Imagination is our power

Archive for September, 2011

Do better in your waking hours by sleeping better

Most leaders do not get enough sleep.  Consequently they are neither as successful, or satisfied, as they could be.

By that I mean they don’t get enough quality sleep to function at the top of their game.

When you are sleep deprived, you become more emotional, more irritable, and less clear-headed.  You’re more likely to make mistakes, and less likely to communicate efficiently. You are less effective as a leader.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 60% of Americans report having sleep problems and about 40% of adults experience daytime sleepiness severe enough to interfere with their daily activities.

Are you sleep deprived? The APA reports that how much sleep adults need does vary – but not as much as you believe to be the case.  In general, most of us are built for 16 hours of wakefulness, some can do well with as little as six hours of sleep while others can’t perform at peak unless they’ve slept ten. You need to know what’s right for you specifically.

As a former Wellness Advisor to Tempur-Pedic, I’ve learned that there are a lot of things you can do to reduce your sleeplessness.  Here are six places to start:

1.  De-Stress before you hit the sack – Often when we are just about to nod off, something pops into our mind and gets it engaged.  Whether that something is positive or negative, it’s not good to become engaged mentally when you’re trying to sleep.  Fix this behavior by developing a pre-sleep habit:  About half an hour before going to bed, go to a quiet place where you can stretch out and then meditate on all those things you need to get closure on for the day.  Dealing with them proactively allows you to put them away for the day; you’re more likely to sleep deeply.

2. Bedroom basics – Everyone knows it’s supposed to be quiet and dark, but many use an alarm clock with an LED.  This can affect your sleep in two ways:  First, it may light up the room so you are not in as dark an environment as possible.  Second, we often develop a habit of “checking the time” when we surface for a moment – thus kick-starting our brain with thoughts about what has to be done tomorrow.  Result – quality sleep is interrupted; you’re tired even though you may have spent a lot of hours in the bed.

3. You are what you drink – Caffeine can keep you awake and it can stay in your body up to 14 hours – so a coffee at noon can be affecting you at midnight.  Alcohol can help you fall asleep but as it clears your system it can disturb sleep with sweats, headaches, and nightmares.

4. Pets will disrupt your sleep – Most people awaken slightly as their pets move around.  They’ll tell me they don’t mind because they love their pet.  Just know that this affects your performance – on a few levels.

5. You may not be allergic to sleep, but allergies can contribute significantly to poor quality sleep. If you have difficulty staying asleep with the windows open, it could have a lot to do with allergens floating in from outside.  Likewise, many foods and drinks (especially wine) are very likely to cause a slight allergic reaction such as stuffiness that can ruin your night.

6. Take the TV out of the bedroom – While you may think it helps you to fall asleep, the research on this is clear. It can cause disruptive sleep, regardless of what you’ve watched.

If you wake up and can’t fall back to sleep, get out of it for a while.  Avoid creating any habit of laying awake reading, worrying or watching TV.

If you seriously want, a life that is well lived, start sleeping better.

What to Know When You Printing Images

After taking pictures the next obvious step is to see the result. This is possible by making prints of Images.

When black-and-white photography was popular, enthusiasts of this hobby generally gave the exposed films to professional studios/laboratories, but sometimes they developed and printed them at home. This was so because photography, being a hobby, people enjoyed indulging in it and took pride in showing the results of their personal endeavors. With the advent of color photography, this hobby received a setback because, besides being much more elaborate and cumbersome, printing was more expensive and time consuming.

 

 

The photographic industry solved this dilemma to an extent by making small and easy-to-use kits to encourage color developing and printing by amateurs and enthusiasts. Very advanced amateurs even developed their own transparency films at their homes. But due to change in lifestyles, people could not find spare time for these activities. With the decline in the purchase of do-it-yourself kits, manufacturers stopped providing them. Consequently, today the usual practice is to select a good laboratory which can develop and print the film roll.

But with the advent of digital cameras, people are seeing the images directly on their word processors/computers and can obtain the printout directly from them. The final product can now be sent to friends and relatives anywhere in the world through the email. This paperless activity involves no hassles and is done with complete ease.

You are likely to want to print your photographs at some stage. In this article, we look at printers, ink cartridges and the other accessories you will need.

Printers

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Most of us who take digital photographs will want to print them on to paper for display in albums or picture frames at some stage, In order to make the most of our images. Unless you are prepared to pay for someone else to provide image printing as a service – for example, a specialized photographic shop – sooner or later you are going to need to buy a printer and learn a little about the subject of printing. Broadly speaking, getting good prints of images is reliant on two things – the quality of the printer and the quality of the paper.

Printer Types

Printers come in many forms; dot matrix, inkjet, bubble jet and laser are the most common types. Dot matrix printers are really only suitable for simple text output – things like shop receipts are often produced in this manner, Laser printers produce the highest quality prints, but while the black and white Versions are practical for home use, color versions can be very expensive. The most suitable choice for producing high quality photographic prints in the home is the Inkjet printer, which uses a cartridge to drop ink directly onto the paper. Bubble jet printers, which are often cheaper, use special heating elements to prepare the ink. Portable printers that link straight to the camera are also available; these are known as photo printers.

Printer Cartridges

No matter which type of printer you decide to use, to produce your image onto a sheet of photographic paper as a print it will need ink – and ink comes in the form of cartridge!

Inkjets

Inkjet printers use two cartridges to supply the ink – one for black and the other for color. Of the two the black is cheaper to purchase than the color cartridge. Most printers come with software that allows you to monitor the levels of ink. This can prove to be very useful because you get advanced warning that you need to get spare cartridges before they actually run out.

Cartridge Replacement

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When a cartridge runs out, replacement is extremely straightforward on most printers. New cartridges are available from the original manufacturer, but can be rather expensive. Cheaper alternatives are often supplied by discount companies that specialize in undercutting the manufacturers. However, the old adage that “you only get what you pay for” is worth remembering. Certain generic brands do not last as long and are not of the same high quality ink as those of the manufacturer’s own-brand ink cartridges. This is fine for color printing onto normal copier paper, but very noticeable when printing images onto high quality photo paper. The color can vary and will cancel out all your hard work of retouching or enhancing the color resolution of your images. Some people keep their empty ink cartridges for refilling, either by a professional outfit or with a “Do it yourself” home refill kit.

Putting Print to Paper

Paper comes in many forms, but the two main variables are its finish and weight. The quality of paper suitable for printers is mainly dictated by the type of coating used – and its thickness.

Types of Paper

The paper used for domestic purposes, such as printing out letters, is typically 80gsm, with 100gsm being a thicker, but more expensive alternative. High quality paper is available for photographic purposes and generally comes in small packs of between 25 and 100 sheets, as opposed to packs of 500 sheets in the case of general purpose paper. Photographic paper generally has a glossy coating on one side. Load the paper into the printer so that this is the side which the print ends up on, as otherwise the quality of the print will be considerably degraded!

If you normally use general purpose paper, whenever you want to use special purpose media such as photo quality film, you must reset the printer properties to let it know that you are using something different; otherwise, your prints will look very mediocre.

Choice Selection

Look out for “sustainable forest” labels, some of which state that the paper is “made entirely from pulp obtained from 100% farmed trees” or similar. This means you are buying an ecologically sound product. If paper is recycled, this will normally also be highlighted on the papers packaging. Look for the standard green recycling logo.

Special quality paper should be stored away from sunlight and extremes of temperature, and any prints you make should be kept in sealable bags to protect them from humidity, sunlight and temperature variations.

It can be confusing looking through all the different types of paper on the market, so here are few of the types you may come across:

Photo quality glossy film: A bright, white film; good for photos, and report covers. Generally available in A2, A3, A4, Letter and Super A3/B sizes.

Inkjet transparencies: Available in A4 and Letter; clear films producing excellent colors for overhead projections and overlays for presentations.

