20 years ago yesterday, I launched peterme.com

May 2, 1998 proved to be a momentous day for me. I launched https://peterme.com/, with a post about my experiences at CHI 98. That very original page doesn’t exist anymore (I overwrote it to update the navigation on the left-hand side), but the content is there in its full glory.

Don’t click around too much — linkrot quickly devolves the experience.

Apart from meeting my wife, having kids, and starting Adaptive Path, there is probably no experience more impactful in my life than that fateful day I created my personal home page. (And Adaptive Path would not have existed if it weren’t for the community that I took part in thanks to this site.)

Here’s to another 20 years.

Rebranding Snag – Part 1, Brand Strategy

The Backstory

Among the strangest aspects of my sudden departure from Snag is that, just a week before, we launched one of the greatest endeavors of my professional life–a top-to-bottom rebrand of the company.

Even before joining Snagajob in January 2017, the possibility of a rebrand was discussed with me. The company had acquired PeopleMatter, an enterprise software company, and had launched a pilot on-demand service, HUSL, and all these brands lead to confusion both in the market and internally. The name “Snagajob” was much too specific to the company’s job board past, had no relevance to employers, and, frankly, was a bit sophomoric and could be hard to take seriously.

So, from the day I started, January 2, 2017, I was the lead executive on rectifying this brand challenge, partnered with Bridget Walsh, our director of communication design. There is some irony to me leading brand, as I’m not really a brand guy. I’m a research-strategy-information architecture-interaction design guy. I am skeptical, even dismissive, of much of the discussion around brand1Never forget, branding is the application of a red hot iron to the hide of livestock..

That said, my first design industry job (1996-1998) was at Studio Archetype, a design firm that grew out of a specialization in identity and communication design to become a pioneer in CD-ROM and web design. And so while skeptical, I appreciate the wizardry of truly gifted brand professionals.

Thankfully, I inherited a big-enough budget to bring on external help to guide us through this. An early realization was that there were two projects here–clarify our brand strategy, and then, based on that, develop a new visual identity.

Choosing a strategy partner

We interviewed a few potential partners for the strategy work, and quickly settled on Great Monday, whose principle, Josh Levine, is an old friend of mine. We chose them because they were clearly smart and capable, pleasingly small (I think there’s only 3 full time staff), located in Oakland (as am I), and, importantly, Josh understood what we needed from him – not just a clever brand strategist, but a charismatic presence who could rally a room of people from across the company, who could speak with authority to our CEO and other executive team members, and who would do all the little things that it takes to see something through that is as fraught and anxiety-inducing as a total reconsideration of company’s brand.

Given that potential for anxiety, and given Snagajob’s size (mid-400s), age (17 years at this point), geographies (4 cities), and company philosophy (heavily mission-driven), Great Monday proposed a measured, thoughtful approach, designed to hand-hold us through every stage and maintain our confidence that we were on the right path. It also meant that it would take 4-5 months. Our executives wanted it sooner and pleaded with me to move faster, but I felt that in order for this to succeed, we needed to do it right – a rebrand isn’t something you get to iterate on in the market.

I won’t delve into every project detail. Suffice to say it included discovery, stakeholder and customer interviews, internal questionnaires, workshops, positioning and story development, brand architecture, and brand personality.

Oh and naming. That I do want to talk about. Before I do, it helps to set up a couple of things.

Brand Workshop Reveals Key Strategic Foundations

About a month and a half into the work, Great Monday hosted a workshop with 20 people pulled from all departments, and from all levels of seniority (though it was admittedly top-heavy).

They lead us through a series of activities, two of which proved crucial in defining our brand. In their discussions with internal stakeholders, the identified a few areas of tension. They placed opposing concepts on a simple single-line spectrum, and had us dot-vote where we thought we currently were, and where we should be. Two of these dominated our discussion:

  1. Were we a ‘tech’ company or a ‘people’ company?
  2. Do we lean more towards the worker or the employer?

The placement of the dots wasn’t nearly as important as the discussion it catalyzed. For the first, the passionate discussion made it clear that we were, and wanted to be perceived as, a ‘people’ company. In fact, we considered it ironic that in a jobs/work space that is so much about people, pretty much no competitor authentically embraced their humanism. The discussion around the second grew quite heated, as employers pay our bills, and many were adamant our brand should preference them. However, Great Monday had spoken to many employers, who expressed general apathy about our brand, saying that our value to them was our ability to appeal to workers. So we decided our brand would be ‘worker first.’

