Benefits of the coffee break

The work day for most companies in Sweden is between 8am to 5pm (9 hours), but they actually only work for 8 hours. The breakdown of a day often looks something like this:

8:00-10:00 am: work
10:00-10:15 am: coffee break
10:15 am-12:00pm: work
12:00-12:30 pm: Lunch
12:30-3:00pm: work
3:00-3:15 pm: coffee break
3:15-5:00pm work

To some this might seem like an odd practice with a coffee break especially at predetermined times. Some questions that tend to pop up are:

  • If they only work 8 hours, how can they stay competitive?
  • If they only need to work 8 hours, why don’t they work from 9am – 5 pm and work while they eat so they can sleep one more hour (or leave one hour early)?

In this post, I am going to try to explain the magic behind the coffee break.

Dual benefits

The many benefits of the coffee break can be grouped in to two categories; Efficiency and Well-being. To understand the dual benefit, it is important to understand we, Swedes, don’t sit in front of our computers/smart phones and drink coffee by ourselves. The coffee break is a social gathering where many employees sit together at the same table, where there is an informal agenda consisting of a mix between work and leisure discussion.

Efficiency benefits

As employees meet for the break they usually have work on top of their mind. This often results in the first part of the break is being dedicated to work discussions. During this initial time you often hear someone asking a work related question or updating someone about their progress. It is kind of a mini-scrum session. Since there are 2 coffee breaks and one lunch break the employees are actually engaging in 3 mini-scrum sessions throughout the day!

The three main efficiency benefits of the coffee break are:

  • Less interruptions in the work day. Since you meet everyone at specific times, you can save up all your questions or comments for the break and don’t need to disturb them during “regular work.”
  • It is an ideal place for knowledge transfer. All your experts are gathered there with junior employees, and if one of the experts receives a question, others are listening in to the conversation and can either learn or add value to the conversation.
  • The brain has a chance to reboot. The break allows employees to gain new energy so when they go back to their “regular work” they can be more efficient.

Well-being

After all the work stuff has been discussed, the conversation naturally slides in to talking about personal life. These conversations can vary a lot, and I think you’d be surprised over the intimacy and details employees know about each other’s lives. The breaks allow you to get to know your coworkers as friends in a similar way as when you grab drinks after work with them. The difference is that everyone has the ability to join the coffee break, while some might not be able to or want to go for a drink after work (family obligations, don’t drink alcohol, etc.).

The benefit of getting to know your coworkers is tremendous. When you understand how they think and what makes them tick, you’ll have greater empathy towards their situation. Imagine this: one of your coworkers always proposes remote testing and you two are supposed to work together in the next project. As always, he proposes remote testing for the project. You on the other hand think it is completely wrong, and in this specific study it is imperative the research is conducted in person. If you don’t know the other person as well, you might present a multitude of arguments for conducting it in person, but your colleague will not budge. What are you to make of this? Is he just an idiot?

If you on the other hand knew this person well, he might have felt comfortable enough to tell you he is afraid of flying (unless you already knew it). With this information, you can tackle the situation in a completely different way. His desire for remote testing has nothing to do with selecting the best methodology, it has to do with his emotions. In this case you might be able to say something like “I think we really need to do in person testing, but I can do the travel and you can support from here” because he felt comfortable enough to share his fears with you knowing they would fall on the ears of a trusted colleague.

When you know someone well, it allows you both to have more open conversations, which will help you understand each other from the other’s perspective, and allows you to emphasize with each other. This in turn will build trust, which produces more open conversations, and the prosperous circle continuous. This prosperous circle will often lead to strong relationships that becomes close friendships.

In addition to getting to know each other better, the coffee breaks also help new employees become a part of the group. During the break, new employees can sit and listen to the conversation between others in the group and thereby get to know more about them without having to interview every person.

Social interactions are linked to happiness, in turn, producing another benefit. Thereby, the coffee breaks actually help you in foster a happier work place where employees want to work.

