Changes in the Wind, Part 2: Design Advice

Note: This is the second post in a three-part series. Part 1 discusses advice for leaders and Part 3 is for developers.

Continuing along in my story as I transition away from my role as “Implementation Team Leader” for Delta Defense, I have for you today some maxims for better design. If you’re already a designer or interested in becoming one these will help you refine your craft as you move along. If you’re not a designer these will help you better understand the design world. No matter who you are, I think this will be of value to you in some way. That said, let’s get started!

1. Your job is not to make things look pretty.

Your job is to take complex ideas and directions and distill them into the simplest, clearest easy-to-understand form. It is rarely an easy task, and it is almost always one that will require multiple iterations to accomplish successfully. Before you begin a design you should determine the most important aspects of what you’re trying to communicate. Then, see if there is anything that does NOT need to be communicated in the place you’ve been asked to show it. Once you’ve established what is most important and what is least important you will be able to devote correct levels of emphasis to them in your design.

2. It’s always the difference that makes the difference.

The little details matter the most, so you should go to great lengths in order to make sure they’re perfect. Expect the final 10% of any design to take just as much time as the first 90%. In the end, being mindful of the smallest details will make all of the larger pieces look and work better, creating a better experience for the end-user.

It’s important to pay just as close attention to the details of a project request as you do to project’s design, too. Follow each instruction carefully and always question your assumptions, asking the requester about their intentions before plowing forward. This will help prevent several errors and will almost certainly save you from extra work long-term.

3. Less is not more, Less is better.

A design is not finished when you have nothing left to add, but when you have nothing left to take away. The less you put in your communications, the more important each individual element in that communication becomes. Because of this, things that are communicated with less also communicate most effectively. It’s easier to take-in what they have to say, and it’s easier to follow their hierarchy and emphasis. Less is always better.

4. Beware the paradox of choice!

We, as humans, desire to flex our fundamental right to choose. We enjoy having choices. We want to have choices. Never is this more true than in the realm of design. You’ve already experienced this, and you’ll never cease requests for, “Please show us X to Y options so we can decide.”

I encourage you to always push back against that. Always tell the requester that they don’t need 5 options to decide, they only need one. The only reason you should make more than one design is (i) because you are dissatisfied with the looks of your first creation or (ii) the project warrants multiple variants for testing. Invest more of yourself into making one thing that is really good instead of five things that are mediocre. Always use that as your argument. If they don’t like the first draft, revisit it and make more based on feedback. Whenever you can avoid it, though, never start with more than one option.

The truth is that choice creates for decision paralysis. We no longer see something as “this is what it should be” and instead start wondering, “How many other things can it be? Are any of those other options better than the one I’ve chosen?”. In fact, here’s a great video on the paradox of choice

5. Never underestimate the importance of whitespace.

This last tip serves as a general reminder that it’s easier to communicate a level of importance for various elements by giving them the most space. It also underscores that less is better. Any time you’re asked to add a circle, or arrow, or highlight, or anything else to draw attention to what should be the most important piece of a design… first ask yourself: what can I remove or reposition in order to make it more clear that this is the most important part? Arrows, circles, highlights, etc are all great ways to further emphasize something, but the best way is to eliminate other things that are in the way.

What have we learned?

I cannot emphasize enough that design’s purpose is NOT to make things pretty. The purpose of design is to make things usable. A happy side-effect of useful design is that things generally look prettier than before they’re designed. If you remember nothing else, I hope you can remember that. If you start with what’s most important, subtract all the things that aren’t, and push forward from there you’ll be ahead of most people who start the other way around.

Do you have any advice?

I’d love to hear it! Share it with me and other readers in the comments below.

Changes in the Wind, Part 1: Leadership Advice

Note: This is the first part of a three part series. Part 2 is for designers, and Part 3 is for developers.

After more than 18 months working as the “Implementation Team Manager” (a developer and project manager) with Delta Defense, LLC I have left to join WebDev Studios. I’m making this transition so I can focus more completely on WordPress development. It sounds like a fun thing to do and, though I’m sad to leave Delta, I’m very excited for this opportunity.

In my final days as an employee and team manager at Delta I took some time to impart my limited amounts of wisdom with my teammates. Most of my advice was very personal and specific to the person with whom I was sharing. Some of it, however, surprised even me and I thought it best to share it here with you, too (mostly as a reminder to future-me that past-me was a pretty smart guy).

