Lessons Learned at Adaptive Path: Recruiting and hiring designers

Four years ago, as I was leaving Adaptive Path, I sent a series of emails about what I’d learned in my 10+ years there. These were recently brought back to my attention, and I think there’s some hard-earned wisdom still worth sharing. Here’s the first.

So, we’re in a super-active hiring phase right now. This is an exciting time. Recruiting and hiring are among my favorite activities. I love talking to people, understanding where they’re at, how they approach problems, what they’re looking for, and trying to figure out if they’re right for us. Hiring can be a huge time commitment, and you need to be prepared for that. But, honestly, there’s little else we do that is as important to our business as hiring, and it’s worth all the time and effort to make sure we’re doing it as best we can.

My cardinal rule of hiring would be, Don’t hire the best; hire the most appropriate. It’s not enough to be a great designer — you need to be someone who will be great in the context of Adaptive Path. 

The slippery thing about that is that context always changes. Sometimes it’s a matter of what we need at a particular moment — do we need more strategist/thinkers? More maker/prototypers? More people interesting in speaking, writing, sharing with the world? 

I’m a big fan of complementarity. You don’t want a team that all looks the same. You want different skills, capabilities, backgrounds, and perspectives. You want diversity of experience, whether professional experience or life experience. Breadth is crucial, particularly in the kind of Big Picture work we do that requires synthetic thinking. 

At Adaptive Path, I’ve never been interested in hiring people who are passionate about design. I actually think that leads to a navel-gazing-ness that focuses too much on form. I have always looked for people who are passionate about the impact that design can have in the world. Design is a tool — it’s not an end to itself. I think crucial to Adaptive Path’s success, and our distinctive take on challenges, is born of this appreciation. What’s great about it is that you sometimes end up solving problems with non-design tools. My personal favorite deliverable in my past two years here was the SKT Trend Map [a 6-foot tall poster that was mostly words, articulating how the media landscape would evolve over time]. It was the right way to solve the problem, and not in anyway anything you’d think of as “design.” 

The other thing that you get when you engage with people passionate about impact is that they also tend to want to engage more broadly. They want to speak, write, and interact with a community, because their bigger-picture passion spurs them to do so. 

Don’t let people’s quirks turn you off. Given that we’re a consulting company, we tend to get nervous about how someone will present in front of a client. And so we get wary of people who come across a bit differently. I love quirkiness. It has served me, and Adaptive Path well. Embrace some freakiness

In terms of recruiting, I would suggest that you not be shy. In this latest wave, I’ve trawled through my email folders looking for people we’ve talked to in the past, seen where some of them are now, and reached out and said, “Hey, I don’t know what you’re up to, but we have these amazing opportunities… And if it’s not right for you, maybe you know someone?” And it has lead to us starting some conversations with great candidates. 

And: LinkedIn. It works, even if you don’t have a paid account.

In the four years since I’ve left Adaptive Path, this still is how I operate. The only thing I can think to add is, “If a candidate doesn’t feel right, go with that instinct and don’t hire them.” While my gut has mislead me on the positive side a few times, where I’m excited about a candidate who then ends up not working out, my gut has never mislead me on the negative side — anyone I’ve hired against my get (because there was some other logical rationale), has never worked out.

If you have questions about recruiting and hiring, I’d love to read them in the comments.

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.

The dehumanizing heart of capitalism – people as points in a video game

For 5 months last year, I contracted with a company launch a new web site.

My task was to shepherd the design (which was completed before I joined) through development and into the world. As such, in my duties I was a product manager, coordinating efforts with engineering, design, and marketing, making sure that the new design performed as well as the old one.

In order to understand performance, I spent much of my time analyzing charts and graphs, assessing conversion rates and looking for clues across browsers, operating systems, and flows to understand why one design was performing better than another.

And it was in this activity that I started to scare myself. Because I became obsessed with conversion numbers. How do we make sure that at least the same number of people move through the new design as the old one?

And it started to feel like a game. These conversion metrics are points. If you fiddled with some aspect of the design, could you get a higher score? And as anyone raised in video games knows, you are always trying to get a high score.

It’s very easy to forget that there are humans in those numbers. You approach it more like an amorphous mass, a fluid that you’re trying to get through a funnel.

