Saturday, September 7, 2013

Zen of Listening (Book Review)

Listening is an often undervalued skill. Often you can do a better job of communicating what you want other to know by listening better to your audience. The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction is a very practical guide to understanding impediments to listening better, and improving your listening skills.

This is not a typical communications book full of techniques to help you convince others that you are listening. This book focuses on techniques to help you build a mindset to listen better. You'll learn how you think about interactions, and how that thinking affects how you respond.

This was a deceptively simple read. The book was easy to get through, but after you read each chapter you are left with a lot to think about. The book will leave you with insights that will help you to understand and improve your interactions with others. As you read, you'll understand both about how you listen, and why some interactions might bother you. With this information you can start figuring out how much you can change your approach to an interaction to get the most out of it.

In addition to stories, examples, and advice, each chapter ends with a few simple exercises to help you practice what the chapter discusses. In spite of the title, the explicit references to Zen philosophy and techniques are few. The importance of meditation as a way to help you learn to reduce distractions is a recurring theme. This is a very practical book with advice that you can start using immediately.

My one minor complaint about the book is that a brief discussion in the last chapter about the negative effects of online interactions seemed to be a missed opportunity. While it is good to keep challenges of various media in mind, it would have been a pleasant surprise to see a discussion of how the lessons in the book could be applied to make all interactions more effective. This  does not take away the value of the book, and perhaps applying the techniques to other forms of communication can be an exercise for the reader. This is worth a read if you are interested in learning more about how you can listen and communicate better.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Lean UX for Startups (Book Review)

I recently received a review copy of another book in Eric Reis's Lean series, UX for Lean Startups: Faster, Smarter User Experience Research and Design. In this book, with a lively, if somewhat irreverent, tone, Laura Klein guides you through the process of using UX as a gateway into finding a market and eventually, success. This book has pragmatic advice on what to do and how to do it now, and more importantly, what not to spend time on. Not just a concept book, this book discusses tools and detailed approaches. Klein addresses many of the concerns people might have about "skipping steps" in order to be lean, and explains the both the challenges and benefits of a lean approach to UX design. The author discusses how UX fits into an agile startup environment.

This book shares some of the irreverant tone of another book geared to people starting a business: The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy to Grow a Remarkable Business in Any Field. The author's tone takes a bit of getting used to, but the advice is good, and actionable, and the style of the writing emphasizes the "just do it" theme of the book.

UX For Lean Startups has a slightly different audience than the earlier, similarly titled book Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience. Looking at the books, it's a bit unclear which one to read. As it happens, Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience is more about how to apply Lean Principles to UX design, with an eye toward migrating from a non-iterative UX process to a more iterative, lean, agile process. That book seemed to be geared more towards UX professionals, though anyone who touches UX could benefit from it. Lean UX for Startups addresses the needs of entrepreneurs and members of a startup who want to have a good UX, but can't waste a lot of time and effors on it. I'd reccommend that either individual get both books. But if you are building a startup, this one will give you the most actionable advice quickly.

You can benefit from reading both books. If you want to read one on UX, you might get more out of the Lean UX book. And Maybe read Lean Startup or perhaps the Pumpkin Plan. This book will add information so it is worth a read. The 4 books I mentioned would be a good addition to the library of anyone who is starting a business and wants to deliver value quickly.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lean User Experience: Using UX on an Agile Project

User Experience is a discipline that has a strange relationship with Agile. On the one hand, traditional UX work involves research, testing, and other steps that seem inconsistent with working in the context of an agile project. It also seems to be a discipline where practitioner often seem to be committed to a Big Design Up Front approach, which is inconsistent with Agile. On the other hand, getting the user experience right seems like an essential part of delivering value. The book Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience explains how UX work integrates with agile.

The book combines the themes of The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (including MVP: Minimum Viable Product) with those of user experience and agile methods like Scrum, in a concise, book that can serve both as a quick overview of the concepts which you can read in one or two sittings, as well as a reference for how to apply the process on your team.

This book has stories, templates, guidelines to help you both use User Experience Design in an agile team as well as to use User Experience to help your agile team do a better job of building the right thing. Much of what you'll read will strike you as "common sense," which, sadly, does not translate to common practice in many organizations.

This is a rare book that is information dense, yet which does not allow that information density to compromise readability. The viability of the book as a reference compensates for the one flaw I see in it's presentation of the principles of Lean UX: there are too many principles.

The book starts with a list of 15 (related) principles of Lean UX, which is far more than most people can keep in their head, making it harder to both sell and internalize the ideas. I understand that there is a lot to do to implement Lean UX, but I can't help think there must be a way to distill the 15 principles into 5-7 key ones which incorporate the spirit of the whole set. This may sound like a petty detail, but I suspect that it would be hard for someone not as versed in the concepts as the authors to sell the concept based on those 15. If you can't sell an idea, it is that much harder to break down opposition to it.
The concrete, concise way the authors describe how to implement Lean UX in various environments compensates for this, but since the book started out with an overview of principles, I was initially concerned about how the rest of the book would go. It is worth pushing past the principles section to learn the value of Lean UX, and techniques to use it effectively.

The book will be useful to managers, UX designers and developers and anyone wondering how UX can work in an agile environment. Since user experience is such a central part of the product definition it will also be useful to anyone who simply wants a better understanding of agile product development.

