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Making The Case For UX (To Non-Designers)

| By Russ Starke

Recently a friend of ours reached out and asked us for some high level information around Experience Design that he could share with some of his non-design colleagues and contacts. Basically he asked:

“What are some things that you’ve been seeing lately that make the case for engaging with a company like yours, and stuff that in general we should just be keeping an eye on? Oh, and how about some info around “mobile”, too?”

I whipped up this quick response, and it was promptly suggested that it might be a helpful blog post…and so, voilà! By no means exhaustive, but maybe a few points that’ll be helpful in communicating why user experience (UX) is more important than ever.

Great UX Is A Market Differentiator

There’s hard evidence in the marketplace showing small, nimble organizations with carefully thought out user/customer experiences (and surprisingly often, not much under the hood) can seriously challenge large companies with well-known brands, years worth of data, and strong/real infrastructure but no recent investment in a world-class user experience (the story, for example—though they had plenty under the hood). More and more, companies are realizing that one of the most important differentiators…and maybe the most important…is a great customer experience; one that is intuitive, modern, consistently accessible and useful across devices, and designed with the specific attributes of the target audience in mind.

Design Thinking Can Drive Novel Approaches

UX, or more specifically, Design Thinking, provides a different “lens” through which to view and address challenges—often allowing organizations to arrive at solutions that wouldn’t (or couldn’t) be reached using any other method. It’s an evidence-based framework that roots out and carefully balances user/customer/employee needs/wants/expectations with business drivers and goals, and has been proven to result in unique and innovative (check off all of these words on your buzzword bingo card) approaches.

The Sum Experience Is Greater Than The Parts

Comprehensive experience design is about taking a hard look at every possible touchpoint between a customer/user and your brand, and considering that most customers will move between those touchpoints depending on the time of day, their location, the particular goals, etc.  This means that websites, mobile apps, storefronts, phone lines, and whatever else is out there are all just conduits for interacting with the greater entity of the “brand”, and the collective experience of interacting across all of those touchpoints is what ultimately adds up to how customers feel about that brand (the total experience). This is what will drive loyalty (or the lack of it) and the willingness of customers to become net promoters. To ensure a lasting positive impression, all interactions should feel consistent, coherent, and seamless: but often this isn’t the case, with different departments owning different channels and resulting in experiences that feel fractured, contradictory, and incomplete.

The Nature Of “Competition” Is Changing

When deciding to create anything new (a website, functionality on a website, a mobile app, etc.), it means considering the entire ecosystem into which that asset is being launched; this means other offerings from the organization providing it, as well as understanding the user who will be introducing it into his/her life (where it will compete with MANY other things for their time, attention, and money). Essentially, competition becomes any other thing in a person’s life vying for these valuable (and increasingly limited) resources, not just rival companies with a similar market offering.

The Right Strategy Always Depends (On Research)

When it comes to website/mobile usage, the best way to make a strategy decision is to not go by general research but to carefully consider the unique and specific workflows and use cases of your target audience. Yes, mobile usage is increasing in general, but certain tasks will still be performed on a desktop browser for the foreseeable future (heavy data input, administration functions, etc.). There are a lot of high level phrases thrown around as edicts (mobile first, responsive web design, gamification, flat design, etc.), but it always depends on smart and focused research, not a knee-jerk “everyone says we should do X, so we should do it that way.” Many of the success stories we admire followed this path to innovation (i.e. Netflix’s initial strategy for entering a crowded marketplace: differentiating by exploiting what had been termed a “dead” vehicle—the U.S. Postal Service, and decimating their competition in a few short years).

Sure, we could go a lot deeper on any of these, but 1) then certain folks might start glazing over and 2) these seem to be the thoughts that are resonating most deeply with those just dipping their intellectual toe into the UX water as of late. C’mon in, the water is warmer than you think—but it’s a BIG pool…be sure to reach out to us when you want to go exploring in the deep end!

User Experience Is Not Just About “Screens”

| By Brian Alexandrowicz

What do most people picture when they hear the phrase “User Experience”? If their mind doesn’t completely draw a blank, they might think about websites or mobile apps, or maybe even desktop software. While true, there’s an entire side to it that goes beyond screens. UX design involves creating a holistic experience that accounts for people’s emotions, thoughts, and desires in their physical and digital worlds.