Efficiency from well-being

There are also efficiency benefits that stems from the social side of the coffee break. The first one is the increased productivity in teams. If the employees already know each other (even if they have never worked together on a project), they will have moved further along in the stages of team formation and might be able to go through the storming process faster.

Employee retention is another efficiency benefit of the coffee breaks that stems from the social aspect. Employees that wake up in the morning and are excited about going to work, because it includes that element of fun and they get to see colleagues they regard as friends, are less likely to leave the company.

Conclusion

The coffee break, if done correctly, increases both efficiency and well-being for employees. The reason for the efficiency benefits is that the employees can work 8 hours productively without being interrupted, but can still get questions answered by the experts and learn from their peers and leaders. In addition, the social benefits also influence the efficiency.

So why don’t employees just work through the lunch and the coffee breaks and finish one hour earlier? It is because of the social aspect of it. Humans want personal contact and we want connections with each other. Of course, there are some people that will prefer to work over the breaks, but the vast majority will want to join if they notice the camaraderie that comes from the breaks– everyone else laughing together and having fun can be a huge motivator for the team.

I hope more companies embrace the coffee break as something beneficial that will enhance their organizations performance and employee morale.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Know the company’s position in the marketplace before devising a UX strategy

There is not one universal UX strategy that is completely effective for every company. In fact, all businesses must carefully consider how to implement a proper UX strategy around their business and industry. Therefore it is imperative the UX strategy starts on a high level and take the overall business strategy in to consideration.

As the UX strategy is being developed, some of the really important questions that need to be addressed include:
• How important is UX to our company?
• How can we strategically position our UX, given our role in the marketplace?
• Do we have the necessary resources to build out the selected UX capabilities?

Industry can be a major determinant of the level of user experience needed. Online retailers, for instance, would likely want to consider a higher level of spending in UX since their online presence is the main vehicle for interacting with their customers. A local electrician, on the other hand, typically don’t need great UX since they often secure most of their work through referrals from existing clients and sites like Angie’s List. For the handyman, it’s better to focus on the in-person customer experience than creating a hearty digital user experience.

Furthermore, different UX needs may exist for companies within an industry segment. For example, it may be more important for Uber to have good UX than for yellow cabs since Uber relies on in-app sales whereas yellow cabs simply pick people up off the street, with no online interaction.

This is not to say that developing a strong UX is not important for companies, rather that it’s a matter of allocating resources appropriately based on the company’s core competences and position in the marketplace. I believe that many companies underspend on UX as a whole, but even more importantly, they are spending money on UX resources inefficiently because they don’t understand how the UX strategy fits into the larger picture.

A major differentiator for McDonalds is its ability to find locations for new restaurants – a capability they have built up over time. Burger King, on the other hand, tends to follow McDonalds’ lead and expands to locations nearby new McDonalds spots. While there are drawbacks to Burger King piggybacking off of McDonalds’ strategic decisions, they can also enjoy the benefits of freeing up resources and spend elsewhere. Being a follower is not always a bad strategy, if the company can focus their efforts in another business area. In addition, it requires thoughtful consideration about how the UX strategy and team is developed in the company to leverage their position in the marketplace.

For some companies, this means they should abandon their attempts of pushing the boundaries of designs and accepting a follower role. Still we see many companies contracting design agencies to create something “new” and “better” than much larger competitors. For me, this is a puzzling proposition. A company with one-tenth the market cap as Amazon accepts the reality that they would be facing a large uphill battle in replicating Amazon’s delivery and distribution system, but for some reason, with UX, they still seem to believe they can become industry leaders.

Of course, for smaller company with big UX aspirations, there are tactics that can optimize UX spends and build up the necessary capabilities. For those looking to be leaders, such tactics may include properly assessing budgetary allowances for exploratory research and constantly iterating off prior designs through consistent user experience testing. Research is also important for those not seeking to become industry leaders in UX, only that these research efforts may want to start by looking at the UX of high-powered websites in order to understand which elements works best and which do not.

