Megan Leigh McDonald
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‘Don’t make me think.’ Steve Krug

Megan Leigh McDonald

A Sheep in a Wolf’s Clothing?

I was thinking about this metaphor all day today and as ‘black and white’ as it is, it is a starting point for looking at how we perceive ourselves in contrast to our coworkers at times. I have to be honest here, I’m a Sheep…not in the sense of following the herd but in the sense that I am a genuine, gentle and open person. I’m huggable, which may not be very professional in a large corporate environment but in most of the circles I’ve been in the past, it was an asset and, to be frank, a nice part of living this life.

Feedback from coworkers is that I’m sensitive, responsive and attentive. I’m ‘there’ - 100% solid there at all times. The flip side of being sensitive though is that I’m, well, sensitive. Occasionally, I encounter people whose viewpoint of the world is so different and opposite of mine that they would describe me in ways that are inverse to the above. And sometimes, people see me accurately and find my buttons and proceed to push them liberally. Me, being the sensitive and responsive type, will give them exactly what they want. This is the part of myself I want, maybe need to change.

But change is a tough process and some argue that we never really change. I mean, for example, I might learn to control my response to someone who is rubbing me the wrong way whether purposefully or not. But I’ll probably never eradicate the pain that I feel when someone harshly criticizes me. I think, in me, there is a sense of justice and fairness and I believe somewhere down deep, maybe under the very bottom of my soul, that if I play fair so will others. It’s idealistic more than naive.

So what I’m really experimenting with in bringing up this metaphor is that if the Sheep and the Wolf are metaphorical roles we sometimes act out with each other, then I’m a Sheep donning a Wolf’s skin to walk amongst the tougher, more thick-skinned individuals. However, in taking on the Wolf’s skin, I question, how much of the Wolf will I eventually take on. Will I, in turn, lash out at another Sheep in order to toughen them up and remind them that a Wolf is always around the corner somewhere? Is there a transformation from Sheep to Wolf or vice versae? Will a Wolf who takes on more of a Sheep’s qualities in turn become more gentle and sensitive given time?

I don’t mind the Wolf or its hide because in some ways it offers protection, but I’m a Sheep underneath it all and I happen to love that. In the end, I know the real concrete psychological solution to my problem lies not in this metaphor of the ‘Other’ but in muting the pitch of the incoming criticisms, softening the blow and reducing the intensity of my own sensitivity to it. Result? I react or respond less. But then again, maybe the metaphor still works…I should just grow my woolly fur a little thicker so that the Wolf can’t find a firm claw-hold.

More Than One Way to Tell a Story

Corporations are difficult entities to run. There are a lot of people to manage and a lot of personality conflicts that get in the way of productivity and plain old ‘morale’. I have a theory, though, that to effect change in any organization, we don’t need self help gurus or corporate therapists to come in and fix our dysfunctions. Instead of seeing a therapist, we need to each become a therapist.

Anyone who has ever been to a therapist knows that it feels like stepping in a pile of doggy poo. You’re sitting there on that couch because you’ve either got a problem to ‘fix’ or someone has strongly encouraged (i.e., blackmailed) you to go. Whatever the reason, that therapist is an ‘authority’ based merely on the fact that he/she ‘knows’ how to fix you and you’ve got doggy poo on your shoe. In a word, it’s a little humiliating. It’s not like going to a regular doctor who fixes physical ailments and at the worst makes you feel guilty about not flossing or having high cholesterol.

And there is usually no physician at work that could help anyways. No one is going to analyze the facts and give you a prescription to follow to get better results from your cross-functional team. And the last time I checked, there is no magic pill for getting people to cooperate, collaborate or even listen to anyone’s voice but their own. If there were, I would be distributing it in the form of brownies every Monday morning.

Situations in constant stalemate may drive you to a therapist, but seeing a therapist is no picnic. It’s an exercise in which you expect him/her to tell you what your problem is and he/she doesn’t. A therapist will refuse to tell you the direct answer, and, instead, proceed to drive you mad by guiding you to see it for yourself. I feel like if my therapist knows what’s wrong with me, why can’t he just tell me? Why is he keeping it a secret? This could sometimes, be how we feel about each other at work too.

But therapists are there to help you solve your problems, not to solve your problems. And, that a-ha moment IS enlightening. It builds an appreciation for how well I can hide from my own self when I don’t want to accept my flaws or those of the people around me. I always recommend it even if you have to make up a problem to fix because you just learn so much. And, the last time I checked, there was no liberal arts requirement for ‘emotional IQ’.

