Highlights and takeaways from #24NTC

Notebook with colorful stickers (doughnut, rose, logo, 24NTC powered by NTEN) and a bookmark about "Planning welcoming and inclusive projects" with 10 strategies: 1. Determine your
inclusivity metrics, set
goals, and track success
to start. 2. Made for you 3. Create safer
spaces 4. Virtual
accessibility is
the new normal 5. Access,
access, access. 6. Plan for
multiple ways
for people to
process and
participate. 7. People are
more than data. 8. Name the
power dynamics
and account for
impact. 9. Stay flexible
and pivot. 10. Name the
labor and
celebrate
successes.
While I don’t pick up much swag when flying internationally, I do always love stickers, and small things like this bookmark courtesy of Big Duck from their great presentation about inclusive project management.

There are still many things I am processing from NTEN’s 2024 Nonprofit Technology Conference (and all the wonderful, expansive conversations I had before, during, and after). However, writing is a good way to process learning and reflect on things so, here we go…

As I walked into the Oregon Convention Center to pick up my badge, there were signs of the ways in which NTEN is intentional about supporting the community (e.g., local vendors from the craft market) and making sure the conference is inclusive and supports us humans attending as our full selves (e.g., designated spaces for lactation and prayer and racial affinity, a table at lunchtime for those fasting for Ramadan).

Hallway that shows 3 rooms with signs outside of them: prayer and meditation room, lactation room, racial affinity lounge

While I unfortunately missed Sabrina Hersi Issa’s keynote (and am hoping I can watch a recording later), the other two keynotes really shifted the lens for me, even in topics that I thought I knew a little something about.

Though I’ve been mulling for a while on the dominance of English online, in academia, and generally in traveling the world (even though I benefit from it daily), Anasuya Gupta (Whose Knowledge?) somehow managed to elucidate the depth and vastness of this – tracing its roots back to colonization and somehow, lest we feel overwhelmed, also sharing very tactical ways we might go about decolonizing the internet. I am still mulling over her questions:

  • Whose internet?
  • Whose knowledge?
  • Who owns and controls the infrastructure?
  • Whose structures and classifications? (e.g., in structured data)
  • Who and what is invisible?
  • Whom do we learn from, listen to, cite, and speak of?

(See my sketchnotes of Anasuya Gupta’s talk on “The Internets of Liberation”)

Actually, invisibility tied into Amber Case’s keynote as well, which made the case for calm technology – and for invisible technology, which allows you to focus on the task rather than the tool. For example, a window is invisible technology. Mind already blown. How did I not see that before?! (Pun not originally intended but now I feel compelled to leave it in there.) And bananas – their peels change color to indicate when they’re become ripe and when they’re going bad. It made me feel hopeful that we’re not doomed to drown in the proliferation of noxious features and products clamoring for our attention—that feels like the water we are currently swimming in. While I am uncertain if a seal of approval is a strong enough incentive, it was a good reminder that all design is governance, and I will be thinking about how to apply the clear, compelling, and practical principles of calm technology that Case has laid out.

(See my sketchnotes of Amber Case’s talk on “An Introduction to Calm Technology”)

On the theme of what’s visible/invisible and who controls what, The Glass Room had an exhibit about the journeys of the personal data that countless companies extract from us each day. The one about “The Real Life of Your Selfie” particularly stuck out as throughout my trip, I’d been through (at that point) 4 different airports 5 times within 6 days and I’d had my face scanned multiple times by both airlines and government agencies. Do I have the knowledge and privilege to say no? Yes. Did I have the energy resources to refuse after many hours of travel through multiple time zones and after having been jostled repeatedly by passengers who had shown they were capable of navigating around trashcans but not me, an actual human? Not really.

Poster of The Real Life of the Selfie showing and listing examples of the data that can be extracted from the picture of face and the ways in which it can be used

This year, I gave a talk on “Strategic Team Meetings for Teams of One.” True to the laws of technology, I ran into some technology issues at the start of my presentation. However, NTEN being the community that it is, I had three people jump out to help me trouble shoot (in front of a room full of people, no less). People even got up to help close door to the noisy hallway. And that’s not even including the friends and acquaintances who picked me up beforehand, when I expressed my nervousness, and during, when I was trying not to panic that I couldn’t actually show my slides to the audience. (Thank you, Brian, Adrienne, and Alexa for your help to fix that!)

Janice stands, speaking and gesturing with her hands, while standing next to a large screen with a slide about a Meeting with a partner activity. The first row of tables appears empty.
My dad’s initial comment when I sent him this picture per his request: “It looks like you’re speaking to an empty room, Janice.” I promise there were people! I also promise that my dad is actually very supportive of me even though it is very on brand that this would be the first thing he blurts out. (Thanks for the photo, Mark!)

If you missed my session, I also got the opportunity to talk about the topic on the Nonprofit Radio podcast, so stay tuned for when that episode comes out!

