

Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
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Your Brand is Like a Television Show

Ryan wrote this on April 16, 2015 in . It has 140 reactions

"The ZURB sitcom," proclaimed our Chief Instigator about a year or so ago. A sitcom? What did he mean by that? At the time, we were considering how exactly we were communicating our story on the blog and our approach to content creation. But our Chief Instigator sparked an idea in us. There's a reason people love sitcoms ... well, television in general. There's something familiar in it, something that keeps the audience coming back again and again.

I Love Lucy TV

Now, he wasn't suggesting that we abandon design and start filming our own weekly show. But television is the perfect model for writing a brand story. A lot of television shows are brands in themselves. With that, we took a hard long look at what made certain shows successful — "Star Trek," "Friends," "I Love Lucy" and a few others.

Shows have an addictive quality to their premises, worlds and characters. These three crucial ingredients make up any episode in any show. Take your pick: "Star Trek" or "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad." And these elements are something that any brand or piece of content can ape. When talking about brand, most start with voice and tone. And for good reason, because what you stand for as a company is very important to creating that tone and voice. But to create that voice and to understand that tone, we can look to the magical ingredients television has to offer. Which is precisely what we did.

The World, the Situation and the Characters

Let's break it down a bit more. Any television show has these three elements:

  • There are characters who get into adventures and misadventures.
  • There's a world that they inhabit, where they interact and where those escapades take place.
  • There's a situation — a premise — in each episode.

And every show has a pitch line. For instance:

  • "I Love Lucy": Lucy Ricardo is a New York housewife who always tries to get one over on her husband, nightclub singer Ricky Ricardo.
  • "Friends": Six friends living in New York navigate the turbulent single scene.
  • "Star Trek": A group of intrepid explorers venture into the depths of space on a five-year mission to seek out new life and civilizations.

The pitch is very important when it comes to television. Survive the pitch and you get to make a pilot (think of it of a prototype of what the show will be). When it comes to brand, you'll want to survive at least past the pilot to become something that airs from week to week for a long run.

Brand as a Television Show Pitch

coke commercial on TV

A'right, time to put on those showrunner hats. We're going to show you how to walk into a pitch meeting and sell your "show" (read: product) so you can get the green light to make your pilot. First, let's take a look at a huge successful brand story — Coca-Cola. This is a brand that's got its story down. The story has evolved over the decades yet stayed so familiar. Coca-Cola is still about a shared experience.

If you were to pitch the show that is Coke to a room full of studio execs, you would say:

People around the world who share their time with each other over a Coke.

And that's the story they've worked hard to tell for more than 100 years. Coke is about sharing happiness with another person. As Bill Backer, creative director of the "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" ad, once said:

I began to see the familiar words, 'Let's have a Coke,' as a subtle way of saying, 'Let's keep each other company for a little while.

So let's go back a second to the world of Coke. It's the entire world, sure. But there's a mission in there as well: "sharing and togetherness." It informs their characters and the situation of their brand. And it gives them a unique voice that enables storytelling.

Through storytelling, Coke is able to create an emotional connection. They've evolved to be about happiness — but the mission remains the same, as do the characters and the situation. And with that, Coke has created a unique voice and brand that resonates.

Crafting a Better Brand Pitch

Star Trek on TV

OK, Coke was easy. What about something with more opportunity craft a better story ' the Internal Revenue Service, or the good ol' IRS. Yes, folks, it's tax season for those of us in the States. And if there's a bigger brand than Coke, it has to be the IRS because only two things are certain in life: death and taxes. The IRS actually predates Coke by a mere 24 years, but the IRS has a bad rep, one that it's been unable to shake. The IRS has a reputation of poor customer service, where folks wait hours on end in lines or get the so-called courtesy disconnect (read: they hang up on you on purpose). And that's sent taxpayers on a flame war against the governmental agency.

But as John Oliver points out on his Late Night show, is it really their fault? After all, the IRS budget and workforce has been slashed amid scandals of overspending and wasted efforts, like a "Star Trek" parody that boldly went nowhere. But the most cardinal sin of all is that the IRS just comes across as plain boring, which John Oliver is also quick to point out. As a governmental body, they're all facts and no personality. Just check out this tweet:

Money and parting with it can spur strong emotions. But there's no emotional connection from the IRS. Where's the soul? There doesn't seem to be an understanding of the world they live in, or who their characters are in their story. They don't seem to be aware of the emotions that money can stir. What they need is a better brand pitch.

