Know Thy Time

In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker first persuades us that effectiveness (the ability to get the right things done) can be learned. It’s a discipline, not a talent (though for some it may come more easily than others).

And the first practice he encourages us to learn for effectiveness is time management.

It starts with this: know thy time. Where do you spend your time now?

He points out that people are very, very poor at remembering how their time has been spent, just as we are very poor at estimating how much time something will take.

The answer? Record what you do in real time (as it happens). This can be done on paper with times noted, or with an app like Toggl or Harvest. It’s helpful to create basic categories as well: meetings, processing/communication, project time, etc. I also recommend a tag or indicator for unexpected/unplanned items.

After you’ve recorded your time for ~2-3 weeks, the next step is evaluation.

For each item or category of items, Drucker recommends we ask these questions:

  1. What would happen if this were not done at all? If it won’t be missed, stop doing it! And further still, if it isn’t contributing to effectiveness and the most important goals, is it really the best use of your time?
  2. What could I do to prevent this need (especially recurring crises)?
  3. Could someone else do this as well or better than me?
  4. Is this wasting other people’s time, not contributing to their effectiveness? Specifically thinking of things that I initiate or projects I involve others in.

You’ll also have a clear picture of how much discretionary time you have: time you have control over to use to make your greatest contribution. The key is to find ways to consolidate that time into the largest blocks you can (a day a week, a few hours at the start of every day, etc) for focused work of the highest productivity. You might find it helpful to spend that time at home (if you work in an office) or at a coffee shop, library or co-working space (if you work at home).

At the end, it’s possible to create an action plan that is based on your reality (not your guess):

  1. What will I stop doing and how?
  2. What will I pass on to others and how?
  3. How much time do I have to direct towards my highest priorities? And how will I protect that time and group it into the largest blocks I can?

Over 3-6 months, our use of time tends to slip towards ineffectiveness, so it’s helpful to repeat this process several times per year.

I highly recommend reading Drucker’s full chapter on time in The Effective Executive.


So much to do. So much to decide. Papers on my desk and bed. Emails in my inbox. Tasks on Trello. A heap of uninspired days strewn behind me.

Stop thrashing.

Breath deeply.

Trust that He is.

What can I do to set myself up for effectiveness tomorrow?

Review Trello. Put the right things in my Focus column.

  • [Top priority project]
  • Inbox Zero
  • Weekly Review/Plan

Relax. Breath. Smile.

Start a 60 minute Freedom session.

Close all extraneous windows.

Start that [Top priority project].

UX research for the rest of us

I’m constantly reading, working to learn from the experience of others. Lately I’ve been looking for a few new books to learn more from the UX “masters”. But most UX books are written for people working in giant companies or on funded “lean” startup teams.

What about the rest of us? The people working on teams of 5 or fewer, even solo, and projects with budgets of less than a quarter million, even down to the lower 5 digits? Teams of people and clients unversed in “agile” and “lean”?

Guessing isn’t UX

For smaller projects, we’re left with books on user-centered visual design. But before design, how do you decide what even gets considered for inclusion on a particular page/view? Much less what the website/app must do and deliver overall to be successful?

From what I’ve seen (and done, yes), the client and designer just guess what the user wants. But think about it: if we just guessed what our clients wanted when they hired us, how would that go? We at least talk over the scope (job to be done) and deliverables (immediate outcome) with them. And hopefully a lot more!

Unless the client is the only user, if we want to make a project a great success, we must find out what matters to their customers, the end users.

You’ll find that the place where magic happens is the place where what matters to our clients intersects with what matters to their customers.

What do we need to know?

The more we know about our clients’ customers the better prepared we’ll be to design a great experience for them. But the key things are:

  1. A basic profile/persona of the “average” customer
  2. The jobs they use our client’s products/services to get done
  3. The outcomes/value they want from the products/services
  4. Any obstacles they face to getting the desired outcomes/value from the products/services

We specifically need to know the answers to these questions as they relate to the piece of the client’s products/services we are being hired to work on.

