Aug 302013

The Corporate World

On the day I arrived at my internship, I was glad to find I had been given a cubicle, as well as a whiteboard, two cabinets, two kinds of chairs, and a very large desk. Space and resources, everything that I constantly craved at my job on my university’s campus. “I can be more productive now”, I thought… Well, that was an illusion.

There are two distinct factors about working in a big corporation filled with cubicles: it hinders communication and kills creativity. This is especially true for any profession that requires close collaboration to do great work. Imagine that you have a semi-important question for a coworker sitting a cube away from you. You could either send him/her an instant message or an email, hoping for a quick reply. If you don’t a reply few minutes after, you might consider just walking to the cubicle ask him/her in person. But wait, it’s really not an important question, and what if your coworker is focused on doing something and doesn’t want to be bothered? By this point, you are most likely feeling annoyed and have wasted a minute or two contemplating your dilemma. If the cubicle walls weren’t there, you could easily tell if they were free by simply looking at them. Additionally, the barrier to efficient communication prevents ideas from flowing quickly amongst your team, and ultimately leads to limited creativity.

Sadly, meetings are not a solution for this problem either. In fact, the amount and the nature of meetings I was involved in made the situation worse. They became a time slot where teammates tried to make up for the lack of regular and timely communication, expect it was not practical. Meetings themselves have an unique atmosphere that hinders communication. Now that you are in a room with everybody else, you become hesitant to speak up for fear of saying something wrong or looking stupid. At the same time, there is usually an anchorperson, most likely a supervisor or manager who serves as the main audience that you have to entertain. Most of the time it is not a very exciting event.

The bigger the company, the less efficient it is. There are many possible reasons why large companies are slow, but it almost always boils down to one word: Management. More people equals more time spent on management. As an intern, I was at the bottom of the chain of command: I report to my senior colleagues, while they report to our supervisor, and so on. In an ideal world, this sequence would happen consecutively, and it wouldn’t take very much time for me to pass on something to my supervisor – except that’s not the case. I was assigned to one project, while my senior colleagues were juggling several projects at the same time, not to mention my supervisor has to frequently travel to other company branches for meetings and other high level matters. Consequently, every time I ran into a bottleneck in my project and needed to make major changes, I would have to set up a meeting time several days in advance because everyone’s schedule conflicts. Meanwhile, I couldn’t proceed with my project because the problem was still there, and I had to wait for that meeting to come before I could do anything. On top of that complication, there were other departments inside the company that I had to communicate with in order to get access to certain resources. Last, because my project was mostly user research, I also had to take our clients’ time into consideration. Adding all that together, more than half of my time at work was spent on waiting to communicate with people. Is this bad? I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s bad (but neither is it good), because this is simply what happens if you have hundreds or thousands of people working together in an organization.

Perhaps this is why small startups that have only a few people can make rapid progress in a short amount of time. If Facebook didn’t start out as a college dorm project, but instead as a corporate product concept, I can guarantee you that today we would still be using the beta version of it… or the project plan might still being discussed in some random meeting.

Almost a Buzzword: User Experience

Each professional field has its own jargon, and that fact somehow overly complicates people’s impression when they see the term “user experience” (UX below.) What is UX? The term itself is simple and straightforward – the experience that user come into contact with when using a product. Yet the techniques and skills associated with it complicate the concept.

In essence, UXD (user experience design) is an umbrella term for all the fields within its system, and these are the methodologies that can be utilized for producing better design results. The common misconception is that UXD is an equivalent to user-interface design, but it is not true. It is similar to saying “The United States is equal to Maine,” while the reality is “Maine is part of the United States”.

Unlike web design or software development, I think you cannot associate “do” and “create” with UX. Once you have a product available, and you have at least one person using it, then UX is already there. The question is whether it is a good or a bad one. The answer depends on what happens during the product’s entire life cycle, beginning from the first rough sketch of the idea to the moment when the owner disposes of or returns the product. While there isn’t a definite rating scale for UX, failures can be attributed to two causes: partial execution of UXD, or total lack of it. Needless to say, lack of consideration for UX can bring harm to both the companies and the consumers, but partial consideration can also lead to devastating consequences.

For example, here is my recent experience with a well known computer retailer.

I purchased a new Windows 8 laptop two weeks ago. Once I was connected to the neighborhood’s public wireless internet, I noticed that the connection was significantly slower and more unstable than my old laptop. A quick search online told me that installing the latest update would solve the problem, but it didn’t. After several hours of frustration, multiple attempts and reading about other customers returning their purchase, I finally gave up, only to find out later on that the update had already solved the problem! However, this new laptop had a weaker reception than my other one, so it seemed that there was something wrong with the system.