At work, I tend to speak my mind directly, but also try to grease the wheels and persuade when there is a disagreement - until it backfires. And then I’m left in the terrible position of feeling depleted, misunderstood and in some cases a bit resentful when something I strongly believe in is dismissed. Then of course, I risk being viewed as a petulant child if I express that, which is pretty far from the truth.

This all leads me to what I’ve been pondering: how to tell the story better? Specifically, I am starting to see that telling the story is merely simplistic persuasion. Maybe I can take a lesson from the discipline of therapy. When there is churn, I could try guiding people to the right answer, to see for themselves what needs to be done.

A good cognitive therapist has a unique vantage point, as well as tons of education that put them in the position to see the big picture from the first session to the last. And, in a very similar way, I feel as a User Experience Designer, I advise business stakeholders on how to solve their problems. Most of us use our gut instincts, but some of us also use statistics and user research to back up our advice. But we’ve all been there, in a room full of passionate people all trying to meet various business goals and no one agreeing on how and all of our efforts falling by the wayside.

At no time in my life have I seen so clearly how telling people something is so ineffective. I myself relate well to people telling me information. I absorb it, I look at ways to use it, I pick a point in the big picture and throw down a flag where that information is most usefully applied. But I have to remember that the way I think may be more unique than I own up to. So when a person is a unique thinker, the story is harder to tell, because people who hear it don’t really hear it the way the storyteller thinks it. Why else would five people see a piece of abstract art entirely differently?

As Designers, our colleagues have different perspectives and levels of experience that we have to take into account as well as respect. So I take a lesson from psychologists. I look at their methods and consider ways that I can prompt people to come to their own conclusion. I want them to have the a-ha moments that they can ‘own’ - it’s more exciting and productive for the business if they are empowered like that.

I can ask them sincere questions even if I already think I know the answer myself. I can ask them what they think the impact of a change would make. By doing that, I put myself in what I fondly call the ‘downward dog’ position because I’m essentially talking ‘up’ to them instead of down…I’m coming from a different place that allows me to speak to them respectfully.

I can deflect inconsiderate behavior by refraining from engaging in argumentation. I can ask someone why they are getting upset or look at them inquiringly. I could express concern.

I can also stop myself from caving by just remaining quiet a little longer before responding. I can rephrase or take it ‘offline’. I can stop myself from automatically being agreeable.

Working on bonding is potent. By taking the focus off of the ‘other’ in arguments, animosity dissipates. There is no ‘me’ and no opposite of me…there is only a ‘we’. That is a powerful word, if used wisely.

Understanding that the relationship is about me leading my counterparts to see what I see or vice versa, focuses my interactions. Then, any way that I can accomplish this goal is good and anything that gets in the way is something to be dropped. I hope this doesn’t come off as overly analytical or cold. I wish that I could say all communications were organic and natural, but they’re not especially in large, diverse groups and corporations. However, I do think the more I practice these skills, the more natural they will feel.

Confessions of an ENFJ

“Dear Diary…Today I made introverts the world over nervous when I stopped by their desk to chat, irritated some fact-driven people by saying ‘I just know it’, smothered my little sister and made someone cry by being honest; but then I apologized and almost cried myself because I hate the idea of hurting anyones’ feelings.”

This is the life of an ENFJ, which is what I am, according to Myers-Brigg. I am big-eyed, full of wonder and find inspiration in idealistic people, things and events. The good thing about being an ENFJ is that I’m also the one who introduces people at parties and work functions. I’m confident and comforting and often correct in my intuitive assessment of people and situations. My feelings show in my face and flood over a crowd of people, often influencing them in a subtle way, making parties more fun and bad times better. I grease the wheels and give people a necessary piece of humanity that often isn’t part of our everyday experience. And I use my judgment, a double-edged sword to distinguish between right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, good and bad and all the grey in between.

Yes my enthusiasm sometimes is unwanted. Yes my confidence appears arrogant at times. Yes I could stand to think more and collect facts. Yes I could stand to consider someone’s feelings before I joke about something personal. And you bet I should probably tone down my emotions or ‘passion’.

A really smart and very skeptical person I know half-jokingly compares Myers-Brigg to an astrology sign. What do you expect an INTF to say…? (Only teasing.) Score or not, though, I value people who are stronger thinkers than me. And I need to be reminded of the value of thinking in my life, so I’m glad that I have people around, who give me reason to pause. Too often, I get a ‘bright idea’ and I’m off and running without thinking it through or collecting enough facts.

