A weekly reflection of what I have learnt this week as a Digital Product Designer

Liz Hamburger

3 females pointing at a laptop screen

3 females pointing at a laptop screen

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Recently I was lucky enough to go to the Mobile UX London conference. This full-day conference had a range of speakers from companies such as Google, Uber, and Fitbit with topics that focused on the evolution and future of UX design.

There were so many thought-provoking and interesting presentations and I feel that I learned so much in such a short space of time. Though I’d love to cover everything I learnt, I’m going to focus on one concept presented to us by David Teodorescu who is a Senior Product Designer from Fitbit. David spoke to us about how our decisions are influenced by other people’s choice and how this herd behaviour has been used by tech companies to push people into making decisions.

Social Proofing is a term used to describe how people, when making decisions prefer to follow other’s previous decisions. The idea is that people do this because they are looking to others who they think have already made the correct decision so why risk making a mistake. Humans do not like to make mistakes or fail, so looking at what others have done already is a natural instinct.

This Social Proofing manifests itself in a variety of ways, such people picking a restaurant as they can see that it is full of people. With Social Proofing, people are picking that restaurant as they are naturally making the connection that it must be serving good food for so many people to be there.

Social Proofing is part of our everyday communication. When we say what a great time we had visiting a country we are putting out information to our friends or wider community that we’ve done something and it’s safe even beneficial for others to do the same.

There are a variety of ways that we can use Social Proofing in our design work and this can range from case studies, testimonials and company logos. However, the focus of David’s presentation was not to tell us how to use Social Proofing in our design work but to explain that there are multiple levels of Social Proofing strength which will impact the effectiveness of this technique.

The most basic level of Social Proofing is that we see someone has done something similar to what we want to do already.

For example, we see that lots of people have bought an iPhone, it makes sense to us that this should be a good purchase as if it wasn’t 36.4 Million iPhones Worldwide people wouldn’t have bought it.

In product design, a basic level of social proofing would be that we see on Instagram that an image have 1000 likes, therefore it either must be a good image or interesting content that we should also like.

A screenshot of a instagram post that has over 1000 likes

A screenshot of a instagram post that has over 1000 likes

Lot’s of likes — so this must be a great Instagram post!

The next level of Social Proofing would be that we see people similar to ourselves and we can associate more so to their decision making. This differs from the first level as there is more relatability between us and the person we are seeking proof from therefor reinforcing that we can trust their judgement.

An illustration of this in product design would be where we know the demographics or other traits that we have in common with those we are seeing proof from. For example, a testimonial from someone we can connect with such as this Figma testimonial. This testimonial feels far more relevant to me as I am also a designer, therefore I can base my trust that this individual knows what they are talking about.

Image of a woman, saying how figma has replaced white boarding for them.

Image of a woman, saying how figma has replaced white boarding for them.

Also seeing people’s faces makes social proofing even more effective

This is the strongest level of Social Proofing — looking to people you know personally for proof.

As mentioned earlier, if your friends think something is a good choice then it’s very likely that you’d agree with them. Your friends are individuals you have the most similar values to or at least agree with a lot of the time.

Back to Instagram and product design, this element of Social Proofing can be seen in image Likes. In 2019 Instagram removed the following tab, where you could see what your friends had liked. They have maintained the strong element of Social Proofing through the main feed instead as you can see which of the people you follow like an image. This is a subtle use of social proofing but no doubt very effective.

Image of an instagram post that shows one of my friends liking apple’s photo

Image of an instagram post that shows one of my friends liking apple’s photo

Hey! I know you!

Social Proofing is a psychology method that can be used throughout product design and naturally it lends itself to eCommerce or other platforms where we want users to make a decision between a variety of products.

That said it can work on social media but not for the users themselves but for the customers — those who pay money to Instagram for extra services. Instagram wants more users to like a post so that they can shout about how great their platforms engagement is to potential advertisers, the Social Proofing benefit to the user isn’t really there. Instagram will lead us to believe that us seeing what our friends have liked on is important so we can discover more content relevant to us — though in terms of social proofing, the decision to like an Instagram post isn’t that important and we can easily change our mind.