There is never enough time to talk with all of the people you want to nor attend all of the interesting sessions—and it wasn’t made easier by having 3 workshops for my coaching training that were overlapping with the conference. (But, oh, were they three transformative sessions!)

Here are some other highlights and things I’ll be continuing to think about (in no particular order):

  • Getting to meet many people in person whom I’d only ever spoken with online before
  • Catching up with old friends and meeting new ones – including someone else form Queens!
  • Mark Root-Wiley’s workshop on “DIY Accessibility Testing” – Every person who is responsible for a website should go through this, truly. It was very easy to do and very eye opening. If you’re attending the Washington State Nonprofit Conference in May, he’ll be presenting that workshop there!
  • Bettina Sferrino, Dani Faulkner, and Tristan Penn’s thoughtfully put together fireside chat on “Things We Wish Our White Colleagues Knew” (I have since shared these notes with a number of people not at the conference but whom I’ve had similar conversations with)
  • The way in which conference attendees challenged each other and made valid points while upholding community values in several specific conversations that could have easily turned into complaining or pre-decided arguments – windows rather than mirrors
  • A great session on proactive accountability and an intriguing session on sociocratic decision making
  • Brianna Collins’s amazing framing of being each other’s professional wingwomen – may each of you have someone like Brianna in your life! (But also, if you need a visual storyteller to help you communicate the change you’re making at your nonprofit, reach out to Brianna!)
  • A session that reminded me that language justice is not only about thinking about access for non-English speakers, but also for Limited English Proficient communities, access for D/deaf and hard of hearing communities, and access for Blind and visually impaired communities
  • The deliciousness I had while in Portland, OR, at Tusk, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Portland Cà Phê, GrindWitTryz, and Kachka
  • Stumbling across cherry trees in bloom at a riverside park – and someone I knew, making for a lovely walking catchup amidst the beautiful scenery
As seen from above, a park along the river with a winding path lined with blooming cherry trees, a bright blue sky and a bridge in the distance

Collaborating effectively on globally distributed teams

As someone who currently has a majority of her meetings between 5 and 10 a.m. due to time zone differences, and whose partner often starts his evening meetings around my (albeit early) bedtime, I am familiar with the challenges of working across time zones and working with people around the globe.

Long, curving suspension bridge across a body of water, as seen from the pedestrian walkway of that bridge

That being said, years before remote work became a familiar concept (though it existed, it was simply called telework), I’ve worked with people with whom I was not collocated (i.e., we were not working in the same place). I’ve completed projects, sometimes over phone and email only, with people I have yet to meet in person. And let’s be real – many people have had this experience as well. In certain jobs, you’re rarely in the office with your colleagues because you’re constantly on the road. In large companies, you may frequently coordinate with colleagues working in different locations—they’re on site and you’re on site, but you’re not at the same site. My best friend from high school once organized a whole party for me while being out of state and not even actually able to attend! (Thanks, Jess! And Jeremy, for coordinating in-state!)

Here are my top strategies for collaborating effectively (distributed or collocated):

  1. Name your assumptions so you can stop making them. Or at least see if they’re true.
  2. Be intentional and transparent in your communication and planning so as to avoid the confusion of incorrect assumptions (your own and other people’s).

There’s a whole other post that I could write about assumptions and how they trip us up when we are trying to work together. However, for now, I’ll focus on working across time zones and across organizations and across countries. (I’ll admit to not having much experience with working across different global cultures, specifically, since some fields, like scientific research, tend to have a strong culture of their own. And be rather…English language dominant.)

Many of the same things that work well for collaborating effectively across organizational boundaries (companies, departments, disciplines) are also helpful for collaborating effectively across time zones and geographic boundaries. (Well, hopefully someone else is paying attention to any differing regulations, tax requirements, and all that fun stuff.)

In fact, these practices are beneficial for collaborating effectively no matter whom you’re working with and in what context. If there’s a conflict because you expected someone to reply quickly to an email and they didn’t because it wasn’t within their working hours… Then ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you emailed them when it was after hours in their time zone, a holiday in their country (but not yours), a holiday in their religion (but not yours), their day off, or simply because there was no agreed upon response time and they were in the middle of working on a different priority. You can’t be mad at your colleague when you made assumptions (same working hours, same holiday schedule, that your project is more important than the other projects they were working on). Of course, you could just assume that they are ignoring you or not doing their job – but neither of those choices is particularly constructive.