Great holistic experiences are everywhere, many of them needing no help from “screens” (Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli)

I recently had a series of interactions with a company’s customer service department that were less than ideal. While professional and courteous, I never felt like anyone was trying to genuinely empathize or add some humanity to the conversations; I felt like a name in a system, not a human being. In a world where things are produced and consumed on a massive scale, feeling lost in the crowd creates a disconnect between the business (brand) and its users.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a bad customer experience not only frustrates your target audience, but also hurts your bottom line: research shows around 71% of customers end a business relationship due to poor service, and the cost of that lost relationship has an estimated average of around $289 per customer annually (or $83M).

On the other end of the spectrum, the oft-cited Zappos shows us how going out of your way to create a great experience can lead to better business and better relationships with your clients. They operate on the fundamental assumption that a good experience goes beyond their website and their product: it encompasses everything, including the human interactions that can either make or break a relationship with a company. Not reading from a script adds humanity and authentic human interaction that people often crave when dealing with a business.

“Nothing can replace the human touch especially when that person is empowered to go to just about any lengths to help the customer. They understand that the customer experience is not singular, but it’s in each of those singular moments when interacting with the customer that loyalty is forged or lost.” – Barry Glassman (Forbes)

The proof is in the pudding: they do around $1 billion in revenue each year, and nearly 75% of their business is from repeat customers. The kicker? They also spend very little on advertising. Zappos has put the customer experience first, and they’ve created an extremely successful business as a result.

“Zappos is a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes.” – Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO

We’re not selling shoes here at Think Brownstone, but we are crafting thoughtful and innovative solutions to problems. We take the time to get to know all of our clients on a personal level and understand what they want, feel, and think. We’re about designing the best experience for our clients’ customers and/or employees while at the same time providing the best possible experience for our clients themselves—that’s what will lead to stronger relationships, repeat business, and making us all look like heroes. In that formula, screens are integral, but make no mistake: they’re only one part of a much bigger picture.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Digital Project Managers

| By Bruce McMahon

Many years ago, Stephen R. Covey wrote the groundbreaking book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” and it quickly gained recognition as a must-read for business professionals. His approach to simplify the traits and habits for becoming more effective in achieving goals has helped countless individuals. During my years working for numerous digital agencies and design consultancies I’ve learned that while effective project managers implement different styles and tactics, they all share a set of skills critical for ensuring their projects and teams are successful. Like Covey’s habits, these tactics are more philosophical in nature and require self-awareness and true effort to master.

Yes, having skills with tools and methodologies is helpful in being a good project manager. There’s no denying the value of a well structured MS Project schedule or clearly written status report, but more important is the instinct and experience to know when and how to leverage the various tools of the trade, including soft skills that only come from an acute awareness of the habits and behaviors of people on your project.


Bruce provides us with our first (cringe-worthy) animated GIF on the Think Blog. Yes, he made this himself.

The concept of putting together a list of habits for effective project managers is not new. A quick google search will bring back a host of results from very intelligent and qualified individuals who have done it for their particular project management situations. When I first thought of putting together my list, I wanted to put a slightly different spin on it and focus on what I know best, which is managing the process of producing products in the digital world.

While writing this, I realized that 7 habits weren’t really enough to capture the traits of all the exceptional PMs I’ve had the honor of working with, but to keep true to the format that Mr. Covey created, I’m providing the ones that I feel are most crucial.

