Grace Hopper Celebration
SKETCHNOTES & TAKEAWAYS
This year, I got to attend Grace Hopper Celebration in Houston, Texas with my coworker and partner-in-crime, Joanna Sim. It was three days packed full of great experiences and opportunities to connect with women in tech from across the country. I was blown away by the sheer size of the conference — I’ve never been to a work event with 20,000 people before, let alone 20,000 women leaders, entrepreneurs, and aspiring technologists. Events and conferences are always inspirational and motivating, but seeing a flood of women crossing the streets, attending events, and walking the halls was truly magical. And the production quality was top notch! Not only were the venues massive and accommodating, but they were filled with beautiful hand-painted murals, large installations perfect for instagramming, and career fair booths unlike anything I’d ever seen.
I wrote this post to recap some of my key thoughts and learnings from the conference. Although it was heavily focused on tech and software engineering, I found several useful takeaways for designers and design thinkers.
JESSICA O. MATTHEWS, FOUNDER & CEO OF UNCHARTED POWER
All the keynotes were powerful and inspiring, but Jessica really took it to the next level. Not only does she have an energetic stage presence and a ton of passion for her work, but her storytelling was amazing. In a nutshell, Jessica grew up with her family in New York, and after trips to her parents’ native Nigeria, she built the product that would grow into a company called Uncharted Power. The Soccket is a soccer ball that stores kinetic energy while it’s being used for play and later becomes a lamp for countries where the power grid isn’t a reliable source of light.
Just because it’s not your plan, doesn’t mean it’s not your destiny!
Jessica never intended to found an energy company, but she followed her passion for The Soccket from a class project to a full-blown company. She created a second product, a jump rope for girls, and eventually leveraged the same technology to harness the energy from pedestrians walking the streets by capturing it in pads under the ground. Jessica’s story serves as great reminder to all of us makers, builders, designers, and doers that you never know where inspiration might come from and what you could turn it into with determination and hard work! So maybe we should all dust off some of those school projects and pursue our dreams =)
More than Child’s Play: The Science and Art of Tech for Kids
I chose this talk because I’m absolutely obsessed with understanding how we can use game design principles and game mechanics to improve the QuickBooks customer experience. So I was dying to see what I could learn from Sara’s experience working on PBS Kids Children’s games. And it didn’t disappoint. Sara started off talking about why designing for children is different from designing for adults and highlighted the fact that children have no fear or inhibitions — they will jump right in and try anything. I’m constantly challenging myself and my teams to design simpler more comprehensible user experiences, and to do so I often use the “what would we do if we had to design this for a 7-year-old?” And while I love using that method to provoke our thinking, Sara reminded me that children really do live in a magical reality that adults simply don’t.
She also talked about how games have evolved from teaching simple skills like reading, writing, and mathematics. Games like Marvelous Coaster Tea Party teach social and emotional skills like recognizing when someone’s cup is empty and offering to refill it. I found this fascinating to think about how games can be used to teach kids soft skills, and it made me wonder if they could be used more in the workplace to teach leadership and facilitative skills.
Several years ago, when I was focused on designing an iPad app, I was obsessed with this idea of making the tangible world digital and making a more meaningful digital experience by replicating the physical world beyond skeuomorphism. Sara mentioned that her team does early research by watching kids at play and observing how they learn through play and interaction with the physical world. Her team works hard to capture the physical magic in the digital space. She used the example of kids covering their eyes during a hide and seek digital game (despite the fact that they could then no longer see the screen!). Children don’t understand the boundaries between physical and digital, and I wonder how we can design experiences for adults that make the same hard lines disappear.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of this talk for me was the discussion about how learning-focused play could replace standardized testing techniques for children. Not only does the research prove that these games accurately predict test scores, but they’ve demonstrated that, based on scaffolding level, game designers could provide personalized feedback to the players and then move them up and down based on their performance. This was a particularly relevant insight for me and my team, as we seek to build personalized user experiences in our products. The underlying scaffolding becomes critical to moving users through an educational journey.
Finally, at the end of the talk, there was a thought-provoking discussion about the fact that parents are often worried about screen time and don’t encourage their children to play games. Moreover, the metrics associated with games performing well in this case is App Store ratings, which often means that games with in-app purchases produce negative incentives. PBS operates in the pursuit of education and learning, and it’s focused on those learning goals. But this is a constant conflict that arises in my world: how do we balance the business outcomes and customer outcomes when they’re in conflict? How do we incentivize user behavior that’s both good for the user and good for business?
HOW I LEARNED TO CRY AT WORK
I’m always fascinated when companies say “bring your whole self to work.” What does that mean? And how much of my whole self can and should I really bring to my work environment? I’ve personally cried at work a few times—from the I-have-too-much-going-on-and-my-cup-is-overflowing cry to the I’m-not-sure-this-role-is-right-for-me cry. So I was super excited to hear Sofia’s story.
Like me, Sofia’s cup overflowed at work as well, and after finding herself crying at work on several occasions, she started to uncover research on the topic. She shared some interesting stats, including the fact that women have smaller tear ducts than men and that men and women are perceived differently in the workplace for the exact same behavior.
41% of women admit to crying at work.
