Thinking Beyond How It Looks

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I’ve jotted down some thoughts on design, especially for the type of work we do at Barrel. I’ll refer to them collectively as “websites” for simplicity purposes, but this can mean mobile apps, web apps, experiential interfaces and anything else that happen on digital screens. I’m going to talk about “the designer”, and in my mind this is anyone who is in the business of creating digital experiences. There are people who specialize and do parts and pieces, especially on larger scale projects, but I think the following points are worthwhile for any designer to consider:

  • The designer should always strive to make websites that look aesthetically pleasing. This is achieved through foundational understanding of how graphic elements and characteristics work together: shapes, type, images, colors, layout, opacity, spacing, and sizes. By having the basics down, the designer can hone in on challenges specific to the website.
  • The designer needs to explore the who and why in depth. Who is this website for? Why does it need to happen? Going in-depth requires careful understanding of contexts:
    • For understand the who: examining who the people (the end users of the website) are and how they can be defined and segmented in a way that groups common behaviors and needs; when and how they are interacting with the website; what mindset they are in when they land on the website (are they looking for something?); how they got to the website (via a trusted source? search? random click?); the actions that are desired of the end users; the underlying motivation and triggers that led to the end users coming to the website; the possible flows an end user can take through the website; assumptions or conventional behaviors that end users are bringing to the site
    • For understanding the why: the business or organizational need for this website and what role this website plays in the overall marketing, product, or other organizational strategy; the desired outcomes and success metrics; what’s at stake and who is tasked with the responsibility of seeing this website through; how the website is funded
  • The designer will benefit from justifying and tying design decisions to “how it will impact the user’s behavior” rather than “how good it looks”. This means that beyond understanding the context of the end users that come to the website, the designer will need to use research and conduct tests to help aid in design decisions that address how the end user will perceive and interact with the website. This is where the lines between aesthetics and interaction become blurry because certain decisions that seem aesthetic (e.g. imagery, typography, colors, spacing, etc.) may influence users to feel a certain way and impact their behavior. The more designers can explain their designs from a position of studied facts and research, the more confident they can be about what they put forward. An example: rather than talk about how a certain palette of colors were chosen because they look and feel nice, put in the research and come up with a strong reason to back the decision that X, Y, and Z colors were chosen because studies show that such colors activate certain behaviors in users and that the colors will also help differentiate the website experience from A, B, and C competitors that are doing it in this other way.
  • Designers should have a strong grasp on the possibilities and limitations of the technology that’s available to implement their designs. This might mean independent research and tinkering around with code. It could also mean deep discussions with developers and technical architects to shed light on topics like performance, cross-platform compatibility, and database configuration. This understanding will help designers define constraints that fall in line with a website’s budget and timelines while pushing the limits of the technological approach.
  • Designers should be eager to observe end user behavior over time and come up with experiments to optimize and improve the experience. This iterative process teaches real lessons and reveals a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. Every design that designers suggest should come with a very strong recommendation that it is a hypothesis and that only evaluating the results and trying new approaches will lead to meaningful improvements. This is often hard to do in client engagements, but designers should certainly try their best to make the case for such an approach.

When the above areas are considered, the designer can elevate the practice of design to be about problem-solving and human interaction. And whether the goal of the website is to tell a story to raise brand awareness, to encourage an e-commerce transaction, to enable more efficient workflows, or to generate new leads, the designer will see that making things beautiful is just the tip of the iceberg and that there is so much more to design than what looks good.

What Creates Brand Loyalty?

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I’ve been thinking about brand loyalty recently. What motivates a person to continue buying from the same brand? I wanted to think beyond the traditional brand loyalty attributes like perceived value, customer satisfaction, and brand trust, so I drew up this diagram to help me think through my hypothesis:
Loyalty Model: Convenience, Brand Appeal, and Recurring Need
Here’s how I’m using the terms, which I’m calling my Loyalty Factors:

  • Convenience: the ease with which the customer can interact and transact with the brand
  • Brand Appeal: the characteristics, aesthetics, and values that the customer identifies with, leading them to feel good about buying from a brand
  • Recurring Need: how often the customer feels that the brand can solve a problem or satisfy a desire

I’m omitting attributes like quality, performance, and customer service from this with the assumption that when there is relative parity in those areas, the distinguishing factors lean more towards Convenience, Brand Appeal, and Recurring Need.