Inkjet cards: Bright, white A6 cards; excellent for creating postcards, snapshots, invitations, and digital photos, for example.

Connecting to a Printer

For converting your digital image into something tangible that you can show friends, you need to get your image over to a printer.

Transferring Images to a Printer

There are basically two methods of getting images from a digital camera onto a printer. The simplest method is to use a direct cable connection between camera and printer. While this is very straightforward, the disadvantage is that only certain printers have the special socket which allows the direct connection to be made. The most obvious devices are the portable photo printers. The other (and by far the most widely used) method for printing an image is to download it onto a computer, and then use whatever printer is linked to the computer. This is a much more flexible approach. You can then make prints of your images at any time.

Printer Software

When you buy a new printer, you have to make sure it can communicate with your computer. Some operating systems will be able to do so without any further software but usually you will need to install the manufacturer’s own drivers.

Printer Drivers

When a new printer is installed, it must be able to find the correct software on the computer in order for it to work properly; this is known as the “driver” and controls how documents from your computer print out. The drivers for many printers come as a standard feature on some operating systems, whereas others need to be specially installed. New printers will come with the drivers supplied on CD. These are easy to install, since the disk will auto-start when it is inserted into a computer. The set up procedure is simply a matter of following the instructions on the screen. If the disk is missing – maybe the printer is second-hand or the original has been lost – a search on the internet will usually prove fruitful. Personally I use Google (www.google.com) as my search engine, if you enter the name of the printer together with the words “free download” and “driver” in the Search field, it will nearly always result in what you need in order to get your printer “talking” to your computer.

 

Computer Overview

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Many of us use computers these days that they have become a feature of just about every household and office. Nevertheless, it is worth considering which models are likely to be the most suitable for your needs.

Hardware issues

If you already have a home computer, it will probably be entirely adequate for your purposes. Processor speeds are usually above 2GHz, but you will not need one this last unless you do a lot of image processing.

Memory Sizes

Far more important than processor speed is the amount of RAM you have. This is the solid state memory the computer uses when doing any operations. Start with a minimum of 256MB, and fit more if your machine will accept it (memory is relatively inexpensive).

Types of Computers

There are two main types of computer in use today – PCs, which run Microsoft Windows or Linux operating systems, and Apple Macintoshes, which use their own dedicated system; known as “OS”. The typical home computer is known as a “desk station”, whereas the smaller, briefcase-sized units are known as laptops or notebook computers. There are a variety of even smaller devices available, and as time goes by these will undoubtedly become more and more popular.

Portable Computers

If you travel frequently with your camera, a laptop may be worth considering. Otherwise, there are many reasons why a desk station computer is likely to be your best choice. Faster computers are being brought but almost every day. This means that sooner or later, your machine will need upgrading.

 

Operating Systems

An operating system is the software that a compute uses in order to function. It supervises the hardware and co-ordinates all the various programs that you run. A good, stable and fast operating system can make a computer a pleasure to use.

Computer Platforms

By far the most common forms of operating systems – known as “platforms” – are the various Microsoft Windows variants. These include Microsoft Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000 and XP. Some of these are available in different format, such as “Home Edition” and “Pro”. Apple uses its own operating system for Macs known as “OS X” which Stands for “Operating System”, where the “X” represents the version number. Unless you are an advanced user, stick with a current version.

 

Backing-up Your Work

An Important (but often overlooked) issue when working with computers is to make sure that you have back-ups of your work, not just on your hard drive but also on a CD or DVD.

Auto Saves

I have my word processor configured to save automatically every ten minutes, but in the event of a power failure the file may become corrupted, in which case you will be glad you backed it up. Additionally, if you experience a hard disk drive failure, you will be lucky to resurrect anything off it, so it is best to get into the habit of backing up.

Burning Issues

A CD writer is a good investment; in fact most new computers now come with one built in. Take the time and trouble to make CD copies of all your work, and then store them somewhere where they cannot get damaged. The process of writing a CD is known as “burning”. Old office safes can be bought cheaply, and in the event of a fire or a break-in, your work will not be lost.

 

Keeping Your Computer Virus-Free

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It is a sad fact that there are a lot of malicious people who derive pleasure from creating ever more sophisticated ways of interfering with your compute from afar. The methods they use can be grouped together under the term “Viruses”. By far the most common way of viruses making their way onto your computer is through infected e-mail attachments. The amount of damage a virus can do depends on its type. Here are a few guidelines to follow if you want to keep your machine clean and unaffected.

Firewalls

One of the best ways to help reduce the ingress of unwanted programs onto your computer is to use a “firewall”. This is a method used by a special software program to block the passage of information to and from your computer. Each lime another program attempts to access your machine from the internet the firewall intercepts it, and will only let it through if you have set the program to do so. Microsoft Windows XP has its own version of a firewall already in place.

File Attachments

Never open any attachments with the file extensions “scr”, “exe”, or ‘pif”. If you are in any doubt about an attached file, do not open it Delete it from your machine immediately.

Anti-virus Programs

There are a huge number of anti-virus programs available. No matter which software you use, it will only be as good as the definition files it has to work from. These files are special lists used by the anti-virus programs, which tell them what are the latest viruses and how they can be recognized. They are generally free to download, and since new viruses are coming out all the time, you can never update them often enough. Once a week is the absolute minimum if you want to stay virus-free. The best attitude to take is one of extreme caution-be complacent and your machine will become infected at some time!

 

Monitors & Pixels

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When using a desk station computer, it is important that the monitor is up to the job. A poor quality screen will make all your images appear dull, lifeless, and possibly distorted.

General Issues

Make sure that the monitor screen is large enough for you to work on in comfort especially if you are doing lots of image manipulation. Monitors of superb quality have become more affordable, but good second-hand monitors can also be bought through newspaper adverts or from specialist dealers.

How the Monitor Works

A desktop monitor works in much the same way as the screen in a traditional television set. However, monitors are available with many different evolutions. You can usually change the number of pixels used to make up the screen area to suit your situation as well. The higher the number of pixels used the better, although the color setting will also influence the image quality greatly. The setting known as “16 bit High color” will give you good results, but “32 bit True color” is much better overall.

Monitor pixels

As with digital cameras, monitors compose their pictures from many thousands of pixels, each of which is controlled for color and brightness. Controlling a grid of pixels is called “bit mapping” and digital images are called bit maps. The higher the numbers of pixels are, the better the resolution and the overall picture quality is. When an image is enlarged too much, it becomes possible to see the individual pixels, an undesirable effect which is known as “pixelation”.

 

Scanning & Re-Touching Old Images

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Image editing is great for digital pictures, but it can also be used to great effect with old or damaged prints. The print first needs to be digitized. Of course, you could take a photo, but far easier would be to scan the print and save it digitally.

Flatbed Scanners

If you want to make a copy of a flat image, a scanner is likely to be your best option. In recent years, flatbed scanners have fallen in price to such an extent that really good. Ones can be obtained fairly reasonably. They are also much easier to use than their predecessors. Nowadays, all you have to do is plug them in via a USB port load up the software CD, put the item you want to scan in place and press the “Scan” button. The image is recorded and transferred into your graphics program, which is then automatically started for you.

Other Graphics Programs

There are lots of other graphics programs in the marketplace and many of these are aimed at the domestic user. You may well find that they provide all the functionality you need without the complexity or expense of the larger packages. If you have access to broadband internet, then it is always worth keeping an eye on the official websites of companies such as Adobe and Jasc, since they often have time-limited trial downloads available for free.

 

Displaying Images

As well as viewing your images on your computer in thumbnail, real-size or full screen formats. It is also possible to look at them on a variety of other media.

