Remote Employees, Your Canary in the Coal Mine?

canary in the coal mine

I know it’s a bit of a sensationalist title but I hope by the end of this post you’ll at least understand why I chose it. This post is primarily aimed at small to medium sized enterprise companies although I think that any company that uses remote employees (and if you don’t, you really should look into it).

Companies succeed or fail based on their internal processes, procedures, knowledge management, and workflows. Basically what I call their business infrastructure. (Okay, technically they succeed or fail based on sales and profit but give me this little bit of conceit.) So the question then becomes, how do you know if your business has the right infrastructure components? Are all critical workflows formalized into a process, are those processes known, is the knowledge necessary to follow those processes being managed and kept up to date? Well, one way to figure that out is to wait until you lose that big opportunity because the quote wasn’t filled out right. Or that strategic client escalates to the c-level because they didn’t get what they paid for or thought they paid for.

Another option is to check in with your canaries.

For remote/virtual/telecommuters/etc, that business infrastructure is full on critical to our ability to do our jobs successfully. I should know, I’ve been working remote for over five years. Unlike our HQ based friends, we don’t have the option of standing up or opening our office door and walking down a hallway asking until we find the person they need, get the answer to their question, or find the right template to submit a request. We are almost completely dependent on having clear procedures and not just that but knowing a.) where those procedures are and b.) having confidence they’re up to date and being followed.

3-best-practices-engaging-remote-employeesThere is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour filling out a request (including tracking down all the information about the client, the tool needed, etc), submitting that request, waiting several days, following up, and then being told that process was no longer being followed and here’s the new one.

So, if you want to know if you have the right workflows formalized, that the background knowledge management is there to support these, and they’re being followed, ask those canaries. Get them together (either virtually or if you want to treat them and really get their attention, bring them together physically) and have them start talking through their usual daily activities. The more cross departmental your group the better. Use them to identify which processes they’re currently using, if they feel they’re working, what could be done to improve them. Be on the lookout for statements like “Well, then I message coworker Y for the information/to do X/etc”. This could be an actual process or it would be a work around. And that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for those activities that remote folks have started to adopt because either the current process isn’t working (DEFINITELY find out why that is, or why they feel it is) or there isn’t an internal process.

Keep in mind, that this is not meant to be a knowledge check on your remote folks to see if they know the latest processes. If they don’t then that should definitely be a red flag for your organization not on their ability to remember. There are several reasons why remote employees may not know about a process that have nothing to do with them failing to remember: a.) management might believe the process is there but it’s not being used b.) the change in process was never communicated in a way that employees remembered them c.) you have too many processes and it’s hard for your team to keep them all straight.

All of these are things that can be addressed but you need to know they’re a problem before you can start addressing them. And that starts by checking with the remote employees. Because like those canaries in the coal mine, the remote employees are going to feel the strain and the frustration before the HQ based employees will. Let them warn you of them before you find out in a way that has a lasting and possibly catastrophic impact on your business.

Final comment: Yes, remote employees struggling with different challenges than those faced by those in the HQ. But instead of viewing these as a reason to not explore telecommuting, they should be embraced as ways that your business can improve and become even more successful.

Intuitive vs. Familiar

I was recently talking to a coworker and the topic of intuitive vs. familiar came up in regards to user experience and design. He suggested I take a few minutes and write a blog about it so… here is me doing just that.

(Note: other more intelligent writers have put their pen to paper on this one and I encourage you to take some time to look through them. These are my words but a common set of concepts, I don’t claim any original creatorship to these ideas)

A lot of my clients when asked about success criteria for their platform will give me answers about ‘needs to be easy to use’. That’s SUPER vague and really hard to put a measurable metric around it so I always try to unpack that farther and we start getting criteria like ‘intuitive’, ‘familiar’. I can tell from the way they use them that they think these are synonyms. And in other industries they may be but when it comes to user experience they are different. Related but different. Or that something with a low number of clicks is ‘intuitive’.

So what do we mean when we talk about familiar and intuitive? Let’s start with familiar. Familiar designs are ones that leverage pre-existing designs that have created a habit or common design scheme. The most common example of this is the QWERTY keyboard. The layout doesn’t really make any sense but by now we’ve become used to it, it’s now familiar. If you put another keyboard in front of most Western computer users it would not go over well (trust me, I’ve done this) and you’ll hear things like ‘not easy to use’ ‘makes no sense’. Actually the QWERTY makes no sense. It was created for the type writer and we just… kept it. Why? Because people were familiar with it, they were comfortable with it.