How would you pitch the IRS? First, lets define the world. It's certainly not the cold government buildings the IRS occupies. It's a bit broader than that. It's all 50 states, from sea to shining sea. The characters are the taxpayers, of course. Now the situation. Well, that's tricky because we've vilified the agency with a nefarious purpose. But our taxes pay for things that keep the country ticking. Yet is that a situation that speaks to people? Not really. A situation that relates more to their investment. You've got to speak more on a dollar to dollar basis, like:

Say what? $1 of tax enforcement yields $6! Now that's a pitch. You mean to say that the money that goes into the system has a return? Now let's pitch the heck out of this to our Studio execs. Here we go:

The safest investment for your money that yields $6 for every dollar spent on tax enforcement.

Get to Make Your Pilot

Friends on TV

A pitch can help your brand create a stronger story that is consistent, and tells a compelling yarn that customers will want to be part of. And by figuring out what your world is, what is the situation in that world, and who your characters are, you can create your unique voice. And tell your story. More importantly, you'll survive the pilot season and get to make your show ... um, product.


Don't Hoard Those Boxes of Old, Rusty Skills

Shawna wrote this on April 13, 2015 in . It has 88 reactions

welcome to the new job

Congratulations, you've arrived. Maybe you're a clean slate, tabula rasa, and this is your first job. Or not. After all, the dynamic is changing among the new generation of workers, where it's more common to leave one job for another. Whichever it is, you've done the work to get your new job. You've impressed people. You've hobnobbed with the hiring folks, the company's leadership and its team. Let's face it, you basically assembled the shrine of the silver monkey and got that new job. But now what?

Because you'll come to see that the job is not exactly like your last gig. We've learned over the years at ZURB that a degree of unlearning has to happen. Why? Because the educational system shoves us through memory and rote learning, thereby possibility killing our ability to be creative. And that's something we carry into the workforce where we strive for the "A," wanting everything laid out in front of us so we can pass. But in design and knowledge work, that's rarely the case. There is no clear point-by-point path or crib notes.

Unpacking Your Previous Knowledge

moving in

The "A" mentality of education can be detrimental to a learning organization, where answers aren't always apparent and can't be gleaned from a textbook. We've worked hard to create a learning environment that encourages not only learning new skills, but also encourages unlearning stagnant ways of doing things.

Why? Because what's needed these days isn't someone who's skilled in just one thing, but someone that has a deep knowledge and is able to work across many disciplines. Google calls this polymath a full-stack employee. We call it T-shaped. Regardless of what it's called, he or she is simply a person who's willing to unlearn one way of doing things and not be confined solely by past experiences.

It's important to be open to letting go of the previous way you've done things. Think of it as moving into a new, tiny apartment — an empty studio at first, and it's up to you to transform it into a swank place to live. You'll have to unpack what you need and box the rest.

Storing Your Past Experience … Until You Need It

messy horder

Now, we aren't saying your past experiences don't matter or that you should denounce what got you here. They are still important because they got you hired make you valuable to your new team and show the potential of what you can do next. It's just that your new team does things a little differently is all.

The value of your past comes from applying previous situations to new ones. For example, if you learned how to solve problems a particular way at your last company, and the solutions still work, then keep using them. But be prepared to learn other ways to solve the same problem that might be even better or help you out even more.

And this is where systems thinking comes into play, where you're thinking less about how solving problems affect you and more how they impact the whole of an organization. As Peter Senge, writer of "The Fifth Discipline" puts it:

We learn best from our experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.

At ZURB, we're a learning organization that helps foster learning. But learning for the sake of learning isn't enough. Personal mastery doesn't always equate to organizational learning. So while your experience is important, when you're part of a new organization you'll have to figure out how that fits into the larger whole.

Don't Sell Off Those Old Skills Just Yet

garage sale

Let's get one thing straight, however. We're not saying to garage sale your past experiences. You'll want to hold on to those experiences even if you're not practicing them now — you'll never know when the need will pop up. For example, I've had a total of five different roles through my career from face-to-face customer service to training to HR. I have all those skills, some I proudly display for all to see. Others I only bring out during special occasions like ZURBmas.