Using “Video Out” on Your Television

Apart from those models at the budget end of the market, most digital cameras have some form of small LCD screen on which it is possible to view your pictures. However, if you are away from your computer or have a group of people that you would like share them with, it can be difficult trying to display them to everyone at the same time. An excellent solution to this is available if your camera has a video-out port. This will allow you to connect it to a television set through the video-in terminals. Make sure you have the correct cable – it is usually supplied with the camera.

There are several useful things you can do by connecting your camera to a television. While it works well as a giant view screen, so that your family and friends can see your existing photographs, they can also watch live images of new ones being taken. Alternatively, you can set up a video recorder and capture a whole sequence to show off later, or maybe review work you have done that day.

While a television offers an excellent way of presenting images to a small group of family and friends, it is not a very satisfactory method for presenting them to larger groups. A public display device, such as a digital projector or some sort of a cinema screen, would be ideal. For medium-sized groups of up to a hundred or so, a multimedia image projector is ideal.

Portable Image Storage and Viewing Devices

If you take a lot of photographs and like to travel light, there are several portable items of equipment on the market to answer your needs. For example there are handheld image storage arid viewing devices available that can hold vast numbers of digital photographs – in some cases, between as many as 10,000 and 30,000!

These units can read most card formats and have sophisticated file management systems, which can store images in folders. In addition, individual files can be renamed, copied, moved around or deleted. There are also features that appeal to professional users, such as the fact that these units are able to handle images in RAW format of up to 18MB each. It is also possible to view histograms and other information, as well as to upload images from hard disk onto the handheld units, or to make hard copies of images by connecting directly to a printer.

Another way to view images while on the move is with a portable DVD player or a laptop computer. Since these tend to be about the same size and weight, many people cannot see the sense in paying out for a DVD player when a laptop can do so much more. There are also many multimedia players on the market. These tend to have LCD screens of around 85mm (3in) in size and can play MP3 files as well as display images. Depending on the make and model, you can connect to a printer or a television. If you are considering purchasing one of these, take some time to review what each version offers -the storage capability, the types of memory cards they can accept, and so on.

 

E-mailing Digital Photos

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One of the most popular ways of sharing digital photos between family and friends is by sending them by e-mail.

E-mailing Issues

To send a digital photograph by e-mail is simplicity itself. However, there are a few things to watch out for. Firstly, make sure that you have shrunk the image down to a sensible size. Even If you have broadband internet access, the recipient may not and a 15MB file on a dial-up connection will make you very unpopular indeed. A good rule of thumb is to keep the images down below 100KB.

Blocked Out

Another thing to bear in mind is to check whether your intended recipient’s e-mail system will actually allow attachments through. If you are sending an e-mail to a company, many have become so security conscious that attachments are viewed with great suspicion and are often blocked out.

Which Format?

It is also important to remember that not everyone has their own imaging software packages, so when you send an image file by e-mail, make sure you choose the most appropriate format. If you send someone a Photoshop (.psd) or a PaintShop (.psp) file, they may well not be able to open it. JPEG and GIF files are universally accepted these days. These formats are also efficient In terms of quality and size, so they are good choices for e-mail attachments.

 

Sending Images By Camera Phone

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Camera phones are becoming more popular. These devices are handy for commercial purposes, used by estate agents, car trader magazine staff and so on.

It’s Good to Snap

If you are sending a camera phone image to another camera phone, the recipient must also be on a network that can communicate with your own. A link to the photos can be sent by e-mail to anyone with an e-mail address. Recipients are sent a text message explaining how to view your photos over the internet. Your images are kept in your own personal photo album, which is protected by a password so that you can decide who gets access to your pictures. Camera and other devices that support this service let you include still images, video images and sounds.

Sending Images to Websites

If you are creating your own website or want to post your images onto someone else’s, there are three main ways to transfer your images to the host location.

The three methods are:

By using a file transfer program, such as FTP (this stands for file transfer protocol).

By using the “Upload” facility found on some websites.

By e-mail. This only works if you are sending them to someone else to post for you.

The best way to send large files to a website is via an FTP package. There are many different versions available, some of which can be downloaded for free from the internet. Using such a program, you can move large files from your computer across the internet to a folder at the host location. You will need to know certain technical information about the host machine. This includes the host’s web address, a User ID and password.

It’s a IT job seekers’ market: Employers need new tactics to recruit IT pros

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for tech professionals is at a low 3.3 percent.

“This is what is keeping C-suite executives up at night,” said Kathy Harris, managing director at Harris Allied, which provides executive search, technology and Quant Analyst placement services to the financial services and tech industries.  “Employers need to get up to speed about the new rules of engagement to successfully attract the top tier of the high tech talent pool–the thought leaders, the innovators, the people you have in mind when you consider succession planning and filling the next generation of executive positions.”

Here are her suggestions for how employers need to look at recruiting and retaining top tech talent differently than in previous years:

Streamline the hiring process: Employers need to execute this process more quickly than in prior years because the competition is ready to make your top candidate an offer now.

Engage your best job candidates: Candidates should leave the interview feeling engaged and already connected in some way to the organization. Give them a big picture of the company and where it stands in the industry. Offer them a closer look at the team they will be working with sooner rather than waiting for the third round of interviews. Let them meet with their future colleagues to demonstrate they will be part of a high quality team.

Put on your sales hat: Ensure that all who are part of the interview process are consistent with their messaging and how the company is positioned. Share information about high profile projects if the candidate will be working on them and talk about the company’s investments in special corporate initiatives that pertain to the position. But never overhype details or oversell your organization because that can backfire as soon as they are part of your organization.

Be flexible: Be willing to expand your search to look for the best of the best, which may be found outside of your immediate area. Take the search for the right candidate nationally if necessary. Fly people in for interviews and be willing to be flexible on such enticements as signing bonuses, bonus guarantees, corporate housing, and benefits, if possible.

Offer the opportunity to work on diverse and challenging projects to retain top talent: Many companies offer special programs for HIPOs. Sometimes called “stars programs,” they allow employees to become involved in high profile projects that afford them access to leadership, even if only for a few hours a week. These programs allow employees to provide input on higher level corporate initiatives and contribute in a meaningful way while underscoring their value to the organization.

Communicate often and openly: Maintaining an open line of communication and providing consistent feedback is important to employees who want to make the most of their career opportunities. Clearly lay out a career path that includes mentoring and training and development that will position them for the long term. These high powered tech employees are mindful of not letting their career flatline.

Get some real-time perspective on compensation: The benchmarking tools of yesterday are no longer a good bellwether for how to compensate today’s high tech employees. Employers need a current view of what is happening in a dynamic market. Keep your ears to the ground and know where the potential threats (in the form of competition) lie. Stay current on what the market is really paying and adjust your compensation program as necessary.

They are not resources: These are people, not a commodity. Treat them as valued members of your team, not as if they are dispensable or interchangeable. This is often the deal breaker for a high tech employee when he or she decides to look for a new opportunity.

Careers are like nature: Only the fittest survive

Recently, an author who’s writing a book about how to survive and thrive in a challenging environment asked me for an interview.

Knowing that I speak to a lot of people about careers, he wanted some tips and tactics for his book.  I told him that for the most part most career questions come from one of these three key perspectives:

1. The employed – looking for guidance on things such as:

  • moving up the ladder
  • dealing with a career hiccup that may be holding them back
  • dealing with others in the organization
  • getting a raise

2. The unemployed – looking for advice about:

  • getting back in the job market
  • taking advantage of social networking
  • setting up a consulting practice
  • rethinking their whole life plan

3. The recently terminated – in a highly emotional state, they’re trying to grapple with:

  • how getting tanked can impact someone who has always had a job
  • getting through this new and difficult situation

(This is transition coaching. It’s all about helping an individual transition out of where they are and into where they’d prefer to be.)