Brand Architecture Forces Focus

After the workshop, the next key decision we made was to settle on a brand architecture. At the time, Snagajob was a somewhat clumsy “house of brands.” The company was named Snagajob, and that name was used in our services that faced our jobseekers and workers. They had acquired PeopleMatter, an applicant-tracking SaaS offering, and kept that name as the brand facing employers. And then there was an innovation team that was developing an on-demand offering, which they branded as HUSL.

We had an opportunity to approach this thoughtfully. Should we keep this individual architecture where you have different brands under a corporate brand (think GM and Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac); a monolithic architecture where there’s one brand to rule them all, with sub brands underneath (FedEx, and FedEx Ground, FedEx Express, FedEx Office), or a hybrid architecture that features a strong corporate brand, but gives room for subbrands that stand on their own (Marriott with Courtyard by Marriott, Residence Inn, J.W. Marriott, etc.). At our size (450 employees), and in our market (job marketplace, similar to Indeed and LinkedIn), it became quickly clear that monolithic was the way to go. No one else in our space had different names for the worker and employer facing services, and pretty much no marketplace business does. The strength of a marketplace is signaled by having one brand that hosts everybody.

If we’re going to have one name…

With the decision to be a monolithic brand, we then had to come to terms with the matter of the name. The easiest solution would be to call everything Snagajob. It’s how we’d been known for 17 years. The problem was that the name is distinctly worker-facing. Employers might not care, but it felt inappropriate to actively exclude them. But also, the company had evolved beyond jobs, with the most exciting opportunity being in on-demand, helping employers and workers make it easier to offer and pickup shifts. And while “Snagajob” may have felt dot-com appropriate when coined in 2000, by 2017 it came across as clunky and unprofessional.

I found out that, even before I joined the company, the idea of renaming it “Snag” had been floated. It mimicked Snapchat renaming themselves “Snap,” was brief and catchy, and maintained some brand equity while allowing for offerings beyond jobs. However, the word “snag” has primarily negative connotations (hitting a snag, a snag in sweater). Unsure quite how to proceed, we engaged in a naming exercise with Great Monday.

Naming is a bit of a black art. We fed them a bunch of brand names we liked and didn’t like, and the reasons why. We also had our brand positioning and personality characteristics (more on those later). After many days of what I assume was playing with morphemes, paging through dictionaries and thesauruses, and long soaks in the bathtub, they presented us about 20 names to consider, and another 100-plus that had also come up. We went through a few rounds of throwing things away, coming up with new stuff, and eventually had a selection of 3 names that we liked.

(No, I’m not going to share them with you. Maybe over beers.)

The problem is, we couldn’t agree on them. Of the 5 or 6 people on the ‘core team’ for the brand, there was no consensus. And our executive sponsors also didn’t align.  Our CEO pointed out that what we think doesn’t matter nearly as much as what our jobseekers and workers thought, so why don’t we ask them? So we set up one of the quickest bits of research I’ve overseen in my career, talking individually to 12 jobseekers (NO FOCUS GROUPS. EVER.) across the United States about the three names we were considering. Oh, and we threw “Snag” in there as well to see how it compared. We asked them their impressions of the different names, and then we had them rate the names against each of our brand personality traits, as we wanted to make sure that the name spoke to how we wanted to be perceived.

Coming out of the research, jobseekers exhibited a variety of preferences, with no one clear “winner.” But, to our surprise, the name that scored strongest was…Snag. After all that work, it turned out the right name was there the whole time. There were no regrets about the process – we needed to go through that rigamarole to have confidence that Snag could, in fact, work for us.

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Going all the way back to the brand workshop, there was another activity that proved key to our brand strategy. And that was having each of us propose a spokesperson for the brand, someone, out in the world, who represents what we felt our brand stood for. People came up with all kinds of answers. I don’t remember them all, but some were America Ferrara, Zendaya, Barack Obama.