Inevitably, you will have ways of doing things that you'll have to put into a storage closet for later. Or you'll have to work a different way than you're used to. For some of our newer designers, it can be quite a shock at first doing visuals they way we do them at ZURB. We don't just make a solitary designer create visuals for a project. We have two other designers also come up with visuals. We're don't just pit designer against designer here. We're actually passing along knowledge. A designer who might not be as strong in visuals can learn from someone who is. Of course, the skills that the new designer has in visual design still comes into play, but now she or he can reframe how they actually work.

Don't worry too much if you can't figure out which past skills are relevant. It'll take a while to figure out how they apply to the new ones you'll gain. It'll take you some time to sort out what you'll keep and what you'll store in your brain attic. You won't have all the answers on your first day. There will be a moment when you might feel like you're trapped in limbo between old job and new job. Stop. Breathe. It'll pass.

putting it away

Learn All That is Learnable

Be a sponge in the first few weeks. That'll help you get over any apprehension. Learn all that is learnable at your new organization. And that takes a certain amount of unlearning, while you're adapting and moving away from the past toward tomorrow.

Wherever you go in life, you'll need to keep learning. Your job will change and your skills will need to evolve too. There is always more you can learn. After all, it's not like after 8th grade you say, "this is all the science I need," and stop learning new things about science. Even if a new skill is similar to something you've done already — learn what's different about it.

One thing that occasionally challenges our new designers is the art of writing an email that drives action. Here's where unlearning becomes crucial because we've all picked up nasty email habits over the years, where their emails have no clear objectives, tend to ramble and have no clear call to action. New designers have to purge themselves of those habits in order to write client and internal emails that are clear and directive. This is where they have to unlearn something in order to learn it anew.

You can't be opposed to acquiring new knowledge. It might take a lot of upfront effort on your part. It's hard to admit that you don't know something. But saying something as simple as "I don't know, but I'll find out" shows you're human and committed to finding the answer.

Learning is also symbiotic within an organization. There's institutional knowledge — like writing emails — that can be passed down or learned through osmosis. And there is an obligation to coach newbies in an organization. But there's also an obligation for someone to better themselves and pass some of those skills on to others.

In order to be really good at your job or what you're working on, you have to work on learning how. Think about your new, tiny studio apartment again. If you were told to decorate it, you could just tape up some posters of your favorite band. Or you could go the extra mile and learn how to create art of your own to put up. And the latter will certainly be more fulfilling than just sticking a few posters on the wall.


Stuff Isn't Culture

Shawna wrote this on February 20, 2015 in . It has 199 reactions

perks

Perks don't create loyalty and those things don't get people invested. When we talk about perks, we're talking about stuff. You know: the pool tables, the cell phone, the fridge full of beer. But those are "benefits," not culture.

And that's exactly what dozens of articles focus on when it comes to culture — the stuff, the nice-to-haves, such as an inspired workspace and healthy food options. But focusing on perks might not keep your workers from fleeing for greener pastures. Take a look at Google. The search engine giant has one of the best perks in the Valley hands-down but one of the highest turnover rates with the average employing sticking around for a little over a year, even with pay in the six figures. Google isn't the only one. The average stay at any job is nine months, according to a Payscale survey. Even Amazon employees bolt after a year. Although a few have called shenanigans on Payscale's methodologies, saying it's focused more on tenure than actual turnover. But whatever it is, folks are leaving the building.

Is it just a symptom of the current generation of workers? Where people don't necessarily commit, where a date (or new job) is a swipe away? Possibly. Another study shows that the current Silicon Valley workforce is committed, working long hours. But they remain independent, and the name of the company isn't all that important. And 57% of those surveyed say they constantly receive offers to work elsewhere.

So perks may not be what keep someone around. Even if those jobs perpetuate a culture of distractions, where it attracts talent solely by showering things upon them. Yet then why aren't those people staying long? And are those cultures really creating value when the next big thing is a recruitment call or LinkedIn mail away?

Values is Culture, Not Things

Building core values and core purpose can have lasting effects. Let's take a step back. What are values? Values are company expectations of how you want the company to be, or better yet how your team interacts with customers and each other, which then need to become socialized within your culture. They set the bar as a baseline that spells out everyone's roles within the organization.

We're not talking about motivational poster stuff here. We're talking about things that matter to an organization. Twilio avoids putting its values — the Nine Things — on the wall because it needs to be articulated. As Jeff Lawson told us at his Soapbox:

You don't create them, you articulate them because they have to be something that's already there. If you create them, then they're just nonsense on the wall. If you articulate them, they're real and all you're doing is stating what's there. Because if you don't put a spotlight on them, you're at risk of losing them.