A key theme of my writings about the Connected Age was the need for business to embrace humanity. And yet even though I am highly sensitized to this issue, it was seductively easy to slip into this dehumanizing mindset.

This is at the heart of capitalism.

Friends don’t loan friends money — they give it

An unfortunate circumstance of life is when your friends get into money trouble. As a friend, you feel an obligation to support. But money is a crazy sensitive subject, and getting involved risks that friendship.

I don’t remember the context in which it came up, but I do remember that, as a child, I talked to my parents about loaning money to someone (maybe they had a friend who I knew needed money? maybe I had a friend who asked me for a loan?). And something they said stuck with me my whole life: friends don’t loan money to friends — they give it. If you get it back, great, and if not, that’s okay, too.

I hadn’t thought much about it until recently. And I wouldn’t be writing about it except I’ve seen a huge rift, a chasm cleave through a community of friends (where sides have been chosen and all kinds of other drama), and that chasm was caused by a friend loaning another friend money (it’s more complicated than that, but this will suffice). I don’t want others to be hurt the way that I have (and that’s as a by-stander to this situation).

True friendship cannot be conditional. If conditions are set up in order to maintain the relationship, it’s no longer a friendship. It’s an arrangement.

One friend might think they’re doing another a favor by loaning them money. “Isn’t it big of me to help my friend when they are struggling by spotting them some money?”


Because, if that struggling friend takes you up on that offer, you’ve now created a condition, specifically a shift in the power dynamic between the two friends. And that, by it’s very nature, is no longer a friendship.

If you cannot simply give someone the money they need, you shouldn’t give it at all — you’re under no obligation to financially support your friends. (And if you’re that struggling friend, no matter how hard it is, do not accept a loan from a friend. It will not be worth it.) If you can give someone the money, great, but only do so if you can do it and then immediately forget about it.


Design at Jawbone

I’ve been remiss at updating my blog. On the day after my last post, I joined Jawbone to help lead the product design team. And today is a special day, because Dan Saffer, my former colleague from Adaptive Path, and most recently Director of Interaction Design at Smart Design, joins our growing team (in his inimitable style).

I was drawn to Jawbone because I could work on problems that I hadn’t yet tackled, except in conceptual hand-wavey ways at Adaptive Path:

  • hardware/software
  • Internet of Things
  • health/fitness

One thing Jawbone groks is that “the future of wearable technology is not about wearables, it’s about analyzing the data” (Guardian article), and we’ve done some remarkable work on the UP platform in this regard, specifically around what we call Smart Coach. Whereas other tracker systems seem focused on charts, graphs, and dashboards, Smart Coach presents your life in more human ways, with natural language, and prompts and encouragement to live better.

Actually, wearables is not even about the data — it’s about you. Our CEO Hosain Rahman refers to our approach to the Internet of You, where we take in all kinds of signals (from our wrist trackers and from partner’s apps and hardware), draw correlations, and provide insights and feedback across all manner of things. It’s hard work, and we’re only at the very beginning, but the promise is huge and inspiring.

From a strict design perspective, this is easily the most fun I’ve had since Adaptive Path. We’re involved in interactions with hardware, software, mobile, web, watches, and more. We have to balance between hard data and engaging copy. We have to make very hard tradeoffs (battery life versus displays; battery life versus size; battery life versus sensors… you get the picture). On my third day I played with a demo that was a legitimate “Wow, this could be the future!” moment. Just last week I wrote up specs for hardware UI.

In future posts, I’ll write more about my experience in designing at Jawbone. In the meantime, welcome, Dan – we’re going to have some fun!

There is no such thing as UX Design

Provocative statement: The entire “field” of user experience emerged for one reason — to accommodate, and overcome, poor (or non-existent) product management practices.

Product management’s responsibility is to identify opportunities in the market, specify new offerings, and see these through development and distribution. Originally, product management was seen as a business function, and MBA’s were placed in that role. As such, it was about sweating the market, assessing opportunities, crafting business plans, establishing requirements, and the like.

In Silicon Valley, most notably at Google (where Larry felt it inappropriate for non-engineers to tell engineers what to do), a more technically oriented product manager emerged, essentially a flavor of engineering management but with some business savvy.

