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Guiding Practices for Making Meaningful Work

May 22, 2017

Recently, a group of about 30 technologists invited us to run a two-day client training workshop to teach them some best practices for making meaningful work and help them to kick start and sustain a UX practice on their projects. These technologists had limited exposure to User Experience or practice with design tools. In other words, we needed to help them get excited about the topic, understand what it means for them, and give them some capabilities that would let them take at least some of this program forward—even after only two days of training together.

Facilitating workshops is always a nice challenge—especially with a new group of participants—because you must generally be well versed in the topic, study new practices, and prepare exercises to help participants understand and embody their learnings, using the prescribed tools. For us, it’s also really important that the participants have a good time during the workshop—as they step outside their own day-to-day work routines and job functions—and that we can provide at least a touch of inspiration. Our intent is to get participants to express themselves and open up conversations on how they can mix tools and processes in various ways to help them understand what users need and, most importantly, gain clarity on requirements as a path to better design.

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In this article, we’ll describe some example practices that were part of the workshop journey with the client, as well as part of a growing library of practices that we are collecting as we research the question of how to make meaningful work. We’ll also describe how we created a workshop environment that was conducive to participants’ having fun and being creative together. Trying these alternative ways of working helped everyone feel less stuck—which we describe as sleepwalking—and more open—which we describe as achieving flow, or sparkle.

The following integrated practices support continuous learning and help us mature in our practice:

  • understanding users through stories
  • sensemaking of the sample stories we’ve collected
  • discovering observations
  • gaining insights on design implications
  • collaboratively designing improved experiences
  • applying these practices in one’s daily work
  • opening up conversations about the barriers to making meaningful work that people face at work today

Tools and Process Diagrams: A Good Place to Start?

While tools may seem like a natural place to start when you’re planning and organizing a workshop, teaching a tool without grounding it in project experience and practice in participants’ context of work is a common mistake. Plus, when reading about a toolkit, it’s hard to see how you can apply it practically on a project. The same can be said about process diagrams. Process diagrams are useful in showing how you can apply an end-to-end UX process in a theoretically systematic way, with the help of tools. However, while process diagrams can give you a bigger picture on where tools fit, they often fail to integrate the reality and challenges of actual project work. Thus, it may not be clear what participants can really apply practically at work tomorrow.

Putting the Right Practices into Practice

We have also been giving much more thought to the vital importance of the practices, or routines, that individuals and teams need to consider as part of their daily work. We embed specific practices into workshop exercises to provide safe ways for participants to try them out and gain confidence in using them. Our ultimate goal is to address micro behaviors that may be part of the way participants currently work and give them the opportunity to reflect on those micro behaviors. We also consider the need to practice positive micro behaviors that support good habits and identify where it is necessary to overcome bad habits that have crept in, to prevent their impacting whether it is possible to make meaningful work.

The right practices help people interact with each other in healthy ways and can even help you get out of a funk. While other elements that are present on projects—such as roles, tools, processes, spaces, artifacts, and deliverables—may provide structure to varying degrees and play a part in making meaningful work, they cannot always promise meaningful work. However, practices are often not explicitly defined for the work we do. Where people and teams have not adequately considered practices on their projects, have failed to give enough attention to them to ensure their safe practice, or have not received sufficient guidance in their use, negative outcomes often result. Being open to being vulnerable can help increase your awareness of these issues.

During the workshop, we asked how specific practices have helped individuals, teams, and projects in the context of their work and what they have done to foster and encourage sharing this information. For example:

  • individuals—feeling connected to the team, having the space to connect, sharing ideas, and having conversations—and sometimes debates—about what is or is not working
  • teams—a communal atmosphere in which teams can join forces and get the best outcomes, offering supporting evidence from users and other data points
  • projects—making sure to communicate what individuals and teams do, so the work has greater meaning for everyone
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Ten Example Best Practices from Our Workshop Journey

Here are ten practices that we intentionally considered and implemented during the two-day workshop, to guide participants in discovering what a UX practice might look like for the client. Doing this together—in a respectful, positive way—reduces the fear of trying new things, while ensuring the integrity that let us discuss what we’d all learned.

Note—Consider which of the following practices should become a routine way of working and which might be necessary only within specific project contexts.