A value that works for Twilio is "Draw the Owl." It breaks down to this:

  • Step one: draw some circles.
  • Step two: draw the rest of the f'ing owl.

The value creates a culture of doers, not sayers, where everyday an employee has to figure it out because there's no instruction book. And it's something that's engrained and discussed at Twilio. That's what we define as a value here.

Values become the building block of your culture, as our friend Moz's Rand Fishkin told us by email. Moz's values informs who they fire and who they hire, and how they go about their day-to-day business. At Moz, they have what they call TAGFEE:

  • Transparency: Moz shares what they do and learn in the open, even when it's not great news.
  • Authenticity: They stay true to who they are and don't pretend to be other people.
  • Generosity: Moz tries to give more than they receive, spreading goodwill in all their interactions.
  • Fun: Rand says work shouldn't just be work — it should be enjoyable. And if it isn't, then something's wrong.
  • Empathy: Moz's most important value. They place themselves in their customer's shoes so they can understand and solve their problems.
  • The Exception: If someone else is doing it, then Moz works to find their own path.

So how does Moz get their values to stick? Rand says:

Thankfully, at this point, they've become part of how everyone at the company communicates, though building that up was no small challenge. We want TAGFEE to infuse our decision making around everything, so it's the (often spoken, but sometimes unspoken) criteria in any meeting or discussion. Over time, we've had to prove this again and again by doing TAGFEE things when they're hardest and when sliding on them would be the easy or more profitable thing to do.

Which goes to show that values have to apply to everyone in an organization, no matter their role. No matter the type of business your company's values need to apply to the whole team. You help create accountability and people feel more connected when the company is inclusive. You don't want to create a "that doesn't apply to me" situation. Those values are there to help you be successful at your job. Or how you'll be successful at your jobs. Your company values literally could be your company's "commandments" — thou shalt be open-minded. And like the commandments, these give you a pretty good idea of how to be at your new company.

They have to be specific so they can be applied, like "Be a Coach" or "Build on Opportunity" or "Draw the Owl." They have to be specific enough to get the point across and vague enough to apply them to any situation. If not specific enough, it may be hard for someone to enact. If they lack in clarity your team won't be able to apply them you their work. They'll do it 'their way' which may or may not align with the company, and even the best intentions can have negative effects to the team.

Leaders Are Needed to Make Values Stick

leaders carry the weight

Both values and leadership are very much tied together. Values only work if there's leadership to support it and carry the weight. As Rand puts it in a previous article he wrote on this very subject:

If you're trying to figure out what a company's values really are, look at the decisions management makes when lots of money, risk, or loss of face for executives is at odds with the stated values.

In other words, Rand is saying that actions speak louder than words. That is why leadership must agree to the values then apply them daily. There has to be 100% investment by the leadership team. They have to be on the same page. But it's an ongoing dialogue. You have to have a back-and-forth on these values. Not saying that the values should be constantly changing, they shouldn't. If revisions need to be made have the conversation and everyone needs to agree.

Build Trust Through Values

Building off what Rand said about actions speaking louder than words, leaders have to build trust through practicing and living a company's values. Living the values instead of paying lip service will help build trust because you'll make a connection with the team. And leaders need to get involved with the team on a "professionally personal" level. They need to be empathic in terms of understanding how a team makes decisions. That means talking problems out, asking questions and when possible using real stories from your past that were similar and what you did to overcome those problems.

If there's no trust, you can't share values. If your leaders are unable to show their vulnerability to the team, then they won't have the team's trust. If employees are unable to connect with their leaders, it's likely they'll leave soon after.

A leader's past behaviors, along with capabilities, goes a long way to building trust. If past behavior goes against the grain of a company's values, trust won't be built. If a leader can't practice or live the values, they don't fit in the organization. Plain and simple. Eventually it will become a bad fit. You can only fake it so long with core values. And depending on your teams size the wake left from poor leadership could really negatively effect your team.

This is even more magnified when you have a culture based only on things. You can't cover up poor leadership with stuff. Bad leadership IS bad leadership, just with a pool table.

The Contrarian of Values

contrarian of values

The worst thing a company can have is a leader "contrarian of values." That poisons the well, and the team doesn't know who to follow. A contrarian works against the organization, either knowingly or unknowingly. Depending how much influence this person has in a team, the contrarian can quickly undo a team dynamic. This person is an opportunistic predator who will pray on the benign frustrations of your team. They want to feel "right" in their thinking and will want to attract people to their way of thinking.

