You will never be happy if your life is run time-bound.
These days I spend my time fulfilling my role as Head of Interaction Design within DWP Digital. Specifically making sure things are joined up and consistent across services.
There’s a lot going on*.
The approach to consistency
We follow an agile method of working. By that I’m describing the real agile, the being agile *not* doing agile.
If you follow government design, you’ll know that we work through stages. These are discovery, alpha, private and public beta and live. They are stages through a services life-cycle.
The theory is;
- discovery – finding user needs (heavy amount of user research)
- alpha – as many approaches to fulfil the user needs (heavy amount of user research and prototyping)
- private beta – focused approach which meets user needs (invited user groups and a heavy amount of user research)
- public beta – the approach and researching hypotheses (heavy amount of user research)
- live – the approach and researching very precise hypotheses
This higher level approach is tried and tested. It works.
Yet, I find the more granular areas are where it becomes unstuck. This is mainly down to process and team set-up.
The Nitty Gritty
A multi-disciplinary team is just that. Your team must have the correct complement of professions to achieve its goal. Each role should know their responsibilities. Each role in the team needs to have empathy for the other roles. If your team hasn’t had a session on describing the work they do to each other then take this advice, do it as soon as you can.
Because a good iterative approach is a team sport.
Imagine empathy being the oil that helps everything run smoothly. It causes relationships between the team to be like smooth gear changes in a car or the way a pianist moves their fingers across keys.
Working in sprints
We work in two-week sprints. Having done this for a lot of years it is a natural amount of time.
The best way to break a two-week sprint down is to use a process wheel. This will get you going and then everything else becomes natural.
You can mark out your ‘wheel’ with the 10 days you have available (two weeks minus weekends). Include the following (in no order);
- sprint planning
- backlog planning (and scoring if its development work)
- creating a prototype
- organising user research (this can increase depending on the type/place/audience for research)
- research days
Work with your product owner to prioritise what goes into a sprint. This means you can create your prototype and do your user research. Then run your analysis, play the information back and keep iterating.
During this, the other members of the team may be doing other tasks. These could be stakeholder management, future planning or development.
The design team should be pulling information from all corners of the team. Discussing things with developers, business analysts, data analysts and more.
Design and research must be communicated to the product owner. Help them understand where the design is meeting user needs. Communicate where it isn’t and any hypotheses which have arisen from findings.
At the end of every sprint, the team should document their work. Everyone has been in the position of trying to remember why something was done a certain way 6 months ago.
If a new piece of design is created and becomes a pattern, this should be shared. This could become part of your organisation’s design system.
Good product development
If you follow the advice above, if you use a process wheel, your service team will start working in a more joined up way.
All parts of the team will be working in parallel. Hitting sprint goals and delivering over and over again.
Hat tip to Anna Rzepcynski who originally showed me the wheel as part of the “UR Wheel”.
This article will be one of the most important you’ve read about impostor syndrome and mental health in our industry.
It will cover several points;
- mental health support
- what we can do to recognise it
- how it plays into our personal and professional lives
- how to deal with it
- how to begin overcome it
A recent report published by the Varkey Foundation suggested young people in the UK have some of the poorest mental well-being in the world.
Funding on mental health has dropped over recent years in the UK. Currently, it takes 5 weeks or longer to get a referral to see a mental health professional. Taking that into account, it’s not just our young people who are being affected by the lack of funding and support.
We don’t talk about mental health. Mental health is still stigmatised. stigmatization of mental health challenges is a clear catalyst for a negative impact to a persons well-being.
The topic of mental health is very broad, but there’s one area which affects our industry more than any other. Impostor Syndrome.
The persistent fear of “being found out” or of “being exposed as a fraud” in the workplace
I believe that Impostor Syndrome is one of the largest and most damaging challenges we face in our professional lives.
Whilst Impostor Syndrome is not classified as a mental illness or disorder, it is often recognised as a reaction to certain situations – those situations are often amplified in our line of work.
We do nothing to combat it because we end up in a perpetual cycle of fear of not being able to see a way out.
Some of us know exactly what it is.
Some people recognise and suffer from the feelings associated with it.