For each spokesperson we listed 3 to 4 personality traits that explained why they were a good representative. Across the 20 or so spokespeople, we had 70-some adjectives emerge. After some sorting and categorizing, we arrived at the following groups:

We knew this was too many. And some, like “Human” and “Genuine” have become cliches; even if they are true for you, they’re no longer interesting as brand characteristics, as too many companies claim them. Key to successful brand traits is that they’re a) authentic and b) ownable. To be ownable, it means that no other competitor could claim them. (You also want to avoid traits that are really just table stakes for being in business, like “trustworthy.”) With that mindset, we got it down to:
However, we felt 5 was more than could be readily remembered, so we got out our scalpel, and trimmed it to:

I love these traits. They strongly resonate with Snag’s internal culture. They’re humanistic. They’re candid — “determined” recognizes the toil it takes to succeed. They’re unexpected – “sincere” is surprisingly sentimental for a company (we almost went with “heartfelt” but thought that was a bit too much.)

With the brand strategy, architecture, new name, and new characteristics, we had a strong definition of our new brand. The next step was to figure out how to express that personality, which I will describe when I get around to writing part 2.

(For the sake of verbal expedience, I’m probably not spending enough time highlighting the individuals at Snag who made this all go. Along with Bridget, our core team featured Dane Schwartz, and then in the next concentric circle out was Jason Conrad and Megan Overton. None of this would have happened without the support of my boss, Jocelyn Mangan, or the encouragement of our CEO, Peter Harrison.)

“Should Designers Code?” fetishizes tech over other crucial design skills

I’m writing a book on building effective in-house design teams. I recently completed a draft of the chapter on professional development for designers. The following is inspired by that.

Design is so much more than what most people think it is. Even than what most designers think it is. As someone who has worked in design for 20 years, perhaps the most frustrating industry conversation revolves around “should designers code?”The idea that a designer who codes is a “full-stack designer” demonstrates the shallowness of most thinking about design as a practice, and a skill set. It speaks to a technical fetish that undercuts the full potential of design.

There is opportunity for design to be woven through every aspect of a customer’s interaction with an organization. In order to do that, a variety of skills need to be brought to bear, many of which are typically neglected in discussions about what designers should learn to do:

  • User research. Conducting user research sessions (in-home, in-office, user testing, diary studies), and deriving meaningful insights through analysis.
  • Information architecture. Structuring content, developing taxonomies, crafting navigation, and other activities that make information accessible, usable, and understandable.  
  • Interaction design. The structural design of a software interface, supporting a user’s flow through a system, and ability to successfully interact.
  • Visual design. Color, composition, typography, visual hierarchy, and brand expression that present the product or service in a way that is not only clear and approachable, but appropriately exhibits personality.
  • Writing. Clear written communication that, like good design, guides the user through an experience. Much of the time, written content is the experience, and far more valuable than the design dress around it.
  • Service design. Systems-level understanding of all the piece parts (technical systems, front-line employees, touchpoints, etc.) that go into delivering a service, coordinated to support customer journeys.
  • Prototyping. Quickly simulating proposed designs in order to better judge their user experience. Could be deeply technical (writing code) or a more patchwork use of tools like AfterEffects, Keynote, and Quartz Composer.  
  • Front-end development. Delivery of production-ready front-end code. Valuable in ensuring that designs are implemented as proposed.  

It’s easy to argue that user research, information architecture, and writing are design skills every bit as important as coding. In fact, those practices better support strategic efforts, and so may have greater impact than the execution orientation of coding.

The range of skills demonstrates the foolishness of the idea of a “full-stack designer.” No one person can practice all these skills with any real mastery. In my experience, folks become expert at one, maybe two, strong in a couple others, and competent in a couple more (and this is after 10-15 years of work).

Given this variety, how a team member grows their skills is variable, depending on the designer’s desires, mindset, and inclination. There’s no set path for designer growth. Some will learn to code. Others will learn to research. Others will map systems (of information, of relationships between people). All are necessary, and no particular path should be encouraged over others. 

This range also points out the folly of having a single designer embedded on product teams. As no one designer can deliver across this set of skills, no one designer should be expected to act alone. Designers work best, and deliver best, in teams, where their skills are complementary, allowing the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.