Any way that we can influence users decision making, as product designers, we must be ethical about it. There has been a lot resentment towards this kind of psychology being used against the users from both the user and designers alike. Using psychology against a user in design has been coined as Dark UX in the industry.

As most of us know Social Proofing should only be used to really help users make a genuine decision that is best for them and not to push them into making a decision that is best solely for the client’s pockets.

As well as ethics we should consider how this kind of Social Proofing can make people feel. While working on a project for a major bank there was the suggestion of using Social Proofing to encourage customers to save more money or at least as a minimum stay on track.

Think of how many people want to connect their banking to their friends or even random strangers to see whether they are as good as others at saving their money. As you can imagine this idea never went any further as there is a time and place for Social Proofing, and with regards to personal subjects such as money or health users aren’t so keen on this community approach.

As product designer’s we work for clients, therefore Social Proofing won’t work if the community isn’t engaging in providing information about a product or service. For example if you have a hotel comparison website and every result has a no star rating this Social Proofing isn’t going to help you sell those hotel rooms as you are signalling to potential customers that people have the option to leave a review but no one has, and this is where we start getting sceptical as users.

I’ve found Social Proofing absolutely fascinating to research and understand and I hope you’ve found this concept interesting too. As I said at the beginning David Teodorescu introduced me to this concept while listening to his talk. As I’m now understanding more and more the impact that psychology has on user behaviour, I’m interested to look at other ways we make decisions and how this can influence Digital Product Design — so if you have any resources or interesting articles please share them with me!

Have you used the this method before? Do you think social proofing works?

Let me know! If you want get in touch you can find me on Twitter as @LizHamburger



How visual elements affect our perception, recognition and memory by interacting with digital products.

The age of visual information

Almost all the information we see is consciously or unconsciously absorbed into our brain. This information plays a huge role in our decisions and behavior. Neglecting it wouldn’t be wise.

Just to get an idea of ​​how we live in an age of visual information, more than 500 million people watch videos daily on Facebook, with 85% of them being muted. Snapchaters share 9,000 photos per second. Per-second. More than 500 million people use Instagram daily to like photos, comment and post stories.

It’s in our DNA

The first reason comes from our DNA. Eric Jensen, in his book Brain Based Learning, shows that 40% of the brain nerves are connected to the retina; more neurons are devoted to vision than all the other senses combined, and probably 90% of everything that comes to our mind is triggered by visual stimuli. In addition, recent studies show that approximately 65% of the population are visual learners, preferring to study and engage with information when linked to visual elements.

And it goes beyond. Our brain can capture images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds, 10 times faster than a wink. This means that we’ve evolved to absorb visual information at an absurd speed.

It’s in our history

We’ve used images to express ourselves for thousands of years. Through paintings and drawings, humans were able to convey key information about the world around them, for example by drawing maps and warning of the presence of predators. Like we do with the tangible world, we’ve also used visual elements to represent subjectivity: gods, nations, spirits, and local culture were constantly depicted on the walls around us.

User interface

With that in mind, it’s normal to assume that the use of visual elements on user interface — such as icons, shapes, colors, typography, images, and illustrations — will bring relevant impacts in the products we design.

No wonder this topic has been exhaustively discussed in the design community over the years.

But are these visual elements effective? How do they benefit us?? What ‘s their impact? And finally, what leads us to believe that they play a relevant role in user interaction with the product we design?

To answer these questions, I’ve gathered some of my experience, interviewed designers of large and small design teams; and I’ve looked into some research about user behavior. With that, I’ve listed 5 reasons to explain why Visual Design is so important regarding user behavior and the overall product experience.

In this article we’ll go over how visual elements:

  1. Speed up data perception
  2. Retain data for much longer
  3. Trigger pleasure
  4. Guide attention
  5. Make user interface universal
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Visual perception is one of the most productive and fastest ways to send information to the brain.

According to Kahneman, writer of the book Thinking Fast and Slow and winner of a Nobel in Economics, this happens because our minds are split into two systems. The first one, called System 1, operates extremely fast, automatically, intuitively, involuntarily and with almost no effort. The second, System 2, manages our attention to laborious mental activities, including complex calculations, or anything requiring a lot of effort and focus.

The point is that when we use visual components such as icons, colors, images, and illustrations, we run System 1 right away. The result: we absorb information much faster.