So how can we find out what our clients’ customers want? And let’s not kid ourselves, it better be fast and cheap!

How to find out what customers want

If we’re looking for answers to our key questions, the place to look is – you guessed it – the customer.

In as little as 2 hours, and no more than 2-3 days of work, you can learn a tremendous amount about what matters to your client’s customers.

Here are the 4 simple, fast and cheap ways I “talk” to customers, moving from low touch to high touch:

1. Analytics

Clickstream data (like what you find in Google Analytics) and registered user data (like how often they log in, how X they’ve created in your app, etc) help you answer the “jobs to be done” question.

Sometimes usage analytics can also help you spot places where users are facing obstacles (e.g. everyone abandons a process at step X).

What usage analytics don’t tell you is the why – why customers do what they do. They also don’t give you the context of the larger “jobs” customers are trying to accomplish and how the website/app fits into that context.

2. Surveys

You can send an email survey to a group of representative customers in the target market. But if you’re working on an existing website/app, my favorite method to gather quantitative data is to ask people questions right on the page. Services like QualarooIntercom and WebEngage make this simple.

With half a day spent setting up and reviewing the results once they come in, your on-site surveys will give you quantitative data pointing to what jobs are important, why and where the obstacles may be.

3. User Testing

Your can run user testing on your client’s existing website/app or a website/app they will be competing with. Using, you can set up and review a set of tests in a couple hours and pay around $50/tester.

The primary value in user testing is uncovering the obstacles that prevent people from completing their “jobs”. It also gives you a window into how users think through interactions.

4. Interviews

This is the most direct method. I plan on 15 minutes per phone call, but expect a few of the best to be 30-45 minutes. 10 calls should take you half a day or less and uncover very helpful insights.

Make sure to consider who exactly you want to interview. Do you want a cross section of all customers, or is there a specific group who should have greater representation in your research (newest, most active, highest paying, power users, etc)? Make sure you are listening to the right people.

As far as scheduling is concerned, I’ve had the best success trying to reach people when it is convenient for me and just making sure the calls are brief.

Interviews are best for understanding the larger context: who the customers are as people, what matters to them, the big picture outcomes and obstacles they face in using your client’s product/service.

Which methods should you use?

If I was only able to use one method on a project, I’d pick interviews every time. Nothing provides as rich a window into what matters to the end users. And interviews are the only method that allow you to easily ask a succession of follow up questions to dig deeper and clarify what you are hearing from a customer.

You could also combine interviews and user testing and spend a day completing both with 10 customers. For more information on this approach, check out Steve Krug’s book Rocket Surgery Made Easy. I’ve had great success with this, but it can be a lot more work (preparation, scheduling, incentives, etc).

Of course, I’d recommend you use all of these methods any time you can. And I recommend working through them in order from low touch to high touch so you are well prepared to ask the best questions before your interviews.

Compiling your research

As you review the data and notes from each research method, compile prioritized lists for jobs, outcomes and obstacles. (Your phone interviewees can help you prioritize.)

So at the end, you should have:

  1. A clear description of who the customers / end users are and some understanding of how they think and behave
  2. A prioritized list of the jobs they are trying to get done
  3. A prioritized list of the outcomes they want
  4. A prioritized list of the obstacles they face in getting their jobs done and the outcomes they want

What do you get for your trouble?

The benfits you’ll reap from thoughtfully executed (but lean) research will be tremendous. Among them:

  1. The client will no longer view you as just a “web designer” or “coder”, an order-taker. You become the trusted expert on what matters to their customers and what will move their business forward.
  2. As a trusted advisor, you move from an expense to an investment. And as an investment, the client will begin to see your fee as a multiplier of their success. In short, you can charge significantly more and your client will be happy to pay you.
  3. As you help your client deliver what matters to their customers, and increase the happiness of both your client and their customers, you’ll find your satisfaction increase significantly too.