Some examples from my personal life:

I find that Uber’s Convenience and Recurring Need factors are very high for me. I love their easy-to-use mobile app and I find myself needing the service at least once or twice a week. The Brand Appeal is a bit tenuous especially because of all the negative press I read about it, but the only time I’m really irked is when surge pricing goes into effect. Although I understand that there are economic factors behind surge pricing, the Brand Appeal suffers especially when I see surge pricing in effect at a time when I feel like traffic shouldn’t be that bad. I feel like the company’s values don’t always serve the customer. There is really nothing besides my own laziness stopping me from having Lyft as an alternative on my mobile phone.

Sweet Green
I love this fast casual salad spot near my work. The Convenience factor is pretty high. Although they don’t offer delivery, I can place an order online through an attractive ordering process and walk a couple of blocks to pick it up. I also like using my mobile phone to pay and collecting rewards (spend $99, get $9). I know that I can get a salad from a dozen other places nearby, but the Brand Appeal, especially the modern and clean aesthetics of the restaurant as well as its website, make me feel good about ordering from them. And because the product is all about seasonal, fresh produce, which aligns with my desire to eat healthy foods, I find that the Recurring Need factor is high. I aim to go there at least once a week. Unless I suffer from a food poisoning episode or move to a farther location, I can see myself continuing to be a loyal customer for some time.

I buy all my tops from Everlane. These include t-shirts, oxford shirts, sweaters, hoodies, and sweatshirts. Clothes don’t have the highest level of Recurring Need, but I buy a few items each season. Everlane also has a very beautifully-designed e-commerce website with an easy checkout process and free shipping on orders over $75, which ups the Convenience factor. I count myself a very loyal customer, but lately the Brand Appeal factor has been dropping for me.

Recently, Everlane came out with a new line of striped shirts accompanied by a very cute campaign showing a bunch of attractive real-life couples modeling the shirts. I thought it was well-executed and very cool, but a part of me wondered why there were no people of color represented at all in the campaign. I thought to myself, “Maybe this striped shirt isn’t targeted at someone like me.” Totally uncharacteristic, by the way, since I’ve bought from brands that hardly ever use non-white models. But because I am so invested in the Everlane brand and want to continue buying from them, I felt that the brand needed to continue delivering on appeal. I know Everlane has used minority models in other sections, so I am not accusing them of being white models only, but I was nonetheless disappointed by what I found with the striped shirt campaign. I ended up emailing about it and promptly received a response that my feedback would be shared with the creative team and that I would be credited $20 for my honesty. It was a nice gesture on their end, and I’ll probably pick up some button-down shirts, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to buy that striped shirt.

Cafe Grumpy Coffee Beans
I fell in love with Cafe Grumpy about 7 years ago when I used to go to their Chelsea location. I have a thing for hand-drawn face logos (I also love Kumon’s logo). When they opened some years ago near our apartment in Brooklyn, I would sometimes trek the two avenues to have their coffee on weekends. The Convenience factor wasn’t high enough for me to become a regular at the cafe, but when they started selling their beans at Whole Foods, I became hooked. And because we go through coffee beans at home fairly quickly, there is always a recurring need every few weeks to buy another bag.

Am I a loyal customer? It’s hard to say. If Whole Foods were to switch out Cafe Grumpy for something else, say Blue Bottle, Counter Culture, or a brand I’ve never heard of, I don’t think I would feel too bad. I’ll just grab another bag and see if I like it. I’m not loyal enough to order coffee online and certainly not discerning enough of a drinker to only stick to a certain brand of coffee beans.

I can see some holes with this Loyalty model, but I also feel like there’s some value to thinking about the way Convenience, Brand Appeal, and Recurring Need play into a customer’s decision to stick with a brand. It’s incredibly challenging to hit all three cylinders at a very effective level. But when it does work, the brand benefits from high customer lifetime value figures.

A final, non-digital example: the restaurant downstairs from our apartment, which, eight years ago, initially drew us in with its dark-wood, exposed brick interior and hip Brooklyn-modern menu, has kept its Brand Appeal over the years. The menu hasn’t changed much and neither has the personnel. The bartender and owner know us by name now and greet us warmly. After a long week of work and little desire to flip through Yelp for restaurant ideas, we default to this spot at least a handful of times a month. We know the menu by heart now and get to be testers for new cocktail recipes. We even celebrated New Year’s here recently.