A contrarian can create a toxic environment. It can damage your team depending on how strong your culture is and the overall long-term satisfaction of your employees. Weaker team dynamics will fall victim to these ideas. Even if the toxicity is removed, those seeds are planted. This is another reason strong culture and leadership is really vital to a healthy team.

An organization has to compensate before the negativity happens. Setting company expectations early and having leadership accountability is a great start. Ideally your team is healthy and is able to see that the contrarian is not contributing to their growth/experience and is, in fact, taking away from it.

Values You Can Build On

values you can build on

The company culture should be built from the values. They are the foundation. It would be challenging to "roll out" values like an afterthought because that's how the leadership and then the team would view them. And if they aren't working, look to your leadership. Are they "living" your company values and spreading them throughout your teams? How important is it to you? If there is a breakdown in leadership, then look to yourself too. And if the values don't work, it's either training opportunity or it isn't a good fit. You have to be prepared to handle both. In the end, your culture is what you make of it and your values are the first step in defining it.

We want to thank Rand Fishkin for his insights on this post!


Engineers Don't Build Products, They Design Them

Matt wrote this on February 11, 2015 in . It has 197 reactions

In one of our Chief Instigator's previous posts, we talked about how we can no longer think about design as being purely the domain of designers. Everyone on your team needs to design, especially your engineers. In fact, if you take a look, you'll most likely find that your engineering team is already making the majority of your interaction design decisions.

developer plans

Creating Product is Like Creating a Building

There is a fundamental misunderstanding about the role the engineers play in building products. Let's articulate this with an analogy.

Creating a product is like creating a building. You have an architect that defines what the building should look like. He imagines the building and creates a design for how the building should look and function. The architect works with a structural engineer to create a blueprint defining how the building should be built based on an understanding of the constraints. At the end of the process, a team of experts with tools come in and assemble the building based on the blueprint.

Just like in the digital product realm, you've got a product manager that works with a designer to create the technical specification, and a team of engineers that uses the specification to assemble the product. Seems like a clear analogy right? It's close, except for one critical detail.

Engineers Don't Build Products, They Design Them

When you build a web application, your product is not the code. It's the page that gets served up to a person's browser. Your engineers are not sitting in a room, waiting for a person to navigate to your site and then build them a web app — that's what the computer does.

Imagine if an architect could just use a massive 3D printer to assemble a building — that's what software engineering is. People come to your application and, based on the code defined by your engineers, a product is assembled for them while they wait a whole second or two.

blueprints

The Right Analogy

There is no one person who sits alone at a big desk and defines every last detail or interaction, it's just not how it happens, in software or architecture*. When products are done well, they're the results of a team of people working together to produce the definition — i.e. the software — that will be used to assemble the product.

Someone might play the role of the business owner dictating what the purpose of the building should be. Another may be a sociologist offering ideas of how the building can best serve that purpose. A structural engineer will make sure that the building can actually do the things the others are suggesting.

* I have no idea if this is true.

A Real Example

foundation collaboration

Back in 2011, I had the privilege of working with some great people on the first version of Foundation, our responsive web framework. We functioned as a team and my responsibility was the JavaScript. We were creating new components that were going to be used by millions of people. The interactions needed to be solid or what was the point?

How did we do it? Our designers certainly didn't create a spec. It started with some loose conversations as to what kind of components we needed to have. There were some existing plugins we had written and some new ones to be added. Once I had a loose idea in my mind of what we wanted I got to work.

The first iteration was created and one of the designers tried it out. He tried it out in a way that you can't try out with a specification or a wireframe. He clicked on it in funny ways, resized the screen, right clicked it, got it into funky states, all while I was sitting there taking notes. I went back to coding and incorporated his feedback, making tweaks or changes weighing the value of an interaction with the cost to implement it.

We repeated this numerous times, mostly just the two of us, until we got to a place where it was time to launch (if you think you'll ever get these things perfect, you're not looking hard enough).