The story so far

Finding Wings

My work as an independent creator for hire started at age 14 (circa 2000) with my first client website. At 19, while still in college, I hired my roommate Mark as my first employee. And at 20 I went full time.

After a few years in the school of hard knocks, I was growing tired of doing my best for clients and still just earning enough money to get by. Mark and I started reading books on business management and marketing, thinking hard and looking for ways to do better. We hired a coach. We developed a strategic plan and processes. And we grew the business from less than $50k in sales to a quarter million and a team of 5.

I was thrilled! Who could ask for more? I was working with wonderful people, doing work I was proud of, for clients who were grateful to have found us, all while earning a respectable living. We had learned a lot, worked hard and it was paying off.

The Crash

But then things came to a screeching halt. With a strong sales pipeline, all our leads seemed to put on the brakes and go cold.

We’d been through troughs before though. “We’ll pull through,” I thought.

But we didn’t. Instead, I had to let everyone go. I had to say goodbye to friends. And with a family to support, I took a 9-5 (and was grateful for it).

The Recovery

So after 5 consecutive years as an independent creator, I spent 3 years at a very successful sales and logistics company, first as a designer, then director, then Vice President. It gave me time to understand where I went wrong, what was right and to regain some confidence. (And to see clearly that the corporate world would never be for me.)

New Beginnings

And so I left my 9-5 and began again. But I determined to do one thing differently this time, above all else. I would never again trust “word of mouth” and a large sales pipe to keep the bills paid.

Delivering great work, managing projects well and taking good care of clients helped us achieve a certain degree of success. Our bucket wasn’t leaky anymore. But without a predictable way to fill the bucket, I’d continue to see big swings in income.

So I’ve embarked on a journey to learn to teach well, to give more to more people than I ever have. For it is in giving that we receive.

“Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” – King Solomon

“Write. Write passionately about something regardless of whether you feel like you’re qualified. Write consistently and passionately.” – Cameron Moll

“… what you believe in, you can teach. And teaching is the “killer app” for a newer, more ethical approach to marketing.” – Kathy Sierra

When the client wants to sail into treacherous waters

This week I’ve been volleying multiple rounds of design choices at a client. Of course, I started with one choice – you know, the one I thought was best.

I’ve wrestled with this question many times before:

What is the right thing to do when the client wants to sail into treacherous waters?

And behind it come many more:

  1. What is the job people hire me to do for them?
  2. What is my role in relationship to my clients?
  3. What is my responsibility to my clients as a design and engineering professional?
  4. What makes me think I know better than my clients?
  5. What response can I live with in the worst case scenario?

When things get ugly

A few years ago my team completed a web application for a client. This app was to BE the client’s business.

We did good work. We gave good service. And as the team lead, I mostly did what the client wanted, even when I would never have done it that way myself. After all, the client was the subject expert. And this was their money and their company.

Years later, the client still hasn’t gotten traction selling the app. This could happen in any case, but I’m left with the sick feeling that I might have been able to prevent the client’s failure to realize the success they expected.

Finding my way

I’m always looking for guiding principles to help me make everyday decisions. When faced with a client that wants to pay me to do work that I don’t believe is in their best interest, these questions lead me towards answers:

  1. Is this decision likely to meaningfully affect the project outcomes the client cares about?
  2. Does the client have proven expertise that informs how this particular decision should be made?
  3. Do I have proven expertise that informs how this particular decision should be made?
  4. How sure am I that what the client wants is going to hurt them?

Balancing the roles

My clients hire me to help them navigate the seas of the world wide web, to reach their market and achieve their goals, not to take orders. There are plenty of people out there who can operate Photoshop or write code to the client’s spec without thought.

On the other hand, the client knows their business better than anyone else (I hope!) and I am in business to serve them. And they have the final decision making authority.

At the end of the day, my responsibility is to always act in the best interest of my client, even if it hurts me.

Where the rudder meets the rolling seas

So what should I do when the client wants to sail into treacherous waters?