Some people simply haven’t recognised that it’s a thing as it may be just one or two symptoms that they’re affected by.
I’ve met a lot of people in my time in the industry and there are but a few who don’t suffer from impostor syndrome. Even those that seem like they’re the most confident, once you get them behind closed doors, they’re quick to break down the facade.
Recognising Impostor Syndrome
There are several traits and behaviour associated with impostor syndrome. If you recognise any of them, I provide a little help to get you through them later in the article.
You have difficulty accepting praise
Ever been praised for doing a piece of work only to completely discount the praise you’ve been given? It’s not about being modest with ‘the impostor’, as ‘the impostor genuinely feels unworthy.
You discount your success
You may have heard yourself say “it wasn’t really me who managed to do something successfully, it was everyone around me”. You push your successes away in fear that it might open the fraud door.
You’re an overworker
You overwork to prove to everyone around you that you’re good enough or your work is good enough. Working longer hours and running yourself into the ground obviously, means that you’re amazing.
You forget that working smarter is better than working harder.
You have to be the best
The impostor will not let you be anything less than the best. Now imagine the perpetual cycle of trying to be the best in a world where everyone else also thinks they’re supposed to be the best?
You’re a perfectionist
You hold yourself to impossible, unbelievable and often unachievable high-standards.
Everything has to be flawless, anything less is a mark that you’re a fraud.
A mistake makes you feel worthless.
You avoid showing confidence
One of the most common traits that I’ve seen in those that suffer from impostor syndrome.
There’s a fear of showing confidence, in that doing so could come off as cocky or in-turn you’re asked questions that you may not know the answer to which then perpetuates the cycle once more.
Everyone else is doing fine
The voice in the back of your head is telling you that everyone else is doing perfectly fine in life, thus everything is wrong with you. You’re not that good and everyone else is better than you are.
You’re never enough
Impostor guilt is multi-pronged.
You feel like you’re ever doing enough and you believe everyone else around you is thinking bad of you for that reason.
You’re a fraud
When all of these things are mixed together, you’ve got the result of being convinced that you’re not enough and you are that fraud.
What do I know?
I wouldn’t be able to go into this much detail about something so personal if I didn’t feel like I could add value somewhere in your lives without any experience. I’ve been through it.
I believe I suffered from impostor syndrome, not just slightly, but I was completely overcome by it. It still sometimes niggles in the background, but far less than it ever did.
To tell you more about my impostor, I asked a number of people to add 3 different words to describe me to an anonymous form. These were people who I’ve known for many years. At some point, they’ve been colleagues or personal friends.
This is what happened.
The results made me smile. Of course, they would.
But let me tell you about my impostor’s view on those words.
My impostor would fixate on the words in white. Let me take you through what my impostor would do.
To the outside world, I would be calm, wouldn’t break a sweat. On the inside, my imposter would be in an absolute panic and be getting uptight and agitated.
To the outside world, I would be fearless. My imposter would hold me back every step of the way “You can’t do that, Gav. You’re not strong enough or good enough to do that.” You would not believe the amount of strength it took me to do some things. It was exhausting.
To the outside world, I would be strong. On the inside, I’d be an emotional wreck which manifested itself in the worst of ways. You’re acting strong, but you’re actually very sad, there are only one of two ways that can go and both are bad.
Of course, I was dependable. If I was anything less than I was a failure. I was worthless to the people I was working with or for. I focused on being too dependable, at work to prove a point and at home for the completely wrong thing.
A yes guy. I had to portray that I was determined, again, anything less and there wasn’t any point in me being around.
My impostor laughed really hard at this one. My imposter told me every minute of every day that I wasn’t experienced enough. I wasn’t allowed a voice, I wasn’t allowed to offer help or advice.
On the outside I was together, I could hold my own. My impostor had me running around chasing my own tail. My to-do list was 19 pages long and I could only put a line through 3 things in a day.
I had to show I was busy. My impostor told me I had to. If I wasn’t busy then I wasn’t good enough. I had to always do more, no matter if I was on my death-bed, fresh out of an operation or even when my Dad passed away in early 2016. The guilt I felt for not working days after my Dad had died was catastrophic.
