Jon Robinson

/ creatives / technologists / leaders / students /


I value good work worth doing and the people I do it with.
You have to consciously work toward building collaboration and trust.

Our guest this week is Jon Robinson. He is a user experience consultant, creative director, design educator, and contributor. Jon lectures at Washington University in St. Louis and Lindenwood University. He was also the keynote speaker for 2019 World Usability Day.


Transcript

Simon Yost
Today we welcome John Robinson. John is a user experience consultant designer and creative director. He currently works at slalom. He lectures at Washington university in st. Louis as well as Linden one university. But most of all, he's just an overall swell guy. John has a lot of different perspectives on his prototype from being a solo practitioner to working now in a large consulting firm being in the classroom and so on and so forth. So really excited to hear from John about not only how he is prototyping himself, but how he is creating space for other people to find their prototypes. Here's John. Well, thanks for agreeing to do this. I, I really appreciate it. I'm really excited actually. All of this stuff, the idea is what does it take to be craftsman or crafts people together? So God are the days when you're just, you know, the butcher by yourself or the Baker by yourself, obviously that's way gone. But you know, now we're teams upon teams upon teams and how do we do that? And then is it mutually exclusive? Can we just be a good, you know, yeah. Craftsmen or just be a good teammate or is it possible to do both? So, yeah,

Jon Robinson
And that's, that's one of the reasons I kind of switched gears career wise. Cause I spent about 10 years working for creative agencies and very much in the role of as a designer, right? Like I would design this thing and get sign off from my client on this thing. And then I would hand it off to like a development team and say, here's this thing that's approved to go build this. You know, now it's time for you to you to do your job. And we were never really having those conversations along the way. And there was no, you know, all the, the same, all the problems that you would expect to exist or to happen within that type of working relationship happened almost every time. So I saw that breakdown so many times that that was one of the things that really intrigued me about moving over to product development, working with an agile teams. Right.

Simon Yost
Okay. So you're, you made the leap, you're working with teams now. I mean, that's, it's some motivation for sure that you put the stake in the ground, but when you get out of bed every morning, that's a big gap to fill. It's a big it's a big kind of calling even to work in that kind of an environment. What, what motivates you to do that motivates me

Jon Robinson
To work in like a team environment. Yeah. You mean? Yeah, so I kind of, this hasn't always been the case. Right. But I've, I've realized more recently that I've valued two things when it comes to work and it's like good work worth doing. And then the people that I do it with, and I feel both of those things go hand in hand for me at least to be really fulfilled in what I do. And you know, that in consulting, like we not only have to build collaborative relationships with coworkers, but we also have to build those like really high trust high performing, working relationships with our clients as well, because we're often working side by side with our clients. So yeah, I love it honestly. And, and I know, you know, I've even like dug into this a little bit in terms of how does the company slalom that I work for kind of define collaboration, right?

Jon Robinson
Or like that act of building collaborative relationships. And we kind of break it down into two categories and it's interpersonal relationship building, networking, things like that. Right. And teamwork. And so as I said earlier, I really love working in teams versus working kind of in silos, whether that's as a, you know, by myself or departmentally or, you know, in air siloed areas. Because those walls just like they come up around you man. And when they start to feel real, they start to really be a barrier to progress and to change, you know, and all that. So often as consultants, you go from team to team a little bit, I mean, it's not every day, but there's a little bit of ebb and flow. And then sometimes in your role, you might even work on multiple teams. What is some of the tools in a toolkit that makes for a good teammate in your mind?

Jon Robinson
Yeah. Yeah. That's a good question. So I think like right off the bat, it's you have to consciously work toward building collaboration and trust, like create a common ground, a rapport with your teammates, with your clients. Like you need to make sure that both within your teammates and with your clients that you, that everyone kind of understands, like you're all committed to the same objectives and goals, right. Beyond anything else. I think a good collaborator encourages and inspires other people. So you have to be both like a leader in a sense, but also be able to understand how to recognize strengths and weaknesses champion your team, push, push me, you know, beyond like push them beyond their, their their normal boundaries. Right? Whenever you, especially when you know what someone's growing edges and try to find opportunities to like advocate for other people. You know, I, I used to be so against the idea of networking, like that was a bad word to me. I felt so dirty. I didn't want to go out and network with people, but man building relationships across your organization and across your clients' organizations are, are really like a foundational thing. Right. Because it's, that's how you get to those, those trusting relationships is, is just by having conversations and getting to know people.

Simon Yost
Yeah. So you're joining a new team and, and or maybe, and maybe it's already going, or maybe the whole, the total team's coming together when you're joining, what are some of the most important things you try to dial in on right away?

