Make Your Work Meaningful and Go from Sleepwalking to Sparkle

May 31, 2016

The good energies a team brings to a new project can quickly get derailed if people do not feel they have a clear understanding of why they’re working on something. Opinion wars escalate when there is no customer involvement that would let us better understand their needs—both now and over time. Teams often create additional features to support their own egos and opinions, without grounding their justification in evidence of what customers actually need.

Sometimes, during a project, people create conflicts that serve only to get in the way of making meaningful things together. In other words, unnecessary and petty battles take the fun out of work and prevent it from being productive. But why would people create such conflict?

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Perhaps one, some, or all of the following factors have plagued one of your projects:

  • The team did not collect or clearly understand the requirements.
  • The team did not define the core of the offering properly.
  • There was too much distance between the customer and the project goals.
  • The organization had already spent too much money to allow the project to fail.
  • The team simply did not know how to get along.

All of these factors can create an environment of fear and uncertainty that prevents people from working together to create wonderful products and services.

What elements of a project should we all be thinking about to help bring people together to make meaningful things together?

Define the Core of What You Make

It is important for everyone on a team—independent of their discipline—to have a clear idea of a product’s or service’s core features and value proposition. What is the primary reason a customer would want to buy, rent, or subscribe to a product or service? How would customers go about completing their goals? How could a product or service better serve customers and the business over time?

Understand Your Customers

People tend to make false assumptions about customers, bringing in their own biases, ego, and opinions about what they think customers need. Poorly formed personas do not help the design process because they lack real stories that would let you form a collection of evidence over time and truly understand the needs, motivations, behaviors, and habits of customers.

Unless you have a firm plan for understanding people—including business stakeholders and customers—people will simply imagine what they think customers need. This can result in incorrect requirements and wasted design and development time.

Sometimes there are so many versions of customer truth floating around a business that it’s hard to know who really has a full and complete understanding of the customer. Of course, actual customer data is relevant, but some so-called customer data is based on false assumptions and opinions, so helps no one. While opinions can be important, we need to balance opinion with real data in our customers’ own voice to get clarity on their needs.

To make informed business and design decisions, we must ensure that we correctly attribute new data that we discover and verify that it maps to other existing data. Reliable research requires business investment. We can no longer rely on old, unreliable methods of discovering customer needs—or on numbers alone—for capturing human needs, motivations, and behaviors. It is more important to discover and understand human needs and motivations than it is to understand statistical data.

To that end, we need to get out of our cubicles, get out of the building, and learn how our products and services fit into real people’s lives. To communicate our understanding of human needs, we need to capture rich stories in the voice of the customer, as well as photos and videos. We must encourage businesses to foster constant curiosity about how they can serve people better. Know your customers. If you don’t know your customers, seek ways of helping your organization to find out about them.

Make Project Artifacts Visible and Connect Them to Form a Narrative

Communication is hard work. Clear communication is even harder work. Important requirements can get lost in documents where they are not sufficiently visible.

Project artifacts can be posters that you place on the walls in project spaces, so a team can see what they’re working on and understand why. Examples of such project artifacts include the project purpose, customer profiles, design principles, journey maps, assumptions, questions, core design principles and objectives, task models, and designs—from sketches to concepts to finished designs—to name a few.

Connect project artifacts together to form a narrative about how a customer interacts with the business and how designs and improvements to the designs can help the customer. Unfortunately, project artifacts often are neither understood nor visible. Such artifacts serve to help people on a project better understand the customer narrative and their role in that narrative. Project artifacts create a common language that lets team members from different disciplines reflect on designs that are right in front of them, with the intention of iteratively improving the design direction over time. This lets the team chart their course in a meaningful way.

Inform Design Through Customer Stories and Engage in Sense-making with Your Team

Having a regular routine for learning about and understanding your customers implies that you’ve collected customer stories and brought them into a space with your other artifacts, where your team can make sense of them together.

Transforming customer stories into valuable, accurate information and using sense-making techniques—such as asking questions, looking at data through the lenses of various disciplines, and having multidisciplinary conversations—enables a team to engage in well-informed product or service design rather than relying on random, inaccurate assumptions. Collecting this data helps you to map product and service features and solutions to customers’ actual needs and desires.

Using customer data to inform design decisions through sense-making is not a one-off activity. Nor is it just the responsibility of the user researcher or UX lead. It should be a constant activity that is integral to conducting business. Without this kind of research and sense-making, a business simply won’t be able to innovate over time.