The factors at play—Convenience (downstairs), Brand Appeal (interior design, style of food, service), and Recurring Need (we gotta eat and drink)—ensure that for as long as we live here and keep our appetite for the style of food, the restaurant can count on my wife and I being loyal customers for years to come.

Fending Off My Passive-Aggressive Ways at Work

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From my experience talking to employees at work, everyone appreciates directness, or at least the idea of it. People generally like it when they’re given direct and relevant feedback, even if it causes a bit of discomfort. They’d rather know than not know. People also think that they themselves are direct in their communications. Very few people ever admit to being passive aggressive, and certainly nobody comes to work thinking they’re going to be passive aggressive to their co-workers. Some people talk about being tactful and being sensitive to how certain things are brought up, but they will also say that they are, for the most part, direct with their team members.

Passive-aggressive behavior, in the workplace context, can be described as indirect acts or expressions of resentment or hostility that undermine productivity. A common example is that of a person who may be completely agreeable in conversation with a team member or supervisor only to turn around and talk shit about the other person. This spreads negativity in the workplace and weakens trust among team members. Another example of passive-aggressive behavior manifests when a person is angry or upset. This person might exhibit body language, facial expressions, and even disinterest in the work, but when asked if anything is the matter, he will say that everything is just fine.

There are dozens of ways that passive-aggressive behavior creeps up in our daily interactions. And while some actions may be deliberate, I believe that a good number of behaviors are totally subconscious. Like I mentioned earlier, nobody comes to work thinking they’re going to be passive aggressive.

The thing about passive-aggressive behavior is that I think we’ve all become really good at picking up on it and observing it in other people. Communication that feels indirect or secretive can easily be labeled by observers as passive-aggressive behavior. But when it comes to evaluating ourselves and our own passive-aggressive behavior, things don’t seem as clear cut.

I’ve thought about this for a while now because I know that I’ve exhibited some very passive-aggressive behavior in the past at work (and in my personal life, too, but that’s another story). The list runs long in retrospect, but I was unaware when these behaviors were happening. In fact, the dynamics of the workplace, including the employer/employee relationship and HR policies on what can and can’t be said, often foment passive-aggressive behavior (see this article for more). Think about office politics and how much is fueled by passive-aggressive behavior.

It’s a hard thing to do, but reflecting on my own passive-aggressive behavior reveals a lot of subconscious activity that I can try to avoid the next time around. Some examples of my previous transgressions:

  • Rather than give direct feedback, I have opted in the past to minimize our exposure to an underperforming employee by staffing that person on less important projects, or worse, not staffing them on projects at all.
  • I’ve complained in private to others about an employee’s lack of skill in certain areas without ever bringing it up to the person.
  • I’ve concealed my disappointment about someone’s performance while scrambling to get help from others without that person knowing.

If you asked me whether or not I am a direct communicator, I might answer, “When it feels easy, sure.” The truth is, I find it hard to consistently say what’s on my mind in a direct manner to those who’ll be directly impacted. Fear is a big component–fear of confrontation, fear that the person will dislike me, and fear that what I say might come off wrong and lead to conflict. What I should really fear is the missed opportunity to communicate clearly and to help facilitate a productive interaction.

I have a few ideas to help me fend off passive-aggressive behavior. They are much easier said than done, but good to keep in mind at work:

  • Give timely and direct feedback, even if it causes discomfort. Make sure the tone of the feedback matches the message I’m trying to get across. If it’s serious, make sure this comes through.
  • Stop talking shit behind people’s backs, even when I’m frustrated. Shit-talking creates a negative feeling that can affect outward actions in subconscious ways. Instead, try my hardest to understand the actions and behaviors of the person frustrating me–what might be going through that person’s mind, and how could we try to gain alignment?
  • Focus on people’s strengths and their upside rather than their weaknesses. It’s easier to see win-win solutions when you emphasize what’s possible rather than what someone can’t do.

Working with other people, no matter how pleasant and talented they are, is never a cakewalk. Mindless actions and bad habits can quickly snowball into miscommunication and distrust, even if things seem friendly and fine on the surface. I hope to continue raising my own awareness about my passive-aggressive behavior and try my best to model behavior that feels consistent, direct, and encouraging.