Teams that I’ve been on where there is effective collaboration have the following:

  • A clear vision for what we are all working towards and a clear definition of success
  • Role clarity for everyone within the team and also for external parties (e.g., clients, other teams within the organization) who will interact with the team
  • Explicit (often written) agreements about how we will work together (governance or how decisions get made and who makes them, communications and response times, working and non-working hours, workflows, etc.)
  • Practices and systems that align with and support those agreements, whether it’s a project management tool, processes for information sharing and knowledge management, or the way you structure team meetings
  • Recognition of power dynamics* and structures or practices to mitigate these (e.g., not always favoring one time zone over another for meetings, acknowledging that the working language may not be everyone’s first language and that this takes a cognitive toll, awareness of the general tendency for the US teams to have more power when partnering with non-US teams or the headquarters over satellite offices, etc.)

*Depending on the context of your work and whom you’re working with, there are of course all sorts of other power dynamics to consider, but these are examples specific to working across time zones and across different countries.

Perhaps in the future I’ll get the chance to have more experience with working cross-culturally, since I’m not sure yet how that compares to living or traveling among other cultures. But in the meantime, if you’d like to share what has worked well for you in these situations, I’d be interested to learn from your experiences!

Drawing out stakeholder requirements with workflow diagrams

Have you ever been asked to find a technology solution for *flailing-arms-make-it-better*?!? Or attempted requirements gathering only to get a detailed explanation of how to do a task in the current system?

As anyone who has done requirements gathering can tell you, it’s a bit of an art form. (Yes, pun intended in the title!)

You want to meet the needs of the people who will use the solution, but it can be challenging to understand the needs of people who may not know how to articulate them in ways that translate well to technical specifications. While business process mapping is not an uncommon part of requirements analysis, it can be hard to get started if you’re new to it and hard to know how to get the necessary information.

This session I presented at the 2023 Nonprofit Technology Conference will break down ways to map workflows and get the information you need to write up effective requirements.

A few things I’ve learned about creating accessible slides

Apologies if you came here expecting that I was a playground designer, although there are people who make accessible play areas!

View seated for a conference talk in a room set up with tables and chairs and printed materials on the tables. At the front of the room is a glowing projector screen with a blank screen. No one else appears to be in the room.
Are you typically creating slides that you’ll present online? In person? (This photo was taken before someone else’s presentation at a conference several years ago.)

There is no perfect way to make things 100% accessible to everyone because people are different. I state that upfront as a reminder to myself as much as to anyone else that this work is not perfect, that it is messy, and that none of this should stop us from working to make things more accessible to more people right now.* I do not and I am not going to get everything right. I’m sure I’ve failed on a lot of these points in previous slide decks and I will continue to make mistakes. None of these tips are foolproof, and this list is not exhaustive. Perhaps you’ll read it and say you knew all these things already—and that you have some things to teach me! (Which would be great! Please do.) But, hey, maybe some of this will be new to some people. So, I will continue on with my imperfect notes on how I’ve been trying to make my slides more accessible.

Some of these things I learned from the speaker guide for NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, some from a class in graduate school on making information accessible (taught by the awesome Dr. Renee Hill!), some from independent learning about accessibility, and some things by trial and error.

The context of this post is creating slides that I’m preparing to present, such as for a conference talk, as opposed to other purposes. Although I may sometimes mention things related to presenting, the focus will be on the slides themselves. I most often use PowerPoint, so I mention some specific things in the version of the program I have, so if you have a more recent version or use something else for creating slides, those functions might be called something else or work a little differently.

Here are some things I’ve been learning and working at incorporating in my slides:

  • Always check the template (and any other colored elements you are choosing) to ensure you have sufficient color contrast. Unfortunately, those default templates are not necessarily accessible – even when they are labeled as such. You’ll want to check things like the color contrast for people who are colorblind or have low vision. If you like to create your own templates, start with a color palette that has sufficient contrast. Of note, color contrast is not only about the colors, but sometimes about the size and font weight. Black text on a white background will work at any legible size, but certain color combinations that are readable at font size 40 will not be readable by everyone at a font size 20. While it’s not perfect, if your combination doesn’t work if printed in grayscale, you should probably adjust the color palette.
  • Make sure every slide has a title. Occasionally, I will not use the template title area, or because I am not using a template, it is unclear which text is the title of the slide. While it might be obvious to a sighted person, it’s important to make sure someone using a screen reader would be able to use titles to help navigate through the slides. In PowerPoint, if you turn on “Check accessibility,” an Accessibility tab will be added to the ribbon at the top. You use the button for setting the slide title to set a specific text box to be the slide title.
  • Include an agenda and let people know what point in the presentation they’re at. This is more of a presentation tip, but it’s helpful to orient people to what’s going to be covered and to give people a sense of where they are in the agenda. This can be especially helpful for people with cognitive or learning disabilities, but it’s helpful to everyone. I usually include a slide with a numbered list of the topics or sections, and then each section starts with a section header slide that references the section number and where we are in the presentation. (If it’s hard for me to break it out this way, then it probably means the presentation needs some further organization.)
Slide that shows the section header: "1 / 5 What is service design?" followed by some footer information with the name of the presentation and the presenter
In this example of a section header slide, the title of the section, “What is service design?” follows “1 / 5” to indicate that this is the first of five sections in the presentation.
  • Use a font size of at least 18, but preferably larger! Using a larger font size also prevents you from putting too much text per slide, as slide are intended to be presented. If you truly need to write that much, you are writing a report! Or at least an article or blog post. They’re fine formats, but they are formats that meant to be read at your own pace instead of at the speed at which someone is giving a presentation.
  • IF YOU WRITE IN ALL CAPITALIZED LETTERS FOR VERY LONG PORTIONS OF TEXT, THIS IS VERY DIFFICULT FOR EVERYONE TO READ. That took you an extra moment to read and comprehend, didn’t it?
  • Leave the bottom 20% of the slide blank so that captions won’t cover up any content. Occasionally you might be presenting within a platform where the captions are not on top of the slides, but if you’re not sure, the bottom is often where captions are placed on a screen. (Unsure if there will be captions? Ask! It doesn’t matter whether you personally need them. Other speakers and attendees might, and they shouldn’t have to ask.)
  • Include alternative text for images, videos, diagrams, and other visual elements that are relevant. Avoid text in images; simply use the text. (This is inaccessible both to people using screen readers and to people using translation software or other text-based tools.) For videos, you’ll need to consider both captions and video descriptions (a description of what is happening visually) so that the content is accessible to audience members who are blind or D/deaf. You can mark decorative images as decorative and skip the alt text, although it’s worth asking the question of what those images are adding to your presentation.
  • Plan to describe the images verbally if they’re relevant. Okay this isn’t about the slides, but during the presentation, make sure you verbally describe the visual elements that you created alternative text for. Or if you are demonstrating something live, then describe what you’re doing – like if you were on a cooking show.
    • Speaker descriptions: Some people say the speakers should describe themselves, and others say this isn’t really useful information. Within the blind community, there are a lot of differing opinions on speaker descriptions. Unless I’m asked to describe myself visually, I tend to use the guideline of whether it is relevant. If the topic is related to career development, then the fact that I am an Asian American woman in my mid-30s is relevant. If I am talking about working remotely, then it makes sense to reference my surroundings. If I am showing people how to create diagrams, then a description of my visual appearance and what sighted people can see in my background feels performative rather than adding anything to an understanding of the topic.
  • Review the order of object order on your slides. If someone is using a device like a screen reader, you’ll want them to go through everything on your slides in the correct order. An easy way to test this is to use the Tab key to tab through each object (title, text box, image, etc.) on each slide. You can usually right click to move an object forward or backward. (Reading order starts in the back and moves forward to end in the front.)

My process for creating slides

Sometimes it’s difficult to take a collection of tips and figure out how to apply them in practice. My process for creating slides and presentations may be different from yours, but here’s a rough summary of my current process:

  1. Draft learning objectives, usually as a document.
  2. Use the learning objectives to draft an outline, usually in the same document.
  3. Start a new slide file and pick a template.
  4. Check that the template color contrast is sufficient. (Turn on accessibility checker to help me with this if it’s available.)
  5. Edit the template if needed.
  6. Start building out the content in the slides – usually putting the bullet points from the outline as the temporary slide titles.
  7. Work on developing the text and the speaking points in whatever order I can get it to come out in. Usually I put in placeholders for visuals that I need, but also sometimes information that I need to go find. I typically turn off or ignore the accessibility checker during this part.
  8. Lots of iterating, editing, filling in those placeholders, refining speaking points.
  9. Once the visual elements are finalized, I write alternative text. (I usually turn the accessibility back on at this point because it helps me tick off images that need alt text.)
  10. If I forgot to describe something in the speaking points, then I incorporate the description of visuals.
  11. Review and address any other accessibility issues that come up – with the exception of slide order, which I leave until last in case I need to make other changes.
  12. Go through the presentation as a whole, both the slides and practicing the speaking, to make sure everything works together as a whole (and within the allotted time).
  13. Check the slide order by tabbing through each object on each slide and adjusting the object order as needed.
  14. If there’s a method for making the slides available to attendees ahead of the presentation (so they can review as needed, at their own pace, using the appropriate tools, ahead of time), then I do that.

What else? I’m open to learning how to do things better! Email me and let me know if you learned anything new from this post, have suggestions, or what your process looks like for creating slides.

*While there’s no such thing as perfect accessibility, there is indeed possibility to do things that make the situation worse. For example, using an accessibility overlay on your website often makes a website less accessible than say, if you had forgotten to put alt text for images. (Okay, that’s not great, but at least it doesn’t break the other parts of your website.) Better to keep things simple, and to keep working at making your website more accessible.

Managing change when making big changes

Author’s Note: Is this change something new that you are in the process of planning? You may want to read “How to plan to do something you’ve never done before” before this one if you haven’t already.