(Note: This review was based on a review copy of the book.)


Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Human Side of (Agile) Software Development

In  the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of IEEE Software Linda Rising writes on the role of sterotype and collaboration in teams and explains that i t was only late in here career that she came to the realization that the "people side" of software development is both really important and really hard.

This is an important point, as it is quite easy to think that it's easy to ignore people in a project while you have more important things to work on, such as code, and tools. There is an intersection between people and tools; tools like Software Configuration Management systems, Wikis, issue tracking systems (be they software based or index cards on a wall) can improve or detract from the effectiveness of collaboration on your team. But it's easy to get hung up on the tools and not think about the effect of the tools on the really important thing: How the tools help (or hinder) the people on your team from collaborating to deliver business value.

I was fortunate to have had the importantance of the people side of software brought to my attention early in my career when one of my first managers suggested that I read The Psychology of Computer Programming. Over  time I  discovered more of  Jerry Weinberg's books, and all have had a had a great influence on me. A particular favorite of mine is Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach.

It seems like, with resources like this around, and a focus on agile software development, it should be easier for developers to understand that people and teams are as important as they are. But acknowledgement of the humans side of software is not universal, even as we're starting to acknowledge parallels between software development and other endeavors such as artistic performance.

Fortunately there is a excellent recent book by Gil Broza, apltly named The Human Side of Agile, that explores the relationship between people, tools, and processes in software development. I posted a review on, but in brief,  this book is a great agile-focused addition to my list of recommended books on how help teams be effective. Reading this book early in your career will give you a good start on understanding an often neglected aspect of software development. Those who understand it already can benefit the guidance the book offers about how to help others understand.

Reading any (or all) of these books will help you understand how to be more effective, and how to help your team be more effective in turn.

Books mentioned in this post

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Usable Usability Across Virtual and Physical Spaces

Books on usability often focus on either software and web usability or usability in the physical world. In many cases services people use span the two. Physical objects often have a software component and many interactions span physical and virtual spaces. You need to consider usability not only in the context of the thing you are working on, but in the context of the system the person is interacting with. In other words, rather than thinking about the user experience for an application, it's worth thinking about the user experience for a service. Eric Reiss's book, Usable Usability: Simple Steps for Making Stuff Better provides you information to understand usability implications of web design, physical design, situations when the two intersect.

While any one book can't fully cover everything you need to know about usability across these spaces, Reiss does a great job job giving an overview of the issues, and pointers for more information Usable Usability: Simple Steps for Making Stuff Better reminds me of Donald Norman's Psychology of Everyday Things (newer editions being called The Design of Everyday Things).

The principles of good web design are not that different from good design of physical objects. There are many cases when a user experience spans the two; you may start a transaction online, ask for help on a phone call, and complete the transaction is a physical store.

This is a very readable, entertaining, book which weaves stories of his experiences with both bad and good usability, with actionable advice to help you understand both general principles of usability and specific guideline to employ when designing interfaces. The humorous stories of the effects of poor design will help you to remember what not to do, and the simplicity of the examples of good design will inspire you to aim higher in your projects. This book is especially worth a read if you are building
 software applications or services that have both a software and concrete component.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Pumpkin Plan

From time to time I'll read a book about how to start or grow a business and I realize that there are lessons that apply not only to entrepreneurs, but also to anyone trying to manage their projects. The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy to Grow a Remarkable Business in Any Field is one of those books. It describes how to transition from an unsustainable situation where the people who start a company are over committed and doing all the work, to a sustainable organization where you can have a reasonable work/life balance, and create systems that allow your company to scale.While the details of the stories and techniques in the book are focused on business owners, there are lessons anyone whose work involves juggling priorities. I was glad to have had the chance to get a review copy of this book.

The Pumpkin Plan is addressed to entrepreneurs who have businesses that may have customers, but which aren't growing. The author delivers on his promise of providing guidance for helping your business grow. Once you read the advice, you may think that some of it is obvious, but the author helps you bridge the gap between knowing what to do and convincing your self you do it. For example, one core bit of advice is to focus on your best customers and spend less (or no) energy on the others. The book provides detailed guidance for how to decide who "the best" customers are and walks you through your reservations about letting (bad) customers slip away. This is a great example of what makes this a great business book: it acknowledges the human side of the decisions an entrepreneur needs to make.

Many of the lessons in the book will be familiar to those familiar with agile and lean methods, or who have read books like The Secrets of Consulting. Michalowicz frames these lessons and provides practical advice to entrepreneurs, with guidelines, examples and real stories.

The book is written in way that allows to to start applying the advice before you finish the book. (After reading the first few chapters I recommended the book to a family member who had been discussing how she was looking for ways to help her small business grow.). As to the title: not only is the metaphor between growing pumpkins and growing a business apt, the author applies it consistently throughout the book, in a way that makes sense.

Reading The Pumpkin Plan will serve you well if you have a business. If you're not a business person, reading book could help inspire you to apply an entrepreneurial approach to the way you work, regardless of your role.

Lessons in Change from the Classroom

This is adapted from a story I shared at the Fearless Change Campfire on 22 Sep 2023 I’ve always been someone to ask questions about id...