With a better understanding of their place in the market, companies can optimize a vision for their UX strategies. After determining whether to be a UX leader or follower, other things such as budgetary spending and team compositions can be considered.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Growing employees

I, as many others, have been struggling to find ways to allow subordinates to grow without compromising the quality of our work. As we hand over more responsibilities to those in our charge, we risk receiving deliverables that do not meet our standards. In addition, it can take considerable time before we see the benefits of the employee’s development. These issues can tempt some managers to adopt a micromanaging style. In this post I am bringing up a few things to keep in mind when developing your employees.

When providing learning opportunities, it is important to meet the employee on their level. The less experienced the employee, the more handholding they require. Make sure to plan for this and set aside appropriate amounts of time. Anticipate that your production will most likely decrease since you need to take time to demonstrate and explain a task and potentially fix errors in their work. If you expect to maintain the same production as before, you will need to accept working more hours yourself.

As employees become more experienced, they require less direction but still need management and leadership. At this point, it is important to clearly communicate goals and desired outcomes of the project and then allow them to work on their own. There are of course areas in-between complete handholding and hands off management styles. As a manager, you need to adjust the level depending on the employee’s maturity level. I believe there is tendencies for younger managers to provide too much handholding while more experienced managers tend to offer too little support.
One of the reasons younger managers have a tendency to provide too much assistance may be because they don’t understand the benefits of providing more freedom. Another reason can be that they don’t trust their employees (which unfortunately can result in a ripple effect leading to general trust issues in the group). A third reason could be insecurity in their role and the desire to make everything perfect. Conversely, more experienced managers may be out of touch with the experience of being new and needing more of the manager’s time. They also often have so much to do that they simply don’t have time to train the new employees. Any time invested in training the employee will provide good returns in the future.

I measure my success in developing an employee by keeping track of their progress towards proficiency. For a less experienced employee, they may learn to do parts of a project with minimal over sight. For more experienced employees, they may start to ask questions that I have forgotten to take in to consideration. The ultimate indication of development, which should be everyone’s ideal, is when employees start to correct something you have done. This means that they have either surpassed your abilities and knowledge base or are close to it, which translates to tremendous contributions to the company. Some managers might be afraid of being out-performed, but just because an employee surpasses you in one skill, it doesn’t mean they have surpassed you in all skills. And if they have succeeded to surpass you in all skills you should give yourself a pat on the back and be proud of making a great contribution to the business.

I played basketball growing up and my coach always emphasized the need to push the limits during practice. Pushing myself made me lose the ball from time to time, but it eventually made me a better player. Similarly, this philosophy can be applied to the workplace. If you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes, you will not reach your full potential. As managers, it is our responsibility to make sure we provide a safe training environment where it is acceptable to make and learn from mistakes while providing a safety net where we can step in and fix any potential issues.

My way of providing a safe training environment varies depending on an employee’s skill level. For inexperienced employees, I am aware that production will slow down, but not by how much since this depends on the individual as well as the project. Because of this variation, I set up a cutoff time when I can step in and take over the majority of the project to make sure we meet the deadline. The advantage of this method is that it allows the employee to learn at an appropriate pace while ensuring that I can deliver on time. The drawback is that once I reach the cutoff time, it usually means I will have to work fairly long days to get the deliverable done in time (you can set an earlier cutoff time, but I often want to provide as much opportunities as possible for them to learn so I set it late). Training in this stage is an investment for the future.

For more experienced employees, I just provide project goals and directions. I either let them create a time plan or create one with them so we both know what is expected and can track the progress. As the employee finishes part of the project, he/she checks of the items in the time plan. This allows me to get out of their way while still monitoring their progress. I also avoid asking them how it is going, and instead make it clear they can always come to me with questions. I have an open door policy and make sure I take my time addressing questions so the employee doesn’t’ feel like they are interrupting me (even if they might be). Similarly, they feel comfortable asking for help if they believe they made a mistake. Because I am able to monitor the project and foster open communication, I create a safe and transparent training environment where I will notice if I need to step in at any time.