StrengthsFinder Redux

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Back in June 2013, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder test. The test is 177 questions with a 20-second timer for each question. Based on your results, the 34 strengths in the StrengthsFinder system is ranked for you. By paying $9.95, I was able to get my Top 5 Strengths along with detailed descriptions of each.

In 2013, these were my top five (with my paraphrased description of each):

  1. Arranger: bring people, tools, and other resources together to get things done
  2. Focus: prioritize and take action, staying on track
  3. Activator: take ideas and turn them into action
  4. Ideation: make unlikely connections and come up with new and innovative ideas
  5. Achiever: take pride and get satisfaction from hard work and productivity

In the past 18 months, I feel like I’ve changed in many ways. I tried to re-take the test with my existing account, but when the web app told me that I couldn’t, I checked the FAQ to find this:

Your first completion of the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment will yield the purest and most revealing results. For this reason, each Clifton StrengthsFinder access code is valid for only one time through the assessment. Taking the Clifton StrengthsFinder more than once may actually skew the validity of the results.

I figured that since it had been a long time, I would be approaching the questions with a fairly “pure” mind. I bought an access code under a different account and took the test. Here are my 2015 results:

  1. Activator: take ideas and turn them into action
  2. Strategic: spot patterns and challenges and map ways to move forward
  3. Arranger: bring people, tools, and other resources together to get things done
  4. Communication: easily put thoughts into words and also like to converse and present
  5. Learner: interested in continuously improving and excited about acquiring knowledge and skills

Activator and Arrange are still in my top five, but I’ve replaced three of the strengths. I was curious about where my former top five strengths went and equally curious about where the new strengths came from. I opted for access codes (an extra $79 each for 2013 and 2015) to show me the full ranking of the 34 strengths. StrengthsFinder Results ComparisonA few things I noticed:

  • Communication took a big leap from #25 to #4. This may have a lot to do with my efforts to write every single day. I’ve also been proactively seeking out opportunities to give talks and participate in panels. I used to shy away from such things, but nowadays, I find them to be valuable exercises for organizing my thinking and honing my skills as a communicator.
  • Achiever dropped from #5 to #27. Part of this has been a result of developing better time management skills on my part. I feel like I do a lot more in less time these days. I also don’t equate “keeping busy” with “being effective” as much as I used to, so I think such line of thinking was reflected in my answers.
  • Focus dropped from #2 to #21. I’ve been trying to shift the nature of my work to the “important, not urgent” quadrant, which I find is less about measurable progress on a daily basis and more about spending time thinking about challenging questions. In 2013, I was spending a great deal of time executing on various marketing and business development activities which involved strict to do lists. These days, some of my activities are open-ended and take several days or weeks to see movement. For example, thinking about our team’s vision-based framework or overhauling our performance review system are complex initiatives that benefit more from strategic thinking than methodical focus.
  • Ideation had a slight drop from #4 to #7, but I like to pair this with the jump of Strategic from #9 to #2 (and also the jump of Activator from #3 to #1). I used to love coming up with new ideas all the time and getting really excited about them. One thing that’s bothered me in the past couple of years is the lack of followthrough on a lot of my ideas. I’ve been spending more time creating frameworks and writing detailed plans for new initiatives so that there is greater clarity around how new ideas will come to life and what impact they’ll have.

It’s easy to read into tests and find yourself trying to create coherent narratives for the results. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s the most productive use of time to get too obsessed with StrengthsFinder results. For me, I enjoyed retaking the test and refreshing my memory on the 34 strengths. It’s a great way to help me articulate and describe strengths I might observe and discuss with my team members. I also enjoyed seeing the change in my results. While old habits are often hard to let go, I’ve worked hard to evolve and adopt new habits. While I won’t read too much into this test, the signs are at least encouraging.

Identifying Team Strengths

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Over the years, I’ve obsessed about our team’s weaknesses. With this mindset, it was easy to pick out shortcomings when thinking about anyone. Not enough attention to detail. Not a team player. Lacking in strategic thinking. Slow to anticipate. Dismal under pressure. Zero confidence when talking with clients. Can’t problem-solve.

This emphasis on identifying weaknesses motivated me to push the team to get better and, in some cases, led to personnel moves that either got rid of the perceived weakness or balanced it out with a new hire. But over time, I’ve come to see that viewing the team primarily through a lens of weaknesses can have a very demoralizing and negative effect on culture and employee development. Rather than lamenting and stressing out over weaknesses, why not shift some of the energy towards identifying strengths and finding ways to amplify what we’re doing well?

