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Subvert from Within: a user-focused employee guide

Subversive2
It's one thing to talk about--and execute--a user-focused approach when you're a small company or an independent contractor. But what if you are, in fact, a fish in a sea as vast as, say, Microsoft? Can you hope to make a difference? Or does working at the "DarkStar" suck the soul from any employee with a passionate users bent?

I spent yesterday at Microsoft. And yes, it was on a "passionate users" mission -- something even my teenage daughter found hilarious given the Microsoft we all know and love to hate. But the day was a string of surprises and challenged assumptions (starting with finding Liz Lawley in my workshop (someone I'd never met but long admired), and ending with meeting some amazing MS guys including Furrygoat's Steve Mafosky, Shawn Morrissey, and Lou (whose-last-name-I-forgot)).

It's so tempting to say that anyone who really cares that much about users ought to get the hell out of the big company. I know, having done my time at Sun. But I'd forgotten how to see Microsoft as something other than a Big Company. I'd forgotten (or never recognized) that it's a collection of individual people, and no matter how entrenched the company's views, policies, practices, values, bureaucracy, etc. are, there are motivated, smart, caring, creative people who work there.

And these folks have a chance to make a Difference (capital "D") on a scale that most of us will never touch. When Ward Cunningham (inventor of the Wiki, key player in extreme programming, etc.) went to work for Microsoft, much of the software engineering world was horrified that he'd even consider it. But he kept insisting that where better to produce positive change than going straight into the heart of one of the biggest sources of trouble for both users and developers in the software ecosystem?

But let's say you're not a Ward Cunningham or any other famous, visible, already influential industry player. You're an engineer, or maybe a program manager. In that case, you do what many of us did at Sun... subvert from within.

Here's my little unofficial guide to creating passionate users for those working in Big Companies. Most is from things a maverick (but cleverly disguised as compliant) group of us did at Sun, while we could. Only one of our original disruption team remains a badged Sun employee, but our legacy persists today in areas that won't make us famous, but do make a substantial difference in the experience that users get within the sphere we influenced.

In no particular order, here's a collection of tools used by our formerly underground User Liberation Army:


Language matters. Frame everything in terms of the user's experience.

In meetings, phrase everything in terms of the user's personal experience rather than the product. Keep asking, no matter what, "So, how does this help the user kick ass?" and "How does this help the user do what he really wants to do?" Don't focus on what the user will think about the product, focus everyone around you on what the user will think about himself as a result of interacting with it. Study George Lakoff for tips on using language to shift perceptions.


Be annoyingly persistent.

If you're relentless in the previous step--always asking the question, "how does this help the user kick ass?", it won't take that long before the people you interact with will anticipate that you're going to ask it, and that at least forces them to think about it for a moment. Over time, and over a large number of people, those moments can start to add up.


Capture user stories.

Keep a notebook or hipster PDA with you always and whenever another employee, blogger, (or user) tells you something good or bad about a real user's experience, write it down. Build up a collection, and make sure these stories are spread. Be the user's advocate in your group and keep putting real users in front of employees (especially managers). Imagine that you are the designated representative (like the public defender) of specific users, and represent them. Speak for them.


Speak for real users... not fake abstract "profiles".

Represent real people, not the abstract notion of "users". Rather than saying, "what users really want is...", refer to your collection of specific user stories and talk about real people. When you bring up users, talk about specific people with real names and experiences. Too many companies use fake "profile" characters as a way to think about real users (e.g. "The typical user is a thirty-five year old sales manager with a four-year degree and two kids who uses a computer for..."). While that's better than not thinking of users at all, it still puts both a physical and emotional distance between the company and real users. After all, it's impossible to truly care about pissing off the "fake" 35-year old sales manager (even if you give the profile character a name, like "John"), but almost everyone starts to squirm when they think about a real person becoming upset with them.

When those around you talk about the abstract concept of "users" or "customers", try to bring up specific real people whenever possible.