Being a Leader

Being in the leader seat carries a certain amount of weight and responsibility. It basically means that you’re solely responsible for every single project the team produces, and that you won’t be the person building the majority of them. It means a lot of time spent jockeying emails, and not a lot of time actually creating. In short, it means than if you really like to build and tinker, and don’t like to spend most of your day in email and Basecamp, you need to seriously consider whether or not you’d actually want to climb into this seat.

To help you with a decision like that, I wanted to offer you up some things that I’ve learned from my position and over the course of many, many years doing all the things that we do.

1. Everyone is important, Everyone is Replaceable

Each person on my team, myself included, is tremendously important because of their unique knowledge, perspectives and experience. Their ability to understand how things work, along with a passion for learning more and doing better, makes each person a tremendously valuable asset. Still, it’s important to realize that, even as the most important person on a team, you’re no less replaceable than any other person. So, never forget that and never rest on your laurels.

2. It is HARMFUL to both you, and the company, to work more than 8hrs per day, 5 days per week.

It’s okay to break this rule every once in a while, for things like large launches and the like, but you should absolutely NOT standardize your work life around putting in more hours than that. In fact, your goal should invariably be to work as few as possible without decreasing throughput.

The more hours you work the less effective you will become. I’ve experienced this to be true in my own life and witnessed it to be true in the rest of my team. On a whole, a company that has employees who work more than 40hrs per week on a consistent basis will run into innumerably more problems than a company who does not.

You should train the very core of your being in a way that it will react strongly and passionately against working past 5 or on the weekend. Alarms and warnings should go off in your mind when you decide to work any extra hours (UNLESS the payoff is leaving early or starting late a different day, or simply clearing your plate so you can be mentally renewed the next day. Even then, it should be rare that you put in any extra time).

The simple truth is this: nothing in this (or any) job is worth more than that, especially compared to your marriage, family and personal well-being. You prove yourself more valuable by your ability to accomplish much in little time than you do by your willingness to work long hours.

3. Remember Your Role as a Manager

As a manager, any time you’re personally doing a task that we pay someone else to do, you’re doing it wrong.

In other words, always offload every (and I mean every) project and task you get to someone else on the team. Do this until your inbox is absolutely empty and every single task has been assigned to another person with decent instruction and a specific deadline. Then, cycle through each project (starting with those due soonest) and ask questions about their progress, provide additional context or instruction where necessary, and only assist with a build when someone really needs help.

I was definitely worst at this one. Any time you think you need to spend personally working on a build is always better spent demonstrating to someone else how to build it. There are certainly times where you can solve an issue in 60 seconds that would take 5 minutes to explain, and even in those cases where you fix it yourself you should still take the 5min to explain what you did and why. That way, the next person is better equipped to handle similar situations in the future and you’ve removed yourself as a bottleneck.

The role of a leader is to remove barriers and communicate effectively. You communicate with the project requester so that you fully understand their needs, then you communicate with the project executers so the build is done to specification. In between request and delivery you should be maintaining communication with both sides to ensure everything stays on-track and, if things fall behind, they’re caught immediately so everyone can plan accordingly.

In other words: your team is your greatest asset, you should trust, enable and rely on them to do everything.

This brings me to my fourth and final point:

4. You are always wrong.

Always give the other person the benefit of the doubt and ask them to explain things from their perspective. Assume you’re wrong or that you misunderstood first and foremost. This helps you to remain humble and avoid unnecessary conflict. Conflict is good and healthy for resolving problems, but putting someone else at fault is never the correct course of action and is almost always non-productive. If someone else has failed to deliver you what you expected or needed, first ask yourself how you could have explained it to them better. Did you not emphasize the importance of timing? Did you not explain another piece of context?

If a project ever falls behind deadline it’s either because (i) the deadline wasn’t clear, (ii) the project was less important than something else, or (iii) the importance of this project wasn’t clear. Much of what you’ll be doing as a project manager is assessing project progress and renegotiating deadlines, so try night to get too put out by how frequently things change.

When someone fails to deliver something you needed (either when you needed it or how you wanted it), instead of getting upset with them try to understand what they thought you meant and learn how you could have gotten them what they needed to hear.

Your mileage may vary…

This is what worked for me as a leader. It might not work for you, but I had a lot of fun following these four principals. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, so please drop me a line in the comments, as @rzen on twitter, or via my Contact form.

Working from Home is Not for the Faint of Heart

When I tell people what I do, and that I work from home, far too often I hear, “I wish I worked from home and could do whatever I want…”

Well, today I’m here to set you straight.

Working from home demands a vast amount of dedication and self-discipline. It isn’t the cakewalk that you’ve made it out to be in your mind. When you work from home, you live where you work. How many of you would like to live at your desk or in your office (literally, not figuratively)?