I decided to put myself through an exercise: list out my entire team and write down what I think are each person’s strengths. The results of the exercise showed me that there’s a lot to gain by embracing each person’s strengths. Below are some thoughts I came away with from the exercise:

#1) I need to know more about everyone’s strengths
I struggled to write specific, descriptive strengths for many people. Part of the reason was expected: I work closely with a select number of people on a daily basis, so my observations are bound to be uneven. But I know that with keener observations and key conversations, I can greatly expand what I know about our team’s strengths. The next step for me is to make these observations and conversations systematic so I can get a steady feed of information about what people believe are their own strengths and the strengths of their team members.

#2) I need to define what I mean by “strengths”
What am I really talking about when I say that I want to understand people’s strengths? I noticed from the exercise that a lot of the things that I considered “strengths” were really just basic perceptions. Hard-working, personable, professional. I don’t know if those necessarily qualify as strengths. I think exploring the concept of strength in detail will be helpful. I remember when our team took the StrengthsFinder test a couple of years ago and how it helped to facilitate discussions about strengths in very specific ways. I’d like to figure out a framework for observing strengths. Right now, my initial approach will primarily look for strengths that manifest in interactions with clients and team members and also in the execution of assigned tasks. I’ll also make a note of behaviors like extra-curricular professional development activities and volunteer leadership responsibilities to see if I can identify strengths.

#3) What does strength amplification look like?
It sounds really good in writing: “We’re going to amplify everyone’s strengths.” But what do I mean and how will I go about taking action? I think it’ll depend on the identified strengths. If it’s an underutilized strength, it might mean finding more or different opportunities for that individual. If it’s something that the individual exhibits in abundance, then perhaps recognition, encouragement, and modeling for other employees could be the approach.

I think the concept of weaknesses and strengths boils down to an individual’s habits. Habits that result in valuable contributions to the company’s business and culture are what we often determine to be strengths. Habits that detract, distract, or undermine the company’s business and culture are what we think of as weaknesses. I want to find ways to encourage and enforce good habits. I want to praise and recognize them as well. For this to happen, I’ll have to put in the work to truly understand our team’s strengths.

War Room Sessions

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I came across this blog post by Ramit Sethi about how he blocks out every Wednesday for “strategy time” where he thinks about the big picture and stays away from replying to emails. This reminded me of our War Room sessions that take place twice a week.

About 8 months ago, Sei-Wook and I started blocking out half a day for our Biz Dev War Room. Biz Dev is a bit of a misnomer because in addition to talking about prospective clients and business development activity, we also spent time discussing our processes, long term goals, and talent acquisition.

It was challenging to completely block out a 3-4 hour block during the day. Every other week, there seemed to be some big deadline or crisis that pulled us away from an uninterrupted session. We also had to remind each other to close out of our inbox and focus on the discussion. But whenever we managed to string together a few very focused hours of War Room, the results were immensely valuable.

We went on to create a Ops War Room where our Operations Manager Boram joins us for an uninterrupted session featuring discussions on HR, finance, culture, and recruiting. This, too, has been extremely helpful, and has enabled us to tackle tough topics like compensation, performance reviews, and team structure.

With over 50 War Room sessions under my belt, I’ve learned a few lessons on ways to make the most of the time:

  • Prepare an agenda with detailed discussion topics; even better if there are estimates to how long you want to spend on each topic; review the agenda with the participants prior to the meeting
  • Make sure someone is taking notes throughout the session; we share an Evernote notebook with each other and keep both agenda and notes in there
  • Follow up on unfinished discussions from the previous week if you need to so that things aren’t left hanging
  • Bringing in outside material (books, videos, articles) to discuss and relate to relevant topics can be inspiring and energizing
  • No checking email

Setting aside time for non-urgent yet important initiatives is hard to do. The temptation to quickly troubleshoot an urgent issue can snowball into hours of emails, meetings, and calls. The solution, I believe, is to systematically reserve and protect blocks of time with disciplined vigilance. My hope is that I’ll inch ever closer to a day when the majority of my time is spent on long-term strategic initiatives rather than the day-to-day bustle dictated by urgent requests and deadlines.