For example, when we look at the picture below we intuitively trigger System 1, and only if we need to, we jump into System 2.

Illustration by Ariana Sánchez / Mi Amor Es El Mar

The result is that as soon as you see the girl’s dark hair, you realize she’s angry, guess her tone of voice and might even have a prediction of what she’d do next. You didn’t intend to evaluate these points. You just did. It just happened to you. This is an example of System 1 acting.

It happens very fast. According to a study by S.Thorpe, D.Fize and C. Marlot called The processing speed in the human visual system, it takes only 150 milliseconds for the brain to process an image and another 100 milliseconds to understand its meaning.

Other recent studies show that images, illustrations, and icons are recognized up to 60,000 times faster than words or medium-long contents by our brains. Evidently, using illustrations, images, and icons doesn’t replace text and label. By combining them, you make the mental processing of your interface faster and more efficient, especially when many of our basic interactions need to be done in a few seconds.

However, recognition rate is not the same for all users.

A study of 60 participants to understand Icon Recognition Speed in interactions in digital interfaces showed that although gender is not a relevant factor — the recognition rate shown by men candidates was only 4% higher than the women candidates — recognition varies dramatically with age.

Participants over 60 had a 60% recognition rate for icon meaning, while participants between 20–30 had a recognition rate of almost 90% — a substantial difference.

In addition, the same study showed that icons illustrating real objects were more recognizable than symbolic and subjective icons. That’s why it’s so important to consider user background before designing visual components for your interface.

An example of this is 60 pp variation in the recognition rate for a simple alarm icon. While in representation 1 — using a concrete representation of the clock — the recognition rate was 100%, in representation 2 — using a calendar — the recognition rate was 40%.

Human beings have an impressive ability to remember images in the long-term, even if they are exposed to them only once. This makes using visual stimuli in our product flow a relevant tool for user experience.

In a study by Roger Shepard called Learning 10000 pictures, it was shown that an audience exposed to 612 images for about 6 seconds achieved a 98% hit rate when asked to remember them in two-alternative tests. Compared with similar tests to remember words and short sentences, the rate drops to 88%.

Memories by Gustavo Zambelli, Adapted.

The experiment also showed that picture memory is consistently superior to verbal memory. First, because the image memorization capacity is almost unlimited and second because images result in better memory rates than texts. Also, vivid images were better retained in our brains than normal ones.

By comparing visual context and listening context, the difference still remains. A study by Edgar Dale shows that when people hear information, there’s a 10% chance they’ll remember it 3 days later.

However, when the same information is paired with visual elements — images, icons or colors — nearly 65% of what was transmitted is retained even after the same 3 days.

Although the retention rate in the early hours (short-term memory) is slightly different (72% when written and read; 80% when visual), when analyzing long-term memory, the difference is significant, presenting 10% of memory retention for writing and reading and 65% for visual stimuli.

So with the use of visuals we see faster information recognition (250 milliseconds as shown before), and also longer retention time in our brain (lasting up to 65% over 3 days).

Other variables certainly have an influence on information assimilation. Age, subjectivity, and contrast curves have an impact on recognition and memorization, but the use of visual components is still a powerful tool for improving the user’s learning curve, especially when designing complex products or flows that require more attention.

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When our mind reaches a quick understanding by being exposed to a small cognitive effort, our body reacts positively, triggering a sense of pleasure. This is what’s shown by a study called “Mind at ease puts a smile on the face” by researchers Piotr Winkielman and John T. Cacioppo.

The experiment had participants watch a series of images while their expressions were monitored. Some of these images were made easier to recognize and some slightly more difficult.

Leaking, by Nick Staab

Because changes in expression are too subtle and too brief for observers to detect, equipment has been placed on the cheek, eyebrow, and around the eyes to monitor for evidence of mood swings over images.

Results from both studies revealed that easy-to-process stimuli were associated with greater activity in the zygomaticus region, which is responsible for controlling our smile.

A few faces on a fine Friday, by Sebastian Abboud

As expected then, people displayed a slight smile and relaxed foreheads when images were easier to see and recognize. It seems to be a System 1 feature that cognitive comfort is associated with good sensations.

Thus, since the use of visual elements first drives System 1, fast and automatic, it can be said that the use of these elements also provides users with pleasure during product use.

