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Physical Artifacts to End Digital Suffering

By Brittany Morton, October 5, 2017

The very first time I set foot in Menlo, the differences that make this company stand out from its competitors were immediately obvious. The physical space provides clear evidence of a unique culture: there are no cubicles, people sit in front of their computers as pairs, babies and dogs are part of the team, and the walls are covered in paper. Not that corporate “let’s get motivated by color and amorphous shapes” wallpaper, but actual paper: note cards, sticky notes, cut up bits of reports, paper. It’s one of the basic tenants of our culture that we do the simplest thing that could possibly work and often that means paper. While this seems crazy for a software development company (some of our clients even joke that we are the Amish of the software world), paper works and, surprise, it has an even deeper, more profound impact on our culture. 

But why does the use of Menlo’s physical space matter in a work environment? Let me explain by beginning with a little bit of history. If you aren’t familiar with Menlo, our mission statement is to “end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology”® and subsequently create a culture of joy for ourselves, our clients and our users. Lofty goals for a humble company of 45 employees located 2,387 miles from Silicon Valley, but ask any Menlonian why we do what we do and they will all refer you back to our mission. We believe this mission is possible to achieve, and when we set out to affect this change in the world the first place we started was with ourselves on our home turf. 

So how does paper fit in? We use paper in many different ways: as a project management tool, to do data analysis, to assess our design concepts, and to communicate designs from our High-Tech Anthropologists® to our Software Developers. We refer to our paper tools as artifacts, but they are really placeholders for a conversation. These artifacts are not all-encompassing sources of knowledge and we don’t want them to be. By using paper to facilitate those person-to-person interactions, we can share a more holistic knowledge though body language, tone, and facial expressions, as well as the basic information we must share to get our jobs done. In addition, we are able to convey the human stories behind these artifacts, the actions we saw real people take that led to our current direction. We get a better sense for the ‘why’ behind decisions and we feel more connected to our work, to each other, and to our users. Our conversations also cross roles, levels, and personality types, bringing us together as a team and as a community. Tapping into this basic human need for connection and purpose is what allows us to take those daily baby steps towards achieving our mission. For us, paper has become an ender of human suffering one conversation at a time. 

p.s. We do recycle!