Adding affordances to your Ux

So, what are affordances? An affordance is a possibility of an action on an object.

These are examples of physical affordances we take for granted. They make it easier to avoid user error and confusion. Hat tip to Don Norman who taught us this via his masterpiece – The Design of Everyday Things.

Affordances are everywhere – we just don’t notice them when they’re working well. But, they’re evident when they don’t work.

One such place I was hoping for an affordance was with the new, free Microsoft OneNote. I swear by OneNote and have done so for a decade now. Every year, or so it seems, I write at least one post on this blog professing my love.

The one challenge with OneNote is that collaboration on it has never really worked easily for me. But, I thought that might change in the new, free version that comes with Windows 10 which syncs seamlessly with and the mobile apps. It really is beautiful and has been a game changer for me.

However, I’m still not sure how the sharing system should work.

The current issue is that trying to click on the “Anyone with the view link” or “View” simply tells me that I have an option to “Stop Sharing.” That’s not enough. My general assumption is that I’ll be able to tweak the settings to be able to allow others to edit. This assumption comes from how the sharing button normally behaves on the web (read: Google Docs). But, I’m not sure if that applies here. A simple shortcut might be a tool tip or some breadcrumbs I can follow to an article that details sharing on OneNote.

Overall, I’m taking away 2 lessons from this experience:
1. Don’t assume your users will find your user experience intuitive. Make it easy for them to find help or ensure there are affordances to make it easy for them.
2. Users will only be committed to seeking help if you have an existing bank of goodwill or if they have invested heavily in using your tool. There are a collection of tools in my life – OneNote, Dropbox, my iPhone – which inspire a large amount of goodwill. So, if you’re not among them or are trying to build that goodwill, making users feel supportive takes on paramount importance.

How to ask for help from people you don’t know

Asking for help is a skill. Some are very skillful at it and some are pretty poor. From having observed skillful people, I’ve seen it come down to one operating principle at each stage.

Before: Thoughtful – This is demonstrated by asking for the right thing the right way. Asking for the right thing requires you to have knowledge of how this person can help you without it being too much of a burden to them. This often requires a degree of homework – for example, most famous venture capitalists have blogs where they explain what they look for and how they normally operate. All of these offer clues on what to ask. Asking the right way just means acknowledging that they probably get many such requests, being concise and asking nicely.

During: Authentic – It sucks to be in conversation with someone and feel like they’re putting on an insincere show. As people become more senior, this happens a lot and it is fairly easy to detect. Be yourself. This will mean accepting that there is a good (>50%) chance that you might not “click” with the person you’re speaking to. This can be hard to accept if there are high stakes around what you are asking for. But, it is the only way to do it right.

After: Follow up – If ever there was a sign of character, it would be how the person follows up, if at all. This means sending a genuine thank you (it is amazing how so many thank you’s can feel cursory) after your conversation. And, most importantly, it also means staying in touch with updates if they’ve made a connection. For example, if they helped you get a job interview, it means staying in touch with them and sharing quick updates through the process.

Most people remember to be thoughtful when asking. A much smaller subset remember to be authentic. And, very very few remember to follow up. In my opinion, that is one of the reasons psychologists who study influence recommend that you ask people you want to connect with for help or advice. One part of the rationale is that we flatter people when we ask for help from them. But, the other part is that, the way you ask for help speaks volumes about your character.

Good character indicates high personal net worth. And, the size of your network is directly proportional to your net worth.

asking, help, connecting, relationshipsSource

Small things and big things

I once enlisted one of my wiser friends to help me with my writing. One of the lessons I learnt from him was that a sign of great writing is the ability to make the writing less about you and more about the subject. That’s one of the many reasons why I love Seth’s blog – the posts are hardly ever about Seth and his experiences. They are always about the idea.