Combating Impostor Syndrome
But why should WE attempt to combat impostor syndrome, especially in the workplace?
In our industry, our teams are made up of the most intelligent and talented professionals we’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I don’t want any of us to do ourselves a disservice in thinking we’re not good enough to be there. I want to provide us all with the confidence we rightly deserve.
Combating impostor syndrome will benefit our personal and professional development, providing us with a higher degree of confidence and the ability to communicate more effectively.
Here’s how to start…
Yep, I said it. That’s the one that people say “oh, fluffy bullshit…” too.
Well let me tell you something. If I hadn’t found self-awareness, I wouldn’t be alive today. Things got to a very dark place and without a support network and self-awareness, the mornings wouldn’t have been light anymore.
Self-awareness is having the conscious knowledge of your own character and feelings. This is the one thing that will enable you to tell every impostor syndrome trait to go away. Once you’ve figured out ‘you’, that’s all that matters.
We need to provide ourselves with the time for introspection, the time to assess ourselves.
By providing ourselves the time, we can start recognising our shortcomings.
We need to recognise our shortcomings. We need to start the process. Don’t forget this next bit… EVERYONE has shortcomings, but we can reframe our thinking because shortcomings are fine to have. As soon as we begin to recognise our shortcomings, our strengths shine through.
If you’re finding it hard to start, here’s an idea. If you work in a company or organisation you may do mid-year or end of year reviews. As part of this, you may do peer reviews. If you do, give those peers the permission to give you all kinds of feedback, including the feedback that is hard to hear. By doing this, we can get valuable insights into our own behaviours. Let your guard down, invite the feedback in, give people the permission to do so.
Figure out who we are, don’t apologise for who we are, then become even greater at who we naturally are.
Be your own best friend
Would your friend give yourself as much shit as you do? NO!
Become your own best friend, give yourself the praise you deserve, talk to yourself, understand yourself the way your best friend knows you.
We need to stop fearing ourselves.
My pathway to happiness
The moment I started to understand myself, recognise my shortcomings and accentuate my strengths my impostor syndrome began to dissipate.
I’m aware of my shortcomings. I don’t try to do everything within my power to prove to everyone else I’m perfect because it’s exhausting and I can put my energy into my strengths.
Don’t let impostor syndrome stop you from reaching your ambition…
… and remember, you’ll be ok.
Impostor syndrome is real.
There is help out there. We needn’t suffer anymore.
Remember to be your own best friend.
I give this post as a talk
If you’d like me to speak at your event, get in touch.
Large organisations are often found reacting to the needs of their users or business.
A reason but not an excuse for this is that legacy systems need maintaining. Anything ‘new’ is bolted to them which creates significant challenges over time.
By doing this they end up in a journey of reactive product development which is almost impossible to get out of.
Rarely are they seen being proactive by working towards future needs or innovation.
Reactive product development
A large organisation may have a roadmap for ‘Product X’. ‘Product X’ is a newer version of something they created 10 years ago. Groundbreaking to the organisation, yet, to the general public there is no change.
They are reacting to a potential need which will take far too long to produce. By the time delivery happens the need may well have changed. It could take them anywhere from 1-5 years to deliver due to the challenges they may face along the way.
Proactive product development
Organisations that are innovative and proactive can push new products out in 6 to 12 months or less.
Agile organisations need the foresight to identify existing needs. These may be un-met or their audience doesn’t know they need it yet.
The latter is risky. If you know your audience and understand how things may align with some degree of certainty then this can be de-risked.
Making sure your product is underpinned with newer, more stable technologies will hopefully avoid any challenges.
To provide some context, here are some proactive product examples;
Electric car (Tesla)
The electric car has been around for many years, and for the most part has been ahead of its time. So much so that many car manufacturers until recently (recently==years) have been less inclined to pursue. Partly due to a huge burden from a cost perspective. Yet, companies like Tesla who joined the market solely looking at an electric car offering may well seem ahead of the time. But in years to come they’ve had the foresight to identify and meet an unknown consumer need.