Lessons Learned from a Year of Writing

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Last week marked the one year anniversary of my writing experiment. In December 2013, I challenged myself to try writing at least three hundreds words every single day for the next year. Some of those efforts have made it to this blog. Looking back on the year, I’ve jotted down some thoughts on the experience, what I’ve learned, and what I plan to do going forward.

  • I’m really proud and happy that I kept up with it. Even when I was dead tired or incredibly busy, I carved out time to write.
  • Most of my entries were over 400 words. Many were in the 500-700 range. Some were 1,000+ words long.
  • I’m not proud of the days when I felt like I took shortcuts. For example, I would some work-related writing such as company memos and policy drafts as part of my 300+ word exercise. This, even when I was doing it, felt like a cop out. It didn’t happen every week, but enough times to make me feel like I cheated a little. I’m going to avoid counting such writing as part of the exercise in 2015.
  • I wrote a good number of entries while commuting to work. I would open up Evernote on my iPhone and tap away furiously while waiting for and riding the subway. I’m going to curb the practice of writing entire entries during my commute because I always feel rushed to complete my writing before my stop. Instead, I’ll use the commute to jot down ideas and complete the entry when I’m sitting down and able to concentrate.
  • I found myself reflecting more often on my personal habits, behaviors, decisions, and desires. Because of the pressure to write something every day, I often looked inward for topics. Many of my entries are about things that I like or don’t like about myself, things I wish I could do, places I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy visiting, and even some concrete plans for how I can shift my habits. I also analyzed certain days in detail with a critical eye and pinpointed moments that I could’ve handled better.
  • When I wasn’t writing about personal topics, I wrote a lot about the business. I wrote about interacting with employees, generating new business, planning for the next six months, what interview questions to ask candidates, and more. I also wrote about ideas for potential service offerings and products. I think by writing them down, I was able to see that most of my ideas were fairly terrible. In writing about my business, I was able to organize my thoughts and ultimately be in a better position to articulate my position on various topics. There were times when I would share a link to an Evernote entry with people at work if I thought it did a good job of outlining relevant ideas.
  • I wrote a few pieces of fiction. One was continuing series that took up 16 days about a guy who leaves New York to live by himself in a cabin in Maine for a year. I think in 2015, I’ll write some more stories.
  • My favorite entries were about the things I’m grateful for. Whether it was personal or work-related, it feels great when I look back on past entries to read about the things, small and big, that made me feel lucky. These days, in addition to my 300+ words exercise, I’ve been doing the 5 Minute Journal, which helps me reflect daily on things I’m grateful for. It’s been an uplifting routine for me.
  • One thing I didn’t do enough of this year was to go back and re-read my entries more often. Sometimes, I’ll write about something that feels incredibly familiar only to find that I had already written extensively about it a few months ago. I’m hoping to put aside more time on weekends to re-read old entries and see if some of them can be turned into public blog posts.

I plan to keep up my daily writing exercise in 2015. And with a year’s worth of experience under my belt, I will be making tweaks that can push me to write more challenging and stronger entries. These tweaks include: a more deliberate editorial schedule (or at least a pre-planned list of subjects) to encourage me to write broadly about different topics rather than scrambling for new ideas every morning; more entries that reflect on books I’ve read; and more experimental entries on crafting better sentences. Happy new year, and here’s to at least another 109,500 words.

Off-site Planning Retreat

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Sei-Wook and I arrived in Livingston Manor, NY earlier today for our off-site planning retreat. The house, which we found on AirBnB, is in the Catskills region. It’s in a remote area on a lake. The lake is frozen pretty solid.

This is the second time that Sei-Wook and I are taking a couple of days away from the office to pow wow about various topics. Here are a few topics that we plan to cover on this trip:

  • Financial planning for 2015: setting goals, examining expenses, and forecasting revenues
  • Better systematizing employee compensation
  • Brainstorming ways to more effectively centralize training and knowledge for our different departments
  • Exploring ways to better manage our client information through a customer relationship management (CRM) software like Salesforce

Our first off-site, which took place at an AirBnB home in Hudson Valley, was very fruitful. We had time to talk deeply about the direction of the company and also share our perspectives on various strategic initiatives. The most valuable piece was that by the end of the two days, we felt a sense of alignment in knowing the priorities of the business.

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Four Books I Remember from 2014

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Memorable books of 2014

The following are four books that I enjoyed this year and still think about from time to time.