Aside: I wrote moste of this while in the thick of freelancing and as a form of therapeutic recreation. It really helped me put a handle on how I was working and helped me take control of my life in a way that has had dramatically positive effect for myself and those around me. Here’s hoping it helps you, too.

Work Habits

On many occasions, friends and family have quipped about my habits of working in my PJs or sleeping in til almost noon. What they don’t realize is that it’s usually because I worked until 4am the night before and likely resumed working immediately after waking.

But, there’s no commute.

And therefore, nothing stopping me from being at the office at any hour of the day.

At least you can set your own hours!

True, and I’m very grateful for that when I need to cut out for an hour or a full day for various errands. Most often, though, it just means I’m working all hours of the day every day of the week. Once again, there is nothing to stop me.

But you can work anywhere! You could take a vacation any time!

Except, if I’m on vacation it means I’m not working, which means there is no active income entering our bank account. To counteract that, the simple solution is to work on the way to/from or during the vacation. Does that sound like a vacation to you?

Working from home sounds pretty awful, why do you do it?

Because I can set my own hours, work in my PJs, sleep til noon, work from anywhere AND there’s no commute. Plus, I pretty much get to do whatever I want. Haven’t you been reading the headings?

If I can be serious for a moment, working from home obviously has both benefits and detriments. Setting your own hours is only wise if you have the discipline to stop working and the ability to find value in resting and leisure activities. If you miss that, you miss everything.

(Pro-tip: you might want to read that last bit again.)

It took me four and a half years to realize that taking a break was not only relaxing, but paramount to a successful, healthy work life.

Discipline for the Uninhibited

If you’re like me, discipline is a word that makes you a bit uneasy. It means structure, routines, order, strictness, boring stagnant misery. Well, that’s how I used to feel anyway. Discipline is actually an integral part of complete, unrestricted freedom. No, really… just check out some of these examples.

Finding Freedom in Routines

As boring as it seems, a strong routine is actually the fastest way to a fun, relaxing lifestyle.  Creating a routine for yourself is one of the most important steps you can take towards freedom. Sure it’s foolish to try to schedule “fun” into a weekly calendar, but it’s more foolish to believe you’ll have time for fun if you don’t schedule a definitive end time to your work.

Here’s a brief example of my typical daily routine:

  • Awake
  • Breakfast
  • Shower
  • Personal Reading
  • Field Emails (1hr or less)
  • Get stuff done
  • Lunch
  • Field Emails (round 2, 1hr or less)
  • Get stuff done
  • Quit work, switch to personal projects/relaxation
  • Dinner
  • Personal work/relaxation
  • Bed

Respecting Your Time (Avoid Time Sink)

The biggest destructive force to a good schedule and routine is time sink.

The quality of your free time and your work are intimately connected. If you guard your free time and keep it sacred, totally devoid of any work, you’ll find that you will be more productive and less distracted while you work. Similarly, if you keep your work time entirely focused and free of interruptions you’ll find that you can work fewer hours and commit more time to hobbies and rest.

If you don’t respect the boundaries between work and leisure you’ll quickly find yourself discontent with the work you complete and unsatisfied by the quality of your down-time.

Take it from a guy who knows first-hand: when you refuse to rest you will actively seek, and feel justified in, taking distraction-filled breaks throughout the day. Later, when you feel compelled to rest you won’t be able to because you’ll have this nagging feeling that you didn’t get enough done and you need to accomplish just one more thing. Which leads me to my next point…

Manage Your Expectations (The reason you’re dissatisfied)

The leading cause of unhappiness isn’t poor circumstances or unfortunate events, it’s a mismanagement of expectations.

Consider all the times you’ve felt unfulfilled in your work, or like you had an overwhelming number of items left on your to-do list at the end of the day. Also consider all the times the new (phone|computer|movie|whatever) left you wanting. Is it because your job is overwhelming? Is it because those products/events were overhyped or under-delivered? Or, is it because you set an unrealistic expectation of how much you could do in a day, how long a project would take, or how incredible the shiny new thing truthfully is?

Leading a satisfied and fulfilled life is deeply rooted in managing your expectations properly. When you set realistic expectations for yourself, and others, you’ll soon find that your job is better than you realize, there will always be more days to get work done, and that how you’re living today – right now – is vastly more important than how much better your life can be in some unspecific time in the future.

Do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around…

That’s what it’s all about, folks. Discipline, dedication and healthy expectations. If you have those three things, you can change the world. Or, at the very least, you can work from home in your pajamas and not go horribly wrong.