I believe the Apple Watch or any wearable device (not dependant on manufacturer) is ahead of its time. Wearables will become the norm in the future and will advance to implants. There is a known un-met need, consumers are just not yet aware of it.
Everyone in tech was excited by the prospect of tablets. I still remember the first generation iPad. I still remember people taking them back or selling them as they didn’t need one. Years later, tablet usage is at an all time high. An unknown un-met need was met at a later date.
Monzo – A new type of bank
And it’s not just Monzo now. For a long time the financial industry space has been ripe for disruption. AI driven banking… the opportunities are endless. Your traditional banks are yet to even remotely get on top of this.
Launch a rocket into space. Launch a rocket into space with a satellite a top of it. Launch a rocket into space with a satellite a top of it and then have the rocket land to be re-used.
This is all in the past 3 years.
The innovation in this is mind-blowing.
I could go on and on… but one thing is for sure, older, larger organisations are stuck.
They react to user need based on their current infrastructure. Big change rarely happens. Integrating with things that already exist elsewhere because “someone else is doing it”.
When was the last time you saw a massive overhaul in banking from one of the large institutions? When was the last time you experienced ground-breaking change in the medical industry? When was the last time you saw a change in the way your local council interacted with you?
When I say ‘large organisation’, I’m talking about age-old very large institutions. They’ve had ‘their way’ of doing things for 5, 10, 15 or even more years.
We’re currently in a time where ‘agile’ is more-a-less the norm. Some are doing agile and others are being agile.
By being agile you can iterate and deliver in the same fashion.
Yet, a reactive product development approach for a large organisation looks like this…
Business need for ‘X’. User research begins on whether ‘X’ is viable. It seems kind of viable so design and development starts on ‘X’ and takes 2 years to deliver. 2 years later, ‘X’ is still in development on. It has been live for a month and user and business needs have changed. ‘X’ doesn’t look like it’s required anymore.
I’m yet to see a large organisation that does something different from that.
That approach is wrong.
Being reactive can be beneficial in certain circumstances. As long as you’re iterating, measuring, delivering and improving.
Service design and proactive product development
Service design and user research should be embedded into every product or service.
Because you will be able to visualise and recognise met and un-met needs.
Once these are recognised you will then be able to ask questions like;
How will we meet the needs of our users in 2, 4, 6 or 10 years?
What are potential changes in society which may have an effect on our product or service?
How can we meet the needs of those changes?
Are we in a good place that we can design something which changes the behaviour of our users for the greater good?
What is the problem that we’re trying to solve and can this be done iteratively?
It’s all well and good to do digital transformation, but that is not innovation.
We need to be proactive. We need to push, we need to be bold, we need to be nimble and keep moving forwards.
We need to build on our transformation with innovation and then maybe, just maybe we’ll get somewhere.
Note: This article was originally written in 2010. Facts may have changed.
So you’re looking to get into web design? It’s a dog-eat-dog world and below I’ll take you through what the industry is like, what kind of jobs you can do, what skills you need, how you can market yourself, how to communicate with clients and how to make money by charging appropriately.
In September 2009, the United Kingdom Design Council told the government that the design industry was the largest in Europe with a total turnover over of £11.6 billion and has an international reputation for quality and value. The research which the design council also presented also showed that companies that invest in design outperform in practically every measure of business performance including market share, growth, productivity, share price and competitiveness. This was added with the fact that adding value through design brings market confidence and competitive advantage and reduces the need to compete on price. You can read more of the details, specifically, points 33 and 34.
In the current climate, many old hats are saying that manufacturing will once again bring the UK economy back to rights. This is an old view, especially with how fast things are changing in the world today, the creative industry is moving at a staggering pace. The UK design industry is known for quality and value yet other European companies are chasing and acting on new advice to move and look at creative and technology industries as a core movement.
This is where our design sector has everything to play for. Not just as a solid exporter but as the key to unlocking UK innovation and future wealth creation. Design is not a luxury but an essential ingredient for survival and growth. Rather like the bees, if we vanish so does the economic honey says Chief Executive of the Design Council, David Kester.