1. Build trust with people.

At the start of the workshop, we spent significant time getting to know all of the participants, including their background and some of the issues they face in their daily work. Looking at the faces of participants as they arrived on Day 1 of the workshop, it was clear that their minds were not necessarily focused on the workshop topic. A mix of distractions included varying degrees of a lack of interest in the topic. Their management had organized this workshop, and participants did not know us or have confidence in us as their guides for the next two days.

Practice: First, understand people’s background and demonstrate that User Experience is about discovering needs. User Experience is all about people—users, customers, and stakeholders—and their contexts, so it’s important to be respectful of that.

2. Listen to understand.

Everyone likes to be heard. It’s harder to listen actively. Listen to hear what people are actually saying. Encourage better questions to gain a depth of understanding about what might inform design. At the beginning of the workshop, we instructed participants to listen. We repeated the word listen as a group to demonstrate why the practice of listening is critical to a successful UX practice.

Practice: Listen before talking.

3. Use industry examples that differ from the one you’re focusing on.

The longer people work in a particular company or industry, the more they become entrenched in internal perspectives and the inner workings of that organization. Often, the larger the organization, the more politics and processes get in the way of gaining access to actual users, who can provide the necessary observations and insights to make meaningful work.

Because their specific industry experience introduces inward-looking assumptions and biases, it becomes harder for people to understand how User Experience might apply to their work or its impact on users. So, early on, we used a hotel example that, on the surface, seemed to be somewhat unrelated to their industry and domain knowledge, but provided an industry example that everyone could relate to. This proved to be an effective way of leveraging the trust we had gained during the introductions, and all participants were able to share their experiences staying in hotels with the group. We showed how some of the examples they had shared might link to their own industry and considered what the user experience currently is and what it could be.

Practice: Use examples from alternative industry domains to generate ideas and provide inspiration on what is possible. This moves participants beyond their own domain and gets them out of their bubble.

4. Use pictures help everyone understand.

As participants were introducing themselves, we asked them to draw a picture of themselves and some elements that relate to their work and family lives. We expected that many of them would not have drawn in a long time. But this was a way to have some fun and talk about the merits of sketching and how sketching figures in UX design work. Participants took turns coming up to the front and using their sketches to share more about themselves with the group. They got past worrying about the fidelity of the drawing itself.

Practice: Sketching is a good way for people to have some fun and start building their confidence in their ability to design. Sketching is not about creating finished designs, but about exploring ideas visually by drawing, and it helps people to open up and have fun.

5. Show project artifacts that support a project story.

Most people would like to improve the way they work, but often, do not have the time, structures, tools, guidance, practices, roles, capabilities, or positioning to do so. A workshop is one safe space in which you can set up the necessary structures that participants can consider as they collect observations and other data points to create a project story. We provide a vision of the artifacts the team can consider to provide contexts in which their learnings can live and help the project story take shape. The intent is for each artifact to connect to the others, helping them to connect the dots and, ultimately, understand the rationale for each design decision, as well as their implications for users.

Practice: Demonstrate the artifacts that provide structure for a project story. Show how the project story helps participants create their own version of meaningful work.

6. Describe the tools that make up a UX toolkit.

We prepared a presentation that detailed the common tools that teams should consider in creating a UX practice and showed the merits of user-centered design. We provided each tool’s name, description, benefits, when and how to use it, how it relates to other tools, and when to use it in combination with other tools. The problem is: lecturing people about tools, without letting them try the tools on a project, is boring and does not give them the practice they need in the context of their work. Tools help teams gather data from various sources to inform their decisions and define requirements for products and services that are valuable to both users and the organization. Ultimately, we want to reduce waste and create happier customers and teams.

Practice: Keep the UX toolkit simple. Ensure the exercises that let participants try tools are grounded in the context of work they can relate to. It’s not about the number of tools, but their quality and ability to improve designs for users.

7. Define a user-group example to which workshop participants can relate.

There were a number of possible user groups for whom we could have created a design solution during the workshop. Initially, we had planned to give participants an example project to work on. But we discovered that the teams were working on so many different types of projects, it would have been difficult to find one that would be relevant to all participants. So, instead, we chose a healthcare user-group example that all participants could relate to and was from the domain under study: patients. Like the hotel example, this user group was somewhat generic in nature. So, while this healthcare example did not relate entirely to their domain, the patient user group helped ground the discussion in their domain, and all participants were able to share their own experiences as patients with the group. Everyone had stories and could offer observations on design opportunities.