Over the past 15 months, I’ve had more calls from people in the second and third situations. I’d prefer to be hearing from more of those in the first category above, but the economy is in a bad place and the outlook is pretty grim. It seems likely that many people who are unemployed currently are going to continue in that place for a while.
Here’s the best advice I can give any individual who’s in any of those situations What got you here, may not get you there.
If you want a long and productive career, keep that advice first and foremost in your mind.  If you’re unemployed, give it a lot of thought before you dive into the next job.
  1. The most successful careerists realize that it’s all about evolution.  Like animals in the wild – even entire species – it’s survival of the fittest.
  2. Industries start, grow, thrive, get old and usually then disappear. It’s the same same with companies.
  3. Careers that are too dependent on the success of the industry or company are at risk.
Those who have the longest and most satisfying careers share a common realization that their success has a great deal to do with keeping a close eye on the environment.  Whether it’s the economy, the city they live or the company they work for.
As the world around you changes, or the business environments change, or the people making the decisions move on – it’s time to make a decision.  Is your plan still smart for the long term? Most people continue as if little is really changing.  They’re kind of “managing by crossed fingers” and hoping they’ll be OK.  Not a good plan.
In nature and in business those who adapt and make changes will survive.  The rest, even though they may be great at what they’re doing, don’t survive.

How to deliver criticism to a sensitive employee

If you’ve managed teams long enough, you’re bound to come across an employee who doesn’t take kindly to constructive criticism. Whether that person is prone to tears or angry outbursts, it’s a behavior that makes it more difficult for a manager to do his or her job.

I once knew of an employee on another team who would consistently make things difficult for folks on my team because of her lack of attention to detail. When I asked her manager if she was aware of this, she said she was but every time she tried to talk to her about this, the employee would cry. So, like a bad Pavlovian experiment, the manager began to avoid the discussions altogether, allowing the problematic behavior to continue.

Here are some of my tips for delivering criticism to an employee who is never in the mood to receive it.

Meet face-to-face and prepare a written doc

It’s very easy to misinterpret what someone says when you’re in the throes of some emotion like sadness or anger. Be sure to write down exactly what you say to the employee so there is no question or “That’s not what I thought you meant”s to deal with later. And on this point, it’s important to:

Have the employee repeat what he or she is hearing

Having the employee say back to you what it is he or she thinks you’re saying helps to clarify matters and also enforces the behavior you want to see. I once had to tell a tech writer that he missed so many deadlines that I was considering putting him on probation. To soften the blow, I said that he was a very good writer just not very timely. When he repeated back what he heard me say, he said, “You said I’m a good writer.” He had some kind of turbo-charged defense mechanism going that allowed him to glean only the good stuff I’d said.

Criticize the behavior, not the personality

There are going to be some employees who are more emotional than others. You will never be able to change a personality but you can affect the outside behaviors that result from it.  You may have a support pro whose outgoing personality serves him well in his job. It’s when that quality causes him to extend individual jobs longer than preferred that it becomes an issue. Then you simply make him aware that jobs have to be dealt with in a shorter span of time.

Give smaller burst of feedback (both good and bad) more frequently

You don’t want to drop a major criticism on any employee at one time-whatever the temperament. It’s much easier to deal with small examples of undesired behavior. And giving positive feedback helps an employee feel like it’s not just about the errors. Also, employees won’t dread coming to your office as much.

Don’t enable the emotions

If the employee starts to cry or gets angry, stop the conversation and ask if she needs a moment. Don’t end the conversation and schedule it for a later date. If you do that, you’re only allowing the employee to think that the outbursts “work” to deflate criticism. Allow the employee to get it together and then resume the conversation.

10 questions to determine whether an employee can work from home

Many companies allow employees to telecommute. There are benefits for both the employee and the employer, but not all departments, managers, and employees are suited to the home-office environment. If you’re considering a work-from-home option, start with this list.

The first two questions are for you. The next four questions evaluate your department. A wrong answer to any of these questions is an indication that working from home might be difficult for your department. The final four questions will help you quickly determine which employees might not fare well working from home. After answering these questions, you should know whether your department should move from “thinking about it” to forming a real work-from-home strategy.

About you…

1: Can you be available during off-hours?

Many work-at-home employees work odd hours. Can you be available when they need you? If you’re unwilling to accept this challenge, make your availability clear from the beginning.

2: Do you trust your employees?

Some managers won’t be objective enough to evaluate this particular question honestly, but let’s try just the same. If your department is performing adequately, but you still don’t trust any of your employees to do their jobs without your constant input, maybe you have trust issues. If you think this might be the case, stop now. Why put yourselves and your employees through an experiment that’s doomed before it starts?

About your department…

3: Is upper management on board?

If you don’t have the full support of your manager, stop now. Spend more time researching and present the idea again later with new supportive facts. Don’t proceed until you’ve convinced upper management that the work-from-home venture is worth trying, unless you want to work from home yourself — job hunting is work, right?

4: Will the move require a budget squeeze?

While technology makes it easy to keep in touch with an offsite employee, the initial setup and monthly maintenance can be expensive. The company probably has most of the necessary equipment, but you’ll have to finance the physical move and installation of all that equipment. Then there’s the cost of specialized software and monthly service fees and subscriptions. If there’s no money for this, stop now.

5: Does your office suffer from a lot of drama?

If the left-behind employees are going to vent petty jealousies over the work-from-home arrangement, tread slowly. We might all agree that their attitudes shouldn’t matter. The reality is that these people can suck the life and productivity right out of your entire department. They’ll make everyone miserable, and miserable employees aren’t productive employees. This situation isn’t a show-stopper, but It’s something to face, not circumvent.

6: Can the team handle the separation?

Some teams are a cohesive group where the synergy just works. Moving even a few people out of the office might have a negative impact on the morale and spirit of the group. In a situation like this, try a part-time, temporary arrangement. As the team adjusts to the changes, you can be more liberal with the work-from-home policy.

About the employee…

7: Would you let this employee house-sit, dog-sit, or babysit?

The ideal home-office candidate is a responsible and reliable individual. If you don’t trust this employee to do his or her job with little input from you, stop now. There’s no need to evaluate any further.

8: Does the employee work closely with other employees?

It can be difficult to maintain availability to one another in home offices for those employees who interact throughout the day. It isn’t impossible, but I recommend that you put these employees into a future “maybe” group. Work out the kinks with individuals who don’t need to interact regularly with other employees. With a little experience, you’ll be better prepared to tackle this group’s complex needs.

9: Does the employee work with sensitive data?

Employees who work with confidential or sensitive data will require special attention, and working from home might be more work (risk) than it’s worth. Can your company support the necessary network security (and its cost) to protect data? If not, stop now –although you might consider letting this employee work from home part time.

10: Where does the employee live?

Make sure the employee’s home has reasonable Internet access. Cable and DSL are reliable, but satellite access is notoriously undependable. Dial-up is too slow to handle most of today’s technologies. In addition, an employee living in a van down by the river probably isn’t a good candidate. If Internet access is inadequate, or the employee lives in questionable circumstances, stop now.

Are You Ready For A Web Design Challenge?

The Challenge

If you’re like me, you did some form of higher education in art and design and will know about “the crit.” These meetings involve the class coming together with tutors to analyze and provide constructive criticism on each other’s work.

These were terrifying meetings in which I justified my design approach and defended it against criticism. Although I hated every minute of them, I believe they nurtured one of the most useful skills I have as a Web designer.

The ability to logically justify our designs is a skill many of us lack. This is the heart of the challenge I wish to lay down.

Admittedly, this might sound like a lot of effort, so let me explain why it is worth your while.

Why This Challenge Is Worth Undertaking

Being a great designer is not enough. You can produce outstanding work and be the envy of your peers, and yet struggle to convince clients of your approach. The reason is that clients do not understand design the way your colleagues do. Therefore, you need to be able to articulate what makes your design right.