The rise of software, and particularly networked software, lead to products of immense complexity. It was in these environments that some designers realized that a significant perspective was being neglected–drawing from customer empathy. Designers, who are typically the most empathetic folks in a product organization, knew that many of the requirements they’d been given were foolhardy–that no one would use the thing. So, they pushed back, incorporating first usability and then up-front user research methods, and developing systems-level design practices around architecture diagrams, interaction flows, wireframes, and the like.

This work was called “user experience,” a term originally coined by Donald Norman to acknowledge that the totality of a user’s experience should be intentionally addressed.

The problem is, Don should have never had to say something so obvious. It was due to the shortcomings of the MBA and computer science mindset that product management had not yet considered this.

So, the field of user experience emerges, typically within design teams, in order to fill this gap. It makes for an awkward organizational fit, because, really, product managers should be the ones driving these efforts, as they are best suited to weigh these inputs alongside the business and technical concerns.

The dissolution of “UX Design”

User experience is an emergent property of an entire organization, not just one group. When user experience is so closely associated with design, it allows non-designers to feel like user experience isn’t their responsibility. This association also sets up designers to fail, because they are given a charter they cannot deliver on.

There is another issue around the job title, and career path, of “UX Design.” The use of the term is so broad as to be meaningless. Instead, let’s unbundle the components of what people think of as UX Design and place them where they make more sense.

Much (most?) of what people mean when they say UX Design is around the structural and interface designs of complex, software-enabled systems. And we already have a name for that: interaction design.

There are strategic aspects of UX Design — user research-informed product strategy, using design and storytelling to help figure out what we should do. We also have a name for this: product management. As in, product managers need to consider this empathy-driven understanding with equal weight to the business and technical concerns.

Do not interpret this as me suggesting designers should not be included in product management — far from it. Design is a key input, and oftentimes, driver of product management. In fact, I am seeing more and more senior “UX Designers” reframing themselves as product managers, because it better explains what they’re actually doing. This is progress.

“User experience design” served a purpose when it was necessary to shine a light on a glaring gap in the ways we were working. That gap has largely been addressed, and I see no reason not to retire that term.

Why I Don’t Like the iPhone 6

iPhone 4

When I got the iPhone 4, I would turn it over in my hand, studying it. It was a remarkable work of design and engineering, an ecstatic product unlike anything out there, and one of the most beautiful things in my possession.

I was wary of the iPhone 5, as I believed the hype about limitations of hand size guiding phone size, but found the 5 to be an improvement — in this case, more pixels were better.

However, I find the iPhone 6 to be a serious step in the wrong direction. Whereas the craft, precision, and boldness of the prior models could have only come from Apple, this is first iPhone that feels like it could have been made by anyone. (Khoi digs into this very thoughtfully.)

Having used an iPhone 6 since a week after it came out, I feel like I have a firm grasp on just what this phone is. And I don’t really like it.

It’s too big. It’s awkward in the hand. My thumb can’t quite reach the upper-left-hand corner, and I’m constantly mis-tapping items up there. That Apple had to give us a hack to make it more usable should have been a sign to someone (Jony?) that however fashionable this size is, it’s still not a good idea.

I’m constantly having to shift it from pocket to pocket because it doesn’t sit well in any of them. It peeks out over shirt pockets. And yes, you’re constantly afraid of bending it.

And I haven’t realized any benefits from the greater screen size. Apps are in no way improved.

It’s too slippery. The curved edges and aluminum back make it quite slippery. I’ve dropped it a number of times. The 4/5 had those hard edges that gave you something to grip. The 6 is just an eel.

iPhone 6 buttonsThe Sleep/Wake button is in the wrong place. Recognizing that size was a problem, Apple shifted the Sleep/Wake button from the top to the side — so you could reach it with your thumb. However, given that this phone is too big/awkward already, it doesn’t matter where they put the Sleep/Wake button, because you’re already compensating for it’s size.