The variety of skills also changes who is typically thought of as part of “the design team.” Too often we get caught up in roles and titles, when what matters are the skills that are being brought to bear, regardless of who is doing them. Content strategists (who excel at writing, are strong in information architecture and user research, and can do competent interaction design and service design) or UX Researchers (who may excel at user research, be strong in writing and service design, and competent in interaction design and information architecture) could (should?) be considered part of the design team.

I guess what frustrates me most about “designers should code” is that it demonstrates how designers can get in their own way. Fetishizing code is fetishizing production, at the expense of strategy. It keeps designers in a subservient mode, receiving requirements from others, happy just to execute. There is a broader and deeper opportunity for designers and design practice to drive the definition of those requirements and weave through an entirety of a customer’s experience. Yes, code is part of that, but only one part.

Hiring: reject a candidate for the right reasons, not just because they’re different

(I’m currently writing a chapter on recruiting and hiring designers. The following passage is about the debrief after The Day of Interviews, and how to proceed if the the interview panel is split. Essentially, make sure that it’s not just because the candidate is somehow different.) 

The challenge is when a candidate splits the panel, where some are strongly positive, and others are inclined not to hire. Navigating this proves to be among the most heightened and sensitive tasks for a design leader, because there is nothing more damning than a mis-hire, especially where there’s evidence that not everyone was on board.

In most situations where there’s a split, the easiest decision is the same as the right decision–do not hire. Given how costly it is to make a hiring mistake, this is where better-safe-than-sorry is an appropriate strategy. BUT. It is not a universal, and how this is handled is one of those areas that distinguishes design leaders from design managers. If a design leader deeply believes in the potential of a candidate, and can identify flaws in the rationale of those who object, the design leader should make the case for why an offer ought to be extended to the candidate.

There are reasons for rejection that design leaders need to be wary of, and call out if they are the only impediment to hiring.

Unfamiliar background or approach. Designers, particularly those with less experience, can be quite orthodox in how they evaluate other designers. They may be suspicious of any designer who doesn’t share their background or approach. An atypical background (maybe they didn’t study design in school), or unfamiliar approach (perhaps they don’t use typical design tools, or they’re unfamiliar with industry standard methods), can make panel members uneasy, because it’s not how they do it, and they don’t understand how other ways can be successful. The design leader’s role is to remind the panel of what is most important – results. If an unorthodox approach leads to great design work, the onus is on the team to figure out how they might be able to incorporate such different ways into their team. In fact, a willingness to consider people with atypical backgrounds provides two benefits: there will likely be less competition for that person (because other companies will also be hesitant with the unfamiliar); and the incorporation of new ways of working will increase the team’s diversity of perspective, and enable them to do better work.

Awkward communicators. If the interview process has one crucial drawback, it would be its reliance on conversations as the primary medium of understanding. The portfolio review mitigates this somewhat, but one of the things any candidate is being tested on when talking to people over the course of a day is how well they communicate. Many talented designers are not good oral communicators, and many are quite introverted. It might even be part of the reason they got into design–they may be more comfortable with pictures than words. People who are awkward communicators (and good designers) often process the world differently than others, and that difference can actually make for a stronger team by bringing in uncommon ways of working and thinking.

Candidate is a little weird. Maybe they talk fast or loud. Maybe they have some uncommon obsessions. Maybe they demonstrate unbridled enthusiasm or a lack of social graces. Whatever it is, you will interview candidates that are a little weird. Don’t let that weirdness be a turn-off. In fact, lean in to your team’s weirdness. If a design team can’t bring weirdness into a company, who can? If people on the interview panel grow wary when candidates’ let their freak flags fly, reorient their thinking to the quality of that candidate’s work, and whether they think the candidate will be truly disruptive (and not just a little strange).

Thoughts on fostering a collaborative work environment

[I just wrote the following passage for my book on building in-house design teams. It needs work, but I still felt it was worth sharing.]

Realizing the benefit of diverse perspectives requires a supportive environment where people are encouraged and comfortable sharing their work, spurring collaboration that makes the final output better than what anyone would deliver on their own.