Our ability to justify our choices is crucial to our relationship with clients. Without it, clients will lack confidence in our abilities or, worse, feel excluded from the process. A lack of confidence leads to micro-management, and exclusion leads to frustration and resentment. Therefore, explaining our approach is vital.

However, it isn’t just about the client. It’s also about your personal development. If you don’t have a clear idea of what works, then improving will be difficult. Design critiques are as much about improving the quality of your work as justifying it to others.

Unfortunately, this requires that we overcome two barriers.

First, many of us don’t fully understand why we have designed a website a certain way. We design at a subconscious level, based on years of experience. When you have been driving for a while, you cease to think about the process of driving. Likewise, design decisions are often handled at a deeper level than the conscious mind.

Secondly, many designers haven’t had to justify their approach in the past. Either they haven’t gone through the rigorous critiques that I experienced in university or they don’t have the experience required to articulate their decisions.

It is for these reasons that this challenge is so valuable. By writing a blog post about a particular design and encouraging feedback, you move your decisions from the subconscious to the conscious level and gain valuable experience in articulating them.

Of course, knowing where to start such a challenge can be a challenge in itself.

Where To Start

If you are not used to thinking about design at a conscious level, then you might struggle to begin. While there is no right way to do this, I can share the approach that I use.

When discussing my design with others, I tend to look at the various components that make up the product. These usually are:

  • Grid,
  • Layout,
  • Color,
  • Typography,
  • Imagery,
  • Styling.

Ask yourself, why did you approach each of these elements the way that you did? Let’s consider each in turn.

Grid

Why did you use that particular grid structure on the website you are reviewing? Can you articulate your reasons for using a 12-column grid instead of a 16-column one? What about the margins and padding? If a client complained that there was too much white space between columns, would you have a response?

Another common issue is when you purposely break out of a grid. Was the choice intentional, with good reasoning, or just an impulsive decision? What would you say if the client asked about it?

The choice of grid might be based on the content or on the constraints of the style guide. It could have to do with making the website work on mobile devices or with allowing flexibility for future changes. Whatever the reason, you need to be able to clearly articulate them to yourself and the client.

960 Grid System
Are we selecting a particular grid because it is right for the website or just because we have fallen into the habit? We need to be able to justify our approach to our clients and ourselves.

Layout

Layout and grid might sound the same, but they’re not. By layout, I am referring to white space and the placement of elements on the page. These are often points of conflict between the designer and client, so being able to explain your approach is important. For example, how would you justify all of the white space that Google has chosen to use on its home page?

Why did you leave so much white space on the page? Was it to draw the user’s eye to a particular element, or perhaps to improve readability?

What about the positioning of elements? Why is the search box in the top-right corner? Is it because this is the convention and people look for it there, or perhaps because you wanted to associate it with other elements that are in proximity?

Color

Color is probably the most controversial of subjects, and so we need to understand our motivation. I tend to approach color selection in one of four ways:

  1. Corporate branding guidelines
    The palette has been defined by the guidelines, and I work within these constraints.
  2. Theory
    I use a tool such as Kuler, which produces a palette based on established theory.
  3. Emotional response
    The extensive research done on people’s responses to colors informs my palette.
  4. Main image
    If the website has a dominant image that has already been approved by the client, I use it as the basis for the color palette. There are great tools for extracting color palettes from images.

Adobe Kuler
Adobe Kuler is just one of many tools that help you apply color theory to your palette selection.

By explaining your choices in these objective terms, you prevent color from becoming a matter of personal preference and thus avoid conflict.

Typography

Something as seemingly simple as typography consists of many different decisions. These decisions extend far beyond the selection of typeface and encompass line height, size, weight, kerning and much more.

Fontdeck.com
With services like Fontdeck making so many fonts available to us, the need to understand and justify our choices is more important than ever.

You need to be able to speak confidently about your choices if you are to demonstrate your expertise and convey that what you do is a lot more complex than it might appear. Taking the time to explain the complexity behind your typographic decisions might sound boring, but it will impress. It will also force you to put more consideration into your choices.

Imagery

To many clients, imagery is merely about subject matter. But we know it is about much more. We select imagery based on the mood it sets, the colors it contains and even things such as the eye line of the person in the photograph.

We need to be able to articulate these decisions so that others recognize that you cannot easily substitute one image for another without significantly affecting the design.

Do you know why you selected one image over the thousands of others in your library? What made that image special? Can you explain this to yourself and the client? Was it really more than a “That’ll do” decision?

Styling

For me, styling refers to screen elements that are not directly content-related: buttons, links, call-out boxes and the plethora of other elements that need to be decided on.

How you style these elements can dramatically shape the feel of the website. From the chrome buttons on Apple’s website to the sketched buttons of Moredays, styling can make a huge difference.

A comparison between the navigation on Apple and Moredays
Styling dramatically shapes the feel of your website. But can you justify why one approach is better than another?

Can you explain why your styling creates the right feel? Have you shown the client alternative approaches? Did the client sign off on moodboards, which set the style? If so, refer back to them when justifying your design.

Reference Material

In fact, whenever justifying a design, always refer to the material that has already been agreed upon. For example, if the client has signed off on moodboards, we should use these to justify our choice of typography (“I used the same typeface that we agreed on in the moodboarding stage”). We can also refer to the target audience, business objectives, branding guidelines and even previous comments by the client.

Reference material can be taken from farther afield, too. For example, when justifying your decision to ignore the fold, you can refer to research done by ClickTale. Citing research and experts is a great way to justify an approach.

But remember, being able to explain your design is only half of the objective in this challenge. The other half is about improving the quality of your work.

Improving Our Work

Getting into the habit of justifying your decisions will inevitably improve the quality of your designs. Instead of leaving it to the subconscious, the act of considering imagery, layout, typography and so on becomes a part of your conscious decision-making process.

The act of discussing your process refines it and makes you more efficient as a designer. For example, in carrying out the challenge, you will probably struggle to justify some of your design elements, elements that in hindsight would have been better left out or presented differently. This will inform your next website, and over time you will find that your designs become more refined, simpler and more effective.

So, What Are You Waiting For?

Smashing Magazine has a quite large readership and a remarkable community. We have an amazing opportunity to start talking about our work and providing each other with constructive criticism. Write a blog post on one of your designs, justifying your approach. Then link to it in the comments below. Encourage other people to provide feedback on your design, and take their criticism to heart. Finally, don’t forget to make comments and ask questions of other people who have posted their own work.

My hope is that this post will not only help us speak confidently about our designs and improve the quality of our work, but encourage a dialogue about the design process. We are good at showing off our products but bad at explaining how we came up with them. As a community, we could benefit from more discussion about the process itself, rather than endless inspiration galleries.

The 3 stages of design maturity

Stage 1: Design as decoration

This stage is pure excitement—you feel like you’re a small fish joining an elite group of folks. Most designers start here (especially those that are self-taught), however, many skill levels can co-habitate here (note: we are not comparing skill level to maturity level). This is that stage where you just want to get your hands on every cell phone picture you’ve ever taken and doctor it up. As a matter of fact, after a couple tries and a few compliments you feel like it may be time for you to get paid for your talents.

Characteristics

I’m not saying you definitely suck but I am saying it’s pretty fair to assume you have yet to reach your full potential. Your program knowledge probably doesn’t extend much further than what your professor taught you or what the latest tutorial has you doing, and you’re completely fine with that. You’re idea of designing here is decorating—if you think it doesn’t look good you want to have at it to make it look prettier. Whether it looks good or bad is solely your judgement, as you aren’t basing it off much other than trends and what you like. Design principles and theory really don’t concern you because you’re either just starting and getting a grip, or quite frankly, you could care less. In this stage, your main objective is to be as creative as possible. You don’t have a bunch of different rules and standards floating around in your mind, so you do what you like. Ignorance is bliss.