Visual elements can improve the entire interface navigation. Fonts, whitespace, CTA’s, typography, and images can all play as visual dividers between sections, giving users a clear view of what’s happening in front of them.

In addition, eye-tracking studies show that readers pay more attention to information loaded with visual elements. They spend even more time looking at them than reading the text itself when images are relevant.

A study by Nielsen Norman Group has found that users spend 10% more time looking at speaker photos than reading their biographies, even though text content consumes 316% more screen space.

Another example was how Uber optimized the Landing Page by changing visuals elements.

By replacing the cover image in the first fold, the headline was seen by 100% of testers while the previous version was viewed by 90%. This means that 10% of people didn’t focus on the headline for a moment.

In addition, the new version of headline was viewed after 1 second, while in the old version, users took 1.5 seconds to see the headline. It’s a huge difference. Users came back to the new slogan more often and spent 8% of their time on the first fold, while in the previous version, the number was 3%.

Why these changes? Despite minor adjustments, such as centering the page title and improving the content, what most impacted in the conversion was changing the cover image.

A slight difference in the characters placement on the images made a huge difference in user’s attention.

The boy “looking at” users drew more attention than the page content, while a man looking at the text redirected all attention to the slogan. Check out the full study here.

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Lastly, icons, colors, illustrations, and other types of visual components in the interface can make an app or website more accessible, especially when it’s used by people from different countries.

Thus, we can say that the use of icons improves overall comprehension. In addition, images push the boundaries of perception for people who are affected by text recognition disorders, such as dyslexia, have difficulty reading or who can’t read.

This article was possible thanks to the following studies, experiments and discussions:

  1. Scene Memory Is More Detailed Than You Think: The Role of Categories in Visual Long-Term Memory, by Talia Konkle, Timothy F. Brady, George A. Alvarez, and Aude Oliva;
  2. Photos as Web Content by Jakob Nielsen;
  3. Values of the Product Illustration by Katarzyna Dziaduś;
  4. The Power of Visuals in eLearning Infographic; Unsupervised Learning of Visual Features through Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity by Timothee Masquelier and Simon J. Thorpe;
  5. In UIs, do people recognize icons faster than words?, Big Reasons to Apply Illustrations in UI Design, and Visual Perception. Icons vs Copy in UI by Marina Yalanska;
  6. The role of working memory, inhibition, and processing speed in text comprehension in children by Erika Borella, and Anik de Ribaupierre.
  7. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  8. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari,
  9. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures by Erin Meyer
  10. Thanks to designers Matheus Bueno, Christiane Lynn, Victor Rosato for their contribution to this article.
  11. Thanks to Juliana Arthuso for proofreading this article.

And you, what do you think? Leave it in the comments so we can make improvements to the list.

If you want to know more about my work, head to or just reach me out

Cheers! Please don’t forget to leave your claps. ??????????????

(Photo by Antenna via Unsplash)

Giving each other helpful feedback is one of the most important parts of being a team. But many teams struggle to give each other feedback in productive ways. Thankfully, the design community has been absolutely obsessed with how to give each other feedback since the start of time.

You can use hard-won lessons from designers to improve how your team gives and receives feedback.

Designers love feedback because they often need to find solutions in situations where there is little data. What font should we use? Should that blue be a little darker? How should we communicate this concept to customers? There are often no hard metrics available to back up design decisions. So in the absence of data, designers turn to critique as a method to improve their work based on the collective wisdom of a group.

If you want a deeper look into how to build a culture of productive feedback, I highly recommend Creativity Inc... In the book, Ed Catmull outlines the process that Pixar uses to critique their films. The team at Pixar must make thousands of critical decisions that shape each film. And there’s no way to measure if those decisions are right, except when the film is finally released. Their only way to check progress along the way is through critique.

You’re probably not working on a feature film. But if you have to make important decisions that are hard to measure, you should build critique into your team’s culture.

There is no script

There are many articles on the web about how to run a design critique, and they’ll all give you a glimpse into the world of what the design community has figured out. But they’re often little more than a script to follow.

I’ve seen so many teams follow guidelines, attempt to run a critique, and then have the whole session fall apart. And I’ve seen other teams break all the rules and have incredible feedback sessions. What gives!