Say Hello to Interaction Design

Interaction design is where user needs and technical feasibility overlap to create an interaction that solves a person's problem (typically at a very small level) and also, well, works. It's not just about fighting for the user, it's also about being able to ship something that actually works.

user needs and technical feasibility

In most cases, this is what your engineers are actually doing when they are building code. Sure they are solving a lot of technical problems, but with modern languages and frameworks making this easier and easier, they are probably spending a lot of time filling gaps in the definition they were given. There is still a substantial set of skills required to write code, but maybe someday soon we'll close this gap architects will be printing buildings from some sort of moon base.

3D-printed Buildings? You, Sir, Are Crazy

Less crazy than you think. Disney California Adventure has a portion of the park that is modeled after Radiator Springs from the Pixar movie cars. The red rock walls are incredibly detailed and large, presenting an execution challenge to get builders to create the walls as Disney Imagineers wanted them.

To solve this, the Imagineers (notice the engineers part of that title) designed the rock walls using software and then shipped them to a company that used computerized machinery to fabricate them directly from the designs.

Engineers Make the Best Interaction Designers

OK, let's be real for a second now. Good designers do know a lot about how products work (if they are T-shaped) and can certainly make large decisions without having to understand every last detail of the code. But what about the really detailed decisions that can add up to something big. Think Disneyland. Great product through amazing execution on all the details.

You can't define all the interactions of predictive type ahead without understanding JavaScript. How can you come up with all the states that someone can get into if you don't know how the code itself works?

Engineers are fantastic at solving these detailed problems because they can push the available functionality right to its limits and not waste time exploring things that are impossible or prohibitively expensive.

Know Your Medium

Imagine an artist creating a piece of work in some medium like copper. Now imagine the artist knows nothing about copper and is telling some guy with a blowtorch how to to put it together.

"No no, it needs to have more pop! Maybe it you get the thingy on the right really hot and then grab it with your bare hands."

The end result is going to be second-degree burns and a piece titled 'The Mediocre Result of Piss Poor Collaboration.'

So You Want Me to Teach My Designer to Code? That's So Last Year

Basic understanding, yes. Full-blown unicorn, no. There is a lot to know when it comes to engineering, and running through a couple classes on Team Treehouse does not make you a full-blown engineer. But don't sweat it, start small and keep an open mind.

Start simple with HTML/CSS. It's the medium in which web interfaces are designed, and if your designers are still delivering finished interfaces in Photoshop or Wireframes, there is a big gap in the definition you're asking your engineers to close.

The next step is JavaScript. jQuery is a great place to start, as it allows you to start defining behaviors. The more complex interactions in your product are going to be JavaScript, and it's very likely they are going to be some of the most important interactions you deliver.

Stop Wasting Your Time With Worthless Specs

shredding the specs

Let your engineers do this in the code, because that's what it is for. Get your designers working with your engineers to ask them questions about what's possible. Push them to experiment and give honest feedback on what they come up with.

We've seen (and heard) this many times. A design team spends countless hours putting together a very long, very detailed document explaining how everything should work. They zip it up and send it over to the engineering team. After an appropriate period of time has passed, a product is completed that bears little or no resemblance to the original specification.

Why does this happen? Are your engineers stupid? No, products are complex, and even the most detailed specification will have inconsistencies, gaps, and leave room for interpretation. Ever played telephone art direction? It can turn out kind of like that. Describing something is different from defining something, and the more room you have for interpretation the easier it is to describe something that is not possible.

Don't Let Engineers Design Alone

Engineers can be great interaction designers, but they also need sparring partners. Any time you leave a person to their own devices they tend to settle more easily. Working in small teams creates excitement and a sense of accountability. To avoid that accountability turning into hostility you need to ...

Develop T-shaped People

Rather than trying to get your designers up to speed on engineering, or teach your engineers everything there is to know about design, strive to create some overlap. Having some expertise in common makes it easier for teams to communicate. You are trying to avoid the 'throw it over the wall' mentality.

Specifically Though, What Are We Supposed to Do?

developers collaborate on interactions

Here at ZURB, our designers work with our engineers to define our products. We use sketching as a tool to present ideas and get feedback on what's technically feasible and how it will play with any existing functionality. Typically we work in pairs, one designer and one engineer.

Our designers create static prototypes in HTML/CSS (T-shaped!) to demonstrate the functionality and give them complete control over visuals and layout while still working within the medium (no burn wounds here).

The screens are annotated using our Notable tool to explain ideas that are not obvious from the prototype itself. This is also used to demonstrate how multiple pages come together into a flow. From Notable, the engineer can give feedback to the designs on pieces that might not work right when implemented.