Someone holds a phone with a compass app open while standing near a compass embedded in the sidewalk. Per the sidewalk compass, the person should be facing north, but the smartphone compass app says that this direction is 32 degrees north east.
In case you can’t tell from the photo, the compass on the sidewalk says we are facing north, but my friend’s smartphone compass app says that we’re actually pointing towards 32 degrees north east!

If you’ve ever managed a project with a long timeframe or been responsible for implementing a major change, then you know that, well, things change.  Inevitably, you’ll discover something that hadn’t been accounted for or that wasn’t as clear at the beginning, or perhaps, something in your context will have changed.  Maybe there’s a new opportunity you’ll want to be able to seize. 

You may have even identified some potential risks and come up with plans to mitigate them.  It is, however, impossible to know everything that could possibly happen or change or that needs to be accounted for when you’re initially planning a project.  One of the best ways to plan for the unexpected is to plan for change, to build in a margin for it.  That’s why it’s helpful to save for an emergency fund, and why you build extra time and contingency into a project budget.

You can also plan to make changes, even if you don’t know what the changes will be.  Worse comes to worse, your plan works out. 

Many people plan regular times to check in and evaluate progress on a project, especially a change management project, but even better is to regularly ask the question of what changes need to be made and evaluate the plan itself.

Plan to change your plan

Here’s how to prepare for course adjustments before you start really diving in:

  • Schedule check-in meetings and put them on the calendar along with an agenda.  How many and how often depends on the scope of what you’re doing and the timeframe.  Perhaps you might split it into thirds or around key milestones or phases.  If this is more of a continuous thing than a discrete project, then figure out a timeframe when enough will have happened to answer some key questions, but not so much time that it will be hard to change course.
  • Determine how it will be decided whether to adjust course and how.  This could be by consensus, by the project lead having final say, or some type of measure (e.g., as long as our revenue is on track within 5%, we stick to the plan)—or some combination.
  • When planning out the work, plan the first third in the most detail, the second third with some detail, and leave the last third at a high-level.  This will make it easier to make changes since you’ll have left some planning (e.g., who is doing what specific tasks during which week or month) until after the check-in point.

If this is a change management project (e.g., implementing a new system and new processes), having scheduled check-ins to review and adjust the plan can also support your cause.  One thing people worry about during a big change is that it will be terrible, it will make things worse, and they will be stuck with it.  (That can happen, of course!)  However, transparency about how changes will be made and opportunities to provide feedback or request adjustments (e.g., including some time to work out the new time tracking process before the summer staff join) can alleviate some concerns.  You can engage them as beta testers and partners in working out any issues before the full rollout.

Considerations for course adjustments

Here’s are some things you might want to discuss at the start of the project and then during check-ins:

  • What is the desired outcome at the end of this scope of work/part of the project?
  • What assumptions was this planned work based upon?  Have things changed?  You will likely need to change your plan if an assumption no longer holds.  If it was a constraint, then maybe you don’t need to change anything but this opens up other opportunities.  Note:Assuming that the plan will lead towards the desired outcome is an assumption.
  • Does it look like we’re making progress towards the desired outcome?  This is really about whether it is working for the team/organization or not.
  • What changes do we need to make to our plan?  This can be adding things, subtracting things, or modifying how you go about them (e.g., method, strategy, timing, who does what).
  • Do we need to change how we evaluate the need for course adjustments at our next check-in?

When the only constant is change, might as well plan for it!

How to plan to do something you’ve never done before

There are things that someone can show us how to do, like how to tie our shoelaces or how to fry an egg. Then there are the things you can really only learn by doing: riding a bicycle, managing people. However, it’s always helpful to have some frameworks for how to approach the new thing as you’re learning while you’re doing it.

Every time I have to do something new that is big enough in scale to warrant a plan (or feels overwhelming enough that I want to make a plan), I start with what I call the “What’s Needed Exercise.”

Notebook page titled, "What's needed?" with a bulleted list that reads: Tasks; Decisions; Information; People; Supplies, equipment, venues, etc.; Time, budget, commitments

This exercise is very simple: I ask myself what is needed to make this thing happen and don’t stop writing (or typing) until I run out of ideas of things that might be needed. Then I organize them.

Regardless of what the new thing is – a volunteer training, version 2 of a custom grants management system, moving to a new country – there are typically a few categories of things that are needed.

Here are some prompts for thinking through what’s needed:

  • What are the steps or tasks to do the big new thing?
  • What decisions need to be made? By whom?
  • What information* is needed? How do we get this information (ask someone, conduct design research, analyze the website data)?
  • Which people are needed and for what? (This could be people on a MOCHA or DARCI chart, or this could be people to do X thing, or it could be that you need an expert in alligator wrestling.)
  • What supplies, tools, equipment, systems, or venues are needed?
  • What time or budget or commitments are needed?

