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We Thank Our Lucky Stars in 2020

In a year that was hit, broadside, by Covid-19 and that witnessed the loss of over 1,000,000 people (and counting) to the virus world-wide, do we really have anything to be thankful for? I would argue that although the end of this challenging situation is not yet in sight and massive human suffering continues, we do have reason to be thankful. Let me explain why.

Resolve of Global Community to Work Together on Solutions

On one level, we heard our share of polarizing words, accusations and friction, all of which seems to go hand in hand with an international crisis of this scale. But along with all of this political posturing, particularly from certain parts of the globe, we also experienced real leadership. Effective and life-saving efforts came from unexpected as well as expected places. Real leadership was focused, uncompromising and unequivocally based on and driven by data, statistics and fact. Local leaders advocated for commitment, service and personal sacrifice. Under the best of circumstances, a quick response resulted in a swift decline in case numbers. New York City, for example, was the world’s Covid-19 epicenter for weeks in early 2020 but managed to bring deaths/day down from a peak of 952 at the beginning of May down to 2/day by the end of September. This drastic shift in the city’s trajectory was nothing short of remarkable.

At clinics and hospitals around the world, hundreds of thousands of medical practitioners rallied to treat those afflicted with Covid-19, not knowing if they were to be the next victims. Most had families and dependents at home. According to Amnesty International, over the last nine months over 10,000 health workers lost their lives taking care of patients with Covid-19. These selfless individuals remain and continue to be an inspiration to us all.

Numerous teams across the globe launched accelerated vaccine research initiatives. Political boundaries become secondary as scientists and medical practitioners shared information and discoveries relative to potential treatments and cures. Many countries and professionals rose to the occasion to collaborate and avoid reverting to a vaccine “arms race”.

A Dedicated and Committed Team that Continues to Rally and Push Forward

Closer to home, the work ethic and drive of the individuals that make up the team at Highlands continues to impress me. When it became apparent that the world was on the brink of a crisis, yet Noida was not yet shutting down, everyone at Highlands shifted gears in the blink of an eye. Within a matter of days, workstations and necessary equipment were moved from corporate headquarters to home offices. Giving new meaning to agile teamwork, Highlands employees are safe at home and working remotely.

Employees Game to Learn and Grow

The key word is humility. We approach everything we do here at Highlands with some level of humbleness. Here at Highlands we have recruited the best in class and the best in profession, but this doesn’t mean we think we know it all. No matter status, education, or years of experience, we know we are all still students of life and work. Crises are, if nothing else, an opportunity for growth. We strive to learn from our mistakes and move forward, capitalizing on any insights we’ve gained through our mistakes to make this living, breathing system—which is Highlands—maintain its edge.

Not only is humility necessary to move a team forward but change and evolution are necessary as well. Each day at Highlands is different because the needs of our clients—the engineers and the global communities they serve and the problems they need help with—are different, from one day to the next. At the core, we are dealing with natural systems and natural systems are fundamentally dynamic in character. Engineers need to have tools to grapple with change, unpredictability and flux, and we want to continue to make the tools that facilitate reliable analysis.

Customers that Push Us to Do More

Could you design a car without the driver in mind? Could a playground be fun and surprising without plugging into the imagination of a kid? Highlands customers are not on the payroll, but in view of how they drive and shape our products, they very well could be. They are as much a part of the development team as any of our programmers. The practical knowledge and insights they offer into how to make our engineering software functional and relevant for today’s engineering problems are invaluable. We treasure these customers for their drive, interest and contributions towards making our solutions for the world’s engineers the best they can possibly be.

Parting Thoughts on the Year 2020

This has been anything but a typical year, but even a year of challenges can offer surprising opportunities. Here’s to putting a positive spin on otherwise difficult circumstances. Here’s to counting our blessings and giving thanks when it’s hard to see what is still good in the spaces and in the lives of the people around us. Here’s to looking ahead with hope and optimism.

Lean UX: Getting the User Experience Right

If James Bond is the British Secret Service’s answer to weak intelligence operations, Lean UX is the design industry’s answer to drawn out and risky product development protocols. If you had a design team that could test ideas quickly, respond to user feedback and make necessary changes in swift iterative cycles, nailing the product outcome like James Bond sniffs out a villain, you would have all the elements of a Lean UX product development process. In an age of tight competition, the software company that focuses on the user experience and capitalizes on sudden market opportunities is the one most likely to come out ahead.

The Driving Goal of Lean UX

Up until recently, the standard product development paper trail—the elaborate workflow charts, extensive documentation, and other administrative red tape—were as seemingly necessary as the product itself. Product design and development followed a lengthy and multi-step trajectory with minimal collaboration among team members and minimal interaction with the end user. A product could be near its final form before any user feedback was collected, if at all. Lean UX changes this process and strips it down to its most essential. It is built around the following principles:

  1. Product development must capitalize on the many skills of the team, all focused on creating the best solution for the customer; and
  2. A core product must make it to market as quickly as possible with minimal waste of resources; and
  3. Most importantly, the product must succeed in creating a particular user experience for the customer.

The Customer is on the Design Team

Well, maybe the customer is not ON the team, but he or she is figuratively at the conference table. Under Lean UX design principles, the customer is the planet around which team members orbit. Lean UX gets direction from feedback that is frequently solicited from target users. If the client is dissatisfied with the design, the team is toast and needs to take action swiftly. You might as well have the Queen of Hearts in the room, proclaiming “Off with (their) Heads!” The goal of Lean UX is to constantly keep an eye on the end game: a satisfied buyer willing to part with some serious cash. Ways to incorporate qualitative and quantitative feedback from the user often and at key points in the process via interviews, user analytics, surveys, and so forth is front and center to the Lean UX process.