So the question that my friend’s comment begs, though, is do these labels stick? I validated my score twice and it remains the same. One thing I do know is that it’s consistent. And it did aptly describe my life experiences. Even if that’s just looking at the past through a reparative lens, it gives me a starting place to make sense of where I fit into the whole scheme of things and people in this world. The point of going through an exercise like taking the Myers-Brigg test is to recognize that each of us are similar but vary in some significant ways.

No matter who we are, it can be difficult at times to accept that others don’t always see the world or a joke or a business requirement the same way. It is challenging and I know I’m not alone in struggling to tell my story in a way that the listener will ‘get it’. I make mistakes, sometimes everyday. But it is the reality and it is the only way to access other people, their support or opinions.

What it takes is being able to recognize the way another person sees or hears a conversation, and momentarily step outside the self to explain one’s story or reasoning in a way that is accessible to the other person. Just telling is not enough. Showing is often not enough. But involving one’s self with an other is very powerful.

So whether this score cements my life experience or not, I find it useful and validating in many ways and I continue to mull it over as I struggle with my inner self and how it fits into my outer world choices.

A History of Problems

To start off, just want to explain why I haven’t been writing for the past few months. After relocating for a new job up in San Jose at PayPal (yay), I am starting to really feel at home and making some time to devote to my writing again. So on with the show…

Dreaming of Solving Problems
The other morning I struggled to wake up while listening to NPR (yes, I know…doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping but I like it).

A Limitation of Click Map

Today I learned something from my Product Manager. He had the look of a ‘bearer of bad news’ but he gave me the medicine anyways. I have heard in the past that ClickMap is not always reliable and noticed even that the data didn’t always match the next page reports I pulled.

But today, I understood at a new level of how this tool, as great as it seems to a designer, is sometimes wildly innaccurate. As you might have read on this blog before, I love this tool mainly because of its visual appeal and in some cases, when the link leads to a popup or a page that doesn’t have omniture tracking code, it can be really helpful.

However, when using templates, one must beware. It’s probably also a factor of not being coded correctly or with great care, but templates can give some very misleading numbers that represent the total clicks of all the links in a defined module. The module, such as a sidebar or navigation menu, might have more than one link but the flag will appear on only one of the links, leading one to misinterpret the data. Sigh. Well I hope that Omniture really looks at ways to improve the implementation of code for this tool or the tool itself because the visualization of clicks on live site pages seems like a really great idea.

Deluged by Waterfall…

So I feel as if I’ve just landed in my new job and I’m in a large waterfall of information. This is my first exposure to such a large set of cross-functional team members and, frankly, it’s a steep learning curve in terms of the process. I’ve often been in environments that were highly structured with XP, Agile or Scrum. I’ve really enjoyed those in the past and love co-location with my team and the efficiency of communication that those methodologies bring with them.

I’m beginning to see, as I read up on everything non-XP/Agile that basically all other ‘methodologies’ were sort of retroactively lumped together and placed under the label ‘waterfall’. This involves a large amount of information, not unlike the water from the snow caps of Yosemite, rushing downstream at so many ‘knots per minute’ only to be tumbled over and over at junctures called ‘handoffs’ from one support org to another. These ‘handoffs’ truly are like the mad rush of a waterfall as all that information gets dumped from one level to another on its trajectory toward the city water taps.

In some ways, it’s a giddy experience as it strains all my skills and challenges me to be a better designer and a better professional. My understanding and use of data was already strong but continues to grow daily after each meeting I have with my product brothern. My communications skills are also expanding as I review with my cross-functional teams across vast distances from India to London. I’m also honing my speaking skills by giving Design Reviews in front of all the executives of my org. My documentation skills are also becoming more detail oriented, which is an area I’ve needed work on since kindergarten. Yes, I do appreciate Mrs. Montalvo for pointing out that I draw outside the lines, but was the ‘frowny’ face really necessary?

At any rate, my ‘giddy’ experience is enriching and just the kind of challenge I wanted at this point in my career. I am absorbing it all as fast as I can, making mistakes and learning from them.

New Job, New Adventures

I’m leaving so many of my friends here at Reunion. This is a small team but I’ve bonded so much with them, that the hardest part about leaving now is leaving them. I’ve learned a great deal from watching my boss, P. You can tell he really cares about his people. He takes great pains to gather all the requirements so that we can do our jobs that much more efficiently and clearly.

Celebrity Deathmatch: Agile vs Waterfall

Gotta’ love Monday meetings. No, seriously I am *not* being facetious in the least. Our wonderful Exec David Wolfe is a very inspiring person to work with and every Monday I get to absorb another piece of his genius. (note: I am *not* a suck-up)

Today’s session outlined the basic tenets of both Agile and Waterfall methods, with no judgment. Without demon-izing the Waterfall Method, we defined the basics of any methodology and moved on to point out the different situations in which one or the other would be useful.