*If you can’t articulate what success looks like and how you’ll be able to tell that you’ve made it to your destination, then you’ll want to add to the list of information that is needed (or decisions to be made).

I don’t try to answer those questions in order, though you can if it’s helpful. Typically, I’ll make my massive list (in a document or a spreadsheet or as sticky notes on a board) and then organize them.

Here are some groups I find useful:

  • To do
  • To decide
  • To find out
  • To get

Once they’re organized a little bit, it will be easier to see the dependencies. Then you can begin to sequence them.

And there’s your game plan! Well, okay, you probably have a specific timeframe for getting this thing done, or you might be working on this with other people, and so you’ll need to work on the timeline and how you and the others will work together. But this can get you started on estimating the level of effort, how much time you’ll need to allocate, and when it can fit on the calendar, how many people (and which ones) you need to get to help you, and so on. Here’s a way you can start when you’re not sure where to start!

What approaches or tactics have worked well for you when planning to do something new? I’d be interested to hear what works well for you or how it goes if you try this out. Of course, it’s common, when you do something for the first time, that things don’t always go according to plan and you find yourself having to make some course adjustments along the way. Stay tuned for a post on how to plan to change the plan…

Finding handholds when you don’t understand the conversation

Here's my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book -- with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions!  (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)
Here’s my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book — with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions! (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)

People are saying things.  They seem to be words.  They seem to be in some type of sentence structure.  But what are they saying?  Or perhaps you are trying to read something that is written in some language that somebody would understand—and that person is not you. 

And it’s too much.  It’s too much.  It begins to wash over you, like the background chatter of other people’s conversations at a café.  Then all of a sudden, you jolt and remember you were supposed to be paying attention because now you are supposed to do something or answer a question and that would be…what, exactly?

Having moved to a country where I am still learning the language (and likely will be for a long time), this is constant.  So when a client mentioned that they were working with some consultants* on something they knew nothing about, and that they found it difficult to follow the conversations and be proactive—it made me think of all the parallels to learning a foreign language.

One of the most challenging things in an unfamiliar language is that you can’t filter.  You hear a combination of sounds and you cannot tell where one word ends and the next begins, let alone which is a noun or a verb or the name of a place.  (This is probably why many people don’t bother reading the standard privacy policy written in legalese.)

My strategy for tackling this inability is to find as many handholds as possible, and to use one to get to the next—the way a climber uses this handhold or that foothold to launch themselves to the next one and eventually climb up the mountain.

What does this mean in understanding a language?  That you go from hearing something like the wah-wah-wah of grownups talking on Peanuts (really a trombone with a mute) to hearing something that you know is a question to hearing, “Would you like something-something?”  And for a topic that’s not your area of expertise, maybe you go from hearing “acronym jargon jargon jargon” to “Some government agency announced that they are making changes to policy-that-applies-to-organizations-that-work-with-children.”  Then you can hear that and know whether or not you need to pay attention (filtering!) based on whether or not your organization works with children.

Here are some tactics for finding handholds (or footholds) when you don’t understand the conversation:

  • Start by identifying words—as in, you can tell when one word ends and the next begins.  (This is probably more for learning an actual foreign language rather than a different work language, but in the latter case, you likely already have this down.)
  • Use props, diagrams, or gestures as much as possible.  As someone who had to order custom sized curtains for her very tall windows using elementary level Japanese—and had them come out the way I intended—I attribute my success to being able to point towards different samples in the store, gesturing, and the diagrams on the order form for getting the measurements into the correct fields.  However, diagrams are also helpful for getting everyone on the same page when you’re dealing with something abstract (data definitions) or working with people across different disciplines.
  • Learn and leverage patterns. For example, I knew that generally after you get seated at a restaurant, a server will come and ask if you are ready to order.  So I can point at the menu even if I don’t actually understand the words in the question.  Familiarity with patterns is helpful not only in routine interactions but also in navigating websites—like which button is “cancel” vs. “submit”!  A work example of this might be that you are working on a project to implement a donor database instead of using spreadsheets.  The pattern, when you implement something new, is that this is a change from how people are used to working, and changes require some management in order to stick.  So even if you know nothing about databases, you can ask about the change management plan.
  • Become familiar with the words that answer who/what/where/when/how.  This might sound silly if you’re say, a fundraiser trying to understand how to accept a cryptocurrency donation, since maybe you and the person explaining it to you both speak English.  However, it’s still helpful to be able to tell which wah-wah-wah is the name of a form of cryptocurrency and which wah-wah-wah is a service or an institution that you need to coordinate the process with.
  • Leverage what you know as a jumping off point and grab onto the next handhold.  When you’re learning a foreign language, it’s really helpful to have a good understanding of the mechanics of your own language.  Let’s say you don’t understand algorithms and your teenage nephew sighs with exasperation every time you ask about a new social media platform.  However, the key communications principle of needing to understand your audience doesn’t change, even if who they are and what appeals to them and what’s the best way to reach them keeps evolving.
  • This can also mean you need to let go of something you do know.  A climber has to let go of the holds they’re using to make their way to the next one and keep climbing up.  Maybe getting a foothold in being more inclusive means letting go of only considering “they” to be a plural pronoun not to be used to refer to a single person.
  • Then build connections back to what you know.  Turn that leap (from one foothold to the next) into a bridge that you can traverse back and forth and build upon in the future.  For example, maybe you learn that the social media algorithm will show people more videos that are similar to ones they liked or spent time interacting with.  Now you can separate the mechanics of which videos get promoted from the principle that people want to watch things that are interesting to them.  This allows you to ask separate questions about how that similarity is determined (by tags or metadata vs. users like you) and questions about what is most interesting to your audience.

