21 May 2014 by Gene Smith
Ten Years

This month I celebrate my tenth year at nForm. I joined a few months after Jess founded the company so this year also marks our tenth year in business. Back then we sublet our first space from Yellow Pencil where my tiny corner office turned into a sweltering hotbox on summer afternoons. Today we have a spacious studio (with ample air conditioning), nine staff, and a roster of top-notch clients with challenging projects.

The nForm team, circa April 2005.

The old team of Jess, me, Dominique and Trevor, back in April 2005.

Over the years I’ve seen us try out different business ideas like software development and systems integration. But when I took over in 2010 I decided we would stick with user experience design and consulting, the services we first offered back in 2004.

There weren’t many UX firms back then so we had to figure a lot of things out as we went. As I reflect on the last decade, and think about the future, here are seven things I’ve learned.

  1. Most UX work is really about change.  Whether it’s changing processes, changing behaviours, or just changing a point of view, most of our work is rooted in helping our clients change something.  Our services help us identify, rationalize, communicate, and visualize that change, but the services are not the point themselves. Change is the point. I try to keep this in mind because no matter how much people embrace user experience design methods, they usually find change hard.
  2. Good metadata is forever.  One of the most gratifying moments of the past few years was seeing a metadata project Johanna Dietrich worked on more than 10 years ago not only functioning on its original website but now powering a client’s shiny new mobile application.  So few people realize how durable high-quality metadata can be.
  3. I am wrong a lot. Everyone knows that they are sometimes wrong, but it wasn’t until I started doing usability testing and contextual research that I realized how often I was wrong, how unworkable many of my design ideas were, and how vastly different and surprising people are in general. Usability testing my own work, in particular, presented me with a succession of tiny humbling moments that helped me grow in my life and career. And it taught me that being wrong—clinging to misconceptions, employing incomplete mental models, missing important facts or context, or labouring under unknown biases—is a time-honoured state of affairs for most of us. So it’s totally okay and normal to be wrong; but that’s why we like to gather data and test things.
  4. Perseverance. Yes, it’s a cliche straight off a Successories poster. It’s also true. Sticking with this business has been, I think, an achievement. It wasn’t easy: sometimes I thought we would fold, other times I wanted to quit and find a job where I was not the boss. Once in a while I still daydream about being a bartender. As a culture we inordinately recognize starters. (I’ve heard of people who claim to have founded a hashtag. A hashtag! AKA, #abunchofletters. Has membership in the Founders’ Club ever been easier?) But there’s no appellation for people who run agency businesses—with their churning projects, uncertain revenues, and occasionally inclement macroeconomic cycles—except for maybe “survivor.” I will take that: I’m a proud survivor.
  5. Innovative work still gets me excited. A lot of our most interesting work involves experimenting with new ways to research a problem and communicating ideas in a visual way. This is the stuff I love: creative research uncovers new insights, and great design can make those insights impossible to ignore. When we’ve done those things well, the wheels of change are set in motion (see point #1).
  6. Keep calm and maintain a strong cash position. I’ve heard different theories about how much cash a business should keep on hand. Here’s my answer: You want just enough cash to be choosy about your clients and to focus on long-term challenges in the business, but not so much you get lazy.
  7. Enjoy the people. This is perhaps the most recent and least realized of these lessons, but it might be the most important. Enjoying the work is fine, but as I’ve come to realize, enjoying the people you work with and for is vital. When I retire (which is almost too far off to contemplate) I plan to look back on the careers I helped nurture and the opportunities I helped create for my team and my clients.

This seems like the right time to thank the people who have been on this journey with me. Jess, Toby, Trevor, Dominique, Yvonne, Ammneh, Dennis, Johanna, Andrew, Sherri, Christian, Lisa (and most recently Ben, Kerryn and Sarah): Thank you for your ideas, camaraderie and commitment over the years!

Our staff retreat, spring 2014.

Lisa, Sarah, Kim, Ben, Christian, Johanna and Kerryn at our staff retreat in April 2014.

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