Unless the project goes off track, I only need to review the final deliverables, which frees up a lot of my time. This allows me to increase my production significantly since I can run other projects in parallel. One slight drawback is that, because I allow employees to work independently, I might get interrupted throughout the day, which disrupts my production a bit. One work around is to come in before anyone else or continue working after everyone leaves. More significantly, if I adopt simultaneous project and need to unexpectedly step in to assist an employee, I will have a lot to juggle. Still, even with these drawbacks, my group’s increased production makes up for it.

A parallel to training can be seen in the onboarding process often employed in gaming. When the player begins the game, they have simple tasks and are shown how to complete them. Later on, as they become more comfortable with the rules, mechanics, and objectives of the game, they receive less guidance and are allowed to explore and learn by themselves. In the same way, managers need to provide more direction and guidance to less experienced employees whereas more experienced employees need to gain a sense of mastery and autonomy. By providing the right type of leadership, you will foster higher productivity and employee satisfaction.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2015

Waterfall can be good

Many people advocate agile work methodology, but there are times when the waterfall method is more beneficial. The top things to consider are whether the company has an in-house development team and if the UX team is integrated in it.

Even though it can be difficult to incorporate UX into an agile development process, there are clear benefits to agile development. Since agile basically breaks a project in to many micro projects the main benefit is the ability to respond to market changes and changes in business directions. The overarching idea when incorporating UX into agile is often to have the UX team a few sprints ahead of the developing team which allows the UX team to iterate the design a bit before handing it over to the development team.

However, there are times when it is more beneficial to split the project into two separate projects and revert back to the waterfall method. One example of this is when you don’t have the necessary competencies in-house. For example, an electricity company in Sweden needed a new intranet but they did not have a lot of competency with either UX or coding. At this point most companies would have hired a consultancy that would provide all of the services needed and provide a “functioning system” in the end. We all know how this usually turns out: most of the times the users are neglected and the delivered system is not good enough. The result is to try to fix the issues later on, which results in late and very expensive changes. The reason why this tends to happen is because the purchaser doesn’t know enough about UX and the consultancy can get away with minimal spending on user experience.

Luckily, the energy company in Sweden had a project manager that knew UX and realized he would not have time to make sure the consultancy take all necessary UX steps. The solution for them was to split the project into two distinct phases by sending out two requests for proposal. The first request for proposals was for the system interface and was sent out to different UX consultancies. The goal was to create one clickable prototype without any back-end functionality, but comprehensive enough to clearly communicate the design. Since these companies understood the importance of including users and iterating the design, they discovered unmet needs and additional features they needed to include before it became expensive to make these changes. The final result turned out great and all stakeholders (end users, project managers, project sponsor, etc.) were happy with the interface.

Project split into two distinct phases. Interface design and development

With the interface done, they created the next request for proposals which included the prototype so that all bidders could see exactly what was expected to be delivered and how the system was supposed to work. The benefit was that the developers could get an overview so they could select the right technology/programming language from the start and structure their databases in an efficient way. As an aside, the coding companies also preferred the split proposal method since it decreased their risk (they knew exactly what to build) and they did not have to try to include UX, which was not one of their strengths.

The result was a success and the system worked flawlessly for the users (with some minor bugs) and they did not have to do any late changes. The budgetary split between the two parts of the project was roughly 25% for the first part and 75% for the second part. I believe there are very few consultancies that would take on a contract and allocate 25% of the budget to UX.

When looking into purchasing a system, it can be very tempting to hire one vendor that does all of the work because they charge less, but with all of the late changes that could be necessary, will it really be cheaper in the long run? It can be better to develop the interface first and then ask for proposals, as mentioned earlier. Some industries often purchase out- of-the-box solutions which may have interface limitations. With the split proposal, it is possible to find out what the vendor is unable to build so this can be taken in to consideration when choosing a vendor. They may also suggest their interface solution, which you can evaluate to make sure it is good enough.