While I am fairly comfortable working and communicating across different work languages (and disciplines), I am curious to hear what has worked well for you!  Please share any other tips.

*As a consultant, my stance is that you’ve hired me the consultant to help you.  That includes making sure you actually understand enough to be able to make informed decisions (and implement the solution, if that’s the plan).  Otherwise, my job is not done yet!  So if you’re not understanding what a consultant is telling you, it’s fair to ask them to re-explain in order for you to understand.

Knowing when it’s time to move on

Recently, someone asked me how you know when it’s time to move on from an organization (although this could also be from a particular role or type of work).  Of course, this is not the type of thing anyone else can tell you.  Only you can know.  But perhaps it is helpful to read some examples and the questions asked when others have been at this crossroads.

You're in a park, with trees and shade and benches, standing on a path that forks off into two different directions
You’re in a park, with trees and shade and benches, standing on a path that forks off into two different directions

Here are some times when I knew it was time for me to move on:

  • I had grown as much as I could within the organization, and I was interested in growth. 
  • I wasn’t interested in the pathways that existed in my current organization or field (e.g., that’s cool, but I don’t have any interest in becoming a Director of Development or moving into prospect development or digital engagement).
  • I gave that type of work a sincere try, but continuing to do that work would have required me to be something I’m not (e.g., I enjoy helping people learn, but classroom instruction is really draining as an introvert and that’s not sustainable as a majority of my job).
  • I was no longer interested in learning new things in the field—even if I was still interested in learning other things, whether about a new field or in general.
  • I wanted to learn or do things that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do in my current role (e.g., strategically plan for the organization’s technology use) or at that organization (e.g., work on product development as part of an in-house team).
  • The leadership was toxic and not changing any time soon.
  • The way the organization operated created a constant clash with my values.
  • I was consistently undervalued and disrespected and/or my ability to do the work effectively was systemically undermined.

The last situation is an and/or because sometimes this is how I have been treated as an individual professional, and sometimes this is because the work I do is being systematically under-resourced, overlooked (until there’s a problem and then it’s all my or my team’s fault), and de-prioritized.  Often, these two situations tend to overlap, and they are both extremely demoralizing.

While some of those situations could apply to anyone, some of those reasons stem from what’s important to me at work: constant learning, autonomy to accomplish a goal as I see fit, balance of peopling and solo work, etc.   You may be looking for different things (e.g., the ability to focus on research, more people interaction than behind a desk time, flexibility as a caregiver, etc.).  And of course, what we we’re seeking evolves over time as our lives evolve.

Some of the situations for moving on are downright unhealthy.  But others might be things that could be adjusted.  Perhaps you work to craft your job a bit differently or discuss growth opportunities with your manager.  Maybe you spend some time exploring a different niche within your field of work and how that might enrich your current work.  Maybe some things you seek outside of your day job – through a side gig, a volunteer role, or something just for fun.  Maybe you realize that it’s not only that you have lost interest in your line of work, but you’ve lost interest in everything and it’s time to find a therapist.  (Hopefully that’s not the case, though please get help if you need it!  Note that burnout can be caused by lack of control and that can be due to the context of your work.)

The person who asked me was feeling a bit guilty about leaving their teammates behind.  That’s natural!  It’s a big change for everyone.  But on a healthy team, we want what’s best for each other.  I trust that if you’re the type of person to worry about that, you’ll do what you can to be a good teammate throughout your departure as well.

So here are some of the questions I’ve asked myself during those times:

  • Am I running towards something or away from something?*
  • Is moving on the only way to meet my objectives?  Or even if it’s not the only way, is it the best way for me?
  • If I’m concerned about the impact of my leaving, what can I do to handle that transition in way that I feel good about?  Including, how might this open up opportunities for others?
  • And if it is indeed time to move on: What will I choose to let go of in order to make space for the things I want next?