Familiar interfaces can be great. Why? Well, we know they work (at least to a degree), people are used to them, they know what to expect, and they tend to be less disruptive. There are plenty of other examples out there of workflows/designs that have become ‘familiar’ due to repetitive use. Basically think of them as habits.

An example is dialing 9 to get an outside line. This is familiar now and most users when first confronted with how to get an outside line in a hotel or an office building will dial 9. Why? Because that’s just the way it’s always been. (hint: if that’s your answer when asked about a design then 9/10 times it’s familiar.)

It’s also important to note that because familiar is due to repetitive exposure it tends to be based on culture. For example, writing dates by month-day-year is familiar to Americans but to the rest of the world it’s day-month-year (smaller to larger). Americans do not like it when they see dates written the other way.

Now let’s shift tack and talk about intuitive. What is intuitive? Intuitive means it makes sense without any training or explanation or referencing an earlier design. That last one is a bit hard to understand and really speaks to the heart of the difference. If someone tries to use something for the first time and says “oh yeah. I know how to use this because it’s like an X”, then it’s familiar. You can intuit the intention of something or a design without needing to be told. A LOT of research is done to try and determine what designs make the most intuitive sense. Especially when developing an entirely new product. If it can be designed in such a way as to feel wholly natural to the user without needing a reference point, training, or leveraging an existing design then that’s the gold star of intuitive. A simple and yet good example of intuitive (and simple) design are volume controls. On most devices these are set one under the other. Without any previous experience with remotes/ipods/cd players/etc, you can look at it and know that the up button makes the volume go up and the other makes it go down. Now, you could argue that this is also familiar. (And yep it is. I never said these were mutually exclusive), but in this case it’s a regularly accepted belief that this is intuitive b/c the function matches the form. Eating utensils (knife, fork, spoon) are also generally considered intuitive, because without having to see someone use them, it is easy to identify which part is the handle and how to use a spoon to scoop things, the fork to stick into things.

So.. Intuitive vs. Familiar… what do we mean?

Well, as I said these concepts are not mutually exclusive. A design can be both familiar and intuitive. This can be achieved by combining various elements that are familiar and some others that are intuitive (there are some great articles on cell phone design that break these down. I’ll try to find and add in the comments below). And in most cases this is what is happening with product design, trying to leverage certain items that are familiar (the windows button being in the bottom right of you screen) while adding in some typically new things that help make it a little more intuitive.

The difficulty with this comes when these two concepts compete with each other. When something is intuitive but because it is different from what is familiar we see dissonance. Take when Microsoft rolled out updates to office that created tabs within the ribbon to group similar tasks together. After research this was shown to be more intuitive (and we’ve seen more tools going to tabs now) but it was not familiar. It was a departure from the way office products had worked up until that point and had become quite familiar to people. The same will happen if you present someone with the Dvorak keyboard who has used a QWERTY keyboard. If they’ve never used a QWERTY, a user can much easier adopt and use the keyboard (as compared to a first time QWERTY keyboard user). But if they are familiar with a QWERTY it takes more time to use Dvorak and will often complain at how hard it is to use.

So.. how do you do this?

There’s no good answer on this. And this blog post wasn’t really intended to give you the answer just make an attempt to explain what is meant by intuitive and familiar and how they’re not the same thing. The ideal is to find that balance of how can something be made intuitive so a user can just pick it up and go (without any prior knowledge) but also use familiar without creating conflict. But sometimes a design needs to be disrupted. Sometimes ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ isn’t how it should be done. And that’s where designers need to make that decision to suck it up and take the initial pushback and hope that intuitive can eventually trump familiar (or become familiar).

Blog Rebuild

So I haven’t been doing as much with this thing as I wanted/should be. So… I’ve decided to change that. But in order to make the most of it, I’ve decided to blow away most of the old site and only keep a few of the ramblings that I really liked.

I’ll be doing a better job posting here with more creative writing, book reviews, game reviews, random thoughts, and maybe even the odd recipe. Not sure how many folks are actually going to read this but it will serve as my commitment to myself to do this. So… away we go. Again.