The primary benefits of a split project are:

  • Decreases the number of late changes
  • The right technology is decided upon from the start
  • Better estimate of the amount of work required to implement the system

The primary drawbacks are:

  • Significantly increased run time for the project
  • Limits the possibility to account for rapid changes in the business environment
  • Increased upfront investments

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to running projects in a more agile style and overlap different project phases. It is more important to recognize which approach is best for which project (there is none “one fits all”). If you have your UX team and developers in-house and they are working close together, I definitely think you should capitalize on this benefit and run it as agile as possible. The problem is if you outsource the project or if the teams are not considered a unit (you may have internal billing resulting in different goals between the units), you may run into problems.

The final thing to consider is if you are just starting up a UX team in your organization. At this point it may be better to start with a full split between UX design and development. Later on, when everyone gets more used to the process it will be possible to overlap between these two groups. Think of it as, “don’t try to run before you can walk”.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2015

Ethics in Business and User Experience

Business professionals and user experience professionals regularly engage in discussions of ethics. In this post I will highlight a few key points to keep in mind as well as provide insights about how both parties might approach the conversation a bit differently.

Most ethical discussions arise when there is a trade-off between “making money” and “doing the right thing”, but I want to take a step back and consider how ethics and profit interact from a higher level. I use a simplified model consisting of a 2×2 matrix (see picture), with a business dimension and an ethics dimension. The best quadrant is obviously the top right, where there is a win-win solution that is ethical at the same time as the company is making money. For example, IKEA executes some business practices that are good for the environment while allowing them to save money at the same time. Flat packages mean more furniture in each shipment, resulting in fewer transports. This leads to lower fuel consumption, less emissions and ultimately lower costs.

2x2 matrix, the x-axis has unethical to the left and ethical to the right. the y-axis has making money in the top and losing money in the bottom.

Illustration of quadrants for business and ethics.

The bottom right is the charity quadrant. UX professionals usually end up in this one because they see it as their responsibility to speak up for the users and always do “the right thing”. For example, some companies go the extra mile (beyond the legal requirements) to accommodate for accessibility even if they think they will lose money doing so.

The top left quadrant (profit focus) is most often the subject of business ethics discussions. Should something unethical be done in order to make money? There are an abundance of examples to illustrate this question. The classic example is the car sales man who tries every trick in the book to get the customer’s money.

The bottom left quadrant (lose) is obviously not a place anyone wants to be, since it is both unethical and the company is losing money. No company ever intends to lose money as a result of an unethical decision, but it can happen if they misjudge their customers’ reaction. Consider a scenario when a company is outsourcing their manufacturing to a low-wage country and uses child labor to save money and boost profits (the intention is to end up in the profit focus quadrant). Later on it back fires when consumers find out about the company’s practices, leading to a boycott and resulting in a shift to the bottom left quadrant (lose).

The distinctions between each of the four quadrants are not black and white; there are also gray zones. This is because financial outcomes are always uncertain and because ethical boundaries are not always clear. Consider this list of scenarios. Which ones do you think are unethical?

  • IKEA is promoting their consideration of the environment in their business decisions as if these decisions are solely founded on environmental concerns and not on monetary gain.
  • When searching for funds at Fidelity.com, the results page has the Fidelity funds in the top (i.e. not sorted by performance, expenses, etc.), increasing the likelihood that users will choose Fidelity funds.
  • A casino makes gamblers’ exchange money for chips so they lose the sense of “real monetary value”.
  • Some online retailers display “only X left in stock” even if they have more in stock to make it appear as though customers will miss out if they don’t purchase the item immediately.
  • Bakeries pipe air out to the street so people walking by want to come in and purchase goods.
  • Someone is offering to buy your car for fair market value, but you know it has severe defects and should be sold significantly under market value. You still sell your car for the price suggested without disclosing the issues.
  • Airline companies track visitors online and change the price depending on their search/visit behavior instead of actual supply and demand.

As you can see, ethics are not always concrete. When discussing one specific feature/action, one person can see the outcome as ethical while someone else can see it as unethical.

