Cranky people are invested people

“People will yell at you.” Yep, that’s one of the things we were told comes with the role of co-chair for IA Summit. We were advised that the best way to handle it was to band together, find the strength in our team, and try not to take it too personally.

Though we appreciated the warning and the advice, I wasn’t sure that building a defense was the only solution. Avoiding yelling seemed more desirable.

Learning who’s who

After we got the “beware the yellers” advice, we tried to find out who would be most likely to lead the assault. Two things stood out to me once we’d gathered a list.

  1. The list might as well not have been secret; these folks make their opinion known.
  2. These were smart, invested people who have given a lot to our community.

Indeed, they were some of the people most committed to our community. Upon reviewing the list, we came up with a plan—I would proactively seek their advice.

Initiating the conversation

The conversations were not unlike user interviews. Each time I talked to someone, I did the following:

  • Opened with some small talk and found out how they were doing.
  • Asked about their experiences with the Summit. I listened carefully, and asked clarifying questions when they said something that seemed to have more meaning than had been stated.
  • Concluded by listing any next steps we’d agreed on, and thanked them for their time.

Just like a user interview, I talked with the person one on one, and each conversation was mostly the other person talking.

The conversations worked great. We learned something valuable from each person I interviewed. They got to help us out, and, by us reaching out to them, they didn’t have to raise their voices to be heard.

Listening before defending

When someone opens with negative emotions, it can be difficult to respond with listening. Instead, we humans easily become defensive. We want to tell them that they’re wrong and they should buzz off.

I’ve had to work hard to learn how to choose receptiveness over defensiveness. I still fail sometimes. The conversations that do work, however, serve everyone well.

If you’d like to use listening to help handle difficult conversations, I highly recommend that you:

  • Build your skills through user interviews and usability research. Though also challenging, they’re likely to be less contentious.
  • Seek coaching or therapy. Either one will teach you how to listen better to yourself, which will often make it easier to listen to others.
  • Be patient with yourself and try it. Over time, you’ll get better at it.

Happy listening!

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Happy Dot Day!

Veronica Erb reading The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds10 years ago, my mother gave me a copy of The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds. Now, it’s the inspiration for International Dot Day.

I like the book and the celebration so much that I decided to read The Dot aloud, in case you don’t have a copy handy.

Once you do fall in love with Vashti and her dots, I highly recommend getting a copy and getting everyone you know to read it.

Now, go make your mark!

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A talk about questions at DCWW Code(Her) conference

In two weeks I’ll be giving a presentation at DC Web Women‘s Code(Her) Conference. My one-hour presentation is called “A Nicer Kind of Interrogation,” and it’s all about asking questions.

Asking a question may seem like a simple task. You wonder a thing and you think who to ask, probably without differentiating between the two actions of question and questionee. And then you just say the question out loud in the presence of the person, right?

In reality, the question you have may not be the right question to ask, and asking it in a straightforward way might not result in a straightforward answer. Humans are tricky that way.

Getting answers to questions is a skill I’ve developed through design research. Getting answers requires creativity and the right combination of persistence and patience. The perspectives and tactics I’ve learned have been useful not only in my client and team relationships, but also in everyday life.

And that’s why I’m excited to be giving this talk at Code(Her). It’s giving me an opportunity to take a look at all the things I’ve learned about asking questions, and put it into structure that’ll help you get to where I am, without you having to go through all the trial and error.

I hope you join me at the Code(Her) Conference!

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Minimizing email oppression: 5 Months since IA Summit 2014

ukesummit2014-sqThis month, I got to attend an event I’ve been anticipating for over a year: the Strathmore’s Uke and Guitar Summit. Besides getting to enjoy the wonderful teachings of some amazing ukulele people, I also had a little fun experiencing a “conference” as a first-timer.

It made it a little easier for me to imagine how IA Summit first-timers must feel. The IA Summit is the one place each year I’m sure to get to catch up with the DC IA friends who I made through local events. Even my first Summit—Denver in 2011—felt so much like going home. Somehow all of us getting together in our home doesn’t occur to us. On the other hand, a reunion at IA Summit, wherever it may be, makes complete sense.

But going to a Uke Summit? I went in being acquaintances with a couple local ukers, and I wasn’t sure they’d be there. All those things that are easy when you’re familiar with a group become a little harder—Where do I eat? Which class should I attend? Who do I sit next to??

Happily, by the end, I had made some friends, just as I hope first-timers at IA Summit do.

Things that happened

As usual, there’s lots of collab happening in IA Summit world: Continue reading

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Teens perform original monologues as Stein, Einstein, Child and more

If you live or work in downtown DC, you have got to take this interactive tour at the National Portrait Gallery: 2014 Portraits Alive!