I struggle with this and, in some ways, I’ve long given up on my writing abilities. These days, I’ve learnt to focus on the showing up and sharing bit. And, this is a long winded way of saying today’s post is another one of those that is centered around an anecdote. :-)

This afternoon, I went out for lunch with a friend – it was nice meeting him as we’d been in touch via blog and email for more than a year now as he consistently responded to my weekly “200 word project” notes every single week. It was great to meet him in “in real life.” Post lunch, we headed to a mall nearby as we both needed to get some shopping done. As I was getting done with my errands, I received a text from him. He was buying his first suit, was feeling totally lost and wondered if I might be able to help.

I knew exactly how he felt because I’d been in his position just a few years ago. I had moved to London and was about to fly out for an important client meeting in a few weeks. My manager suggested it was time to invest in a suit – I only had a blazer that wasn’t really a great fit.

This was the second important clothing recommendation he’d made. When I’d just moved to London, I had found my work attire inadequate by London standards. Big cities seem to be filled with folks with a lot of fashion sense and I needed to get with the program. So, he’d taken me to a T M Lewin store close to our work and suggested I buy their shirts. 4 shirts for a 100 pounds was a great deal for good quality shirts, he said. And, I listened. It was great advice. Now, it was time to listen to his advice again except for the fact that buying a suit can be an overwhelming experience if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Recognizing that, he did something incredibly nice – I used to often walk to the station with him on the day of the week I worked at the office (rest were at the client) and catch up. This time, he took me to the T M Lewin outlet that dealt with suits. In the 20 minutes that followed, he explained what I should look for, helped me get a sense of what colors would look good for the shirts I had, helped me narrow down on a grey suit and made sure I tried it on to see how it fit. It fit well, he said. And, I bought my first suit.

It was a small 20 minute odd errand from his side.. but it meant a lot to me. It was what I’d expect a parent to do.

So, when this friend reached out wondering if I might be able to help, I was glad to be able to pay a bit of the goodness I received forward. As he tested his suit out, I typed out a note to this manager and friend and thanked him for that lovely gesture. I also shared the story with this friend and asked him to pay it forward.

It isn’t always possible to help everyone who wants help, of course. I’m a big believer in making sure we’re selfish about taking care of ourselves first. This sounds like a contradiction, but, the more we feel taken care of, the more time we have to really give ourselves to others. And, when we put ourselves in a position to really be of help, every once in a while, we get an opportunity to help people with what might seem to just be a small investment of our time.

And, I’ve learnt to make those small investments as often as possible, because, as my manager demonstrated, a small thing for us can often be a big thing for someone else.

3 rules for helping anybody who wants help with a decision

1. The decision doesn’t matter. The process does. It is all about the process.

2. Your biggest value add would be to walk them through a process. My suggestion would be the Decisive process – I carry a small card summarizing this process in my pocket.

3. Offer your point of view ONLY if asked. (I always need help with this)

If you find yourself talking more than them, take a timeout. This isn’t about you, it is about them.

PS: The wording in the title is key – they need to want the help.

The 3 steps to be of help

We occasionally find ourselves at professional or personal events where we’re amidst a bustle of activity. We know we could be of help but we’re not exactly sure how. if you ever find yourself waiting around wondering how you can be of help, I’ve found these 3 steps to be really  useful.

1. You have to want to help. It begins here. Ask yourself if you really want to be of help. If the answer is yes, you will generally find a way to be useful. Often, a happy, positive, and energetic presence is help in itself.

2.  Start with the simple stuff. If you’re still finding your feet in a new environment, start with the simple stuff like getting folks food and water. Soldiers are only given guns once they learn how to march. Asking how you can help never hurts.

3. Stay calm. Events tend to be busy and full of last minute problems – the decorations don’t show up or the audio system doesn’t work. Stay calm. Staying calm is a learned skill and is one you can teach yourself. While others run around like headless chickens, you can always be the one thinking carefully about what needs to be done and ensure your effort is productive.

None of these 3 steps is rocket science. I guess that is exactly the point. Don’t wander around wondering if you can be of help (and this applies beyond events). There’s always a lot to be done – just ask productive people how you can help and help.