Working in Web*
There are many areas within web design that you can work. Our design ‘field’ is expanding on a daily basis with job titles like UX Designer, UI Designer, Visual Designer, Front-End Engineer, PHP Developer… the list is truly endless. Whether you’ve been designing since a young age or have been to college and university there will come a point where you need to decide what route to go down. Do you want to be free of pressures from above and work as a freelancer or do you want to work with a team and be part of a bigger picture and work at an agency? Both will take you on a different journey, both will be exciting and both will add in certain pressures on your life that you wouldn’t expect.
Most designers that I know of work as freelancers even when working at an agency. You will, however, have to have this approved by your manager, some allow it, some don’t. Always check your contract first.
Working in an Agency
How to get a job in an agency – Agencies expect for you to be at a certain ‘level of requirement’ before they offer you a position. Larger agencies even tend to look at you academically rather than at your portfolio pieces. Smaller agencies might look at your portfolio and offer you a position on the spot. Always have your portfolio in a good working order and then think creatively at how you can get the attention of a prospective boss. Always do your research on the company before you apply as 9 out of 10 times when you’re in an interview you’ll be asked about what you know of the company. Thanks to Google and Facebook you can now do your research in full. If you’re looking for a design job within an agency, check out their company websites or places like authentic jobs.
Life in an Agency – Depending on the company you join, your working life can vary drastically. You may be given certain perks like Carsonified who offer a 4-day working week, your own iPhone and lunch on the house every day. The alternative is that you will be a small cog in a large wheel and will be expected to put in long hours with certain pressures from above. Most of the time, life within an agency is fun. You build up great relationships with your co-workers and you become a lot like family doing the best for each other.
An Agency Wage – Depending on the company and your geo-location, a low-entry design job can usually pay a starting wage of £17k. You will find that depending on your geo-location some areas will pay more e.g. London jobs tend to pay more as a wage because the cost of living is higher.
Working for yourself is great, you have no one looking over your shoulder telling you what has to be done by when. There is no boss to impress and you earn your own cash. Sounds great yeah? Just stop and think for a second… It’s a world of uncertainty and hard work.
Everything You Do Is Work – You think you can be a freelancer and only work 9-5? Go ahead and give it a shot, it’ll last a week before your brain starts telling you that you need more hours in the day to make more money. Every single hour of every single day is a money making minute to you once you’re freelance if you don’t work you don’t earn a penny (cent – for my American readers).
Work Doesn’t Just Find You – An agency is great, you get your work set out for you. As a freelancer, especially setting out as a freelancer you have to find the work not the other way round. You have to devote time and energy to finding new work if you don’t then guess what? You don’t earn a penny (cent – for my American readers).
Staggered Earning – You invoice, you work, you invoice. Sounds easy. Until the first invoice, you sent doesn’t get paid straight away. You might want your money straight away but the companies you work for would usually have a minimum of 30 days payment terms and these days you could be looking at anywhere from 30 – 90 days payment terms. So guess what happens if you don’t keep on top of your invoicing? You don’t earn a penny (cent – for my American readers).
Being a Loner – Freelancers tend to work in a room. Your room. No one else is there and after time you’ll find yourself talking to yourself, your dog or your Optimus Prime figure on your shelf in amongst all of the chit-chats on twitter or facebook. You could, of course, move into Co-Working space but that costs more money which means you need to find more work, work more and invoice twice as often. (See the pattern?)
You have a lot to think about when you start out freelance. You need to think about setting yourself up as self-employed. Depending on who you talk to they’ll advise you to get a good accountant or take care of things yourself. And then you need clients… You might just want to punch yourself in the face.
Bit of Both?
You could, of course, go for a bit of both. Our industry is one where it almost seems the norm that most people in full-time employment will do work outside of the 9-5. This depends on the employer. Some employers dislike the fact that you could be working outside of your normal hours and it could be added to your contract that you are not allowed to work. It is always worth talking to your employer about the possibility of you doing this as you never know where the next opportunity may lie. It could benefit the company you are working for at the same time as you giving you extra money.
* I took out the word ‘design’ as the article was going to cover all areas of the web industry.