Some takeaways from my story:

  1. Why wasn’t the customer informed about limitations and the solution to the problem?

  2. In fact, the question above should really be: why would there be such a problem in the first place?

  3. If the problem is unpreventable, how can you ensure that customers will know about the solution without frustrating them?

  4. Why did some customers decide to returning the product and how do you remedy that?

  5. If nothing else can be done, how can you make the return process as painless as possible?

  6. In the end, how do you minimize the negative impact to the company and prevent the impact from spreading?

To the company, it means losing the goodwill of the current customers and the interest of potential customers that hear the story. In the short term, this would lead to a slight decrease in sales and revenue. Long term, however, the company would lose its competitive stance in the market, especially if other companies are offering a better experience; this ripple effect may even cause the company to eventually go out of business. If you look at the questions above, by simply updating the computer before they are shipped out one could prevent the problem from occurring (considering that most customers aren’t advanced computer users). Even if there are edge cases similar to mine, a clear instruction label on the computer would be sufficient to inform the customers about the limitation.

If it’s so simple, then why risk it?

Unfortunately, the traditional business model measures progress through sales and revenue instead of loyal customer base. In fact, I could probably guess that the reason why the computers weren’t updated was to reduce overall cost of manual operation at the warehouse (increase revenue by cutting down cost), or the limitation was not stated up front so customers would be more likely to purchase them (increase sales.) With the widespread use of internet and online communities, this business-driven model no longer works; if you make one customer unhappy, you will end up losing several instead.

The good news is that more and more companies are starting to buy into this new user-centric model, which is why you are reading this article about my story as a UX intern. As more companies start to understand that customers are their most important asset, they will put more emphasis on improving their products and services from the buyer’s perspective, rather than just referencing the revenue charts. The bad news, however, is that either companies do not invest enough in promoting their product UX (also the reason why I wrote this article) or they claim that they do, but only do so for promoting their brand then do not actually execute it, so UX becomes another buzzword on their website.

Quality of Work = Level of Interest + Compatibility of Environment

As I look back at my internship, it’s accurate to say I was not working 50% of the time. You may think I was slacking, but in fact there wasn’t any work to do. While the inefficient management system slowed down everyone’s workflow, there was a more fundamental cause to my situation: meaningless work time.

This year’s interns could be categorized into two kinds of position: Developers and non-developers. Most of the developer interns were assigned to take on small projects from a constantly updated list of tasks. On the other hand, non-developer interns were either assigned to a single long-term project or job-shadowing with an experienced employee. So far, there are two visible problems with this picture: most developer interns were doing just the grunt work, and some non-developer interns were forever in training. As for myself, I was among the few that had a single and larger project for the entire span of my internship. You would think that having the opportunity to dedicate all of my time to one project was a good thing, except that’s not the reality.

During the research phase, I had to interview our clients regarding their current business practices as to better understand how they operate. After cold-calling and sending out emails to more than 140 clients, I suddenly found myself stuck in an awkward situation. I couldn’t proceed to the design phase without the research data. In other words, I couldn’t work! This situation would surface many times in the later stages of my internship, either because of the reasons stated above, or because of the nitty gritty internal management procedures. During my “free time,” if I were given optional side projects or granted the privilege to explore potential projects (such as the Google 20% program), instead of spending time looking for work-related tasks to do, I could actually be productive and contribute to the company. However, this alternative was very unlikely to happen given my status as an intern: someone being perceived as lacking the experience and skillset required for more sophisticated projects.

These frequent downtimes made me restless because I had to constantly struggle to justify the time spent on waiting. The worst side effect, however, was my slow demoralization. Over time, this feeling became a burden so large that I began to despise going to work. As a result, I would wake up every morning convincing myself that “today is different, I will try to get a lot of things done”, but end up leaving my cubicle as tired and frustrated as the previous day. If my story sounds familiar and you are passionate about what you do and work hard, there is something seriously wrong with your job, and a higher paycheck is not going to fix it.

For this situation, I can think of only two possible answers: Find a new job, or change the work processes of your company/organization. While finding a new job sounds like a risky move, it is a much easier route than trying to change how people do their job. The success rate for the second option seems to be quite low. Unless you are a managerial genius who understands the human mind exceptionally well, I would not encourage taking this approach. Group projects in college classes are a good example: when group mechanics aren’t working and you (or someone) try to change that, what was the result? Now if you think that was difficult, try to do that in a group that involves more than a hundred people. Fortunately, I was only a student intern and I don’t have to worry about job security (yet).

At the end of the day, you will be spending more or less a third of your lifetime working. So, on top of pursuing things that you are passionate about, you might as well think a layer deeper and figure out what ways of working can bring you the most satisfaction.