As she dug into the topic, Sofia also uncovered the advantages of creating a psychologically safe work environment and how it can help everyone do their best work, especially when they aren’t afraid of being judged for their ideas. She talked about how being passionate about the work means that emotions will be involved and that healthy arguments among colleagues can help drive innovation.
I’ve personally seen the positive effects of creating a psychologically safe workplace and love the reminder to treat everyone as a whole person with all the emotional baggage they bring to work everyday. For a while, I experimented with my team starting our daily stand-ups with an emotional check-in—everyone would say “I feel….” and it went such a long way toward exposing our vulnerabilities and emotional states, encouraging us all the be more empathetic. It also allowed us to take bigger risks as a team knowing that we all always had each other’s back.
Sofia’s talk and the Q&A that followed was a great open discussion about vulnerability and emotion in the workplace, and it serves as a great reminder to us that not only do we need to bring our whole selves to work, we need to be accepting of and empathetic to other’s whole selves. It can have an amazing impact on the work.
LEVELING UP HILLARY 2016 WITH GREAT GAME DESIGN
Talk number two on game design did not disappoint! Stephanie outlined the story of working on the Hillary 2016 campaign as the first product manager for the campaign. She was brought on and asked to the lead a team to develop an app for Hillary supporters that would help fuel the campaign. And she was left to her own devices to figure out what that app would include. Being a gamer herself and design enthusiast, Stephanie decided to put her game mechanics to work and build out an app that would encourage active engagement by supporters. The principles that Stephanie outlined along the way left me with some awesome takeaways for one of our current projects and I think they’re worth sharing here.
1. Low barrier to entry – The Hillary 2016 app was designed to replicate the physical experience of a campaign office in the digital world. She made it super easy to get started using the app — supporters could log in and get points (redeemable for rewards) just by watering the office plant.
2. You can’t slap a game on it later – Stephanie’s team designed the scaffolding of the app from the ground up. She didn’t take a content app (like the Obama Campaign App) and try to slap game mechanics on it. She designed the active use behaviors she hoped for into the game from the beginning.
3. Define a clear game play loop – The entire game was designed around challenges that would start simple and get harder as you go. Stephanie’s team uncovered the insight that someone who just liked a Facebook Hillary post isn’t ready to go door-to-door encouraging neighbors to vote. She used this insight to create milestones along that journey that she could use to build confidence through rewards and feedback.
4. Have a great FTU – Along with a low barrier to entry, Stephanie talked about building a guided tour FTU experience to show the user around the campaign office for the first time. She took it one step further by making each task in the tour count toward the users' challenge, inherently building confidence in the first step.
5. Love your free loader! – Any time you make an app free, you will have users that never convert to paid. But Stephanie emphasized the importance of keeping these folks happy because you never know when they might be triggered to recommend or upgrade through your app. In this case, the campaign office had a dog, and you could redeem your rewards for digital collars, treats, and toys.
6. Look for the Z factor – In game design, a Z factor is another dimension of the reward system that doesn’t follow the standard game play challenge reward loop. In Stephanie’s game, the Z factor was hidden badges that you could be awarded as you played. These badges weren’t obvious rewards in the app, but you could discover them in settings letter and be surprised by what you’d achieved.
Stephanie’s talk was an excellent case study in game design and a great inspiration to some of the work that I’m currently doing at Intuit. I can’t wait to get started putting these principles to work!
LEVERAGE YOUR UNIQUENESS: DON’T STICK OUT, STAND OUT
I’ve written before about Design Superpowers and how leveraging the strengths of each individual to build high-performing teams not only supports a better team environment, but leads to better work. So I was super excited to attend this panel to hear the latest thinking about leveraging each individual’s unique qualities. Each panelist shared their own personal uniqueness, some of the qualities that made it great, and also how it cast a shadow. The one that really resonated with me was Mariam’s story about her strength as a Truth Fairy. She talked about how she was not afraid of authority and always spoke the truth exactly how she saw it. For a long time, it led to great outcomes and getting great work done. Eventually, though, people started to become terrified of her, and a mentor gave her feedback that people didn’t want to work with her because she was too intense. Over time, she realized that she needed to be able to still speak the truth but in a less intense way, so she began practicing new behaviors like asking permission before telling people difficult truths.
As a leader and manager, I always find it difficult to give constructive feedback because, let’s face it, no one wants to hear that something isn’t going well. And I’m always so relieved when someone on my team brings the feedback to me before I ever have to give it to them. It’s so much easier if they realize it themselves. But the reality is that people are held back from growth the most when they don’t realize that something isn’t working. And for a team and an individual to be successful, it’s critical to share that feedback early and often. Mariam’s story provided practical ways to couch tough feedback while still telling the truth and remaining authentic. As I continue to grow with and learn from my team, I’m excited to challenge myself to practice these behaviors even more!
I’ve been to a lot of conferences, and I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to be disappointed when you’re taking time away from family and work—either because the content isn’t top-notch or the design of the actual event is lackluster. But Grace Hopper delivered on both. What I loved most was that it’s just an unapologetic celebration of women in tech—what we’ve accomplished so far and inspiration for our future. That somehow took the pressure off the speakers and attendees. It allowed me to relax, open my mind, and be inspired by small moments of learning and take away little nuggets of learning. I’d highly recommend Grace Hopper for the early career tech entrepreneur. It’s a fabulous opportunity to network, learn, and drop off a few resumes at the career fair.