Hosted in the heart of Salt Lake City, Front Utah is in its fifth year and climbing the ranks to becoming a premiere learning destination for tech workers and enthusiasts alike. Here are some of my takeaways from the 2019 Front Case Study Conference for UX + PM. Learn more for yourself — each presentation title below is linked to a video of the full talk.
Wade, one of the conference’s three co-founders, kicked the event off with a talk about relinquishing a commitment to extreme rigor. He used the example (soberly appropriate on the 75th anniversary of D-Day) of the Utah Beach paratroopers in the Normandy invasion of World War II. Of 13,000 paratroopers, almost all of them missed their drop zones due to complications in flight, ground fog, navigation difficulties, and more problems than they could have predicted. For any operation, this kind of colossal miss would have spelled immediate failure. But these troops had rehearsed and their leaders had planned meticulously for almost a year. Every one of them to the man knew what success looked like. So when they hit the ground, some miles from their target areas, they were free to iterate new paths to success.
It was the clear commander’s intent that kept them all working toward the same goal. Wade drew sharp parallels between the troops’ ability to adjust on the fly and modern tech organization’s needs to clarify what success looks like so individuals can operate at their peak.
“We’re not in this room because we want to build products that are fine.”
Maggie talked about how best-in-class products come from good work relationships first, then a shared mission, and a commitment to improving customers’ lives. She told a story of breaking down barriers and building relationships on her team that allowed them to drop small-scale iterations and take a big swing. And because of how well they learned to work together, her team won the trust of leadership and the loyalty of customers.
Danielle presented a model for user research across small, medium, and large scale organizations to help teams gauge where they actually are and what barriers they might be facing. A lot of organizations don’t accurately estimate their own size and research needs, and this confidence (or extreme humility) is why we see enterprise-level ideas and software being implemented in small- to medium-sized businesses. She also talked about sharing a common vision for success – that final image helps teams accurately gauge how close they are.
“When you start building a house, none of it looks like a house. But you know in your mind what a house looks like. Trust yourself. Share that end vision. Keep building your house.”
Kim presented modern, emotionally intelligent ways for teams to build communication, which leads to teams building better products. One point that really hit home was her advice to “Choose work with a purpose that aligns with your being.” Kim’s keys to good communication were:
- Know yourself. Know why you work.
- Know how you work. Be clear on your style and needs and communicate them with your team.
- Know your superpowers and your Achilles’ heels. (Hint: sometimes these are the same thing!)
- Know how your team works. Explore their hows and needs.
- Clear roles and responsibilities = empowerment.
- Be inclusive with your language – communicate at the altitude your audience is operating at.
- Understand the why and the full context before you jump in.
- Change agents are almost never fan favorites. Be compassionate!
- Know how to align and reach higher.
Matt outlined four challenges organizations face to implementing significant change in how they do things. I won’t spoil them for you – his slides are delightful. But here are my two favorites that he brought up:
North Stars – we’re doin’ it wrong. Matt said, “Follow a compass, not a map. When people navigate by the stars, they’re not going to the star. They’re using it to determine if they’re on the right path.” We need to think about how we’re using the idea of a north star — does it convey commander’s intent and a clear picture of success that individuals and teams can navigate by?
Roadmaps – the map is not the territory. Usually, we create a map, and then follow it no matter what the reality is. This, Matt pointed out, is akin to buying a GPS and then following its direction off a cliff.
He also offered some really thoughtful redesigns on common wayfinding and milestone marking tools – check the video for URLs.
Tanya gave a great case study on how to quickly validate a problem with creating fatigue and how to use that data to reach a shared understanding of the customer across all levels of an organization. She said her team is always pursuing the best and lightest solution, and each member is involved in collecting user feedback or doing user research in some way, even if it’s just note-taking in an interview. I loved her approach to sharing user research findings with leadership. She encouraged researchers to present confidently. “You are not asking permission! You are asserting your point of view.” Share the process and findings, then ask, “How does this resonate with your experience?” See Tanya’s video for a step-by-step on how they validated problems, researched, iterated, and moved on a solution.
Nate spoke from a management level view about how to effect organizational change through building team autonomy and expertise. He had to teach leadership about engineering flow and outcomes vs. ship dates and butts in seats. His successes came from letting everything be the team’s to own; setting firm KPIs that focused on customer value; being unoffendable and open to direct feedback; setting the architectural structure first; and by fearlessly killing things that didn’t work.
Lauren told a great story about rallying allies across a company to change the way they provided customer value. She talked about a shared objective (obviously a key theme for this conference), and how without that unified vision, collaboration falls apart. In Lauren’s story, collaboration was key as a primary focus — it wasn’t in reaction to a failed launch; it was the way they moved forward to find a new path to success. She said, “Collaboration doesn’t change your timelines or your process — it changes who is in the room to begin with and establishes a shared objective from the first moment.”
As a serial entrepreneur, Jeff offered some great nuggets of advice for those of us struggling to bring movement and growth to our organizations, products, or teams. He talked about testing thing through the quadrant of knowable – unknowable and reversible – irreversible. Decisions that are knowable and reversible should be made outside of meetings. Narrow your scope — dramatically, even. You benefit from faster learning, less up front risk, a shorter time to value, and that kind of laser focus often helps generate demand. I particularly loved Jeff’s take on other companies; he said,
“Ignore the competition. When you’re focused on your competitors, your focus can’t also be on your customers. Your customers matter more, and you usually end up winning because you’re serving the customer.”
Thor’s talk was stirring, especially for folks at more traditional, established companies. We sometimes feel like we’re a well-oiled machine, like we have a solid handle on how things should go. But Thor said, “If you are the oldest or the premiere or the leading company in your industry, you are the incumbent. The industry is yours to lose.” He advocated that older, more comfortable companies always be validating – testing their assumptions to make sure they still truly understand the market and user needs. Keep empathy. Keep disrupting. But never get comfortable. Whoever learns fastest wins. “Customers are divinely discontent,” he said. “You can’t stop learning about what people want now, how to give it to them; what they will want, and how to give it to them then.”
For more notes from the Front Utah Conference 2019 and previous years, check out #frontutah on Twitter.