Some thoughts on mentoring

As we’re getting into the tail end of the year it’s become apparent to me that one of my themes for this year has been mentoring.

This year, I’ve been doing a bit of mentoring.

  • Quite a number of my commercial assignments have had a mentoring ‘skew’ to them – rather than project work, my mission has been to try to impart as much of my knowledge as I can to a person or team.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of working with interns on two of my projects this year (which is pretty unique and fortunate for a freelancer).
  • I’ve been involved with the Information Architecture Institute’s mentoring scheme (you need to be a member and be able to remember your login)  which has given me the opportunity to compare notes with a number of up and coming UXers in the UK.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to be a ‘mentee’ (is that the opposite of mentor?) on several occasions – mostly when I’ve just straight out asked people if I can have some of their time to talk about a topic that’s on my mind and that I could use some extra perspective or experience on. In addition to this, there are dozens of people who unknowingly act as informal mentors to me as they share their experiences on Twitter, in books and at conferences.

What I’ve found really surprising is that in both the mentoring and mentee situation, I feel like I’ve been the one who has benefited.

Obviously, in the latter situation, I benefited from the kindness, experience and wisdom of those who were willing to do a Skype call with me (that’s the usual format of my mentee-engagements). It was where I was acting as the mentor that I was really surprised.

There’s a saying ‘if you can’t teach it, you don’t know it’. I’m not sure it’s entirely true but there is a special kind of knowing you get from having gone through the process of thinking about how to communicate what you know to someone else.

It does something to the way you know things – firstly, it makes you more aware of what you know, which is gratifying and confidence building. I think it also makes your knowledge feel more accessible and more valuable.

If the majority of the learning you’re doing these days is informal and self directed, you may find that mentoring is almost a way to give yourself a mark out of ten, an end of year exam, a sense that you have actually accomplished some learning and know a bit about what you’re talking about!

So, I want to take a moment to thank my mentors, and to ask you to think about how you might be able to participate as a mentor.

Do you have opportunities where you could invite an intern to work with you and gain invaluable experience? Can you offer some time to be a more formal ‘mentor’ to a UX newbie? In my experience, it can take as much or as little time as you want it to and the benefits to all involved are significant.

And yes, you probably do know enough to be a mentor – the best way to answer that nagging doubt is to give it a try. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Take care of the pennies, Yahoo…

Yahoo have been copping a bit of strife lately about the way they’re running their business. Think what you will of their business strategy, the thing that bothers me the most is that I’ve been trying to give them money for Flickr for a couple of years now and failing abysmally. Every now and then I go back and check, thinking that surely they have fixed this revenue leak by now, but as of this morning, they’re still not allowing me to give them money for their service.

I reckon they’ve missed out on at least $50 from me, which is not much I guess. But I’m far from alone.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s a two stage thing. If I’m missing something obvious (and with that, two years of pro-membership) please do let me know.

The first problem – I want to pay with my credit card.

The credit card I previously used has expired (as they do). The only option I’m given around credit card payment is to EDIT the card, which I select. In order to proceed I then have to re-enter the card number OF MY EXPIRED CARD! Now, show of hands, how many people actually hold onto expired credit cards and would actually be able to complete this task? Anyone?!

larger image here.

After going backwards and forward searching for the part where I can simply add a new card I give up and go to plan B – using PayPal. I use PayPal all the time, I used it last week on eBay and it worked fine. And yet, when I try to pay for my Flickr account using PayPal this is what I’m told:

larger image here.

‘The email you entered is not associated to this payment agreement you are trying to confirm. Please try again’.

That isn’t even a sentence, right? I think I get the gist of what they’re saying but even with my advance PayPal skills (I moved from one country to another and still have a PayPal account – anyone else who has done that knows exactly how much more you know about PayPal than you ever wanted to) I’ve tried everything I know and can’t get this to work.

At any rate, I’ve now spent way more time on this than Flickr is worth to me. My once great love of Flickr is now dead. Yahoo has not only lost my $50, they’ve also lost my emotional connection to their brand and my previous evangelism – worth way more than all the pro subscriptions I’d ever pay in a lifetime would be worth.

But – here’s the point of the story (because I don’t really want to waste your time moaning about one company’s crappy user experience, where would we stop!) – this is a revenue point. This is a place in the user journey where money changes hands.

If you have a product that has interfaces like this – places where people are giving you money – please pay particular attention to them. Make sure they are working. Make it as easy as possible for me to give you my money.

There’s an old saying, ‘take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’. I don’t think it’s entirely true – I think the pounds actually need their own special UX strategy but having lots of pennies come into the coffers to support us as we come up with great new ways of making lots of pounds is eminently sensible and a great way to STAY IN BUSINESS!

Don’t let easy money like this leak away. If you have interfaces like this one that might also be leaking, go check them now.

And, while you’re at it, make a note to check on them regularly.

Meanwhile, if you want to see my baby pics, I’ll be over at Facebook. I’m still looking for a new place to share my UX pics. Suggestions welcome.

What’s your T-shape?