Running a great critique is more than a simple process. It’s a deep cultural attitude and a set of skills that your team needs to build over time.

That may sound hard, but once you understand the foundations that lead to a great critique, you can nurture those capabilities in your teams. You can use the foundations as a map to troubleshoot a wide variety of situations that involve people giving feedback to each other.

Critique Fundamental #1:

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the core of what it means to be a team. There are many things groups can do together that don’t involve feeling safe, but being a team is not one of them. If you don’t feel safe, you can’t be vulnerable and share where you’re struggling. And if you can’t ask for help from one another, you’re not a team.

Core question: Can this team be vulnerable with each other?

Critique issues related to psychological safety:

  • Reluctance to share work in critique
  • Waiting until work is “done” before bringing it to review

You might think that to improve psychological safety you should focus on trust. But that’s not quite right. As it turns out, vulnerability leads to trust, not the other way around. So to get your team to give each other better feedback, you need to first find ways to help them show vulnerability around each other.

Ways to build psychological safety:

Critique Fundamental #2:

Growth Mindset

High-functioning teams approach critique with the belief that their work can be better, and that they can grow their abilities over time. However, some people loose track of the growth mindset. For them, critique of work can feel like a deep personal challenge of their character.

Core question: Is a fixed mindset getting in the way of hearing feedback?

When people hold a fixed mindset, they see their own abilities as fixed, and never changing. In this mindset, your work is a reflection of not just your skills, but a reflection of your character. So if you criticize the work of someone with a fixed mindset, they can receive that feedback as a deeply personal attack on their own self worth. If that happens, productive critique has no chance.

Critique issues related to growth mindset:

  • Becoming defensive when work is under critique.
  • Avoiding taking action based on feedback received.
  • Showing work, but never asking for feedback from the group.

Thankfully, there are interventions that have been shown to help people switch their mindset and approach challenges with more resilience.

Ways to build a growth mindset:

  • Read the excellent book, Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
  • Share experiences of growth and learning on the team.
  • Be mindful of your language. For example, prefer “challenge” to “problem” and prefer “lessons” to “mistakes”.
  • Praise the work, not the person. For example, don’t say “Dana is a great writer.” Instead, say “Dana worked hard on this piece of writing and it came out great.”

Critique Fundamental #3:

Radical Candor

Kim Scott has one of the best frameworks for understanding how to give feedback in a productive way. She focuses on two axes that must be present for feedback to work: caring deeply and challenging directly.

Critique issues related to radical candor:

  • Critiques are overly harsh or even toxic. (Obnoxious aggression)
  • People are hesitant to share feedback. (Artificial harmony)

The principle of caring deeply is very close to psychological safety. In order to care deeply, you must help people feel like they belong on the team. You have to say, “I believe in you. I know you can succeed here.” And you must constantly renew these belonging cues so that people feel safe. That lays the groundwork for people to be able to hear the feedback they receive.

If you are offering critique without caring about the person, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Honestly, it’s rare that I see toxic teams that really don’t care about each other. Instead, it’s much more common to find teams that care so deeply about each other that they become hesitant to share any feedback! They worry that by challenging each other it might disrupt the harmony of the group.

But keeping all your feedback and thoughts locked inside isn’t going to help anyone. All those little nagging issues will seep out somewhere. Instead of bringing up feedback to a colleague directly, you might end up talking about their work behind their back. And that leads to even more problems. In order to have a productive critique, the team needs to understand that challenging directly is the most respectful way to share feedback with each other.

Core question: Are we caring deeply? Are we challenging directly?

Ways to build radical candor:

  • Together with your team, read and discuss Radical Candor by Kim Scott.
  • If you are feeling like your team is overly critical, return focus to psychological safety, and work on making recognition and praise more common.
  • Find ways to give your team permission to challenge directly. For example, have someone with high-status specifically ask for candid feedback and model the behavior.

Critique Fundamental #4:

Clarity of Purpose

Now it’s time to get more into the mechanics of what it means to run a feedback session or critique. One big reason critiques go poorly is because the team is not aligned on either the purpose of the conversation or the purpose of the project.