Every member of the team must demonstrate respect to every other member, or the openness required for successful collaboration will not emerge. Dismissiveness, insults, cattiness, and behind-the-back gossip lead to people feeling shamed and shutting down, and cannot be tolerated.

Earning one another’s respect is necessary in order for the team to “get real”, because frank and candid critique and feedback are essential for upholding the high quality standards. Greatness comes from the tension and collision of different perspectives, addressed openly and honestly. Design teams that favor politeness over respectful candor will rarely produce great work.

Organizational hierarchy can stifle the free flow of ideas within a design organization – when senior people speak, it often stops the conversation. It’s now become cliche, but it’s worth repeating – great ideas can come from anywhere. Great design leaders encourage everyone to speak up, and, for themselves, wait to speak last. These leaders must also place their work alongside others, and accept others’ critique with grace and humility.

The collaborative environment referred to so far has been figurative, but it also should be made literal. Great design work takes space – places to collaborate, whiteboards for sketching and ideation, walls to show work. And those spaces should be permanent, places where the team works and sees their work all around them. Not only does this encourage continual engagement from the team itself, such spaces enable people outside the team to quickly connect with the work. It literally demonstrates openness and transparency. And instead of having occasional big share-outs (that require preparation that takes time away from productivity), these spaces support frequent lightweight check-ins that ensure the work is on track, because if it’s beginning to veer off-course, it is quickly corrected.

My Design Organization Design Talk, Slides Plus Audio

At IA Summit 2015, I spoke about “Shaping Organizations To Deliver Great User Experiences.” Here are the slides:

Now, here is the audio of my talk:

Press play on the audio file, and then guess when it’s time to advance the slides. That way, you can RELIVE THE MAGIC.

If you go to The IA Summit page for my talk you can download the audio, read a complete transcription (!), all captured thanks to Jared Spool and UIE.

Hot Take Part 2: McKinsey jealous of Frog?

Another quick thought about McKinsey’s acquisition of Lunar. I am guessing that McKinsey sees all the press about Disney’s My Magic +, and how they spent a billion dollars on it (so far), and how Frog was deeply involved from beginning to end, and thinks, “Wow, we’re leaving a lot of money on the table by not being able to see these things through” and saw Lunar as a piece that allows them to win business that they would otherwise not even be considered for.

Hot take: The Bifurcation of Design Services (McKinsey acquires Lunar)

[This is a ‘hot take’ hastily scribed while trying to get my household moving in the morning. Forgive typos and other lapses]

Management consulting firm McKinsey has just acquired Lunar Design, an industrial design firm that had been attempting to broaden its capabilities with product strategy and interaction design.

After my post on “San Francisco Design Agencies Feeling The Squeeze,” I was lumped in with the “design consulting firms are dead” bunch, because people are poor at reading comprehension. Design consulting isn’t dead, but it’s definitely morphing, and doing so in an interesting bifurcated way.

At one end you have the big management consulting firms either establishing or acquiring design practices (McKinsey had been growing one organically in-house before the Lunar acquisition, Accenture acquired Fjord, Deloitte has Deloitte Digital). These firms had seen companies like IDEO and Frog get big billings for projects of the sort that used to only go to them. They realized they needed a design competency to stay relevant in the 21st century. And now these firms are deploying design practices at the highest levels of global corporations as a tool for creating strategy. This is actually a really big deal for design as an industry and a practice, and one that hasn’t yet been at all sufficiently appreciated.

At the other end you have design firms who are positioning themselves as partners in the development and launch efforts. This is design for execution, often embedding with product teams, and focused on the detailed work of interaction, interface, and visual design and front-end development. This is typically a ‘gap-filling’ role — augmenting a client’s lack designers in-house.

And the middle? Historically, that was Adaptive Path’s sweet spot. There were multiple times we came in after someone like McKinsey had supplied a client with a Big Idea of where to go, and we would use our design practices to put shape to that existing strategy and suggest offerings and experiences they could deliver. Then we’d leave as the client would take our suggestions and implement them.

As companies have been staffing in-house design teams, that is where this middle work has moved. It hasn’t been worth hiring in-house designers to be the strategic dynamos a la McKinsey, and you can never hire enough designers for all the execution to be done. So, there seems to be plenty of work for design consultants in those regards. The middle bits? Not so much.