Be afraid of Six Sigma. Be very afraid. Ditto for most other "quality programs".

Just as using fake user profiles creates and maintains a separation between company and users, anything that treats users as statistics and abstract numbers on graphs is a problem. To treat a poor user experience as some kind of "defect per million" is just crazy. This doesn't mean Six Sigma and other quality programs aren't important and effective... but people are not widgets. When widget A does not fit properly in widget B, that's a defect. When user Barry Porter cannot figure out how to do the basic thing he bought the software for, and he's frustrated and his job is at risk, that should provoke a more visceral reaction. Again, people aren't widgets. Make sure those around you keep being reminded of that.


Never underestimate the power of paper.

Print out little signs that say things like, "How does this help the user kick ass?" and leave them lying on the copier, or the fax machine, or taped on a bulletin board and your cube/office wall. Keep changing them! (Remember, once your brain expects to see it, it stops being effective.)


Get your hands on a video camera, and record some users.

This is one of the single best things we ever did at Sun... recording real users talking about the bad--and good--things they experience as a result of using the product or service. They don't need slick editing. Just simple videos that you can send around the intranet and show at meetings. Having the user advocate for himself -- in his own words -- is more powerful than when you speak on his behalf. It's very hard for people to think of users as abstract numbers and line items when they have to actually see a real living breathing one with a face and a name and an eye color.


Start a subversive club. Right there on campus, recruit and organize your fellow ULA guerillas.

But... just don't call it that. At Sun, we called it a "Knowledge Design Book Study Group", and held meetings where we picked a particular book and then met to brainstorm on "what are the implications of that book for what we do with our users?" Our first book for our study group was Richard Saul Wurman's Information Anxiety (second edition). I don't care what your product is or who your users are, if they're human, they're almost certainly dealing with Information Anxiety.


Put pictures of real users on your walls. Act like they're as important to you as pictures of family members and pets.

YOU create the culture of caring about individual user experiences by demonstrating that it matters this much to you.


When product features are discussed without taking into account how it helps (or hinders) the user kicking ass, adopt a slightly confused, mildly annoyed look...

Act like it's really weird and inappropriate that the person never brought up the user. As though they left for work without putting on a clean shirt or brushing their teeth. It's just something you do. Over time, those around you should start to become uncomfortable when products are discussed without the concept of the user at the center. This is especially effective when there is more than one of you, so that you can -- as a group -- ALL act confused and annoyed. You want it to appear that EVERYONE thinks the way you do, and that not speaking up about the user is just...weird and wrong.


Blog about it

People are listening.


Challenge user-unfriendly assumptions every day.

When someone says, "We can't do that" or "We must do it this way" question it. Every time. Don't let anything go unchallenged. And when the answer is "because customers don't like it that way" or "customers want..." or something like that, always ask, "How do we know this?" (just act curious). It might be that the data on which that assumption is based is too old or was never well formed in the first place. You'll never know until you dig deep into the thinking that's driving the assumption.


Gather facts. Build a rational, logical case that maps a user-centric approach to real business issues.


You don't want to get into an opinion war. You want facts and stats on your side. If you can point to a specific plan for a feature change, for example, and say, "Well, when we did something similar over here in this area, we had a complaint ratio of..." The more "emotional" and touchy-feely someone perceives the emphasis on users to be, the less likely they are to take it seriously as a business case. There are always going to be a lot of people in the company who refuse to care about the real people, but they will care about numbers, so you should always be trying to prove that the user-kicks-ass approach has a compelling benefit for the business (beyond the obvious one that you and any other system thinker would see). We learned the hard way that we should never take it for granted that other people in the company will even think about this idea of the user being passionate and in flow.


Look for first-person language from users about their own experience. Challenge others to solicit first-person, user-as-subject language.