Client Interaction

In this stage, the designer may or may not be actively looking for business, but if they are, this is kind of how they work with their clients. We’ve got to remember, this person’s idea of good design is central to what they believe—basically these client meetings are worthless other than to throw around a couple ideas because the finished product will be something the designer is satisfied with. Any requests the client has are taken more as suggestion than law. I’m not saying the designer is completely oblivious to what the client wants, but the idea of what it is going to look like or what kind of feel it has ends up coming from the designer’s mind, not standard practices or client input.

Community Contribution

These stage one designers, whether we want to believe it or not, do contribute to the design community. Like I said before, skill set is not directly related to maturity level; for example, you could be a great designer (know your way around a couple programs), but you could still be using design as a means of decoration. Sometimes you get a stage one designer that has an amazing skill set and makes some of the most creative work you’ve seen using no design principles or theories. Because of this, I think pure unadulterated creativity comes out of this stage, and if a more mature designer sees it, they can be inspired to use it in a way that is more effective.

Overall, this is a very free stage of being or becoming a graphic designer. There are no rules, other than to have fun and let your imagination be your guide.

 

Stage 2: Design as discovery

A large majority of us start in stage one where we are attracted to design and Photoshop—we teach ourselves what we want to learn and keep it moving. I think there’s another chunk of us who can start off in this second stage, especially if we have formal design education. But for the most part we get here after stage one, after working with a few clients, with some decent work in our portfolios, and interaction with some better designers. This is the stage where you get to really understand there’s more to designing than just making stuff pretty, but you just haven’t fully grasped it yet.

Characteristics

Now instead of making your friends party flyer look amazing to yourself, you’re interested in making it look amazing to everyone. You’re starting to realize that if it looks good to others and they enjoy it, maybe more people will come out. That’s a pretty solid realization for design but of course, it isn’t all the way there and you’re trying to look further into that idea. Also at this stage, you’re probably looking into the different types of design, what they do and what you think is best for you—perhaps you’ve delved into some other programs or you’re learning how to code. All you know is that you are trying to come to a deeper understanding of design.

Client Interaction

Things can go a little smoother in this part because you’re actually interested in what the client desires, but most times you’re giving them exactly what they asked for with little to no innovation. Not that it’s a crime, but as stated before, you know there’s something more to design than just creating what someone asked you to. If you do move a bit from what the client asked, you’re likely to try to explain yourself and the vision as best as possible. Fortunately, you haven’t totally lost your creative flair from stage one so you can add a bit of funkiness on a project. However, if they don’t want your funkiness, you may look at it as their loss.

Community Contribution

Your search for knowledge and growing skill set allows you to contribute much like in stage one but with better understanding of some sort of end. While this is a ‘between’ stage, you learn to respect the design community a bit more for it’s help and the design art form.

This stage takes up the bulk of your maturation process, and is easy to revert back to once you get the third stage. I’m all about learning more, so this is a good stage to be in. Just try to get the most information you can in an attempt to be a greater designer.

 

Stage 3: Design as communication

Now you’ve got most of this whole ‘design’ thing figured out. While I feel like it’s very rare someone can just start off at this point, it’s not impossible. Designers who have matured know their niche and have done their research. The mature designer is able to design with creativity as well as program and principle knowledge. This stage is where you realize that design is not just decoration but it is a means to effectively communicate and get your desired point across.

Characteristics

For you, design is not just limit to the design program of your choice, but design lives everywhere and in everything. You may look at a mobile phone and ask, “why would they put the numbers in this position rather than another position?” That’s an example of design as communication. You understand different theories and principles such as hierarchical design and colors as a means to influence people. Designing has a lot more to do with user interfaces, function, and effectiveness because you understand that if your design sucks, it’s completely useless to your project.

Client interaction

As far as client interaction, I think it has a lot to do with the success of the designer. It’s easy to get the one who is all about creating something the client can use vs. the guy who’s so well-known he does what he wants and the client agrees. Either way, the end product is going to be something that works and is effective. The client meetings are probably a lot longer as well; in our first couple stages, if the ideas weren’t sent through email, client meetings were just ‘meet-n-greets’. Now client meetings are full on understanding and brainstorming sessions, and they’re probably more frequent.

Community contribution

These are the people that make the design world go round. We get to study their processes and their findings (if they are willing to share). I hate putting people on pedestals but these are truly the people to learn the most from, especially when there’s no more ‘textbook learning’ to do. Some things can only be learned through experience and passed on through others. While creativity is not all lost in this stage, good design is fueled by how effective, intuitive, and innovative something is and these are the folks that can come up with the best solutions.

This is obviously the place to strive for as a designer to get that understanding, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is the last and final stage. As easy as it is for an adult to be serious one second and playful the next, it’s just as easy for a designer to revert back to immature tactics and behaviors, especially when learning new things.

 

In conclusion…

No matter the stage we are currently in, we should all work together as designers to promote shared knowledge and contribute to our community. These ‘maturity levels’ shouldn’t help divide us but should help us to understand what others need. While maturity is only gained through experience, it doesn’t hurt to try to steer someone in a better direction. At 13 years old, I would have loved for someone to pull me to the side and tell me how I was doing it all wrong, and then give me pointers.

While I’m sure there are more stages, more characteristics, and more things to learn, I believe these are the most consistent stages designers go through. Whatever we believe, though, I hope everyone is striving to be as awesome as possible.

Wireframes… Who Needs Them?

Wireframes are visual representations of your websites structure, a blueprint to help establish hierarchy. They are usually limited to shapes, forms and text, and they rarely use any colour. The primary function of any wireframe is to show your client how their site will be structured. Pure information, no bells, and no whistles… a blueprint.

When I started designing websites, I didn’t have much of a clue. I did what I thought looked nice, and hoped that one way or another the design would work. If changes came in, then I’d huff and puff and get on with it.

I’d start with a blank canvas and jump straight in, without giving a second thought to what the site should do, how the information would be presented, or even what colour scheme it could use. Believe it or not this went on for a long, long time.

upset after making mistakes
Photo Credit: Gabe

Like anything else, web design is an ongoing process. With each mistake you make, and each project you take on, you learn a little more. I can guarantee that I make mistakes on each new project, but I try not to repeat those mistakes.

It was actually a client who introduced me to wireframes. They presented me with their site, all nicely mapped out. It seemed they knew more than me, but even that wasn’t enough to kickstart me into using wireframes. It wasn’t until I began to account for my project time, that I really began to get to grips with wireframing. My workflow was shoddy. I needed to accomplish more with my time, and therefore make more money.

I think my misconception about wireframing was that it was time consuming. Why bother creating more work? This of course couldn’t be further from the truth. Wireframes will save you time, over and over again. They’ll show your client how their site will be structured, and will also serve as a point of departure for your designs.

Photoshop doesn’t play nice with revisions.

Wirerame overlay with end product

Lets suppose you’re like the old me. You’ve jumped straight into Photoshop and you have a beautiful home page designed. It’s ready to blow your client’s mind. You send it over, with a detailed description of what everything does, why you’ve used the colours you have etc. Bill loves it, the only thing… he’d love to see the side bar on the left instead of the right, and that set of super cool icons that you’ve toiled over all weekend need to go, he feels they just don’t fit in what he had in mind. He wanted something cleaner, less cluttered, different.

You see, there’s the problem, what Bill had in mind. OK, so Bill’s requests don’t suppose such a radical overhaul of the PSD, but imagine you had to make these corrections across the board. You’d have to move every layer, graphic and icon, one by one, file by file. That creates a lot of work, work that extends your project time and reduces your overall income, and that’s not good.

How many ways can you skin a cat?

If you type wireframe software into Google, it throws back 2,420,000 results. That’s a lot of pages to work through. Where do you start?