Jon Robinson
So I love working agreements. Let's consider this like formation. I kinda want to break that down into two things, right? Like formation of a team when we're all coming together for the first time I love working in agreements because they set like really clear expectations right off the bat. And we've all got boundaries and other things we're trying to balance. So that helps alleviate any misunderstandings that might happen. Right. I'm not going to try to be a jerk and reach out to my teammates after 5:00 PM on a Wednesday. But if I do, I don't expect you to answer because I know that those aren't, you know, that's, that's beyond the boundaries that we've set in terms of like how we are all working together. So I need to be respectful of that. Right. But my kind of where I feel like I really enjoyed joining a team that's already in progress, like a team that already exists that might already be facing some issues or have some some barriers that they're trying to push beyond.

Jon Robinson
Right. And it's like for me being put in a situation where I can come in and say, tell me what you need and start to actually alleviate pains and provide value immediately is when I feel really good about the work that I'm doing, you know, I want to be able to know that if I can make your job easier or come up with a solution for something that you've been stuck on, that's really my first priority. And when you, when you all form a team together I feel like sometimes you, you, you miss out on that instant gratification when everyone's initiating a new project, you know, and I like, I guess I kinda like to turn frowns upside down or whatever, but that's, that's, that's what makes me happy.

Simon Yost
This is going a little bit more into the weeds, but as you work in your discipline, there's sometimes actual apps or tools that that are used. And in kind of that graphic design where we're designed mixes with the product, build out space is always a, you know, there's a lot there. And sometimes there could be a lot of victories, a lot of defeats, it can be a heavy churn kind of tool industry. Some of the things you're talking about supersede that, right? It's not, maybe it's not about the tools. What how do you balance the technical and kind of practical needs that you have to do your work versus kind of these overarching successes that you've you can use from team to team?

Jon Robinson
I feel like I approach that in kind of a formulaic way as well. I'm always open to what's the best tool to get the job done, right. And working with a lot of product development teams, the typical exercise when I'm faced with coming up with like a solution for a feature or whatever is bring documentation to the table first, here's the problem we're trying to solve. And here are three ways we can solve that problem. Let's discuss right cost benefit analysis or whatever you want to call it. I don't believe in committing a team of developers to build something they've had no input in. There's no value in that. And I also want their voice to inform that solution. This is a collaborative effort and it needs to be a collaborative effort from start to finish with all of us. And I know that there are a lot of designers who especially new to, to this type of environment.

Jon Robinson
That's how I felt when I came to it. I, I initially thought of it as I work with product development teams. And it took me a little while, a little while before I realized that like, no, I work on product development teams and our goal should be to work together right. With every sense of the, of the solution in mind. So I want that input constant input from the developers that I work with. What's the best way to approach the solution. I want them to have final sign off before that solution ever gets in front of a decision maker. It's the way that in design or in, you know, in a UX design, at least we treat like the user as the final validation point for everything. But that doesn't mean anything if it throws a huge wrench in what we're building, because we're building that as a team.

Jon Robinson
And we're often trying to answer, you know, in product development, three questions, if something's viable, it's like, does it support my business? Do the users want it? And can we build it? And I kind of feel like the first two don't mean anything if the answer to the last one is no. Right. So that's the most important question to me. Yeah. Here's a really cool idea. And this is a way that we can make this work for this user. Can we make it happen? That's, that's, that's the starting point. So but regardless of what the technology or the application or whatever it is that we're working with I rely on, you know, the people that I work with wholeheartedly to, to tell me sometimes what the best direction for that is, and let's get it done in the best way. Let's, let's make this thing the best way we can possibly make it talk about a time where you have really leaned into collaboration, you know, your heart's been in it and it hasn't gone ideally, or it hasn't turned out the best.

Jon Robinson
I think that just in general, for me, it comes back to people as well. So, you know, when I said that, one of the most important things that you need for collaboration is the people, right. People that are open that are honest, that are willing to like understand their own strengths and weaknesses and, and the rest of the people on their team. I think then people are also where collaboration falls apart through either mistrust or fear or whatever I have worked. I have worked on some teams where, so let's say this, for example, like sometimes I suppose I support multiple teams at a time and I've been in a situation where I will have one team that I'm working with that is really into collaborating. I'm able to bring anything to them. They always want to jump on like riffing on ideas everything I was talking about earlier, trying to come up with the best solution as, as a team, through the brain trust, right.