By putting it on the side, they introduced a whole new problem. The Sleep/Wake button is now symmetrical to the Volume Up button. I typically leave my phone in my pocket while listening to podcasts. Due to the vagaries of different recording levels and ambient noise, I fiddle with volume quite a bit. (Do you see where this is going?) Now, because of symmetricality, half the time when I intend to press the volume button, I instead hit Sleep/Wake. A key principle for successful industrial design is that I don’t need to see the product to use it right — physical affordances should allow me to operate by feel.

Also, if you transition between iPhone 6 and an iPad (as I do), you now find yourself feeling for the Wake/Sleep button on the side of the iPad.

I guess what I don’t like is that the seemingly elegant (because of symmetry) and smart (because of hand size) move of the Sleep/Wake button makes me feel stupid because I’m often pressing the wrong button. This is a classic kind of design error that expresses itself as user error, the impetus for Don Norman to write The Design of Everyday Things.

So, ultimately it’s disappointing. The iPhone 6 is the first generation that lacks perspective, personality, and the obsessive care we’ve come to associate with the product. It’s a me-too phone. It definitely has benefits over the 5s (mostly notably processor speed and camera), so, it’s not like I’m going to downgrade. But had they simply placed the iPhone 6’s guts into an iPhone 5 shell, I would have been much happier.

The fear, of course, is that this is the first step in a post-Jobs design direction, and without his tyrannically high standards, Apple once again loses its way. We’ll see. One hopes it’s simply a fashion-chasing misstep that is corrected over time (though, the market response suggests otherwise). We’ll see.

[It turns out, unsurprisingly, Mark Hurst has some very similar sentiments to mine.]

San Francisco Design Agencies Feeling the Squeeze

This morning, Dan Saffer shared on Twitter that Smart Design SF is shutting down. Earlier this month, Adaptive Path surprised pretty much everyone who cares by announcing they were being acquired by Capital One. So what’s going on?

I don’t know the rationale for Smart’s decision, but in talking to friends, and trying to make sense of what’s happening, it appears there are two opposing forces that San Francisco design firms have had trouble reacting to.

The first is the growth of well-paid in-house design teams at money-hoarding tech companies and well-funded startups. I first saw this about 10 years ago, when Adaptive Path lost a candidate to Google because they offered what we thought was an insane salary. A few years later, Facebook and Twitter followed suit, and now every tech company is offering designers 50-100% more in salary than what design agencies can swing. In the past, agencies could say, “Yes, but we respect and value design in the way that in-house companies don’t, and you’ll get to work on a range of things, instead of just one thing over and over.” That doesn’t hold true anymore, and most of the interesting design work is emerging in-house, and designers want to be where the action is. And get paid better to boot.

Here comes the counterintuitive bit. If design is in such demand (and jobs pages at every company suggests it is), why aren’t agencies just charging more, and using those higher billings to pay their designers more, and thus be competitive? That’s how markets work, right?

Well, not quite. What’s actually happening, according to friends at agencies, is that client’s willingness to buy design from agencies is decreasing, and project budgets have been shrinking. And the prevailing theory is that this is happening because companies are building in-house teams, and that’s where their ‘design budgets’ are going. Whereas in the past, a company might spend 20% of a design budget internally and 80% externally, that’s now swapped.

Another way to put it, as companies have gotten smarter about design, and recognized it’s a competency they need internally (something which Adaptive Path promoted in our book), they’ve become less comfortable outsourcing it.

So, San Francisco design agencies are often billing less than before, yet the talent market is able to earn more than before. This is a quandary.

It’s telling that Smart Design seems to be otherwise financially healthy — last month they opened an office in London. Their main offices is in New York. It just seems like they’ve thrown in the towel in SF, and from what I can see — I don’t blame them.

The Why and The How of Organizations that Deliver Great Experiences

As companies embrace the need to take user experience seriously, often their first step is to build out a “UX department.” However, the reality is that user experience is a phenomenon that emerges from an entire organization’s activities, not just the efforts of one team. There are (at least) six components that need to be aligned throughout the organization, which I’ve grouped into “The Why” and “The How”.

The Why


What do you stand for?

An organization must have a clearly articulated set of values, and if you want to deliver great experiences, those values most include humanistic qualities of customer-centeredness and empathy.

Values statements from Apple, Southwest Airlines, Target.


Where are you headed? 