Practice: Find user groups to which people can relate. User groups reveal stories, and stories reveal observations that have large and small implications on design.

8. Prepare participants for collaborative work.

Often work happens in cubicles, with individuals working at their computer screens most of the day. While this is okay for certain types of work, it does not encourage the types of conversations that need to occur in collaborative work. When coming up with design concepts, discussing opportunities, and reviewing possible solutions as a team, multiple perspectives and varied domain expertise are necessary. It’s often challenging for people who are used to just having meetings to gain an appreciation of how collaboration works in design studios. During the workshop, we encourage conversations at tables for smaller groups, so they can gain and share a common sense of purpose. We want to create a feeling of their coming together to create something great. As teams get better at working together effectively, their work becomes more meaningful and, hopefully, they get more enjoyment from their work. Over time, such teams get better and better at both their individual roles and their teamwork. Project artifacts provide structure for the team.

Practice: Set up a space in which collaborative work can happen. Ask probing questions to encourage conversations.

9. Tell stories and capture observations on the wall.

In the practice of User Experience, we often hear about the importance of stories. But both telling and listening to stories is challenging for people. Knowing how to structure a story and tell it from a place of feeling is hard because it’s revealing, so requires trust. We helped participants tell their patient stories and team members took notes. The exercise provided practice in writing while listening, capturing key observations on Post-it notes, and, after listening to additional stories, making sense of the stories and building on them. From the approximately three stories that each team identified, they considered possible design opportunities to work on as part of the participatory-design and design-walkthrough exercises on Day 2 of the workshop.

Practice: Listen to user stories, looking for learnings that offer design opportunities. Use your learnings to support design decisions and also look for gaps in your learnings.

10. Consider the implications for the future of an organization’s UX practice.

On Day 2, participants understood how the stories they had gathered and their initial rounds of sense making on Day 1 shed light on design possibilities. There was a clear shift in participants’ enthusiasm as they started to do meaningful work instead of talking about theoretical tool use. The teams took ownership of the discovery of possible design opportunities that the patient stories presented.

Conversations along the way let them discover which practices they had experienced during the workshop were or were not useful in their organizational setting, as well as what this meant for their work going forward—the future of work.

During just a two-day workshop with this client, with a few well-prepared, intentional practices, participants were able to discuss their current way of working and how they could take a more active role in voicing what it means to make meaningful work together. It helped them to listen more intentionally to their hearts at work and understand their best, authentic selves. They considered what this means for their own, team, and company narrative about the work they do.

The Importance of Attitudes

Participants should foster self-awareness and consider the attitudes they bring into workshops or other contexts that help them get better at their work. They need to be adaptable and respectful, both when working on the details and connecting the dots to tell a project story that people can believe in.

In the spirit of continuous learning, consider how learning together contributes to creating an accessible body of practices that help everyone get better over time and reduce toxicity in working together. Encourage people to ask better questions and find better ways of seeking meaning in their work together.

Finally, some questions to consider as we take this conversation forward:

  • Who helps guide you when you feel stuck?
  • Who cares about you and the quality of your work?
  • What capabilities do you provide that help both others and yourself?
  • What are your intentional practices that help people make meaningful work—practices that are not just about velocity?
  • What helps ground you in knowing what you’re working on today and why?
  • What are the criteria that help you and your team better understand whether a project is working? 

Acknowledgements—Thanks to some of the people who are helping us to discover how we can make meaningful work—both those we met on our recent US trip and those who continue to inform, guide, and inspire us:  Cyd Harrell and family, John Philpin, Kim Lenox, Stephen Calvillo, Matthew Oliphant and the Oliphant family, Madonnalisa Chan, Alex Chang, Scott Berkun, Ona Anicello, Kristin Valentine, IxDA Seattle, Refresh Portland, Susan Wolfe, Primitive Spark, Kim Goodwin, Bene Gatzert, David Malouf, and Caronne Carruthers-Taylor.

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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