Critique issues related to clarity of purpose:

  • Presenters are selling their work instead of looking for ways to improve their work.
  • Feedback frequently goes off-track, into unimportant or unrelated issues.
  • Feedback is often conflicting, with no easy resolution.
  • Problem solving happens in the moment, rather than deferring to the presenter to solve an identified issue.

I find that feedback sessions tend to lie on a spectrum of purpose. One one end of the spectrum is the pure critique. The purpose of a critique is to use the knowledge in the room to help someone improve their work. On the other side of the spectrum is the pure approval. The purpose of an approval meeting is to pitch a great idea, not to improve the work.

Core question: Why are we having this conversation? Is it for approval or critique?

This is such an important distinction because when we’re pitching or selling an idea, we’re not that open to hearing feedback. And when people are acting as approvers, it can set up an adversarial relationship that prevents great feedback from happening.

There are plenty of great reasons to hold approval meetings. But your team shouldn’t expect to get great feedback (and be able to hear it) in the setting of an approval meeting. So you should try as much as possible to separate your meetings into either approvals or critiques.

Core question: Why are we working on this project? What are we hoping to achieve?

The other common misalignment tends to be when people have different ideas of why the project is happening in the first place. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before, because I’ve seen it in all contexts. An engineer might ask for a code review, and the reviewer goes off on a tangent. Or a designer might show a screen, and then get a bunch of feedback that’s off topic.

Ways to build clarity of purpose:

  • Start every meeting by stating the purpose of the conversation.
  • Separate out “critique” from “approval” meetings as much as possible.
  • Ask teammates to reiterate the purpose of their project and related context at the start of any request for feedback.
  • Begin feedback sessions with a short “questions only” period where teammates can only ask clarifying questions to better understand the work under critique.

Critique Fundamental #5:

Building Rituals

Rituals are a core part of what it means to be human. From when we brush our teeth in the morning to how we commute to work, rituals put a whole host of activities on automatic. Once you’ve built a strong habit for a behavior, it’s sort of magical how easily it happens without even thinking about it.

Critique issues related to building rituals:

  • High variability: some critiques run well, while others feel broken.
  • Outsiders visiting a critique throw the discussion off-course.

In the context of work, we build processes, which are just repeated actions. And once those actions repeat over and over again, they become habits. The collection of habits and assumptions that a group of people has built … well, that’s just another way of describing the group’s culture. So if you need to shape the culture of how feedback happens on your team, process can be a powerful tool.

Core question: What behaviors do we want on automatic? What behaviors shouldn’t be automatic? Do our rituals support these goals?

If you have project managers or design producers at your company, they will make amazing allies for setting up the rituals that encourage helpful critique.

Ways to build rituals of critique:

  • Ban outsiders. Keep the set of people reviewing work consistent until you build a strong culture of helpful critique with at least a small group.
  • Clarify roles in a critique: presenter, facilitator, note taker, feedback-giver, etc.
  • Develop guide rails for the presenter. For example, a template that helps them prepare for the critique with questions.
    • What decisions do I need to make next?
    • Where would feedback be most helpful?
    • What does the audience need to know in order to provide helpful feedback?
  • Develop guide rails for reviewers who are providing feedback.
    • Start each critique meeting by restating the purpose of the conversation.
    • Institute a rule like round robin feedback to shape the group dynamic. Once a rule becomes habitual, remove or change it to shape the dynamic further.
  • Build continual improvement into your critique process by reflecting on each session and what could have gone better.

There’s plenty more advice out there for rules and rituals for running productive feedback sessions. A Google search for “design critique guide” will serve you well.

Use these 5 fundamentals to debug your feedback challenges

Now that you have these 5 points in mind, you can use them as map to fix many problems you might be having with feedback on your team. Here’s how to do that:

  1. List out all the challenges your team has with giving each other feedback.
  2. For every challenge, consider which of the 5 fundamentals are underlying the problem.
  3. Take steps to strengthen your fundamentals. If you get stuck, try reading some of the books suggested above.

I hope this article has been helpful to you! I’d love to hear your experiences putting these ideas into action. You can find me on Twitter: @kowitz

And if you’re serious about improving psychological safety on your team, please learn more about Range. We hear from teams all the time that Range has helped them get to know each other and feel more like a team. I bet we can help your team, too.