Yes, even if you are seeking to leave a negative situation in your current job, moving on still can be about what you are running towards.  Maybe you are running towards an organization that puts people first as evidenced by their operational practices.  Maybe you’re running towards working with leaders you are excited to learn from.  Maybe you’re running towards being able to be authentic at work.  Whatever the situation may be, it helps to be clear on what you’re seeking to move on towards so that you can select a next step with that intention.  

Does any of this resonate for you?  Have you used other approaches to think through the decision to move on or to stay in a job or in a line of work?  Drop me a line and let me know!

*This is a question I use often when thinking about big decisions, and it is inspired by the poem, “we are running,” by Lucille Clifton.

What is service design and how can you use it to create better experiences?

Struggle with the challenge of creating a great experience for your program participants or donors while balancing the needs of staff or volunteers or your organization?  Trying to develop a new program, new event, new campaign, new operational capacity – and feel like you’re constantly discovering another missing piece you didn’t have in place? 

Service design considers the needs of all stakeholders involved in a service or experience, how to create value both for the user and the provider, and all of the supporting infrastructure or processes needed to make that happen. 

In this 30-minute talk from the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference, I provide an overview of service design and introduce a core method, the service blueprint, as a way to help you think through and plan what’s needed to deliver the experiences or outcomes you’re hoping to achieve for new and for existing programs.

When to use quantitative vs. qualitative methods

While I really enjoy working with qualitative data, and while there are definitely camps of people who argue about the superiority of quantitative vs. qualitative data, what ultimately matters is what type of question you’re trying to answer.   Certain methods are better suited for certain situations or types of information.  Selecting your methods should be not be about what you prefer or are most skilled at (and thus most comfortable with), but about which method will help you answer your question.  Each method has its strengths and its limitations.

Here’s how I think about design research methods:

Image is a chart with 4 quadrants and 2 axes.  Y-axis is a spectrum of Qualitative (Tell me why) to Quantitative (Does this work?).  X-axis is a spectrum of Attitudinal (How do you feel about it?) to Behavioral (What do you do?).  Clockwise from the top left: Attitudinal & Qualitative includes Interviews; Behavioral & Qualitative includes Contextual Inquiry, Usability Testing, Service Safari; Behavioral & Quantitative includes A/B Testing, Web Analytics, Unmoderated Testing; and Attitudinal & Quantitative includes Surveys.

On one axis: qualitative to quantitative. 

Quantitative methods are for when you want to know, does this work or not?  Surveys, website analytics, A/B testing – for these, you’re looking for patterns across a large sample size, or group of people (or interactions/transactions).  Note: If you’ve only got 10 people to see data from, this is probably not going to be your best course because even 1 extreme case (10%!) is going to skew your results. 

Qualitative methods are when you want to understand why.  Why someone does things in a certain order, or why certain functions or features are important.  If someone makes a frowny face when presented with something, what is it they were expecting instead?

https://twitter.com/anthonydpaul/status/1481742005403279368?s=20&t=qq1Q46lc8nCNBPkdSe_6SQ

On the other axis: attitudinal to behavioral.

Attitudinal methods are for when you want to know how someone feels about something.  What’s their opinion?  Even if you are surveying or interviewing someone about their past behavior, this is based on recall—which will be colored by how they felt about it. 

In contrast, behavioral methods allow you to observe what the person is actually doing.  Quantitative behavioral methods like analyzing website visitor behavior can tell you that 30% of website visitors did in fact click on the “Donate” button from the home page.  It can’t tell you why, though.  A usability test* allows you to observe behavior while people are trying to use your design to complete a task—so you can see the behavior directly without it being filtered by what the person thinks is relevant to tell you (or remembers), but you also have the ability to ask them questions.  Like, “I noticed you moved your mouse back and forth between the Donate button and the Join Us button a couple times before clicking on the Donate button—can you tell me more?”

*A usability test is a test of how usable your design is—it is not a test of the user!  For a usability test, you typically create some realistic tasks and have an idea of how you might expect them to go about the tasks, then you give them to someone who is representative of your audience of focus.  What you’re looking for is whether your design and your expectations for how someone would do that task match up to a real person’s expectations of how things should work.   

Let’s walk through an example.

Say that I’m doing advocacy work and I’m trying to get people to contact their government officials about how much we would in fact like a taco truck on every corner.

  • If I want to increase how many people open our emails and then sign our petitions, I’ll probably use A/B testing and look at the email analytics.
  • If I want to know whether people who supported our taco truck on every corner initiative are interested in our other initiatives, I’d use a survey.
  • If I want to understand what would motivate someone to recruit others to take action and how we could make it easy for them to form their own street team – I’d use interviews.

Typically, I will layer methods.  For example, I might use web analytics or a survey to inform what questions I ask in interviews or what tasks I focus on during a usability test. 

Just as the best tacos have multiple fillings with a mix of different flavors and textures – the same goes for when you’re gathering data to make for the most enjoyable eating experience!