13 questions to ensure you work effectively

Sometimes we can get caught up in our work and don’t stop to take a step back to see what we’re doing. Often we can spend inordinate amounts of time on things that we think at the time are critical which turn out to be unnecessary.

Once a day if possible I want you to take a 10-minute break and consider this list of thirteen questions. I want you to think about what it is you’re working on, why it needs to be done and how it fits in with everything else. There’s no point spending day after day perfecting a square peg to discover it’s meant to fit in a round hole.

This list has been specifically designed for the workplace but can be applied to tasks at home and hobby projects.

Download illustrated A4 poster (PDF)

  1. What am I doing? What does it look like? What is the scope or boundaries of this task?
  2. How will I know when I’m finished? At what point can I down tools?
  3. Am I going too far? Am I putting in extra effort because I’m a perfectionist? Am I trying to add value? How is that affecting the budget and my ability to meet other obligations?
  4. How will I know I’ve done it correctly? What are my success criteria? What would a poor job look like? Are my metrics objective or subjective?
  5. Why am I doing this? Do I understand the purpose and intent behind this piece of work? Does it fit with my own agenda?
  6. How does this fit into the big picture? What processes, policies or systems does the completed deliverable need to integrate with? What’s the long-term view?
  7. Should this task be broken up into chunks? Would smaller pieces of work reduce risk?
  8. Are there alternative approaches or outcomes? Why have I chosen to do it like this? What else have I considered? How do I know this is the optimal approach?
  9. Who could or should be assisting me? If I’m doing this on my own, why? Do I really have the skills and availability?
  10. Who could void my work? Who do I need to get on-side? Who should I be consulting with?
  11. Has this been done before? Have I looked around to ensure I’m not reinventing the wheel? What could I copy from?
  12. When does this need to be completed? What are my deadlines? Is the deadline arbitrary or are there real dependencies on this deliverable?
  13. Are there other priorities? Am I working on this task because it’s easiest or more enjoyable? What should I be working on?

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Photos from TEDxCanberra 2010

You can read my thoughts about the TEDx conference in Canberra but here are some of the photos I took.

As one of the organising crew I took the opportunity during pre-event rehearsals to take some good shots with flash as no flash photography was permitted for the actual event. It was in the National Library of Australia theatre with a medium-height roof so I could use ceiling-bounced flash around 1/4 to 1/2:

TEDxCanberra crew

The problem with this is that it does make for some rather ominous shadows under the eyebrows, nose and chin.

My Honl order had arrived the morning of the pre-conference rehearsals so I took the opportunity to try out my new Honl traveller8 portable softbox for some diffused on-camera direct flash:

Sunny Forsyth

You can immediately tell it’s direct on-camera flash but the result is far better than typical on-camera flash. The conical traveller8 is only 8-inches in diameter but it does mean that on-camera direct flash is now an option rather than avoiding it completely.

I’d also received some flash colour modifiers with my Honl order, the Sampler which has a mix of colour-correction and special effects filters. I tried these out to match the ambient lighting:

Pete Williams

So far I’ve published 30 photos of TEDxCanberra on Flickr. You can also view the TEDxCanberra Flickr Group which has photos from other great photographers like Leonard Low and Gavin Tapp.

Photos from the official event photographer Woodrow Wilson will be available from the TEDxCanberra website.

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TEDxCanberra 2010 afterthoughts

I tweeted earlier in the week that I would take it easy at work in the days leading up to TEDxCanberra and brace myself for the intellectual and emotional tsunami that was inevitable from listening to presentations from 20 smart and passionate people. I’m glad I did because TEDxCanberra was close to overwhelming. I’ll willingly admit that I got teary three times during the day and my mind is crammed with lunar landers, nanotechnology, social innovation projects and big new words like Anthropocene.

As part of the organising crew for TEDx in Canberra I did miss out on listening to a few talks on the day but I had caught most of them during rehearsal the day before and even got to listen to some of the presenters speak twice, which was special.