  1. Review – How important is this decision really? Is my position personal preference or professional belief? How qualified am I, and is the client, to inform this decision? Would outside counsel be helpful?
  2. Listen – Ask questions and take the time to understand the real reasons behind why the client wants it the way they do.
  3. Share – Kindly tell the client what I believe is best, how I’ve arrived at that conclusion, and what relative importance I think this decision has.
  4. Decide – Ultimately, the client decides what to do. All I can do is give professional counsel as thoughtfully and persuasively as possible. But if I truly believe the client’s decision will hurt them in a meaningful way, I should be willing to walk away from the engagement, with an attitude of humility and true care for them.

This time around

This week, I don’t believe the design decisions at hand will make or break the outcomes for the client – we’re just looking at a detour, no reefs or rocks. And in some ways, as is often the case, the client’s feedback helped sharpen my work. I wouldn’t have picked the approach they asked for, but this one is not worth fighting over (on the client’s behalf).

How do you respond when a client wants you to do work you don’t feel you can stand behind? Drop me a line or leave a comment below.

Project Lessons: WordPress site triage and migration

Project Overview

WordPress website triage and migration. This project was for a non profit I’ve worked with as a volunteer on and off for over 10 years. Having had many volunteers come and go, they’ve been in search of more stability and have now turned to me in a limited consulting role to help with the more significant and technical aspects of maintaining and improving their web presence.

For this first engagement, they wanted me to find and fix broken links and content ahead of a major event. They also wanted me to provide some specific training to the inside staff that are maintaining the website day to day. I requested some additional time in the budget to upgrade WordPress, clean up plugins and migrate to WP Engine.

Budget: 16 hours

Actual: 18.25 hours (14% over)

  1. 5 hours WP upgrade & plugin clean up
  2. 5 hours migration to WP Engine
  3. 3 hours fixing broken links, content and other content requests
  4. 2.25 hours training (one on-site visit and one screencast)
  5. 2 hours review of issues & communicating initial plan to client
  6. 2 hours general project management (updates to client and responses to emails, managing to-dos/priorites on Basecamp)

The upgrade and migration both took longer than I expected (I removed over 20 plugins, upon review; and ran into some database issues with the migration relating to a custom plugin), but everything else went about as expected. Project management tasks accounted for about 22% of the project.

Project Lessons

  1. Expect migrations to WP Engine to take a minimum 3 hours for a website that is already running the latest version of WordPress and has no plugins on WP Engine’s disallowed plugins list. Bill straight time otherwise and set comfortable, realistic expectations (better to cause dismay at the start than at the end).
  2. Make sure to include time for initial client meetings in your estimate. This is a critical way that value is provided – by gathering information about the clients needs and accurately prescribing a solution.
  3. When working with a client, I need to be sure I have a single decision maker. In this case, I’m communicating everything to the client’s admin group of 5 people. A single person is my unofficial primary contact, but I’m expected to communicate with the whole group (no problem) and the whole group must vote on any decisions. In this case, it actually is working OK, but whenever practical I need to push back and require a single decision maker. With this client, I could have asked the group to give the point person authorization to make budget and scope decisions within a certain range without consulting the group, beyond the original budget and scope.
  4. In terms of estimated time vs. actual time, I think considering my inexperience with WordPress, this turned out remarkably well. Had I not been sick / been thinking more clearly, I think I would have hit this right about on the head.

Closing thoughts

This was my first migration to WP Engine and overall I was very impressed by their helpful support and simple “just works” system with lots of powerful features under-the-hood. I’m running and on WP Engine and I plan to default to WP Engine going forward for any relevant sites. I’ve signed up as an affiliate and I appreciate their $150+ commissions for any referral that follows through with at least 2 months of hosting.

It’s a real pleasure working with clients that trust me and let me serve as a professional entrusted to prescribe an appropriate solution to their needs and to manage the implementation of that solution. I’m at the point in my life where I’m not excited about taking orders only, although it’s not beneath me in the right situations.

So … was this project review helpful to you? Or do you have questions? Either way, drop me a line or leave a comment here.