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Where UI & Leading People Converge

July 09, 2015

I was in Europe recently working with a large tel-com company on the development of a tablet user interface (UI).  As I talked about some of my secret sauce for coming up with a compelling UI, I realized there’s an uncanny correlation between the brain rules that guide UI development and what works in getting the best results when managing people.  See if the parallels jump out for you as well.

Brain Rule #1 – We’re easily distracted.

UI:  When it comes to our web environment, it takes mental work to remain focused and on task, especially if there are numerous options vying for our attention on a screen. That’s why our insides sigh or relax a little bit when we work in a clean, simplified screen environment that is directly suited to our needs.  A great UI is focused on what the user wants to do, where the user wants to go.  A great UI is sensitive to the impact of distraction.  Everything that’s a priority is available, or prominent.

Management:  If we are easily distracted or pulled off target from what’s priority, what creates the most value “now,” you can see what a relief it is to have clear and consistent messages from the leadership team.  If you think about it, you also can see why meetings, by adding more and more dialogue and input, easily fill up our days with distraction.  A meeting intensive environment is a messy work environment – Of all the things that got talked about what are you supposed to do, to focus on next?  It turns out it’s a lot easier to create distraction then it is priority and focus.  Unfortunately a leadership team that suffers from distraction, is inconsistent and tends to whip-saw their direct reports with yet another change in direction.  What’s your environment like?

Brain Rule #2 – Our brain frames complex tasks into simple sequences.

UI:  We think of a good software program as intuitive if it clearly anticipates and/or displays the next step in a sequence related to the task at hand.  When we are working on a task, our brain relaxes a bit and does less external scanning when it is easy to identify the next step in a sequence. Displaying 15 options, of which only 1 is the correct next sequence is typically not interpreted as intuitive, and may even be perceived as complex and confusing. “Intuitive” software de-constructs familiar patterns, and presents the steps to complete a task in the order that match our chaining of sequences.

Management: It’s amazing how important “what to do next” is, given that it’s often assumed, but rarely confirmed.  When it comes to getting the best out of people, don’t just discuss what happened, the problems and recommended solutions, clarify exactly what the people you are working with are going to do next.  Our brain always chains experience into next, but it’s surprising what different places that chained sequence is heading following a conversation.  Do yourself and others a favor, and clarify exactly what next steps look like – it saves lots of time, grief, misplaced effort and surprising priority choices.

Brain Rule #3 –
 Our brain likes to build and use patterns, and is in fact both disrupted and entertained by pattern transitions.

UI: We use patterns non-stop to interpret what we see and infer what to do.  Software that follows patterns both does what we expect and acts consistently (patterned) as we use different functions.  Our brain rapidly associates facts into patterns (whether they are accurate or not is a different issue) and we use it to save time, to in effect “know what to do.”  When our patterns get interrupted it can be frustrating.  It’s the feeling you get when you get a start using a new software release and find that familiar functions have changed without explanation.  The pattern is broken, and there’s no immediate new pattern to take its place.  On the other hand, engaging in creating new patterns can also be fun or entertaining when we see immediate consequences of our results.  That’s one of the reasons why programs like “Angry Birds” is so engaging.  You’re building a reinforced pattern for how to accurately launch those explosive flamers.

Management:  We all have preferences for what patterns we want others, and ourselves, to follow.   It may be following a written manual, or an informal sense of “how things work here.”  The funny thing about managing others is to recognize that in some ways we all walk around with a set of patterns, all talking and meetings aside, that pretty much defines what we are going to do next, unless you get people engaged in creating a new pattern.  You’ve probably noticed by now that talking doesn’t do a lot to change patterns, unless it itself represents a new pattern.  The key in managing people and moving behavior to a preferred set of patterns is to change the “game” so that you reinforce new patterns.  Unless we viscerally run into that experience of “Who Moved My Cheese“, we are most likely to continue with our current patterns… whether they are working great or not.  Patterns rule!

Brain Rule #4 – Our brain structures thought and behavior around who’s in authority

UI:  In the development of a software UI, ultimately there’s some authority source that makes final decisions.  Often it’s management or developers themselves.  You get the best software when the final decision is validated by neither management or developers, but by customers and available resources.  Every feature and functionality question can be resolved to “What can we verify the customer wants/would be willing to pay for?” and “What can we build in response given the amount of money and time we have left?”  I encourage to development teams to trust themselves to be creative, intuitive, and smart about what needs to be in the product, but just not to necessarily have the right answer. Test, test, test, test, test… you get the message.

Management:  Who gets the final “say” is usually defined by the reporting structure in any company.  But the Lean Startup movement has really helped introduce the concept of shifting the final say to the customer, or at least sharing the final decision with what the customer is willing to pay for.  Tying decisions into results, what sold, what worked, what generated return business is a shift for our brain, and a profitable one for the business… plus it saves a lot of discussion time in what can feel like endless meetings.

Bottom Line:  Our brain works in some predictable patterns.  You might think of them as brain rules.  Interestingly, the brain rules that you adhere to in making great software also turn out to be powerfully good in managing people and getting the best results while minimizing frustration along the way.  Whether it’s our brain’s propensity to be distracted (I’ve read that at a maximum of 8 seconds for most attending behavior, we’re only one second ahead of gold fish), or the fact that we naturally chain behaviors into sequences, our brain naturally functions in a way that both software and management can adapt to for best results.





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