The main takeaway for me was the encouragement and drive, the empowerment. Knowing that there are challenges in this world that there aren’t enough professionals to go around for, so it’s up to ordinary people like us to get involved and make the world a better place. The importance of finding meaning and purpose in your life (Sunny Forsyth, Abundant Water) and following your dreams (Francis Owusu, Kulture Break). To not resign yourself to the inevitable but say ‘No, we can fix this’ (Will Steffen).

Pete Williams, CEO of Deloitte Digital speaking about community rebuilding in Flowerdale.Social innovation isn’t something new to me. Having coordinated Canberra Coworking, Free Australia Wireless, BarCampCanberra and other initiatives and events I feel vindicated but I still believe I haven’t yet found a way that I can use my skills, time and mind for something that actually matters.

I did have a bit of a self-deprecating breakdown during the day on Twitter whilst pondering William DeJeans’ talk on AVID and education. I was home-schooled during primary school, inserted into high school a year advanced at Year 8 and had enough points just 14 months into college to get my Year 12 certificate at the young age of 16 and start working full-time. I was only in public education for 4 years.

William’s talk on rigorous education and preparing students for university made me feel like I missed out on something in my youth. My primary years education was mostly autodidactic … but studying physics and microbiology, and pouring over Scientific American journals didn’t really give me the skills I needed for the workplace.

Ten years on I wonder if I would be more advanced in my career now if I’d studied longer and gone to university. I wonder if further education would have helped me use my brain better, be more articulate. I wonder how not going to university might have handicapped me. Then I realise at the age of 27 when many students would just be finishing up their university studies that I have 10 years of practical work experience behind me. That’s pretty valuable.

Pat McGorry and Ash Donaldson at post-rehearsal drinks.Another important thing that I got out of TEDxCanberra is that there are many causes out there already that need either funds, your brains or your hands. Not neccessarily the big charities but small teams. Not neccessarily ones overseas but organisations in your own town doing good work to help solve social problems like homelessness, suicide and mental health issues, education and even slavery. Don’t think you need to start from scratch. Find out who is out there doing good work and see where you can jump in and help.

Of course TEDx isn’t all about social innovation and solving the big world dilemmas. Marco Ostini’s talk on the Lunar Numbat and White Label Space organisation was fascinating. DIY space exploration and developing open source technologies and components for space travel is amazing, lowering the barrier to entry to space through sharing.

Kristin Alford’s talk on the future and making better, more compelling stories to engage people in predictions of the future was interesting too. It’s a topic that I’m getting really interested in as part of my work as a designer and the challenge of overturning usual processes of writing boring specification documents and dull ‘vision’ statements. Humans have used stories to pass on knowledge for thousands and thousands of years and we seem to have lost our way, thinking that progress in this field was to shun our roots and try and act more like computers. As Jodie Foster says in the film Contact “They should have sent a poet” (instead of scientist).

If you didn’t make it to TEDxCanberra then I’m sorry – you really missed out on an amazing experience. It was like a defibrillator for your mind, for your passion. Rekindle that fire within you. Pull your entrenched feet out of the status quo and do something that makes you feel awesome. Don’t let them kill your dreams.

Oh and check out my photos of TEDxCanberra too. Videos of the event will be up on the YouTube TEDx channel in a few months thanks to our sponsor SilverSun Pictures.

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Misty our border collie

So, I’ve been going a little crazy photographing our puppy lately and I’m liking what I’ve been getting.

This is an insanely sharp photo of her eye that I got this evening with Jenny’s Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro and wall-bounced flash:

Misty's eye

Front-on with her eyes shut:

Sleepy puppy

The cute head twist:

Say what?

Her waiting all cudged up for us to come to bed and give her a light show:

In my bed!

… and moments later she’s chasing the torch beam around the room:

Chasing the light

Sometimes she’ll let Toby share the bed when he comes over for a visit; he’s the border collie in the background, two years younger than Misty:

Dogs on bed

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Designing the iPhone User Experience

Published just a few months ago and with references to the iPhone4, Suzanne Ginsburg’s book Designing the iPhone User Experience: A User-Centered Approach to Sketching and Prototyping iPhone Apps is technically very relevant to current technology. Some sections of the book that discuss specific capabilities of the iPhone such as light, proximity and motion sensors, and the multi-touch gestural interface may date within 12-24 months as Apple enhances existing capabilities and introduces new ones that developers can take advantage of.