I’ve worked with Agile’s predecessor, the Beckian XP. Reuters Financial Risk Management Team embraced these programming methods with ferocity back in 2001. As the User Experience Designer on a Development Team, I watched us go from heavy Requirements Documents to the lighter, more story-oriented cards. It felt like a sudden release from an entrenched way of being. Back in the beginning of that position, we were handed a heavy document that was constantly updated and edited, but never really veered away from.

The creativity of the Developers was often left out and the frustration at having to execute on requirements that were spelled out so clearly was palpable in our Tuesday morning meetings. So when we moved onto XP, the developers and PMs and Business Analysts integrated together in a really exciting way. Suddenly, we were identifying certain peoples’ roles as ‘customers’. These people spoke for the customer. As a UI person, I got to interview the people who were standins for our customers. I was able to take that information and pour it into my wireframes and designs.

Planning meetings with developers were dynamic as we sketched out flows on our white boards and had the option to change things around quickly instead of being tied to these heavy documents.

The big takeaway for me was that when a company or a project is in a high growth stage, it’s often really difficult (actually impossible) to predict what requirements will be from the beginning. Waterfall attempts to eliminate change and the cost of change by using prediction. I like astrology. I think it’s fun. But I realize life changes day in and day out. So the only way to actually deal with change, for me, is to embrace it and be nimble enough to keep pace with it, especially if a new idea is more efficient, productive or revenue-generating.

So, I pose this metaphor: if there was a Celebrity Deathmatch between Agile and Waterfall, I’m thinking Agile would win by sheer ability to stay on its toes. Anyways, this is an open call to all animators…I want to see this on YouTube!

Barcampla4 - Sooo Awesome…

Just wanted to pop into my blog for a bit and say how much I’m enjoying ‘barcampla4′. What is barcamp? A tekkie conference that started in San Fran from what I gather and then started emanating outwards. It’s only about 4 years old and brings together some of the most passionate, actionable people in the tech industry to learn and share. Kind of like burning man meets Agile Methodologies. The session board is set up just like a task or story board at work. People grab a large post-it and write out the topics and stick them into the slots on the board. How perfect is that? I wish I weren’t missing the overnight campout…pout.

I really enjoyed the session from www.planjam.com. A developer and the Designer presented the new site design. Really cool people and I like their product. There’s a lot of potential for the travel industry there as well as ‘white label’ APIs for social networking sites.

Following that was an hour long problem session. There were a lot of really technical terms about email and databases flying around me and the energy was amazing. I know the developers at work would love to do a barcamp session like this every so often just to bring up general site issues - maybe we can do it once a month over lunch.

This session now is about Vlogging and how to incorporate it into Wordpress. Yay. Don’t know if I really need to put videos on this wordpress site but I’m going to think about it.

About Face

In re-reading this book, I have re-discovered valuable excerpts and insights into what I do everyday. There are a few quotes I want to blog about. Nothing fancy today, just a few somewhat random thoughts about User Experience.

“…good design makes users more effective”

Truly, this is the point of good design, although the term ‘design’ is such a broad-based, multi-interpreted word. In the ‘real world’ the title ‘designer’ is often used as a ‘catch-all’ for someone who can do graphics, maybe produce a website and possibly provide some basic usability. But looking more closely at this word, it probably should be more narrowly defined. I read very quickly a prediction (on Adaptive Path or some random Tech article) that the job descriptions calling for a ‘do-it-all’ kind of person would be supplanted by very specific, more narrowly defined descriptions.

Consequently, the kind of designer that I naturally became and am still becoming is a more user-centric one. I studied media user behavior in Graduate School and appreciate a more academic analysis of website usage. I remember back in the day with WebTrends, how the data was focused on uniques and visits and clicks and various user statistics like browser type. But now, using Omniture’s SiteCatalyst I’m completely blown away and (dare I say?) excited. It’s the kind of thing that gets me up and moving in the mornings, for lack of a caffeinated beverage.

Something about examining the numbers is kind of like being a detective. I get to root out where the problems are, where people have trouble using a piece of software or web application. I can’t help it, I did love Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. So this aspect of my job is the one part that gives me the greatest satisfaction. I get to improve the experience for the user. I get to make the user more effective at what he/she does.

There is a huge difference between teaching the user to use the system and designing a system that works for the users because ‘good design makes user more effective’.

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