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
A man named Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of an elite Vermont private boarding school, confesses to the police that he has murdered one of his students with whom he was having an affair. But this isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a story told from different perspectives about loss, grief, regrets, and a marriage that has fallen apart. The Headmaster’s Wife was this year’s quickest read. I read much of the book in a single sitting.

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Playing Dominion

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I was first introduced to Dominion in 2011 during Thanksgiving break when I visited my old high school friends in Edison, NJ. I was instantly hooked and I found myself driving out to the nearest mall to pick up my own set.

Dominion is a deck-building strategy game. You draw five cards on each turn and play with piles of supply, treasure, and victory cards. The point of the game is to build a deck that will enable you to buy the most victory points. The game ends when the most expensive victory cards run out. The game can be played with just two players or as many as six if you have the Intrigue expansion set.

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The Impact of Small Self-Imposed Rules

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About a month ago, I instituted a couple of small rules to my daily routine:

  • A limit of two drinks per day.
  • No eating after 9PM.

There have been a few days when I didn’t abide by these rules. One day, I had an extra glass of beer. Another day, I ate a small snack around 10PM. But for the most part, I’ve been strict with myself, and I couldn’t be happier about the results.

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Thoughts on Negative Glassdoor Feedback

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We recently received a couple of negative reviews for Barrel on Glassdoor, a website where people can find reviews posted by employees and former employees as well as salary ranges. Except for a couple of very positive reviews from interns in the past, we hadn’t seen any other posts until the two recent ones. They’re very similar to each other, so I thought it’d be a good time to publicly assess each one and share my thoughts on the anonymous feedback.

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Remove Those Silly Bars on Resumes

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I’ve been looking at a lot of resumes recently, and I find myself annoyed every time I come across a “Professional Skills” section that depicts filled up bars with a percentage that indicates the level of the candidate’s proficiency in certain areas. I see this especially on the resumes of young designers and front-end web developers. Some experienced folks also use this, perhaps believing that it makes their resumes more interesting and visually appealing.

Here’s a made-up example of what I typically see:

I've come across too many resumes that have these arbitrary numbers for proficiency in particular skills.

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What I Look for in Young Candidates

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We’re starting to build out a more robust recruiting process at Barrel. For the first eight years, Sei-Wook and I have been primarily responsible for reviewing applicants and interviewing candidates. These days, we’re entrusting more experienced members of our team to recruit and hire junior-level employees. I think it’s crucial that they select people who are not only skillful but have the right attitude and exhibit the behaviors that align with our core values. These are baseline characteristics, and we make sure to ask the questions in interviews to cover both technical excellence (skills) and cultural fit (values).

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A Few Ideas for Enhancing Our On-boarding Experience

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I’ve been thinking about our on-boarding experience at Barrel. We have about 5-6 new hires who’ll be joining the team over the next 4-6 weeks. Training and outlining of expectations are at the top of the list, and we’ve been working hard internally to strengthen those. This weekend, I jotted down some other ways that we may be able to enhance our on-boarding experience. I thought I’d share them here:

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Themes on My Mind

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I’m exhausted, but I’m having a good time. Every week, there are all kinds of stresses and challenges, but I’m mostly able to navigate and handle things, which is extremely satisfying. And best of all, I get to work closely with a team that I respect and trust deeply.

Looking back on my writing (I’ve continued to write 300+ words a day since late December 2013) and the books I’ve been reading, I see that there are recurring themes. I’ve decided to jot them down since it’s helpful for me to see these as a list. Here they are:

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Building Capacity Before Going for the New Hire

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“If only we hired a person to do this, things would be so much easier.” I think this is a thought that’s crossed my mind many times over the years. And naively, I went ahead and usually hired someone.

Even recently, I heard myself talk this way when thinking about our business development efforts. Sei-Wook and I have been hoping to find someone to offload some of the sales activities that we do, including qualifying inbound leads and doing more outbound prospecting. The thought of nabbing a smart and driven individual to take on this work was very appealing, especially as the two of us have been mired in never-ending business development tasks. Why not post up a job listing and get the process moving?

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Why I’m Against Quantifying Productivity

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I got an email from MetaLab today that announced its latest software. It’s called Peak and it helps managers track what people on their team are working on in an automated way. It plugs in to popular apps used by people in the creative digital industry such as Basecamp, Harvest, Google Drive, and GitHub to show an aggregated feed of everyone’s activities. Peak looks beautiful as a web app and I’m sure it’s got the same polish as other MetaLab tools. But I think that in an effort to quantify productivity, Peak puts too much emphasis on the quantity of labor and none in the value created by the labor.