Do everything you can to get user feedback phrased in first-person terms. Rather than feedback that talks about what the user thinks should be in the product, try to solicit feedback that gets the user talking about himself. Users tend to want to tell you what you should add/subtract from the product, but what you need is feedback where the user tells you about himself in relation to the product, even if it's negative.

Useful: "I tried to use the XYZ feature, and I couldn't figure out how to make it work."

Not useful: "The XYZ feature doesn't work properly."

Useful: "I was able to make a really cool image as a result of your app."

Not useful: "The app does a great job of image processing."

Set it up as a challenge for yourself and others you work with to figure out ways to generate first-person feedback where users talk about themselves. Make it a game or a contest to see who can get the user to use the "I" word the most often. What kind of questions could you ask that would lead to the user talking about himself rather than YOU or your PRODUCT?


Don't give up.

If you do, then quit at the earliest possible moment. But if you're relentless and you slowly recruit others to your cause, you can change a culture... one small group at a time. If you succeed, even in a small way, and help shift the supertanker just one degree... that one degree eventually means a profoundly different trajectory down the road. Even if your chance to make a difference is slimmer than for those of us in smaller groups (or lone wolf operations), you have a chance to make a WAY bigger impact, touching far more people's lives.

I must say that I won't ever feel the same way about Microsoft now that I've interacted with these folks. And while you might not have heard much about Brady Forrest (the guy responsible for bringing me in to do the workshop at Microsoft), that's going to be changing. I have friends at Sun, and now I have friends at Microsoft. It's hard to refer to something your friends belong to as "evil". And even if corporate Microsoft WERE truly evil, I reckon if my friends are there fighting the good fight from within to produce change, that's something I can feel good about.

[Be warned, though, that I was asked or rather urged to leave Sun as a result of some of what's in here so... I wouldn't be taking advice from me if I were you ; ) I finally got the "you're not a team player" warning and put on probation (and eventually asked to leave), but my response was, "Oh, I AM a team player. It's just that I'm on the user's team." (I left out the part about, "Since clearly nobody ELSE around here is...") ]

Posted by Kathy on September 23, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Our montra at Sproutit.com is, "Are we solving our customer's problem." We chant this whether it is new product development, response to customer inquiries, or even strategic management decisions. I believe in the phrase that 'business is a stage.'

No customers... No performance.

No performance... No business.

Posted by: Chris Bauman | Sep 23, 2005 4:10:53 AM

Great Post! - one to print out and keep :)

The nice thing about starting your own business is that you *can* put this sort of thing into practice.

Posted by: Richard Rodger | Sep 23, 2005 4:20:45 AM

Kathy, Once again, good info.

At the beginning of August, I blogged my experience with searching for a coffeemaker as an analogy to IT effectiveness and experience for the user.

http://blogs.ittoolbox.com/pm/career/archives/001283.asp

It took on a life of its own. I ended up speaking to a product manager (customer service didn't know what to do with this call) at Mr. Coffee. Her very first statement after being forced to look at my blog was, "There is always a chance for user error."

I replied, "But you are assuming the error was on my part. I know that the error is in the design, on your part." She did say that Mr. Coffee (notice, not her specifically but the corporate entity) liked people who were passionate about their coffee. I don't think she was very excited about THIS passionate coffee drinker.

I was also told I would be contacted....that hasn't happened yet.

Is this how our users feel? I am so sorry...

Posted by: Matthew Moran | Sep 23, 2005 7:56:46 AM

Your impression of employees at Microsoft(the big beast) could be different from what is perceived by majority of employees there. There are plethora of articles about work conditions(on a negative sense) in Forbes, Business week and Newsweek in the last couple of issues.
My impression from those articles is that it is driving some innovators out due to the inter-group fights and corporate bureaucracy.

Posted by: Kishore Dandu | Sep 23, 2005 9:07:58 AM

I only wish I read something like this 5 or 6 year ago when I really needed it. Sadly I learned the hard way but I agree with everything you've got here.