Jon Robinson
Working together as we can. And then I've also worked with other teams where you know, some people just want to like go to work, get their job done, go home and spend time with their family and the work isn't so much important to them as long as they have the work to do. Right. So I I've also had teams at the same time where they're just not interested in the collaboration. They just, they just want you to tell them, like, here's the thing I need you to go do 'em and go do it. And I, I feel like I don't Excel in those environments as well. Because no matter how much I trust myself, I still want my, my ideas to be validated. And I feel like, you know, we come up, we, we learn better when we do it together. We solution better when we do it together. And so no matter how much faith I have in any idea I've come up with, I don't really trust it until I've had an opportunity to talk through it with someone you know, like I really want to understand it. I don't want to just know that I, that I may be right. Like, I want to understand that I'm right on with that. And not just me, but like that, that the, that the idea or the solution is the right thing to do.

Simon Yost
I am, especially as a parent, I've grown to believe that we have to develop through certain milestones. And if we don't, it it's really hard to just act like we should have, it's really important to progress through different milestones and not just kind of say that you know about them. And I think that one of the milestones that you kind of alluded to at the top with your transition, from being a solo shop going into then consulting is, is the, you had to work through this milestone of taking that weight of team responsibility on and accepting the weight of being responsible for more than just yourself. If someone listening is thinking about going through that transition, or maybe they might've skimmed through that transition, what would you advise them on? Or, or how did that impact you when you went through that? Yeah, so that

Jon Robinson
One of the biggest drivers for why I kind of had, and I don't really even consider it so much a career shift, it's just more of a career, a focus area, I guess. I do more than just design now and before it was mostly design. But you know, I still, my job function is very much very similar to what it was before, but the industry is very different. And so when I'm working with clients or when I'm working on solving a problem, I really want to understand it, as I said a little while ago, right? Like I want to ask a lot of probing questions so that I fully comprehend that problem that I'm solving. And when you work with likeminded people that also want to do that, you know it makes it so much more valuable than exercise. And so I was running into issues in, within the constraints of the creative agency world that I was working in before more and more often, I was being discouraged from asking questions.

Jon Robinson
And there's a specific example where I was working on a project for a large like food drug and mass company, big, like a big box store. It was a consumer packaging project and there was some data that came back. I had sent some designs over for the client's review and the client came back with some data and said like, Oh, our, you know, information that we've researched shows that customers react better to X type of package or, you know, X type of message or something like that. I don't remember it exactly. And I said, well, that's, that's cool. You know, let's take a look at that research. And my creative director was like, Oh no, no, we're not going to ask them to do that. We just have to trust that they're right. And you know, my, my response was kind of like, I'm not arguing with anybody.

Jon Robinson
I just want to see that validation, like give, give me the data so that I understand the data as well, so that it can form what I'm going to do. And I was again, met with no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We're not questioning our clients. We don't question people. We just, we, we make the client happy. And, and honestly that was kind of like the final straw for me where I felt like I was running into more and more situations like that, where I wasn't given the opportunity to ask what I felt were the really important questions to understand the value behind what I was doing. And for me then if I don't feel that there's a value in the work I'm producing, then it, it no longer is interesting to me. You know, I find like very little satisfaction in it.

Jon Robinson
At that point. I was also I, a lot of time as a art director, creative director, like designing websites and the hardest thing that the, like the biggest problem I would experience with clients was they would come in and they'd say, you know, we didn't need this website or this new website or whatever, this user experiences on the, on the web. And we would build that thing and we would release that thing. And then everyone just kind of like, would bring their hands on it and say, okay, we're done. We did that. Let's check that box and let's move on to the next thing. And so I realized that so much of the work that I was creating was just being sent out into the world. I'm like a one way flight and no one was nurturing. It, no one was caring about it.

Jon Robinson
No one even knew if it worked or if people were using it. And again I built what I thought. I mean, I have a really nice looking portfolio of all that work. It looks great, but I can't say that any of it was successful because I don't know, we didn't measure it against anything. We didn't give it any, you know, care. We just kind of like gave it a one way bus ticket somewhere and said, good luck. You know? So that, that to me is I guess if I were to give any advice on that, it's, it's, if you feel the, we used to always say, this is a good, this is a better way to approach that. We used to always say in the advertising world, that what we were doing was not super important, right. We're helping people sell products.

Jon Robinson
We're helping people, you know, like companies survive. But we're not curing cancer. We're not making lives better. We're not improving any of these employees lives. Right. We're just improving their, their bottom line. We're helping out with their revenue. And of course we're helping with their, their brand awareness and things like that. But now the work that I do, I honestly can say to people like I'm helping someone do their job better. Right. I'm in, I am actually improving someone's life with the application that I'm designing or that my team is developing so that someone can be more effective or more efficient at their job and have more time at home, et cetera. Right. And so that's where I really see the value in what I do today versus what I did before. Yeah. And I can think of all these examples. Yeah.