You can never go wrong with pen and paper. Even if I plan on using software to create my wireframes, I still draw them first. Can’t draw? Neither can I, it really doesn’t matter. All you’re looking for at the moment are ideas. It’s a rough layout, not a work of art.

You’ll be amazed at how many you can churn out in a short space of time. The more the better.

After I have a few down on paper, I begin to merge the best elements and structures of each version to form one SUPER wireframe. When I reach a stage where I’m happy with the initial ideas, then I’ll move over to my mac.

Rough or Smooth?

Wireframe created with balsamiq

So what type of wireframe should I build? There are two main types, sketchy and refined. Do you want the outcome to be more informal, almost hand drawn (if not in fact hand drawn) or somewhat more sophisticated, cleaner?

There are those who say that sketchy wireframes give clients the confidence to criticise the layout. They feel that they are looking at something that is in the process of being created. It doesn’t have the appearance of a finished website so they feel less inhibited. After all, we want feedback, right?

The more formal, cleaner look, can give the impression of a more finalised product, this can make it more difficult for some people to speak out.

Regardless of which system you use, there will always be exceptions to the rules, depending on the type of person your client is. My advice is to use whichever you feel comfortable with. Some workaholics even use both! They start out with a rougher, sketchy version and over time, refine it, making the elements cleaner, more precise and closer to a final product.

Throw me a bone!

Here’s a small selection of places to try out your wireframing skills, most have trial versions.

I started off using Balsamiq Mockups. It’s a cracking little program. Its simple to use, intuitive and can get you up and running in no time. There are some downsides, but there always are. I highly recommend their trial version.

Balsamiq Mockups specialises in the creation of sketchy wireframes. It does it well, but after a while I wanted something a little slicker. Being the Scrooge I am, I wanted to create my wireframes using means already at my disposal.
Illustrator! I can hear the gasps… But there’s no automation, there’s no drag and drop, there’s no online access, (dropbox)… No, there’s none of that, but there is complete control. I can reuse my elements once created, and I can work to the pixel if I choose. This isn’t exactly your hand drawn wireframe, the results are stunningly clean. Once you’ve got yourself a little library of elements, you’ll never look back.

But there’s no HTML output… There isn’t with pen and paper either, but it still works. If HTML is something you must have, then you can quickly set up some code and linkup your images. That’s too much like hard work for me. I’m old fashioned, an interactive PDF is good enough for me, and for the majority of my clients.

Wireframe created with illustrator

Horses for Courses

No matter which road you choose to go down, you’ll discover that working with wirefames is a great way to help your optimise your workflow. There are no right or wrong ways of doing it, just experiment. As long as you can communicate a visual site structure to your client, a structure that they are willing to sign off on, then your good to go. All the rest comes over time. No doubt in 6 months I’ll be using a different method myself.

Also, let’s not forget, any discussions that may occur later in the project with regards to layout can always be resolved by referring back to the wireframe. Which ever way you look at it, it’s a lifesaver, or at best a time and argument saver.

Next time you get a project in, try it with wireframes. You won’t regret it. You’ll present a professional image to your client, and you’ll be more confident when you actually open up Photoshop. What architect doesn’t present plans before building a house, would you hire one that didn’t?

Pen and paper, software, chalk and blackboard, it’s all the same. Get it down, and get it approved!

Building Better Software Through Collaboration

We looked at the consequences of designing and developing software in isolated environments. Some people work in lonely silos where no process exists, while others work in functional silos where too much (or the wrong) process makes innovation and progress difficult.

So, how do we break down the artificial walls that keep us from creating great things together? How can organizations foster environments that encourage natural, unforced collaboration?

There are no quick fixes, but these are far from insurmountable problems. I propose the following five-level hierarchy as a solution:

Pyramid1 in Building Better Software Through Collaboration: Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

There are no shortcuts to breaking down silos. You can’t fix the environment if the organization doesn’t understand the problem. You can’t improve the development process if the right environment doesn’t exist to enable healthy guidelines. You have to climb the pyramid brick by brick to the ultimate goal: better software through true collaboration.

Let’s look at each of these levels.

Level 1: Make Sure Everyone Understands The Problem

Most organizational leaders would probably admit that collaboration is not as good as it should be, but they might try to solve the problem incorrectly. As Louis Rosenfeld recently said in “The Metrics of In-Betweenness”:

Many senior leaders recognize the silo problem, but they solve it the wrong way: if one hierarchical approach to organizing their business doesn’t work, try another hierarchy. Don’t like the old silos? Create new ones. This dark tunnel leads to an even darker pit: the dreaded — and often horrifically ineffective — reorg.

The first level is admitting that there’s a problem and that the current problem-solving methods just aren’t working. This isn’t about moving branches of the organizational tree around. It’s about planting the tree in more fertile ground to establish the right foundation in order to start looking for solutions.

Level 2: Empower Teams To Do Great Work

Once the organization is united around a common understanding of the problem, then the starting point for breaking down silos is to take a healthy look at the culture and work environments. Above all, the needs of makers (such as designers and developers) should be taken seriously by managers (those who direct and enable the work). Mike Monteiro takes on this issue by attacking the calendar in “The Chokehold of Calendars”:

Meetings may be toxic, but calendars are the superfund sites that allow that toxicity to thrive. All calendars suck. And they all suck in the same way. Calendars are a record of interruptions. And quite often they’re a battlefield over who owns whose time.

Paul Graham takes a more holistic view in “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” He explains that managers break their days up into hour-long stretches of time, while makers need large blocks of time in order to focus:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

Makers need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done, and get them done well. Most siloed environments don’t support this because of an insatiable need for everyone to agree on everything (more on this later). So first, helping managers understand why this is such a big deal for makers is important, so that the managers can effect cultural change.

Michael Lopp talks about this in his article “Managing Nerds.” Substitute the word “nerds” in this article with “designers and developers” (no offense intended). Michael describes how nerds are forever chasing two highs.

The first high is unraveling the knot: that moment when they figure out how to solve a particular problem (“Finally, a simple way to get users through this flow.”). But the second high is more important. This is when “complete knot domination” takes place — when they step away from the 10 unraveled knots, understand what created the knots and set their minds to making sure the knots don’t happen again (“OK, let’s build a UI component that can be used whenever this situation occurs.”).

Chasing the Second High is where nerds earn their salary. If the First High is the joy of understanding, the Second High is the act of creation. If you want your nerd to rock your world by building something revolutionary, you want them chasing the Second High.

And the way to help designers and developers chase the second high is to “obsessively protect both their time and space”:

The almost-constant quest of the nerd is managing all the crap that is preventing us from entering the Zone as we search for the Highs.

So, how do you change a culture built around meetings and interruptions? How do you understand what designers and developers need in order to be effective, and how do you relentlessly protect them from distractions? Here are two ways to start:

  1. Ask the makers what’s missing from their environment that would help them be more effective.
    Find out what your designers and developers need, and then make it happen. A quiet corner to work in? Sure. A bigger screen? Absolutely. No interruptions while the headphones are on? Totally fine. Whatever it takes to help them be as creative as possible and to be free to chase that second high.
  2. Start working on a better meeting culture.
    This one is a constant struggle for organizations of all sizes, and there are many ways to address it. I try to adhere to two simple rules. First, a meeting has to produce something: a wireframe, a research plan, a technical design, a strategic decision to change the road map, etc. Secondly, no status meetings. That’s what Google Docs and wikis are for (agile standups are an exception to this, for reasons best left to a separate article).

Level 3: Create A Better Design And Development Lifecycle

Once a team is optimized for creativity, then it becomes possible to build appropriate guidelines around that culture to take an idea from vision to shipped product. This includes the development process as well as the prioritization of projects, so that you only work on things that are important.