Up the revolution! ;)

Posted by: Damian Rees | Sep 23, 2005 9:26:28 AM

Another awesome post, Kathy. Being naturally subversive, these are great tips. Have a great time on the island this weekend.

Posted by: Brian L. | Sep 23, 2005 9:31:31 AM

great dumb idea! your little speech looks good on paper but plays out poorly in the politics of a large business, which i suspect you know little about. being a subversive means identifying underperformance and calling it out. but in a corporation, performance always tracks back to a real person, so you will in essence be calling out the poor performance of someone who may sit above you in the hierarchy. then they will make you go away. then you are not getting paid. what was the point again?

if you want to provide better service, start your own company, its really the only way.

Posted by: grumpY! | Sep 23, 2005 10:21:18 AM

Kathy - I LOVE reading your blog. I work on a team where I don't need to be subversive about keeping cusomters in the front our minds. But, I still learn so much from your posts. I am just thinking through how to have a productive dialogue with users about features they want added to our service. I think the magic to doing this well will be in getting users to speak in the "I." Thanks for putting words to the whispers from my gut.

Posted by: Kirby Freeman | Sep 23, 2005 1:50:18 PM

At first I thought I was reading about stalking techniques. :-)

This is a very funny article none-the-less.

Posted by: Lee | Sep 23, 2005 2:16:33 PM

I find it interesting (if a bit disconcerting) that Kathy came to Microsoft with the impression that we wouldn't be customer-focused. In my years here, I've found customer-focus to be one of the defining characteristics of the Microsoft product development experience. Maybe I've just been lucky to be in good groups - in any case, I like it! I'm glad Kathy got a chance to come see what we're all about. It sounds like Sun really soured her on big business - that's too bad, because while there definitely is overhead (and the work environment varies a great deal from team to team), there is also a tremendous opportunity to help a lot of customers when you work at Microsoft.

Posted by: Bruce | Sep 23, 2005 6:34:16 PM

Grumpy --- Sun isn't a large business with politics? I really think you are missing the essence of this posting. Step away from the "subversive" part and look at it like good business advice.

Great posting.

Posted by: Brian | Sep 23, 2005 7:27:09 PM

let me be more blunt - this type of behavior is a great way to make people hate you. and i can assure you wherever you go starting these little subversive clubs, you will earn hatred. insanely smarmy brown-nosers are not well liked, because it stinks of some vision you have of yourself as the lone over-performer...otherwise why would you have to subvert your coworkers and the practices they follow? you are telling your coworkers that you cannot work with them because they are stupid and you are smart and only by yielding to your will and recreating all things in your image will you be satisfied. i see these "career-bitches" (either gender) where i work (duh, decode it from my ID), and they always burn out after about a year when they realize no one wants to work with them anymore. also, the legit leaders of the organization won't appreciate the implicit suggestion that they are morons (otherwise, why would you be subverting them?) and you should somehow get to jump the line just because you said so, because of course only you understand customers. sometimes managers will play along with these little charades under the guise of corporate co-option of "rebellion" (see: the 90s) but they squash these efforts with extreme prejudice when the so-called vigilantes get uppity.

once again, its best these rebel types go where they should - to start their own companies so they can erect a new order with the legitimacy of actually leading it. this route has the added benefit of actually making the rebel rich should they turn out not to be just another smart-ass "lets work this weekend" effort-drone, whereas the subversion technique you prescribe will leave you with the same 5% raise you got last year.

Posted by: grumpY! | Sep 23, 2005 11:11:13 PM

I was expecting an insightful article - but alas, nothing new here. Its even a bit childish. Colleagues tend to marginalize ppl who say the same thing over and over.

Forrester and Business Week have had much larger impact on getting UE design accepted at major corporations than silly little signs or anecdotal notes.

I call bs on this article.

Posted by: Noone | Sep 24, 2005 3:20:44 AM

This great article is another keeper. Of course big organizations are social groupings and sometimes how they behave isn't how they say they behave.