Jon Robinson
It's it's I dunno, I don't think I really answered your question that well, because it was a little more gauged toward, toward advice, but yeah, that's just, it it's like take a step back and, and if you don't feel that there's any real value in the work that you're producing outside of, I'm making a lot of really cool looking stuff. That's not what we're about, you know, I think the other, the other thing, the way that you've answered my question implicitly through the interview, maybe I'll lead you a little bit. Is that a lot of what you've talked about has been about others and not yourself. And I think sometimes when I hear creatives, especially talk about or end

Simon Yost
Developers talking about work, they want to do it's about them, their interests and, and you're geared towards serving, I think, is really telling that that's part of the metric you use about the work mattering is how it matters to the folks that receive.

Jon Robinson
Yeah, definitely. And, and, you know, when it, I think that like characteristics of someone that's a good collaborator are probably pretty close to characteristics of someone that's a good leader as well. You know, I think so much of it hinges on building trust and understanding and honesty with your teammates. It comes back to keeping people informed and giving people credit when credit is due and giving them that credit publicly so that others know, right. But also not expecting credit and return or appreciation and return doing it because they deserve it because they add value to your team or to your project or to your client being able to receive feedback and give feedback well I'm lucky enough to work for an organization that highly values feedback and coaches us on how to provide it, right. Whether it's positive or negative. But you know, honesty and respect and be reasonable. Don't make promises that you can't keep. You know I feel like, as I was saying earlier, you have to constantly ask those questions. Is this technically feasible? It's more about doing your job, but doing it within the context of that team. So,

Simon Yost
And one of the powerful tools to get a high performing team is constructive feedback. I believe, at least that is hard to fathom also hard to put into practice because it's, it's very difficult to find time for that, that type of work. I think it's work, it's sitting down and really trying to figure out how do you make the simple, how do you make this actionable? How do you relate with the person? Is that something you've had luck with recently? Or how are, how is that going for you? Yeah,

Jon Robinson
I, I kind of, I've always preferred the open feedback forum of just give me feedback or when I give someone feedback, like, here's just my standard feedback. We also have templates, you know, that are like, ask the probing questions of what am I doing well, what am I not doing well, what should I start doing? What should I stop doing? Things like that? I personally don't even like fill in those out because I feel like I, I, I th I overthink, you know, my answers to that. And especially if someone asks me, what am I not doing? Well, then I feel obligated to respond to that, even if I have nothing to complain about or no advice to give you at this time. But I've actually, and I got some feedback from someone early on who really encouraged me to start requesting very specific feedback, instead of just saying like, Hey, can I get some feedback be more intentional around using that as a growth mechanism so that you're asking probing questions.

Jon Robinson
I'd S recently I, I implemented with my current team. I sent a reminder every Friday, give somebody feedback today. Doesn't have to be somebody on our team. Right. But just encouraging everyone within the co within one of my teams, specifically, people that I know are really eager to, to both give and receive feedback if they need it. You know, even if it's just like making somebody's day, because they did something nice or they spoke up on a call or something. But yeah, I'll, I'll drop, we use Slack at work and I'll drop a message in Slack every Friday and say, give somebody feedback today. That's it

Simon Yost
A Google a few years ago, did the study, they tried to drill down on what makes, you know, great teams and high performing teams, and they outlined or zoomed in on psychological safety. And depending on who you talk to you, some people were like, that's BS, and some people were like, that's the golden circle. What, how do you think about teams and, and how

Jon Robinson
It relates together? Yeah, I mean, of course it's important because everyone's different. Everybody has different legitimate needs. And you have to be rec you have to recognize that there was some people on my teams that I have no problem just pulling into a meeting when I need them and saying like, Hey, I need your opinion on this come advocate for this thing in front of the client. They don't mind being put on the spot, you know, and then not, everyone's a good communicator. Some people will only be open to sharing an honest opinion when they're in a safe environment. So I feel like you've got to respect and acknowledge everybody's differences at all times. And what I think this is one of the values of conducting agile ceremonies activities, like pointing stories as a group, or dividing up work during a sprint planning session.

Jon Robinson
It gives everyone the opportunity to advocate for the thing that they want to work on. You know, like what they're comfortable tackling, how fast they can do it so that they can work at their own pace giving people the comfort or more comfort in their role of feeling like they're doing a job worth doing. But also when someone needs help, like be there to help them out for me, probably my, from my own experience psychological safety just comes down to trying to understand who everyone is as a person, and what's important to them so that I'm making sure that they're, you know, being treated in the way that they expect and deserve. And if someone has a growing edge, knowing when to, or how to look for opportunities to kind of maybe push out of their comfort zone a little bit knowing that it's something they want to grow in, but also just respecting how different everybody is.

