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Rewiring Government

The Department of Better Technology helps governments deliver great digital services to the people who depend on them.

Josh Rubenoff

Posts by Josh Rubenoff

Product and Design

How we learned not to fear the meeting

As a distributed team working across multiple time zones and schedules, it can be hard for us to find the best time to check in with each other. The most obvious solution is to schedule a meeting, but if you’ve worked within even a mildly bureaucratic organization before, the very idea of meetings might provoke a visceral reaction.

I’m still amazed at the days of productivity I’ve wasted in badly planned meetings. They almost always run long, but even when they end on time, it’s all too easy to take a meeting off the rails. Sometimes a participant hijacks the discussion taking place, changing the topic to something which doesn’t need your input. Your presence is rendered useless.

More often, you’re invited to a meeting just for the sake of being there. Either you’re tangentially involved in the project and people think it’s a good idea for you to be present, or the topic of the meeting seems to relate to your job title. In both scenarios, you usually have nothing meaningful to contribute. In especially toxic work environments, people schedule and attend meetings solely to keep busy and justify their continued employment, instead of improving the quality of their work.

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Designing Forms.fm

A few weeks ago, we launched a brand new design for our Screendoor forms and project pages. In this post, we’ll walk you through our design process.

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Introducing Forms.fm

A forms.fm page.

We just released an update that makes your Screendoor forms better than ever. Here’s how.

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Our new style guide

Style guides and pattern libraries are infrastructure for interaction design. They allow experienced designers to work faster, maintain consistency with their colleagues, and communicate more effectively to developers. Non-designers can also use them to prototype products with less guidance. Last week, we released a brand new version of our pattern library, alongside a style guide and visual redesign.

Our new style guide.

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How to brainstorm effectively, whether you're inspired or not

When you’re under deadline, it’s tempting to decide you don’t have time for creative thinking. But the alternative, choosing what you perceive to be the most “obvious” solution to a problem, can be incredibly damaging. The first few ideas you can think of are merely the most convenient and obvious. They’re not the best.

Creative thinking isn’t a matter of waiting around for inspiration to strike. The only way to uncover the best solution is by generating as many ideas as possible, and that’s the product of applied rigor and a solid process.

There are plenty of great resources out there on how to conduct a great design exploration, from books to in-depth articles. To be honest, I haven’t read most of them! But the process I describe below works well for me, the sole designer on a distributed team. Hopefully, you’ll also find it useful.

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Project management tools and creative thinking

Here’s something I’ve been mulling over the past few weeks.

If you work on digital products, you probably use a project management tool to keep track of design and development. Maybe your organization is all-in on JIRA or Basecamp, or you use something more lightweight like Trello or Flow. (At DOBT, we use a combination of Github issues and Slack integrations.)

Basecamp, JIRA, and Invision all use linear timelines.

You’ll notice that all of these tools make use of a linear timeline, whether they’re activity feeds or comment threads.

A linear discussion is great for convergent thinking. The project lead creates a new ticket for a feature, or a bug, or a customer request. The team debates how to move forward over the course of the thread. Maybe someone posts a mockup or a link to a prototype, and there’s a back-and-forth as colleagues give feedback. Eventually, you all come to a shared understanding around the solution you’re going to build.

It’s convenient to mold your design process to fit the tools you use. In the scenario above, your process looks like this:

Illustration of a linear workflow.

But this way of working skips over a crucial portion of the design process: brainstorming and ideation, also known as divergent thinking. Once you understand the problem you’re trying to solve, you must uncover all the options you can choose from before converging upon the best solution. This means you need the space to think creatively.

Really, a solid design process looks like this:

Illustration of a divergent workflow.

Your team is doing the work to brainstorm many possible solutions. And instead of immediately rejecting ideas that seem silly upon first glance, you iterate upon them until you can evaluate the strongest possible version of a concept.

If you’re a small team located in the same room, you can just use a shared whiteboard to hash out new ideas. But if you work on a large or distributed team, or you simply have multiple stakeholders located in different offices, this becomes a bit more difficult.

How might we adapt our tools (or build new ones) to enable a more creative process?

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Introducing teams on Screendoor

screenshot

If you use Screendoor to evaluate job applications, bids, or FOIA requests, chances are it’s a collaborative affair. Most of our customers have multiple people reviewing every submission they receive, each with a different type of expertise. Some of our larger customers, who need to evaluate a deluge of responses within a short timeframe, are delegating dozens of people from different parts of the organization to help tackle the workload.

When you’re dealing with that many people, delegating work efficiently becomes very tough to manage! Today we’re introducing project teams, the first in a series of improvements that will make it easier to help your entire organization take advantage of Screendoor. Here’s how it works.

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Managing design remotely

For my first full-time design job, I was the only designer in a startup of about 15 people. Five of us sat in a horseshoe configuration in one room of the office, backs to each other, facing the windows:

Drawing of horseshoe desk configuration.

Even though we were five feet from each other, we rarely swiveled our chairs around to talk. Instead, we mostly communicated through protracted Basecamp threads or private IM conversations. At this stage in my career, I had accumulated a lot of UX knowledge through books and blog posts, but I hadn’t put it into practice. Instead of turning around and having a conversation with my co-workers, I spent a lot of my time writing condescending, essay-length Basecamp posts. Most of these posts were attempts to educate my co-workers about what “good design” was, or to persuade them that even their most minute product decisions should be handled differently.

Of course, I now realize this was the worst possible approach I could have taken. Even as I invested hours of each day writing about the value of good design, I knew it was counterproductive. In fact, to avoid being on the receiving end of my rants, colleagues were shutting me out of meetings and ignoring the design phase altogether.

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