It's that subversion word that's the problem I guess. My dictionary gives the following definitions for subvert:
1 to try to destroy the authority of a political, religious, etc. system by attacking it secretly or indirectly syn undermine
2 to try to destroy a person’s belief in sth or sb syn undermine
If the organization is as off the scale as to need subversion, then you probably should give up and go somewhere else.

However if 'their heart is in the right place' but they haven't thought it through, then the practical steps here are great to cause the change that most people will support.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Sep 24, 2005 5:45:54 AM

Well grumpY,

Let's put it this way. You're being blunt, someone like Kathy or Me or maybe you too, is being as Honest as he/she can get about the "state of affairs".

You don't make enemies when you start talking about how things actually oughtta run. I create a lotta friction but hatred, no! Envy, YESSS! Ans it plays poorly in businesses because companies have So-Got to take their heads out of their asses and start really understanding what a customer needs.

Creating a lot of agry people is NOT a good thing. Shutting up and closing the doors does not mean that you won't be swept away by the huge pile of shit heading in your direction. Big companies are already scrabling into their Big Fortresses (busy buying each other out) and crapping because " customer, huh? who? what?".

Sure look at a company like Google, every rebel is, as we speak, geting a place to be "actually" able to vent it all out. And heck, it will be a Giant soon (see here http://tarrysingh.blogspot.com/2005/09/google-next-software-giant.html). They're just going out and talking to the regular folk. They'll screw the crappy companies (overloaded with crappy middle management) through and through.

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Sep 24, 2005 1:24:16 PM

D'oh. Them damn typographical errors. BTW the link was http://tarrysingh.blogspot.com/2005/09/google-next-software-giant.html

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Sep 24, 2005 1:28:03 PM

Another excellent post! When I first discovered your blog, I immediately thought you would probably enjoy reading Worthwhile Magazine (www.worthwhilemag.com -- "Work with Purpose, Passion and Profit") ... now I realize that other readers would really enjoy reading about you, your views and your work in Worthwhile Magazine -- and I think this piece in particular would be a fabulous contribution to the magazine! [I already pinged one of the regular contributors about this.]

Two thoughts occured to me as I was reading grumpY's comments: (1) I am more and more aware that other people are simply mirrors for me, and when I find myself getting really agitated about what someone else is saying or doing (or not saying or not doing), if I slow down and look inward, I realize that I'm really angry with myself and simply projecting on others. (2) I just started reading "Love is the Killer App" by Tim Sanders, and the very first pages describe Chris (dubbed "Mad Dog" by Tim), a very smart person who shares his knowledge bluntly, which leads to interpersonal blockages of various sorts; Tim goes on to propose the "lovecat" approach, where in conjunction with sharing one's knowledge, one also shares one's network and one's compassion ... and what I infer in the people and scenarios described in grumpY's comments is a lack of compassion. In contrast, I see a great deal of compassion in Kathy's post(s).

Posted by: Joe | Sep 24, 2005 1:52:27 PM

Grumpy,

"and you base this on your extensive work as a blogger?"

No Freaking way. I've had (and will continue to have)hands on experience on situations like these. You can let it lay and live in the "hellish" reality that you have accepted. Or you can fight it all the way like me.

Your call, Gramps ;-)

Posted by: Tarry | Sep 24, 2005 4:50:35 PM

grumpY!: you can criticize all you want, but you don't get to insult the other commenters (and especially not anonymously). Sorry, but everyone here is a guest (a friend, a co-author, or one of my students) and I'm putting my hostess hat on for this one. I've only deleted comments once before, but you've pushed too far, so I took out your most recent ones to Tarry and Joe. I *think* you have some good points, but man oh man are they ever buried in rude sarcasm and bitter disdain (posted anonymously, of course).

grumpY, I sure am glad I don't (and never did) work where you do. Sounds like it's way past time for you to get out.
[If you want to keep posting comments here, then email me so we can have a *real* discussion about it. Otherwise, you're now on the troll list after those last two I deleted.]