Jon Robinson
Yeah. And then if I'm maybe some, somebody that's listening to this as like transitioning out of launch code or coming out of school, or, you know, looking to they've learned a lot of technical skills online and they're looking to go get a job in it. And is one of those things that they, might've not learned in their training, what advice or wisdom would you pass on to those people, or even an invitation to kind of lean into that collaboration as they're leveling up. That's a good question. I think you have to approach that with a learner's mindset, right? To know that like you're stepping into a completely different world that you may think maybe you have a little bit of a grasp around, but it's probably going to be way different than what you're expecting. Sometimes the pace moves really slow.

Jon Robinson
Sometimes it moves super fast. You got a lot of people, hopefully they're going to be there to help you out. So your first job is get in and again, say, what can I do? How can I, how can I provide value right now? We may not feel like we're adding value to our team every day, but I think we can always strive for that. Even if it's a small thing I've never worked with anyone on a team. Let's just say, I've never worked with a team that didn't have at least one person who wasn't willing to take you under their wing, if you needed help that, you know, felt like it was a barrier of some kind, if you didn't understand terminology or the way that, you know, the, the team is organized with the project is organized. I feel like I'm struggling though, to really come up with a good advice for this one, specifically, other than, you know, get ready, get ready for a crazy new world.

Jon Robinson
Just embrace, embrace everything that, that gets thrown at you. It's a lot of fun. And it's not for everyone though, you know? Yeah. One of the things maybe a follow up question is even my first project at Psalm, I really dealt with this as I was learning something that for me was very, very substantial a new language. And I felt like I had nothing to offer and the team let me chip in on some of the client management stuff, some of the project management stuff, some of the things I had skills in. So I really felt like I could offer them something while I learned in something else. And I don't know if you had any thoughts of how do you kind of do those two things at one time learn well and add value at the same time.

Jon Robinson
Those are gotcha. Yeah. Well, I think too, it comes down to sometimes people don't really quickly make connections as to how their skills can provide value quickly. Just like what you were saying about learning a new language, being on a new team, feeling more comfortable to like jump in and provide value with the skills that you knew you already had. The things you already had experienced with a design and development are both creative industries. I very much see development as, as a creative job. And then there's this like really crazy quote from Steve jobs that I, that I use a lot to to try to illustrate this idea of, it says something like creative people are better at coming up with solutions because they have more life experiences and they're better at seeing connections. How do they, how do you take all of your experiences, all of your knowledge, and then synthesize that in a quicker way to come up with a solution or to come up with a, you know, potential like a solution for a problem.

Jon Robinson
It's not that creative people are necessarily smarter or more creative than other people. They just are better at connecting dots across things. And so for me it's how does, how do the skills that I have right now, the, the knowledge that I possess at this current moment, how can I use it that too, and apply it to, to the job that needs to be done, the role that needs to be filled? I'm not always necessarily a, I'm a designer on every team that I'm on. Right? Sometimes I have periods where I'm between projects and I'm looking to just jump on something else to add some value. There was a project I was on late last year where I, you know, I love storytelling. Like storytelling is literally one of my favorite things. And I, and I'm always trying to like find ways to tie things back to the art of storytelling or how you can use it to enhance, you know, more mundane things.

Jon Robinson
So I had an opportunity to jump on a project where that was my goal was to take a bunch of internal documentation, like VP communications throughout an organization, and turn them into a more kind of like fun and coherent story. That was a little bit more exciting than standard corporate speech. Right. that might not be the type of thing that somebody else who is in charge of like moving people around and casting people on projects would look and say like, Oh, we needed a designer for that. Right. But I was comfortable enough to raise my hand and say like, I can, I can do that. Give me, give me a shot. It's gives me an opportunity to do something different because I knew how I could take, not necessarily my job skills, but my personal passions and combine them with my job skills and then translate that into me, you know, this role on this team. So, so I guess, yeah, my what's the word advice to someone advice to someone new moving into this? You may not feel like you're prepared, but how to take some time to step back and think about like the skills that you have and the things that you've learned and what you've built up to that point. And there are relative ways or relevant ways to apply those to the task at hand. And you may actually end up coming up with a better or cooler solution than anybody else.

Author Bio

Jon Robinson
Jon Robinson

Creative Director, Design Educator
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