The Design And Development Process

Formalizing the design and development process is so critical: from the identification of user, business and technical needs, to the UX design cycle, to technical design and, ultimately, to development, QA and launch. By formalizing this process based on a common understanding of the needs of the business, the team will have no excuse for skipping the UX phase of a project because “it would take too long.” By providing different scenarios for whatever timelines are available, the team ensures that design and UX always remain a part of the development lifecycle.

But one particular aspect of the development process has a direct impact on organizational silos: ensuring the right balance between design and engineering, and how designers and developers work together. This isn’t explored enough, yet it can have far-reaching implications on the quality of a product.

Thomas Petersen describes the ideal relationship between designers and developers in “Developers Are From Mars, Designers From Venus”:

They are the developers who can design enough to appreciate what good design can do for their product even if it sometimes means having to deviate from the framework and put a little extra effort into customizing certain functionality. If they are really good developers they will actually anticipate that they have to deal with it and either use a framework that allows them be more flexible or improve the framework they prefer to work in.

And they are the designers who learn how to think like a programmer when they design and develop an aesthetic that is better suited to deconstruction rather than composition. They know that composition in the Web world is not like composition in the print world and that what they are really doing is solving problems for customers, not manifestations of their creative ego.

Beyond the usual discussion of whether designers should be able to code, one of the main causes of bad blood between the groups is that developers are rarely asked what they need in order to write the best possible code. Designers should always ask their development teams two questions:

  1. “How would you like to contribute to the product development process?”
    It is amazing how few people actually ask this question, as is how the opinions of the people who understand the product at its most detailed level often don’t have a voice in ideation or prioritization. Any cycle that doesn’t include developers from the beginning will likely fail, because the conflict between design and utility cannot be resolved with detailed specifications. It can be resolved only around a table, with plenty of paper to draw on and time to argue about the best way to do things. Of course, designers need time on their own to create, but developers need to be given a chance to contribute to the product that they’re building in a way they’re comfortable with.
  2. “What information do you need to start coding?”
    The theoretical discussion about low-fidelity versus high-fidelity mock-ups or prototypes is largely misguided when it comes to real-world development. The goal is right-fidelity specifications, and that all depends on the maturity of the application you’re working on and the style of the developer. Some developers need perfect PSDs before they start coding; others are fine with back-of-the-napkin sketches along with a solid UI component library. Find out what they need, and provide just that — anything more than what they need will not get looked at, and that’s when tempers can really flare up.

Bringing such diverse worlds together is hard work. But, in “So Happy Together: Designers and Engineers,” Dave Gustafson warns what might happen if you don’t invest in this:

What’s the alternative to this kind of collaboration? Keeping design and engineering separate, where the pass-off from one to the other is aptly called “throwing it over the wall.” Designers may enjoy an unhindered blue-sky design process, but they’ll likely be disappointed with what actually gets made. Without engineers in the design process, there are bound to be some unrealistic features in the concept — and without an understanding of the designers’ intentions and priorities, engineers are likely to compromise the design with changes to meet cost goals. Some money may have been saved on the engineering and manufacturing — but not enough to offset a product that misses the mark.

The Prioritization Process

When there is no clear development process, “prioritization” can end up being a complex algorithm consisting of the last email request sent, the job title of the requestor, and proximity to the development team. This is no way to build a product. One way to address the difficulties of prioritization is through the concept of a “product council.”

At a start-up, the entire company could make up this group — even if it’s a group of one. In large companies, the group should include the CEO and the VPs of each department, including marketing, product, engineering, support, etc. The name is not important — the purpose is. The product council would have weekly or by-weekly meetings with two goals:

  1. Review the current product road map to assess whether the right priorities are being addressed.
  2. Introduce new ideas (if any) that have come up during the week and discuss business cases and priorities.

This meeting would have several very positive outcomes:

  • It would give the management team complete insight into what the product or design team is working on, and would allow for anyone to make a case for a change in priorities. This eliminates the vast majority of the politics you see at many organizations, and it frees up the teams to do what they do best: execute.
  • No one in the company would be able to go straight to a designer or developer to sneak things onto the road map. The user, technical or business impact of every big idea must be demonstrated.
  • It would prevent scope creep. Nothing would be put on the road map without something else moving out or down. This is absolutely critical to the development cycle.

From there, projects would move to small dedicated teams, which would have complete ownership of the design and implementation. The product council sets the priorities, not the details of implementation — those are up to the teams themselves. I’m always reminded of what Jocelyn K. Glei says in her excellent article “What Motivates Us to Do Great Work?”:

For creative thinkers, [there are] three key motivators: autonomy (self-directed work), mastery (getting better at stuff), and purpose (serving a greater vision). All three are intrinsic motivators.… In short, give your team members what they need to thrive, and then get out of the way.

In pursuit of collaboration, we run the risk of overshooting our target and gaining the false sense of security that “consensus” brings. Consensus too often results in mediocre products, because no one really gets what they want, so the result is a giant compromise. Marty Cagan says this very well in his article “Consensus vs. Collaboration”:

In consensus cultures people are rarely excited or supportive. Mostly because they are very frustrated at how slow things move, how risk-averse the company is, how hard it is to make a decision, and especially how unimpressive the products are.

So, even though everyone agreeing on something is great, having someone be responsible for the decisions in that particular project is infinitely more important. This person does not do all the work, but rather is the one who owns the product’s fate — its successes and failures.

Pc in Building Better Software Through Collaboration: Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

In many organizations, this person is the product manager, but it doesn’t have to be. Whoever it is, the role should be clearly defined and well communicated to the rest of the organization. The role is not that of a dictator, but of a diplomat, working with UX, business functions and engineering to build products that are driven by user, business and technology needs.

Level 4: Communicate Better

Once the appropriate guidelines are in place and the teams are working effectively, it’s time to root out any other causes of mistrust that might still exist. And one of the best ways to build trust in an organization is to eradicate secrets.

I am huge believer in full transparency, and I see little need in keeping any relevant information about a project from anyone. (The prerequisite? Hire trustworthy employees!)

If plans, progress and problems are published for all to see, there is no need to hide anything and no need to play politics to get things done. Here are just some of the things that should be published on a public wiki for anyone to view and comment on (written from the perspective of a UX team):

  • Roles and responsibilities of the product and UX teams.
  • How road-map planning and the prioritization process work.
  • How the product development process works, including (critically) where UX fits into even the smallest projects.
  • The goals and success metrics for every product line.

Publish everywhere, invite anyone. The tools at our disposal make this so easy, from Dropbox and Google Docs to ConceptShare and Campfire. There is no excuse for keeping things to ourselves.

Level 5: Prove That It Works

When the groundwork is laid for silos to start crumbling down, one last piece of dynamite will blow it all up: it’s time to start proving that it works. People will believe you for only so long if you say, “Trust me, this is the right thing to do!” At some point you have to show them the money.

A common theme throughout this series has been that better collaboration results in better software. The only way to cement these changes into the organizational culture is to show that you’re actually shipping a better product because of it.

Here’s what I do to demonstrate the business value of a collaborative development process that includes a tightly integrated UX cycle:

  1. Share case studies from other companies or projects that clearly show the business benefits of working this way. Showing that it’s been successful elsewhere should buy enough time and resources for the team to put in place its plans to follow a proper collaborative design and development process in one or more of its projects.
  2. Start on a project where changes can be measured by an improvement in one of the three A’s of revenue generation:
    • Acquisition
      Getting new users to sign up for your product.
    • Activation
      Getting those new users to make their first purchase.
    • Activity
      Getting those first-time purchasers to come back for more.
  3. Benchmark well before the start of the project, and set clear goals to measure the success of the project.
  4. Follow through on the commitment to collaboration, and measure your results. See “How to Measure the Effectiveness of Web Designs” for ideas on which measurement tools to use.
  5. Publish your metrics widely so that everyone in the organization can see the results. And don’t hide the failures. There will be failures — the trick is to own those mistakes, learn from them and get better.