Share Observations in a Shared Context

When sharing observations about customer and stakeholder behaviors, a team should come together to read the stories and absorb them into their collective memory. This routine enables a team to identify surprising or deeply memorable situations that deserve further analysis by the whole team. Sharing the stories with other team members and groups allows a broader interpretation of the stories, which can help in making sense of everyone’s observations and determining what artifacts would give their observations and insights life.

Once a team has a routine for sharing these stories, they can list their assumptions, discuss their source and the evidence available to support them, and either challenge or accept particular assumptions or sets of assumptions, depending on the insights they’ve gained from sharing their customer observations. This helps a team to prioritize certain features by determining which features deserve more of the team’s time, focus, and attention and which features require more research or further design iterations.

Give People Time to Think

Delivering projects against a static set of requirements without taking a break to reflect on the project and get a clear outlook is a sure way to lose perspective and stifle innovation. People need time and space to be able to look beyond the current work in progress and reflect on how a product or service could look in the future. Allow people to get away from their desk and computer. Encourage conversations outside the project. Giving people time to think can provide an opportunity to tackle problems with a fresh mind.

Encourage Open and Honest Conversations to Foster Creativity

Some of the best project conversations seem to happen outside meetings. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that people may be afraid to share their feelings and opinions in meetings or that the meetings aren’t facilitated well. Encourage teams to have open, honest conversations and to be okay with saying, “I don’t know.”

Businesses sometimes see creativity as the primary responsibility of the artists and designers who work for them. Thus, they often misunderstand creativity, limiting it to making things pretty or trying to fix designs without giving them the necessary thought that should happen beforehand. But creativity is much more.

Elements of creativity include giving people in a business the spaces, time, and tools to explore new ideas. The goal should be to discover better ways of arriving at ideas and capturing the outputs of our conversations. A lack of creativity in a business hurts it to the degree their designs for products and services look the same as others, making them increasingly commoditized.

Get Inspired by the People on Your Team

Businesses are often conservative in nature and avoid taking risks. But the world needs big thinkers and big dreamers—people who are willing to look beyond the day-to-day operations and current constraints and look for ways to inspire.

Inspiration comes from people, so businesses need to attract and invest in people who can dream big. In addition to attracting the talent, they need to create cultures that encourage and nurture this way of thinking. Businesses need to take a deeper look at the skillsets they’ll need if they are to prosper in the future.

Know Your Project Roles

Some of our work requires that we focus our minds and delve deeply into design details, while other work requires us to take a step back to see how the elements of our work connect with one another, enabling us to deliver solutions that meet well-identified customer needs that are part of a broader narrative.

As members of project teams, we can play an important role in helping our teams to work more effectively by advancing ideas and recognizing when it’s time to consider alternative approaches.

Teammates can play the following roles:

  • facilitator—As facilitators, we can define approaches to guiding the processes of informing, sense-making, and evaluating. We can craft agendas for working sessions and identify what problems need our attention. We can manage interactions between functions, aggregate a team’s learnings, and map these learnings to shared artifacts. We can identify themes that require further study and set goals for the team’s next working sessions.
  • mentor—As mentors, we should be aware of approaches and skills that require ongoing development and practice and organize safe spaces in which people can practice them—using them over and over again, both during working sessions and across projects. Mentors should work closely with facilitators and custodians to identify what knowledge the team has captured and map it to a learning program for team members, with a focus on informing, sense-making, and evaluating.
  • connector—As connectors, we connect people’s skills and roles and create artifacts that help bridge gaps and facilitate interactions between people, making them feel more fluid.
  • custodian—As custodians, we maintain the knowledge base that forms over time and leverage it in creating new approaches to our work and courses that help our teammates on projects to get better at what they do.

Being Human

The human qualities and capabilities that we possess can help or hinder our ability to gather great customer stories. These capabilities include the following: respecting, seeing, listening, probing, feeling, synthesizing, playing, leading, mentoring, facilitating, connecting, collaborating, critiquing, communicating, constructing, deconstructing, framing, envisioning, and persuading. Our ability to dip into or rise above these human capabilities is important—and we need to be able to expand or contract our perspective as necessary. It’s vital that we provide safe forums in which to practice these capabilities, which help us within the context of our UX practice.

Implications for Personal Learning and the Mature Business of the Future

Throughout each project experience and all of the interactions between people in different functions on a project or across projects, it is important to reflect on our skills and practices. We must maintain an awareness of the need to apply our skills and practices as we seek to improve and gain maturity in our business purpose and mission. 


Thanks and acknowledgments to Jennifer Fabrizi, Michael Davis Burchat, Andrew Mayfield, Louis Rawlins, Davide Casali, and Chris Marmo.

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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