Seven area teens guide you through the halls of the gallery, each taking on the persona of a famous American. In one hour, you hear personal stories, perspective, and encouragement from:

  • Hellen Keller, author and activist
  • Billie Holiday, jazz singer
  • Julia Child, chef and teacher
  • Joe Louis, professional boxer
  • Maria Callas, opera singer
  • Gertrude Stein, author
  • Albert Einstein, physicist

Each monologue is lovingly performed and written by its performer. The performances are the culmination of their multi-week program where each student selected a portrait from the gallery, researched at the Martin Luther King, Jr Library, and composed and rehearsed their piece. The director of the program encouraged each student to move past a “list of bullet points” to create a flowing narrative from the character’s perspective. Continue reading

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The Milk Experience

I’ve been a long-time fan of Planet Money, an NPR show and podcast that explains economics via my favorite communication tool: storytelling.

A recent one, Episode 555: Why is the Milk in the Back of the Store?, covers a perennial example of how grocery stores, and businesses generally, aim to manipulate customers.

I think y’all will enjoy listening to the 16 minute story. It’s an excellent example of:

  • How the layout (or information architecture, if you will) of a store can affect customers (or users);
  • In a macro view, how to get to the truth about that effect;
  • In a micro view, in a couple cases, how not to get to the truth; and
  • What to do when the truth is still fuzzy.

Another highlight for me: The two main experts interviewed, food writer Michael Pollan and economist Russ Roberts, held their roles of expert with integrity. They each argued for their theory with zeal, and when the data was in, congenially accepted it and integrated it into their theories.


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The other side of micromanagement: 4 months since IA Summit 2014

Oh boy! I’ve gotten so caught up in IA Summit and the rest of life, we’re already to four months since IA Summit 2014.

One non-IAS thing from this past month: Tony and I checked an item off the bucket-list-we-didn’t-know-we-had.

A rainy DC afternoon introduced us to the first full-arc rainbow we’ve ever seen. For the brief 10 minutes it graced the sky, I felt that sense of wonder that only nature can bring. I hope you one day get to experience the same thrill!

Things that happened

Here they are:

  • Lots of co-chair meetings. (I’ve lost count!)
  • Lots of web team collaboration. Resulting in the soft launch of our IAS15 site. Note that it’s stage one, so if you see something that needs improving or filling out, assume that we’re on it.
  • An ASIS&T checkin.
  • SO MANY documents, document updates, and emails. We are IAs, after all

When you find yourself on the other side of micromanagement

I am a big picture, possibilities person. This means a number of things, including: Continue reading

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UX research, Rwanda, and nta kibazo

When our team of researchers and designers arrived in Kigali, Rwanda four years ago, we arrived in a place that was entirely new to us.

Researchers and designers often aim to improve something unfamiliar to them. As the four of us soon found out, we also needed to remodel our research tools.

For background on the Rwanda we arrived in and the project we worked on, check out the companion to this post: The World Cup, Rwanda, and User Experience Research.

Without a schedule…

Our research plan did not include the schedule you might expect, with slots and breaks and participants all in a row. Instead of making sure we were on the appropriate calendars, our staff in Rwanda responded to our requests with “Let’s wait.” Continue reading

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Meetings vs getting stuff done: 3 months since IA Summit 2014

It’s summer! (Here in the northern hemisphere, at least.) Saturday was the first official day, but the weather’s seemed like it for quite some time.

A highlight in my summer is that we’re subscribed to a CSA—which means that, once a week, we get a mystery box of amazing produce. So far, we’ve received strawberries, radishes, greens, spring onions, and more. Our meal palates and palettes are very, very happy for it.

Things that happened

These last two weeks, the team has been focusing on each of our assignments. Getting the website closer, refining details that contribute to big ideas, and the like. Here are some specific things that have happened: Continue reading

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The World Cup, Rwanda, and UX Research

IASummit-illustrations-RwandaFour years ago in 2010, just as it is now, a World Cup was happening. From here in the US to across the pond in Belgium to an eight hour flight south of there in Rwanda, people gathered around TV sets and radios, excitedly following passes and kicks and fouls and goals.

I know this not because I was one of the watchers, but because I kept seeing the watchers. Much different from my 2006 World Cup experience, I didn’t see them much in the US. Instead, I saw them in Rwanda.

Along with another researcher and two other designers, plus some other folks in our organization, I visited Rwanda for twelve days in 2010. We were there to find out whether or not our users—Rwandan teacher trainers—could use the thing we were building—a website to help them get English-language resources.

Our team was part of a bigger project, the Rwanda Education Commons. REC aimed to help with a lot of problems, but the website I worked on focused on a big one.

How the program came to be

IASummit-illustrations-BooksIn 2009, a new language policy took effect in Rwanda. It said that all schools in Rwanda would be taught in English. Whatever subject a teacher was teaching (well, other than languages), it would be taught in English.

Teaching algebra? Do it in English.
Teaching ethics? Do it in English.
Teaching French history? Do it in English.

Before this declaration, the official language of schools was French. In 2010 and today, privileged Rwandans tend to be at least bilingual. Most speak Kinyarwanda, the indigenous language, which is related to Swahili. For their second language, most Rwandans will speak either French or English, and many have varying familiarity with the third. Continue reading

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