The Team that “Turns on a Dime”

If customer feedback shows that the team’s approach is misdirected, the team needs to be able to switch tracks, reorganize and set off on a new course as expeditiously as possible. Short bursts of team activity are followed by user feedback. Trial and error and iterative refining of product design in response to user data is central. Design ideas and major presumptions are checked frequently. In fact, the expectation is that design direction will change significantly during development. Presumptions need to be examined or the team is “flying blind”. This is risk-management built into the development process. It is this characteristic of Lean UX that ensures that the final product will be as close to “pitch perfect” as possible when finally released.

Lean, Mean and Collaborative: Lean UX Team at Work

In the spirit of moving as efficiently as possible through a design process, Lean UX doesn’t have the luxury of getting different skills involved at different points in time. Lean UX is all about focused collaboration and creating an all hands-on deck effort. All members of the team are needed to take ownership of the problem and inject the insights of their own particular skill set. All weigh in to create a better solution and shape the product. Each voice is valued, and communication is fluid and informal. Another point to stress is that the team is largely autonomous with respect to the parent organization. A Lean UX team must be able to move quickly with minimal oversight and therefore has the independence, trust and resources of the larger organization to move forward when necessary.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

The development of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is the end goal of a Lean UX process. Everything that defines a lean UX process so far points to a methodology that uses minimal resources to create a no-frills, basic product that meets customer expectations. If your objective is to build a go-kart, you build one that has a working steering mechanism and the momentum to go downhill. It doesn’t need the extra, non-essential features—the lights, the padded seat. An MVP ensures that the project stays within budget, has minimum working features, and creates the experience the user is looking for.

The End Product: What Lean UX is designed to Do

This is a lean, focused team with a lean and focused objective. This is a process whose goal is to maximize consumer feedback and validate design specifications early and often. All of this is accomplished with speed and efficiency. Lean UX is about bringing to market a product that is likely to be a winner while reducing corporate risk as much as possible. This is a process even James Bond would be proud of.

In Search of Time: Productivity Tips in the Age of Tesla

Nearly everyone I talk to wrestles with the same problem: How to make the most of a 24-hour day? Even Elon Musk, modern-day inventor extraordinaire and human force behind Space X, Tesla and The Boring Companyhas been known to agonize over the time it takes to eat a meal. We all know people who through a combination of drive, geneticsor other random mystery variables, seem to accomplish more in a 24hour period than the rest of us. 

Forget about those individuals for a moment. Instead, consider the simplest, most effective tools and methods ordinary mortals like us can use to maximize the standard workday. 

A Simple List Fails No One 

Here’s a trouble-free technique to make sure tasks get done. Make a list. If you don’t, important items slip under the radar or are left to the end of the day inadvertently, and don’t get done at all. A visual list allows you to prioritize and move methodically through it, point by point, checking items off one by one or finally scrubbing out the item with a big, bold, satisfying line. A list with no items checked off is a wake-up call, a slap in the face, a signal to get moving. 

Embrace the Tomato 

The Pomodoro (Italian word for tomato) time-management method was developed in the 1980s by Italian student Francesco Cirillo with the use of a simple, mechanical, tomato-shaped kitchen timerThe technique consists of breaking the day down into increments of 25 minutes. Focus on one task for an uninterrupted 25-minute interval, known as a pomodoro, after which point a 3 to 5-minute break is taken. After four consecutive pomodorosyou are allowed to enjoy a larger break of 30 minutes. Then the process starts again with another block of 4 pomodoros. The low-tech system has gained momentum and followers and is available via a smartphone handy app. 

Don’t Let Mind “Clutter” Hampers your Ability to Concentrate on the Stuff that Matters 

Much of what the mind churns through every second, minute and hour is irrelevant to the present moment and the project at hand. We are easily distracted into worrying about future “crises” that may never materialize or past mistakes we can do nothing about now. Ignore the voice that chatters incessantly and ultimately slows you down. Don’t let trivia and non-essential matters creep into your core work time. Turn it off. 

Avoid Multi-Tasking 

Studies show that multi-tasking not only quietly stuns brain cells, it also slows you down. Typically, people don’t finish anything at all when multi-tasking. Keep it simple: one task for one block of time. 

When Solution Needs to “Stew”, Revisit it Briefly During Off-Hours 

Maybe this point states the obvious, but time spent in the car or folding laundry is not necessarily lost work time. Consider using that time to mentally tackle a work challenge. In ten minutes or less, you can identify the points you want to cover in next week’s PowerPoint presentation or hash out the wording for a business memo. Rehearse your speech for tomorrow’s business lunchUse what would be considered “empty” time (when you tend to contemplate weighty matters like whether Tesla’s new Cybertruck should be offered in a shade of forest green) to focus and mentally work out solutions to projects that are on your plate now. Note that this is not the kind of multi-tasking that is described above and that can cause you to spin your wheels unproductivelyThis is brief and focused use of down time to consider difficult problems. 

Know What You Need to Reenergize 

If you know what you need to reenergize, do it. Stepping away from your desk to stretch, release tension and completely reboot your brain is necessary part of working productively when it countsSlow downregroup, and stay sharp. 

We are not Elon Musk, But We Can Still be Productive 

Do you detect a theme running through all these ideas? Hopefully you do. With a few simple steps you can stream-line and amp up your productivity. Create a simple list and rank these items in order of importance. Choose one task at a time and stay laser-focused for a defined block of time with the Pomodoro method or something similar. Be disciplined about it. If you need more time to crunch out the solution to a problem, tackle it in the car or on your way to the grocery. There you have it… a few simple tools to greater productivity.