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Sep 24, 2005 4:52:37 PM

Interesting! I worked at a very large corporation and spent 6 years being subversive in this way. I was viewed as a bit of a "loose cannon" - I guess - but also a tremendous producer.

It is a well-warn complaint to say that any dissent or change of approach is met with disdain by management and that they immediately look for ways to make you go away.

I hate to be self-promoting (well, not really but indulge me) but I wrote about this in a blog titled, "The Man is trying to keep me down"
http://blogs.ittoolbox.com/pm/career/archives/001079.asp

If, on the other hand, you have had problems introducing ideas at every place you worked, well...


Another key point. Kathy is illuminating ideas that, in many cases, have been understood for years. For someone to indicate that it is nothing new is missing the point.

Typically authors are not trying to introduce a concept that has never been touched in some fashion. I know that there are some reading my blog and my book and they say, "of course, that is the way you grow your career." or "Of course, that is how you serve your clients/users." Still, there are entire generations of readers looking for this advice and input.

What a good author does is introduce good ideas to a new generation of readers or in a new and fresh way. Kathy is effective with her blog because she writes with an easy to read but provocative style. She infuses humor and attitude into her writing – which let’s you know that she believes what she is saying.

Posted by: Matthew Moran | Sep 24, 2005 6:22:50 PM

I'm a part of a small but determined group of folks in the IT department at the hospital where I work who are diligently trying to make bottom-up changes to better our department and the biggest problem is, frankly, our CIO. He's extremely - and impressively - process-centric and focused on what will improve things for patients. He's incredibly savvy on that front. But he's incredibly naive about how to run a department and has surrounded himself with a supervisory team that is all but worthless. Worse yet, he know that these supervisors actually submarine his desire for and efforts to improve our department, but he doesn't have the stomache to make the tough decisions to change this situation. So, while us front-line, bottom-of-the-food-chain workers see the problems and have ideas about how to afffect change, we run into the brick wall that is mid- and upper-level management within our own department.

Posted by: Rob O. | Sep 25, 2005 10:09:58 AM

First of all, the piece was terrific. Yes, it's true that the term subversive can be taken many ways, but as long as the work environment doesn't encourage thoughtful critical thinking about the product; then, yes, it any dissent will have to be "subversive."
What is interesting to me also is the amount of vitriol that it inspired from someone who is himself unhappy (i.e. grumpY!). Perhaps he should consider another line of work, or therapy.
The MS eg. is interesting as I think that MS is probably the best example of the capitalist model there is. Why? because the longevity of capitalism is due to its ability to morph, mutate, evolve. And MS appears to be doing just that.
In the case of MS, if the customer is unhappy, he/she won't buy the product. You can have all the slick adverts and PR, but the word gets out on the street very fast, "this is a stinker, avoid it!" They stunk up so bad, they had to reconfig.
The module model in a huge company only works if there truly is independence and intellectual integrity isn't challenged at every turn.
Thanks for a thoughtful and interesting piece.

Posted by: anon | Sep 25, 2005 11:58:11 AM

Some companies hate user feedback.

If they spam your blog, like they did mine, make more suggestions. They'll hate you more.

My blog linked below discusses their effort to silence/spam me; and what I did about it.

Karma!

Posted by: Mud's Test | Sep 25, 2005 3:44:13 PM

Thats a great entry. I am someone who has been working on both Java and .NET world. I really really really wish you would author a "Head First C#". The Microsoft world really needs a Head first series. ;-)
Cheers

Posted by: Prasanna | Sep 25, 2005 11:31:06 PM

This is good advice, and one I shall seek to implement in my (hopeful) attempt at becoming a writer. It's easy to become discouraged, but with a motivating methodology like this, one cannot go wrong.

Posted by: Christopher Trottier | Sep 26, 2005 1:30:51 AM

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