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The Meeting as Experience Design

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I’ve been trying something different at work. I’ve started to spend more and more time prepping for my meetings and being conscious about the experience I create for people who attend them.

Back in September, I got some really good advice from our leadership coach Peter Oropeza on running meetings. Peter, who’s been helping me and Sei-Wook for the past several months as a consultant, sat in on a meeting at Barrel and took notes as I led a group of 10 people through a brainstorming exercise related to our company’s business strategy planning. Afterwards, he provided feedback that made me realize how ill-prepared I was for the meeting. In fact, what I realized was that I just hadn’t put in the time to really think through the entire meeting in terms of its structure, its pacing, and the experience of its attendees. For someone who champions “great user experiences” on the Internet, it was clear that I was oblivious to the shitty experiences I was creating with my meetings.

A meeting without a clear goal is a meeting probably not worth having. Peter explained that it was always helpful to remind people about the goal of a meeting. In fact, he suggested that I write out the goal on the whiteboard for everyone to see at the start of a meeting. Like a good navigation at the top of a website, I think having a clearly articulated goal serves as a stabilizing reminder for both the person leading the meeting and the participants. I also learned that it’s important to thank everyone for being a part of the meeting and to introduce the meeting with its goal. I realized that I had a tendency to jump right into the meat of the meeting without any lead-in, which might have been a jarring experience for others.

The most challenging part of the feedback was on the content. My main takeaway was that creating a few slides or loosely blocking out twenty minute chunks of topics simply wasn’t enough to run a tight meeting. I had to go more in depth and flesh out each segment of the meeting, almost to the point where you could say it was scripted. This might include the exact instructions I give for an exercise or the things I write on the whiteboard. It might also include reminders to call on people who’re quiet or questions to ask to keep the discussion going. If I was going to be prepared, then all possible scenarios, like user flows on a website, should be carefully thought out.

At our next meeting that Peter observed, Sei-Wook and I came in with a meticulous game plan. We had spent about 3-4 hours writing up and rehearsing for our strategy meeting. This time, I thanked everyone for coming, noted that Peter was here to observe (I had neglected to do this before), appointed a time keeper, and stated the goal of the meeting, pointing to what we had already written out on the board for everyone to see. Sticking to the script, we ran our exercises, made sure people got out of their seats to interact, and reinforced the exercises with meeting goal. Participation was strong and evenly distributed among the group, and we could feel the energy level higher than it had been in previous meetings.

Overall, it felt great to run a well-organized meeting. It didn’t feel like a drag on people’s time, and we felt that people left the meeting energized rather than drained. The time invested in preparing for the meeting had truly paid off.

Today, I had the opportunity to run a smaller meeting about an upcoming initiative. It was only a four-person meeting but I decided to put in the prep work, creating a slide deck and printing out calendars to do a scheduling exercise. I followed the template from my lessons learned: I thanked the three others who joined me today, I made sure I introduced the goal of the initiative, and I walked them through four clear sections. We then used the whiteboard to figure out together the best way to schedule all the different activities that would help us complete the initiative. When I saw that we had a bit of extra time, we used it to do a quick UX exercise to move one of the activities forward. We finished right on the dot, not a single minute past the hour we allotted for the meeting. Later on, I followed up with an email to recap the meeting including an Evernote link that had photos of the whiteboard, the Keynote presentation I used, and the key deadlines that we agreed on for the schedule.

My initial thought on preparing so much for a meeting bordered on dread. To see myself spending that much time again and again to run a good meeting just seemed like a ton of work. But when I think of a meeting as a design challenge, it becomes a different animal. It’s no longer something I dread but something that has so many possibilities and so many areas for continual improvement. It’s not only about sharing information or discussing topics but also about setting the tone, providing inspiration, making it interactive, providing context, obtaining feedback, documentation, copywriting, and even information architecture. And if I can run good meetings enough times, I believe I will pick up techniques and exercises that can be used again and again, like a designer who has a strong collection of vector icons or a developer with a vast snippet library.

I feel like I’ve just only begun to understand how well meetings can be run, and I’m excited to further explore this medium.