  1. Encourage deep cross-partner collaboration
    One of the keys to successfully launching a digital project is aligning multiple teams together under the context of the overall program. Many times this includes integrating with other vendors or partners who provide critical services in support of your project’s success. A good PM needs to be able to understand how each party’s contribution fits into the overall project and identify the pieces that have the greatest likelihood of falling behind schedule or causing risk. Don’t be afraid to request a meeting with these folks to review their own timeline, scope, and progress, and encourage your client to invite them to the status meetings to allow for more open communication between all parties. Take a leadership role in making this collaboration happen and not only will your project benefit, your client will see you as a true partner (not simply a vendor) in the overall success of their initiative.
  2. Expose and address issues immediately
    I think all project managers at some point in their career are guilty of being overly optimistic that an issue will resolve itself (I know I made this mistake more than once early on). Scott Berkun first exposed me to the concept of hope creep in his book “The Art of Project Management”, and it really resonated with me. Basically hope creep is the concept of not addressing bad news in hopes that the issue will resolve itself. This can take the form of not communicating a key date slipping, sugar-coating a less than ideal project status, or ignoring an underperforming team member. One consistent trait that all good PMs have is that they are diligent at addressing issues as soon as they are identified. It’s simply illogical to think that a negative factor will somehow magically fix itself. Identify the issue, communicate it, and lead the effort to address it. If you can’t address the issue yourself then clearly communicate it to your client, highlighting the potential impact to the project’s success. They may not be happy at first, but they will appreciate your honesty and efforts toward protecting their interests.
  3. Encourage continuous improvement
    One of the tenets of the Agile movement is for the team to constantly reflect on how to be more effective. This concept should be embraced by all PMs, regardless of the methodology you’re following. If you see yourself or a team member struggling with an existing process, tool, or approach, fix it! My former boss (who is one of the smartest people I know) used the phrase “zero tolerance, with a loving heart”. While this was often misconstrued, I fully agree with the concept. If something isn’t working, it’s not only your right to fix it, but your duty. In doing so you should be empathetic to those affected and make all reasonable efforts to ensure that your change is a positive one. Remember that being overly reactive can also be disruptive, so learn to think through identified issues and address them in a logical and well thought out manner.
  4. Tailor your communications to your audience
    Mark Twain once wrote in a letter to a friend “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” I often reference this quote because I see PMs who accurately communicate information but don’t effectively communicate it. It is important for a PM to know how to ensure all team members and stakeholders comprehend the information given to them. This usually results in a mixture of verbal and written communication with varying levels of detail. Assume the recipient only has a few minutes to focus on your communication. Some tactics to consider when communicating include:

    • Be short and to the point. Don’t make it difficult for people to pull out the important information by burying it within a lot of unnecessary fluff.
    • Use bulleted lists when possible. This is a very simple but effective technique. Whenever communicating a series of items or ideas, list them out and comprehension will be better.
    • Highlight names and dates. When sending out communications requiring people to take action, leverage your tools and bold or highlight the names of the individuals associated with each action item and the dates that their action item is expected to be completed.
    • Follow up in person. Whenever possible, follow up on important written communications in person. Walk over to your team member and verify that the message was understood. If you can’t walk over, give them a quick call or IM to ensure your message was received and understood.
  5. Keep your coders coding
    Though often attributed to coders, this idea actually applies to every specialist on your project team. A good PM values their team members’ time and does whatever it takes to make sure it’s used efficiently and effectively. You may have a designer who knows Excel pretty well, but trust me, your project will benefit far more if this designer focuses on design instead of wrangling a spreadsheet. In addition, you should make sure that each team member has all of the information needed to easily complete their tasks. If a designer needs an asset or a coder needs clarity on a defect, take this task upon yourself and let them move on to their next task. Don’t reassign the task until you’re confident that it can be completed by your team member efficiently.
  6. Don’t fall behind
    Whether tracking decisions or hitting milestones, it’s very difficult to catch up during a complicated project once you fall behind. First, get into the habit of keeping your tasks up to date. Maintain and groom your action log, document decisions, post your meeting notes, update your status reports, review your budget tracking sheet, etc. Next, make it a weekly routine to take care of your administrative duties and this will help you have more time to focus on what’s really important: managing your project and your team members. As for your project schedule, if you find it slipping, work with your team to come up with a realistic plan for catching up. If they’re part of the planning, they’ll be much more cooperative and accountable when executing.
  7. Know your scope, communicate your scope, and protect it
    I’ve been building websites for clients since 1996. Since then, I can honestly say that I’ve never participated in a project where scope creep wasn’t a risk. Remember, scope management isn’t only beneficial to you as a “vendor”, but is also extremely important for ensuring your client’s needs are met as well. Each time a requirement changes or a decision is overturned, there’s risk to your timeline, risk to your budget, and potential risk to your team. It’s extremely important that you, your team, and your client all agree with what exactly is in scope and what is not. During the first couple of days of the project, take time to meet with your client, your team, and any other vendors to review the scope together. If there’s any uncertainty as to what a specific piece of language in your Statement of Work means, it’s important that you identify it early and work with your client to come to an agreement. If you do this early on you’ll eliminate the risk of not meeting your client’s expectations later on. During the project there will most likely be situations where someone asks your team to do something that is not part of the official scope. Make sure you have a change control process in place before this occurs. Good PMs are comfortable with explaining to a client why something is out of scope, and come prepared with options for how to best accommodate the request. Nine times out of ten, your client will understand your position and cooperate with the change control process. Finally, know that it is never too late to clarify scope.

As with many lists, this isn’t intended to be exhaustive. That’s OK. Use these items as a foundation for your own list, and work with your PMO to put one together that works best for you, your team, and your clients.