Some parts of the book will remain relevant for years, particularly around user research, persona modelling and requirements definition. Suzanne hasn’t just put generic UX information here but has made it all very relevant to how designers should approach iPhone or indeed any sort of mobile device project.

There is an extensive chapter on interface design for the iPhone Suzanne has not attempted to interpret or duplicate the iPhone Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) and strongly recommends you go and read the Guidelines for yourself.

Her approach to application types is based on the HIG in that she refers to Utility, Productivity and Immersive applications and mentions them throughout the book when making recommendations of how to categorise and approach the design of your iPhone application.

The case studies are great and there are lots of screen captures, photos and designs that will help you understand the strategies and techniques.

Designing the iPhone User Experience will be useful for anyone working in the mobile space including mobile websites for iPhone and even non-iPhone devices especially the section on research. As Suzanne says, accessibility isn’t required by Apple but she has included a good chapter on accessibility which you should take heed to as many of us will be required by law to make websites accessible regardless of whether delivered to desktop PCs or mobile devices.

I enjoyed reading Suzanne’s book – it’s very well written, nicely laid out and easy to read.

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Design with Intent toolkit

I stumbled onto Dan Lockton’s Design with Intent project thanks to Carl Myhill. The tagline for Design with Intent is “101 Patterns for Influencing Behaviour Through Design”.

You can download the entire deck of cards, order physical cards, download each section or a collation of each category of cards as an A3 poster. I opted for the latter option which you can see in the image above.

There are eight categories of cards; the four I was interested in and printed off (thanks to our A3 printer at work) were: Interaction, Perceptual, Cognitive and Ludic (PDF).

Each of the topics has a description and a photo that helps you understand the design principle. For example Personality in the Cognitive card set has a photo of six toys with different facial expressions and the description: “Can you give your system a personality or character that engages users, becoming a ’social actor’?”

There are a lot of references to ’systems’ and ‘users’ and seems to be largely pitched at web and software interface designers as confirmed by the author’s comments that much of these principles have been drawn from the domains of programming and human-computer interaction (HCI), particularly the work of Jenifer Tidwell and Christian Crumlish, and Erin Malone.

I’ve got the four A3 posters I downloaded pinned up at work – they make lovely colourful and useful partition decorations and can be helpful in coming up with new ideas and unconsidered aspects and angles in the course of designing products and services.

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South Coast

Jenny and I went down to the coast last long weekend for a few days by the sea. With spring having fully taken hold and blown away the iciness of winter it was great to get out in the sun and warm breeze on the beach at Batemans Bay and down in Broulee.


Whilst walking around and over Broulee Island I found a small baby ringtail possum just lying by the track. It didn’t look at all healthy – I immediately looked around for a snake but couldn’t see anything. The possum just lay there and reached towards me longingly whenever I got close like it wanted to be picked up. So I did. He was pretty groggy for a while and just wanted to be held, which Jenny was happy to do:


He got a little more animated later in the evening but showed no fear or interest in leaving us however we had to hand him over to WIRES. We assume he had simply been discarded by his mother for some reason and was suffering hypothermia.

I’ve walked around Broulee Island before but never over and it’s really quite beautiful up in the forest although it took me ages to figure out how to get off the island with the thick vegetation and dead-end trails.


On the way home from the coast we took a little detour and ended up in Buckenbowra State Forest which was quite pretty although probably teeming with ticks:

Buckenbowra State Forest

I quite like this photo of a camelia I took with my Lensbaby down at the coast house:


A thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing weekend!

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Interviewer personalities: What’s best?

First of all let’s get something clear. Introvert does not mean shy and extrovert does not mean loud. Got it? Good.