Recently I’ve been giving a talk on impostor syndrome. As part of that, I discuss strengths and shortcomings.
An approach to recognising shortcomings should be a good thing. Without recognising your shortcomings we will never truly recognise our strengths.
When we are able to see both, the resulting growth is incredible.
Failing to provide vital feedback
As humans, we find it hard to look introspectively. For many, self-awareness is a fluffy term that we shy away from.
Generally, the normal British way to provide feedback is to only provide the good bits. We fail to deliver vital pieces of information that might be hard for the other person to hear. We shy away to not hurt a person’s feelings.
By not being honest behaviours continue. These lead to a bad working environment, broken relationships or worse.
My belief is that we must reframe our thinking on giving and receiving feedback. We have to break the cycle which has continued for years in the workplace. We have to provide feedback that might be hard to hear.
We must give permission.
And it’s hard.
As much as it is hard to provide, it’s also hard to receive that type of feedback.
There’s an open-mindedness required.
Here’s the generalistic normal way a person may think about it…
What if they give me bad feedback and I have to let my manager know? I’ll get marked down or my performance will be stopped.
Here’s the re-framed version…
If I give them permission to provide me with feedback that I might have usually found hard to hear, can I use it as a strength? There may be things I can work with or on to make me a better person, a better colleague. I can use it to ask for help and support that I might not have recognised.
How to ask for the feedback
You can ask for this feedback at any time, you can do this with friends, family and colleagues. In work, mid-year or end of year reviews can be a good time to do a peer review.
As part of my teams mid-year reviews, I’ve nudged them all to ask for feedback that may be hard to hear. There’s a way to do it which also gives permission for the other person to feel comfortable about doing so. To help, I wrote out a message for the team to use as a baseline and you can use it too.
I have my mid-year review coming up and I’d like to get feedback from my peers. I’m really looking for honest feedback and need it to make sure I can continue to progress. I’m looking for all feedback, no matter what end of the scale it is, I give you my permission to send this directly to me and I won’t take it personally.
We then go through the feedback and I ask each member to give me their thoughts on the feedback they’ve received. It’s always interesting to see how they take the feedback and what they’re going to do with it.
This whole process is constructive. It will enable you to become better and you will see your personal and professional growth speed up.
The back story
Creating the programme
Column 1 – names of the people on my team
Column 2 – the skills, strength and short-comings I’d recognised
Column 3 – names of people who could suit as being a mentor to the team member
The mentor must be in a different area or department of government to that of the mentee
The mentor must be at least 1 if not 2 levels above the mentee’s experience
Contacting potential mentors
Hi X, I mentioned I was setting up a mentor programme for my team. I’m on the hunt for mentors and you were on my list. Is it something you’re doing now, would think about doing or willing to do? I think it could be something like a 1hr hangout every six weeks with the mentee?
Can you set up a mentor programme?
I am organising Newcastle’s first Geek Mental Help Week event. It will take place at the Mining Institute in Newcastle on 3 October 2017 at 6pm.
What is Geek Mental Help Week?
It is a week-long series of articles, podcasts and events about mental health issues. We’ll hear stories from those who suffer as well as those who care for us and find out how to help.
Mental health is still a taboo subject. It’s often thought that because we ‘work behind computers’ that our jobs are not stressful. Mental health affects everyone from all walks of life. No one is immune.
Geek Mental Help Week gives people a voice. More importantly, it starts the open communication the topic needs.
Over the past couple of months I’ve been touring the UK giving a talk on Impostor Syndrome for that very reason.
Who will be speaking at the event?
The event is being supported by Colin Oakley, a Front-end Developer at DWP Digital in Newcastle. Colin co-organises Frontend NE. I’ll be hosting the event and have invited a few people to speak:
- Craig Abbott – Interaction Designer at DWP Digital
- Kelly Lothbrook-Smith – Senior UX Researcher at BBC
- Tom Walker – Design Researcher at BBC
- A representative from North East Counselling Services
Register for a place
The more we talk about mental health, the more we can break down the stigma that surrounds it. By attending you can add your voice to the conversation or simply listen to what others have to say.
If you’d like to attend, register for a place.