I spent a few hours last night beating myself up for letting my HTML and CSS skills get so rusty that I now need to dedicate a significant amount of time getting myself back up to date in order to be able to do a halfway decent job of coding my own prototypes.

I frequently see other UX practitioners being beaten up on mailing lists because they don’t have a traditional design background, or visual design talent, or know everything there is to know about accessibility.

Interestingly, I rarely see us beating each other up for having poor client communication skills or project management skills, or uncreative or inappropriate strategic direction (or no strategic direction at all), but perhaps that is because these things are more difficult to measure and judge.

Here’s the thing though – these are just a tiny few of the skills that are tremendously useful if you want to be a good UX practitioner. And there are many, many very important ones I haven’t mentioned at all. How on earth is anyone a good UXers when there is no way in hell we can all be good at all of these things?

Truth is, we can’t. The sooner we accept this the better, and the sooner we embrace our own and others ‘T-Shapes’ the happier we and our clients will be.

I learned about the concept of T-shaped Information Architects and then T-Shaped UXers from Peter Boersma. The general concept is that along the ‘short’ bar of the T you have all the skills/experience that a UX practitioner needs – everything I listed above and more… if I made a list I’m sure we’d just spend time adding more and more to it.

Then we each have a ‘long’ bar of our T – your long bar is made up of those aspects of UX that you particularly enjoy, have aptitude for, and enjoy doing. That might be coding prototypes, it might be typography, it might be visual design, it might be research, it might be managing teams. As far as I can see, as long as you have a certain amount of experience and knowledge in each of the ‘essential’ elements of the short T-bar, then you can choose any of these to make up your long T-bar.

None of us has any right to tell someone who has different elements in their long t-bar that they are any less of a UXer than we are. Any one who does is, I suspect, either insecure about all the elements they’re not so great at, or unnecessarily proud of the few things they do well. Or don’t realise how much there is to know about if you’re going to be any good at this at all.

And then here’s what we need to do:

  • Choose our own long t-bar.
  • Become really great at what we really enjoy.
  • Tell our clients where our strengths and weaknesses lie.
  • Choose projects and teams that work to our strengths and give us opportunities to work up more experience and knowledge in areas we’d like to move from our short bar to our long bar.
  • Network  with peers who have different things in their long T-Bars and work with them when we need to fill in gaps.
  • Embrace our differences, stop shouting criticism at each other, be encouraging.

Yes, I know I should have done a diagram to go with this post. I’ll do that later if I get some time (or you’re welcome to make one for me if cool diagrams are in your long T-Bar!)

The bright face of iPhone parenting

The other day my 2 year old son suffered a surprising recurrence of separation anxiety.

Usually he waves me off to work for the day with a kiss and a hug but this morning he really didn’t want me to go. 

Something was different this time. In the past, it was me he was going to miss. This time he didn’t want me to take my iPhone away for the day.

Shock, horror! Toddler addicted to iPhone! Parent supervises children between tweeting and emailing! Technology is so evil, right?

Well, you tell me. The reason he didn’t want me to go to work with my iPhone is because he had such a great time the previous evening learning about numbers and letters thanks to the great applications from Montessorium. (No, I’m not on commission – I just love, love, love their applications and the amazing learning experience they’ve provided for my son).

Old School, meet New School

My son has been using my iPhone since he was about 8 months old. Firstly to listen to nursery rhymes (he now knows and sings more songs that I ever knew, including the second verse of Twinkle Twinkle – who even knew it existed!), he has great fine motor skills honed by playing with Peekaboo Barn (his first iPhone application), later followed by a selection of the great apps by Duck Duck Moose (we started with Wheels on the Bus but our current favourite is Itsy Bitsy Spider). My son can find The Wiggles, Pingu and Peppa Pig episodes on YouTube on the iPhone unaided (although, I hasten to add, not unsupervised).

It’s been with these Montessorium applications that I’ve really been in awe of the power of technology, good design and passionate teachers as I’ve watched my son, already quite interested in numbers and letters, become almost obsessed with them.

Not only does he only ever want to play ‘the numbers game’ or ‘the letters game’ on my phone, the whole world has become his playground as he’s suddenly found himself surrounded by numbers and letters that mean and do different things and create all kinds of new meanings in his life.

Meet him this week and there’s every chance he’ll ask you ‘what’s your number?’ (code for: how old are you – we’re still working on manners!) or ‘what’s your letter?’ (which means, what letter does your name start with).

Better still, as the apps are aimed at children slightly older than him, he needs help with parts of them, creating a beautiful opportunity for social learning mediated by my iPhone.

Everyday he’s creating a more compelling use case for me to buy an iPad without waiting for the second generation to be released. And, as I have a second son rapidly approaching the 8 month mark, he’s also creating a compelling reason for my husband to ‘need’ an iPhone – have two boys, need two iPhones.

Sure, everyday I try to be disciplined about not constantly checking email and Twitter over the heads of my children but I’ve found that by relinquishing the device to the kids and letting them become addicted to learning, it seems to work out very well for all of us.