“Hurry up and finish speaking, so I can tell you why you’re wrong!”

Have you ever found yourself thinking such a thought, instead of really trying to grasp what truth might be said?  Of course, such impatient waiting is not true listening, and rarely serves us well.  It leaves us poised for a fight, rather than ready for insight, understanding, and growth.

Listening is a critical skill in all of our lives.  In business we’re concerned with management, supervision, marketing, sales — all tasks involving relationships.  We need to listen to employees, managers,  customers and potential customers, suppliers, stockholders, neighbors — all those who are impacted by our policies and operations.

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In consdiering the design challenges I face, I’d distinguish process from paradigm.

Many of the processes I use may be time worn, orthodox, etc. Contextual inquiry (or listening to users) is not new, paper prototyping was not invented last week. I use them not because they are “accepted orthodoxy” but because I find them functional steps towards creative solutions.  The fact that they may be “orthodox” does not make them wrong or outmoded.

But I’m stuck with too many old paradigms about how to understand the world. I imagine a vehicle having some controls, and would have trouble coming up with a Segway where you just lean to steer it. I imagine sound players will have knobs, and would not have expected the iPod model. I still expect cameras to look like those old film devices, even though the physical constraints that led to such designs are gone. I don’t choose these paradigms — I’m stuck with them, until I find a way to escape.

How will my processes, methods, whatever, help me to see the world outside the paradgms that limit my vision? That’s the burning question for me — each day, and with each new project.

What do your employees do all day?  Why, of course, they answer the phone and take customer orders, or they open mail and post cash receipts, or they respond to customer service inquiries, or whatever.  Why, you might ask, do I bother with this question?

Well, many — perhaps most — employers don’t really know how their employees spend their time.  The order takers may function as fashion counselors, discussing how certain colors match or not, the cash receipts people may do more address maintenance than receipt posting, the customer service people may spend much of their time researching questions whose answers could have been documented.

There may be nothing wrong with this use of time.  One of my clients sold clothes specially designed for nursing mothers.  The order takers there were practically functioning as lactation counselors — and the company felt that was just fine!  The advice offered was a service to their customers, instilled confidence in them, and, it was hoped, led to increased sales of the nursing garments.

But it is a problem when computer systems are designed for one idealized understanding of a work task, and doesn’t support others aspects of the job that are no so well recognized or understood.  Here’s a particularly interesting example that I encountered on a consulting project:

My client created computer systems for collection agencies, and I was visiting one of thier clients.  For several days, I sat next to a debt collector, wearing a phone headset so that I could hear both sides of each conversation, and watching the computer screen to see what information the collector brought up.  Finally, I exclaimed to the collector, “So, it seems that your task is really getting people who owe money to make promises that they will keep”.  He was ecstatic, telling me that nobody had ever expressed it so clearly to him.  Then I continued . . . “so, all that data on the screen, I wonder what you’re doing with it.  Are you just computing how well the past promises have been kept?”  Indeed, that was the case, and at that point the collector was quite precise in telling me what kinds of promise keeping indices would be most helpful.

Although my assignment was officially to review the user interface of the product, it had become clear to me that the real task I was expected to do was to find ways to stuff more data onto an already crowded screen.  In a general way, the debt collection companies that bought this software believed that all that data was useful.  But once my client understood how

the data was being used, and what the collectors were doing with much — perhaps most — of their time, a significant re-design was possible.

Another company found that their order return processors were spending time keying in order numbers, or researching order numbers because customers didn’t return the part of the invoice / packing list that was supposed to be used for returns.  Putting a bar code on that document made it easier to retrieve data with each return, and increased the fraction of returns that did come back with the form.  Evidently customers attached more importance to a form with a bar code on it.

In another case, employees often wouldn’t realize that they may have made a mistake until they were processing the next order.  At that point they’d have to go back to the previous order, see if indeed there was something wrong, and make any corrections necessary.  Providing a simple way to perform that navigation (an “uups” button), speeded up that validation and correction process — even though it didn’t stop mistakes from being made in the first place.

Knowing what tasks your employees are really doing, and how they really spend their time, can help in user interface re-design, work flow re-design, plant or office engineering, and many other areas.