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How do I improve the quality of my work?
Hey there, I’m Tim 👋 As I’m starting this newsletter, I am reposting content I published just to Amazon from 2019-2021. Today’s post was originally published on May 24, 2019 with a few edits. As I continue to publish here, I will publish a combination of fresh content and reposting older content. As always, I welcome your feedback and comments.
At All Tech is Human Conference this past weekend (in 2019), I learned quite a bit about my work’s ethical and societal implications. I’m grateful that these types of conferences are starting to exist and create a forum for discussing what technologists (I use this term broadly) role is in shaping society. It also made me rethink what “good” means. Before, I’ve thought of good as design that considers a customers’ needs, raises the quality of the work, has a positive business impact, and thoughtfully considers the technology constraints. But those customer needs are often considered in isolation of a single experience with technology – whatever I’m currently designing and they would be using at that given moment. At the conference, we were asked to reconsider what good means in terms of the longer impact that the design has on the customer (e.g., how does it change the quality of their life, change their world views, impact their social life) and the more significant societal impact it may have. With the scale and number of customers we work for at Amazon, this is a meaningful conversation we need to have. So with that top of mind, I’d like to share some other ideas to improve the quality of our work.
Take the extra five minutes
I’ve been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, where he articulates this perspective on craft: “Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer [or designer!]: Your work is a craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.” Honing your craft takes time and purposefulness.
Those that worked with me have probably seen the sense of urgency and hustle I bring to every project. Early in my career, this really hurt my reputation when I delivered 80% completed work. The ideas may not have been fully considered, perhaps a typo within the UI text, or alternatives I hadn’t tried. The advice I received that’s stuck with me is to take the extra five minutes before considering the work done. Whenever I think my work is done, I go back through it one last time, looking for opportunities to improve or errors I may have included.
Over the years, this has led me to focus on the final polish on any given deliverable. One example of this is a lot of my work becomes documented onto wiki pages. In those last “five minutes,” I strive to re-organize my thoughts, add some polish like a header graphic to the wiki and put signposts (headings, table of contents) to guide people through the page. While I want my design work to be excellent, I also want my documentation that contains my work to be exceptional and represent the excellence I am aiming for.
Explore and document alternatives while keeping the focus on your recommendation
Another lesson I had to learn to balance against my speed of delivery is exploring more options. In any given problem, there are likely many different approaches and solutions that could be taken to address it.
Early in my career as a designer, I would only design one option for each situation or problem. However, without exploring and thoroughly thinking through alternatives, it was hard for me to speak critically to my recommendation because I hadn’t fully considered the realm of what was possible. Over the years, I’ve found documenting the range of options, whether using different layouts, interaction models, or word choices, helped me think through the implications in the work.
As I started to explore many options, I also learned that I needed to show my POV. When I presented 10 design directions with minor visual differences between them, it was difficult for stakeholders to weigh in on which option to take. I learned I shouldn’t share all ten ideas and then ask, “So, what do you think?” Instead, I highlight my proposed recommendation and have my other options ready to show if questions arise. Document these alternatives in an Appendix but keep the conversation focused on your recommendation.
Seek diverse perspectives
Two Amazon leadership principles that go hand-in-hand for me are insist on high standards and are right, a lot. To insist on the most important standards, you need to tune in your are right, a lot. There are two ways I’ve found to do this: 1) Get new data to inform your judgment, and 2) Gather more diverse perspectives.
Whenever I find myself disagreeing with feedback from someone, I first make sure I understand the perspective that led them to that feedback. I have to keep myself from rushing to defend a decision and just start from looking to understand. We must build allies with individuals who are smarter than us and are willing to give honest feedback on our work. You can ask them questions like “You’re really exceptional at X. How do you do it so well?” or “What do you think it would look like for me to be twice as good at what I do?”
I’d like to take a moment to highlight part of the are right, a lot leadership principle: “They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.” If you find yourself making decisions with like-minded people, seek to get more diverse perspectives. For me, this means being purposeful to include underrepresented individuals within my work – whether as stakeholders or in our user groups. Doing so helps me disconfirm my beliefs, learn new perspectives, hear thoughtful questions, and step outside my white privilege bubble.
Think big, then start small
A frequent excuse for poor work is the constraints of a project: timelines, business needs, engineering limitations. While these are reasonable excuses for what the first version shipping may be, we can’t improve the quality of our work if we’re only designing to the constraints. Start by creating what you think is the right thing to build. What will the best customer experience look like? Designing for what’s possible today is mediocre at best, but designing further out can stretch the imagination. Then, develop the crawl-walk-run perspectives on the work. In doing so, you not only deliver work for the current task on the project, but you’re also informing the subsequent phases of work. I’ve found that in doing this in my own work, I’ve been surprised from time to time when an engineer can deliver something sooner than I thought may have been too complex for v1.
The bar is set by the global maxima, not just what’s near you
A phrase you’ll often hear around Amazon that’s not a leadership principle is “raise the bar.” This means we’re relentlessly unsatisfied with the current standard and need to raise it. A few years ago, Michaela Rodwick (Sr Manager of UX) changed my perspective on this when she shared that the bar for our work isn’t the Amazon design community but the broader CX community. Meaning, just evaluating our work against the current Amazon bar isn’t good enough. Our customers are evaluating us against any other experience in their life and we need to aim to be the best, not just better than our current standard. To improve the quality of work, we need to get over the local maximum. If you’re not familiar with that concept, say that you are looking for the best restaurant in the world. You couldn’t do that by only looking to go somewhere within 30 minutes of where you live. You would be limited to what’s best within your current view of the world. To go beyond this, you need to change your perspective of how far you’re willing to go and what it will take to get there. So, to improve your work’s quality, you need to take a broader perspective of the “best of” work out there and use that to look for opportunities to improve your own work.
So to summarize, you can improve the quality of your work by:
Create your definition of good work and consider including how it impacts society and long-term customer impact.
Spend an extra five minutes to check the details and improve your final polish.
Document alternatives but provide your recommendation.
Find people to stretch your thinking and give honest feedback to make your work better. Look for more diverse perspectives.
Design for the best CX, unconstrained from timelines, business needs, or engineering constraints, and then design the smaller steps to get there.
The bar is design in the world, not just the perspective and constraints at Amazon. Never be satisfied with the current standard.
That’s all I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear from you: What are techniques you’ve learned to improve the quality of your work? You can comment publicly or reply directly to this email. If you found this email helpful, I’m deeply grateful if you share this post with others.
I don’t yet have a way for you to vote or provide input on future posts. That is coming soon. If you have any topics you’d like to read in the meantime, drop me an email.