There are many factors that go into becoming a good research interviewer including being able to speak clearly and confidently, use body language well, applying good interviewing techniques and take useful notes. Does being an introvert or extrovert make it harder or easier to develop into being a competent interviewer?

Introverts are reflective and passive and they tend to take up less perceived space in a room whilst extroverts are outwards-facing with their energy and can be larger than life even if they’re not aggressive or boisterous.

Does it really come down to the personality of each interview participant and their compatibility with the interviewer? Introvert interviewees may feel intimidated by an extrovert interviewer or they could find it comforting being with an outgoing and visibly confident person (although of course not all extroverts are confident). Flip it the other way and an extrovert participant could get frustrated by the passive and seemingly timid personality of an introvert researcher.

If you conduct interviews with customers and users for research how do you find your personality type has assisted or impeded your ability to facilitate interviews, if at all?

If you’re a think-out-loud extrovert did you find it a struggle to maintain self-control and stop yourself leading the participant? If you’re an introvert do you find interviewing draining and if so how have you dealt with it?

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Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

Following on from my review of Warren Berger’s Glimmer I’m making available a printable version of the Manifesto so you can print it out, stick it up on your wall at work or have it handy to flip through.

Bruce’s Manifesto is thought-provoking and I think it very useful in helping designers move beyond the design-as-process mindset we can tend to get stuck in, especially in user experience where we have a fairly rigid process of research, conceptualisation, user testing, specification and implementation. I see too many designs that are confined to the most recent patterns or interaction paradigms of the latest hyped software.

Download Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth (PDF)

I’ve also designed an enhanced version of the Glimmer Principles wheel with callouts and notes.

Reproduction permission pending. Do first, ask later.

On the topic of manifestos, I found this great thought-provoking and inspirational manifesto the other day.

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Setting aside time to just think

There are an insane number of timeboxing techniques out there: Pomodoro, the anti-Pomodoro, Dash, (10+2)*5 and so on.

Basically the premise of all these techniques is to set an arbitrary start and end time around a task or set of tasks and focus unwaveringly on that task like you’re in a race until the timer goes off, releasing you to come up for air before plunging back into the fray like a frenzied berserker.

Whilst I can see the technique might be of benefit I have an aversion to anything arbitrary … but there is something to be said for having to resort to such techniques to overcome internal and external distractions to get the job done.

In my line of work in design and analysis I have a mix of idea-creation and domain exploration work, and the more process-like documentation and report-writing. When it comes to writing a user interface specification, research brief or test report there’s certainly a benefit in putting on the headphones with white noise, closing your email client and just crunching through the writing.

Have you considered taking the same intense time-critical approach and applying it to creative thinking? It seems like a paradox … focussing on being unfocused and letting your mind wander.

In Michael Michalko’s book Thinkertoys is a technique called “The Three B’s” method which stands for Bus, Bed and Bath – times during the day when challenges previously incubated through concentration may be solved by your subconscious. The problem is that you may not have time to wait till an idea comes to you during your next shower or while you lie in bed days or weeks later.

Banging your head against a wall is less effective than going to find the tools to do the job properly … but that’s how many of us work. We assume we can’t take time to think, to stop, take a step back and get creative. By working with that assumption we spend days doing what could have been accomplished in just a few hours.

Creative thinking does not need to be done on annual retreats or in your downtime. It’s not a privilege awarded only to visionaries and strategists. You can treat creative thinking just like you do your process work. Timebox it if you want. Put your headphones on, shut down your email client, get out your notepad and just start scrawling: what are you trying to solve, what do you know about the problem, what don’t you know, why are you trying to solve it, draw diagrams, who’s involved, what needs to be done etc.

Go read some books on creative thinking and assemble your own toolkit of favourite techniques. Last week I created an A3 poster with my favourite tools and prompts. It’s not about sitting there staring off into space waiting for ideas to come, however you still need to allow your mind to wander, to free-associate and escape the confines of your current thinking and set of assumptions.

Take the time to think. You can’t afford not to.

See a photo of the creative thinking poster I’ve put together

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