The engineer hooks up the static code that defines the detailed interactions in the code itself. Interactions include actions like what gets focused when a modal opens or where is the user redirected to when they try to access the page while logged out.

Once implemented the designer can play with the functionality and make changes to the design, layout and messaging, or go back to the engineer for another pass at the detailed interactions.

This loop continues until the pair are happy with the result, and then it goes live.

Honestly, We're Not Fully There ... Yet

We want everyone at ZURB to continue to learn, year after year. There is nothing more dull than performing the same tasks day in and day out. For our engineers we want them to go even further than just learning a new programming language.

By working side by side with designers, engineers certainly pick up a lot of skills around visual and interaction design. However our vision goes even further than that. We want our engineers to be the ones pushing our designers when it comes to interaction design. Setting the bar and defining the patterns for new interactions.

Being a maker or a craftsman is more than just doing something the right way, it's about putting your mark on your product. And to do that you've gotta make some design decisions. We want our engineers to have that opportunity. We believe it's a more fulfilling career, and produces superior products.

We're certainly not all there yet, there's a lot to learn just on the engineering side alone. But we strongly believe this is the right way to go, and we're going to keep chipping away at it.


Foundation 5: Almost Here, and Sweet for Large Teams

Ghaida wrote this on November 20, 2013 in . It has 101 reactions

Foundation for Large Teams

Foundation 5 is upon us (like, tomorrow), and it is a faster, stronger, better Foundation. That's great for the millions of designers and developers using it in their workflow. More users mean more exposure to a different type of user — a type that is often overlooked by framework designers.

Larger teams have different needs from a lone designer or developer. There are a lot more variables for them to juggle: many people, each with their own goals; dealing with rigid business goals; and dealing with legacy code.

We're addressing those needs with Foundation 5 and beyond in several different ways, each focusing on a particular problem. We've kept Foundation true to its core value — to be a smarter way to code.

A Culture of Smart Coding

Create a culture of smart coding in your company. Foundation is mobile first, and coding the Foundation way will introduce your team to better coding practices resulting in leaner, meaner, code. We've seen this first-hand with larger teams and companies.

For example, we recently helped a client wireframe their entire application, some 50 unique screens, with Foundation. And that gave their development team a common starting point to build upon. The bonus: It helped them put together all the interactions and workflows within a short period of time. Which allowed them to focus on iteration and design problems rather than putting an interface together.

But it's not just our clients. We're seeing large organizations, such as the Washington Post, adopt Foundation. The Post uses Foundation to help them prototype and cut out day-to-day drudgery, such as not having to start from scratch each time they build a site. But it's also taught their front-end developers to write better code, Mobile Design Director Joey Marburger told us. Developers can work on shared code and trust that it'll work. It's allowed the paper to establish better development standards for both prototyping and building products.

How Foundation Fits Within ZURB

A framework, such as Foundation, is crucial for a company like ZURB. Why? Because it allows our business to build consistency in how we approach our development effort. Here are some ways it's helped us.

It gives us a framework to rapidly prototype our products and ensure they work across devices.


wired

Our team and volunteers using Foundation during this year's ZURBwired.

We use Foundation for our yearly 24-hour design marathon, ZURBwired. During the event, there's a cadre of volunteers that works alongside our team. Foundation becomes the common glue that allows us to quickly jump into pages and commit code. With the framework, we're able to move swiftly from sketch to prototype to production code without missing a beat.

Our consistent code base reduces our overhead so we don't have to maintain code for separate mobile and desktop sites.


We'll admit we're still moving to a mobile-first approach across our projects. While it's not always possible, the fact that Foundation plays nicely between screen sizes is huge for us. It's easy for us to switch between a mobile-first approach and designing from desktop down.

Finally, Foundation also brings standards in the way an organization QAs their products.


QA spreadsheet

Our QA spreadsheet for the Foundation 5 marketing site and docs

We battle test Foundation daily at ZURB on every client and internal project. From code to QA, we've been able to create consistency in our process. In fact, we're in the midst of that process right now as we work to get Foundation 5 out the door. When 10 people are working on QA, it makes it easier to understand the issues. For Foundation 5, we have a large spreadsheet that people can easily follow and contribute to (see above).

Those are some of the ways Foundation has helped us out. We'd love to hear how your organization is using Foundation and how it fits in your workflow. Hit us up at [email protected]. Stay tuned for the release — it's gonna be a blast!