Answering these questions for themselves, many people take the high ground and believe they would behave ethically; unfortunately far too many have poor self-awareness. In a negotiation class in which I was a student, the teacher talked for 1 hour about ethics. Thereafter, it was time for group negotiations. Everyone had confidential information the other party did not know about. The result was astonishing. All ethical considerations had disappeared right away. Rather than disclosing information and acting according to good ethics, most students withheld information intentionally and flat out lied to get the best deal possible.

The class consisted of a mix between business and UX professionals, and there was a tendency for UX professionals to be more transparent, withholding less information and lying less often. If I generalize to the extreme, the business professionals end up in the profit focus corner of the matrix while the UX professionals end up in the charity corner. When working together, it is important to understand where the other side is coming from and that business people are often competitive in nature, causing them to prioritize winning over ethics. Try to understand what is driving the other person and that their decisions and priorities may differ from yours.

For example, I was talking to a business professional who did not think it was unethical for airline companies to set prices based on visitors’ behaviors instead of supply and demand (most visitors think ticket cost is dependent on supply and demand). He believed that this was fair since the airline charges a price (which can change) and the customer can either purchase the ticket or not. Similar to buying any product, the price can vary and in the end the customer can take it or leave it. When I talk to UX professionals, they tend to view this as unethical since there is a lack of transparency. Additionally, business professionals (project sponsors, analysts, etc.) often have a monetary incentive to do more unethical decisions. This is an unfortunate result of evaluating performance primarily on profits.

As a UX professional, It can be hard to make the business case for ethical decisions since the discussions usually surface when there is a discrepancy between profits and ethics (i.e. decisions in the profit focus quadrant and the charity quadrants; those in the lose and win-win quadrant are no-brainers). In order to make a successful business case that merges ethics and profitability, UX professionals need to demonstrate when decisions are actually in the win-win quadrant or the lose quadrant. This is no easy task, but one way is to explain how unethical behavior can have a significant cost in reputation and brand perception, especially if it goes against what the brand’s values. Similarly, unethical behaviors that make the company money in the short-term can potentially damage the brand in the long run. When talking to a business person about an idea they consider to be a charity, it is important to demonstrate when it actually is a win-win. When talking about an idea that is in the profit focus quadrant (unethical), it is important to show that it is actually is in the lose quadrant.

Some additional questions to consider when making the case for the ethical decision can be:

  • Can the charity generate more customers?
  • Can the charity build customer loyalty?

While the tendency exists for UX professionals to reason from an ethical perspective, it is important to be aware of ethics creep. (In the figure, the vertical gray zone is shifted to the left so more outcomes are viewed as win-win or charity.) Every time a person’s ethics are compromised, they rationalize their actions by becoming more flexible in their consideration of what is ethical. This is done subconsciously to protect the person’s view of themselves since most people want to identify with strong ethical standards and avoid cognitive dissonance.

As I mentioned earlier, people can have different views of what is unethical. Here are some ways for you to evaluate whether you think a decision is ethical or not.

  • Could you tell your mom, children, mentor, etc. about your decision without feeling ashamed?
  • Would you be OK if it was on the front page in the newspaper?

Another way to think about it is regarding the intent. If the intent is only to benefit the company, the action is most likely unethical. On the other hand, just because the intent is to benefit someone else, the action may still not be ethical. For example, playing classical music at the entrance of a train station resulted in a reduction in drunken teenagers spending their weekend nights there. This benefitted other travelers, but probably resulted in the teenagers went somewhere else to drink. The new place might be less safe for the teenagers as well as they may cause more problems at the new place compared to the train station. In this case, some may argue it would have been more ethical not to play the classical music.

Ethics is a fuzzy topic and people view it very differently depending on their background. When discussing a decision with ethical considerations, it is therefore important to understand the other person’s point of view while understanding that the final goal often is similar. Everyone wants to ensure that the company remains sustainable while maintaining a satisfied customer base.

Special thanks to Joshua Rosenberg for providing feedback and helping me clarify my thoughts.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2015