Everyone must have a shared sense of where the organization is going. This vision must be concrete and inspiring. Bulleted lists do not comprise a vision, because it allows team members to have very different interpretations, which will undermine their efforts to deliver a great experience. At Groupon, before we launched our redesigned website, we created an internal-only “north star” that illustrated what our experience could be in 2 years time. It helped orient everyone in the same direction. Deborah Adler’s “SafeRX” prototype embodied a vision for a new pill delivery system better than any list of requirements could.

Jared Spool has written good stuff about vision: The 3 Qs for Great Experience Design, The 3 Steps For Creating An Experience Vision.


How do we know when we’re successful?

At Adaptive Path, my favorite question to ask client stakeholders during the initial discovery phase was, “How do we know when we’re successful?” It seems so obvious and innocent, but as I worked with more companies, I grew to realize just how few organizations had a clear sense of what success meant to them. However, if you’re not clear about goals and success metrics, it’s much harder to make decisions throughout your process, and your efforts lose focus.

Christina Wodtke’s discussion of OKRs is a good place to go deeper.



How do we encourage desired behavior within the team?

Incentives might seem a highly specific tactical matter compared to the others. Thing is, it warrants being called out as it’s where the best laid plans of delivering great experience get bound up in the legacy behaviors of an organization.

How is performance assessed? What criteria drive rewards (raises, bonuses, promotions)? What behaviors get lauded and evangelized? 

I’ve worked with numerous financial services organizations, where people were rewarded based on the performance within their business unit (banking, brokerage, insurance, loans) or their channel (in store, by phone, online). Such incentives are anathema to great experiences, as it discourages internal cooperation, even though customers are engaging across businesses and channels. 

I recently spoke with Irene Au about her career leading UX teams, and a challenge she had at Google is that individuals were promoted based on how much stuff they shipped, and not about the quality of what was shipped. Optimization and refinement was thus discouraged, even though such iteration is necessary for great experiences.


How do we operate?

The first thing to understand — there is no One True Way. No grand process to rule them all. Delivering great experiences requires discarding rigidly defined processes, instead embracing a toolkit, a set of techniques that can be used as needed to solve specific problems. 

However, there are characteristics of organizational operation that typically lead to the delivery of better experiences.

Work as a cross-functional team as early as possible. Waterfall approaches, where one functional group hands off to the next functional group, deliver poorer experiences. The complexity of the problems you’re trying to solve, the components that need to be marshaled and coordinated in order to succeed, requires input from the entire team from the outset. And not just at a kickoff meeting, but throughout throughout definition, design, and development.

Upfront, qualitative field research reveals opportunities, leads to insights, and sparks creativity. Engaging prospective and active users at the start of a project, understanding their current behaviors, and revealing the motivations and emotions that drive their actions, will lead to insights that in turn identify new opportunities for delivering customer value. 

Design and prototyping are activities that support the entire process, not discrete steps in the process. You can use design and prototyping techniques from the beginning of the process. (For more on this, read about The Double Diamond Model)

Bias towards building and making, not thinking and documenting (though some thinking and documentation can be quite helpful). Companies that deliver great experiences are constantly crafting those experiences, refining and refining them.


What skills are necessary?

This question is the hardest to answer generically, because it’s so dependent on the specifics of experience delivery. That said, there are a couple of newish roles that organizations serious about great user experiences must consider.

Strategic designer. As design gets brought into earlier parts of the process, it’s important that designers are comfortable with strategy and planning. Not all designers excel at these discussions, so it is important to have designers who can engage with and are excited by strategic concerns, and who can hold their own with business analysts,  product managers, and engineers.

Prototype engineering. Engineering is typically seen as a production exercise — creating code that is ready to be deployed. In this new era of iterative design and prototyping, a role has emerged for those who can quickly cobble together interactive prototypes with no concern as to whether the code created is reusable. 

This capability comes from one of two places — technologists who are comfortable being nimble, or designers who are comfortable prototyping their designs. Either way, it’s important that your team can quickly prototype new solutions in such a way that users can experience them and provide meaningful feedback, which will then inform subsequent iterations of the solution. 

I’m Sure There’s More

While I think this is pretty complete, it’s doubtless not exhaustive. I’d love feedback on improvements, be they amendments, refinements, or removals.