Let me be clear. Things aren’t clear.
I crave clarity. I think most people do to a certain extent, but seriously — I’m in a stretch of going bonkers with all things unclear:
- Parking meters that don’t specify active days and times.
- Quick service restaurant digital signage menus that hide many of the prices and items in favor of slow-mo footage of bubbling soda and extreme food closeups. (I know, just another reason NOT to do fast food.)
- The online user experience I had to endure last week for one of my financial accounts.
- Construction barrels that reside along roadways for weeks on end without any apparent road work to support.
- Medical billing statements. Actually, pretty much anything having to do with the word “medical”.
- A no smoking sign above an ash tray. I don’t smoke, so maybe this is clear? Seems like a mixed message to me.
- This example which is really, really TL;DR … so to speed things up, let’s just say “Automated Parking Lot Machines”.
I can assure you the above is a very partial list, and for most of these, I have no control or remedy. But when it comes to communicating clearly in written, verbal, and visual communications for clients, I’m fortunate to be able to put my angst to work and strive to make things clear.
What is clear?
It’s pretty clear what “clear” means, right? It’s a powerful word attached to everything from what you hope for in the skies as you lift off the runway to the kind of water you prefer to swim in, to what kind of definition you expect to find in a dictionary. Which by the way defines clear as:
“Easy to perceive, understand, or interpret.”
That definition is clear, but it’s also important to note the connection between clear and accurate. It should go without saying that something clear, but wrong … isn’t of much positive value. So getting things right goes hand-in-hand with getting things clear. If we are passionately clear about something, but rest on our laurels when it comes to accuracy, we get ships that are clearly unsinkable and an earth that is clearly flat.
Taking this a bit further with that latter example in mind, the root problem of the (mostly pre-Aristotle) flat-earth presumption isn’t just the idea itself. Wrong ideas and bad information enter our consciousness all the time for a variety of reasons. However, the flat-earth fear that fooled many people for centuries had at its core an inability or refusal to continue to pursue, perceive, and interpret the presumption on increasingly deeper levels — to have a zeal for clarity and certainty regarding how viable the flat understanding was.
But there were some who had the zeal. There were some clarity curmudgeons like Aristotle who kept going … kept questioning … kept revisiting what people thought they knew … and that made all the difference in the world. Because when you crave clarity, you’ll make the extra effort to tack into the headwinds of assumption and wind up with the lovely discovery that you aren’t doomed to fall off the ocean’s edge after all. You just keep sailing on to new truths and new assumptions to challenge.
So it’s worth diving a little further into this idea of making things clear, and maybe teasing out what might be going on when we do and don’t.
Why aren’t things clear, and why should I care?
I think there are many forces working against communicating clearly, but a partial list might be:
1) General apathy toward the effort. The constant barrage of words and images in our lives means even creative communicators have become overworked and over-busied, and therefore complacent in response to things unclear. In short, when things are unclear, a fallback position of “ignore it and move on” might be in play.
2) Our clear isn’t someone else’s clear. Many factors affect clear communication including life experiences, cultural nuances, and the amount of passion someone has to work toward clarity in either receiving or sending communication signals.
3) Stockholm syndrome. This might be a stretch, but it’s possible that vagueness or a lack of clarity has held us captive for so long it starts to become an accepted state of being or even a welcomed source of comic relief. I think in some strange way, we’ve started to expect or even enjoy having things unclear encircle us. With everything everywhere seeming unclear and out-of-whack, we’ve pre-loaded our brains with cathartic rants like “Oy. Another contradictory study about the effects of coffee.” Or “Why do I even bother to check the weather?”. We grumble, vent and chuckle about things unclear all the time — and the endorphin trickle that results keeps us numb enough to carry on. But I think it’s good to keep in mind that at the true center of any unclear touch point— whether we’re laughing at it or not—lies a real struggle; a wall of frustration too primal for cynicism to eradicate. I think we really want to have and make things … clear.
“The world is fuzzy sometimes, I get it,” you say.
“What’s the big deal? Why obsess over making things clear?” you ask?
Well, the world isn’t just fuzzy. It’s being disrupted constantly and with greater speed as time marches on. Political upheaval, shifting financial markets, rapid advances in technology and science, competing agendas among groups and businesses … all continue to trend upward in frequency and magnitude thanks in part to advances in communication infrastructures that speed up the deployment of data and disruptions. So “the big deal” of things unclear is made manifest by the reality that confusion today can compound exponentially tomorrow.
When important communication efforts are unclear (or unclear by their absence), confusion happens and re-happens rapidly. Confusion costs us time; time is money; and money lost to confusion isn’t well spent. It’s not all that complicated a formula really, and it can seem inconsequential at first glance. Yet when you add it all up and really examine the details of the many unclear and/or inaccurate situations that trip us up in our daily routines, I think it’s pretty astounding how costly unclear can be. Just a quick glance at the problem of bad data can give a good sense of this. 3.1 trillion smackaroos is a pretty big consequence for things being wonky.
So maybe you have an important positive disruption to put in place, somewhere in the already disrupted world. Great. Breaking ground with a valuable new idea, product, or service is still what moving forward as a global community is all about. But know this, if your disruption isn’t surrounded with clear (and yes, accurate) communication the truth is that your disruption will probably be disrupted pretty quickly by confusion, apathy, or both on the part of your intended audience or customers. Your ship will be dragging anchors as soon as it sets sail.
How to make things clear (in a seriously compressed nutshell).
Despite the word “easy” being found in the definition of “clear,” making things clear when communicating can be anything but. For starters, there are the forces aligned against the efforts of clear communication (as touched on above). These forces show up throughout a project and threaten its success, so staying vigilant and alert against them is the starting stance for any effort to clearly communicate.
Additionally, in my experience, when we sit down with clients to begin to craft strategies there are often several points of tension between the known and the unknown, the clear and the unclear in what the desired goals and outcomes are for the effort at hand. Typically progress in communicating clearly is hindered right at the outset when clients have certain points they want to make but aren’t sure how to make those clear, or they haven’t answered the “Why?” question clearly as to what needs to be accomplished. You usually hear some of these words — antonyms of clear—in conversations as these points of tension arise:
uncertain, unsure, unsettled, up in the air, debatable, open to question, in doubt; doubtful, ambiguous, equivocal, indefinite, vague, mysterious, obscure, hazy, foggy, nebulous, informal, iffy
Those words usually involve variables and challenges the client is facing and tag the conceptual drag forces on the progress of communicating well. So how do we combat those forces? Specific tactics for that are nuanced and varied, but much of the battle to make things clear is found right there at the outset — in pure and simple observation and inquisitiveness.
Battling the drag forces of clear communication — whether it’s affecting a press release, web site, ad, info-graphic, SEO effort, UI design or a UX study — all begins with a commitment to see an unclear or potentially unclear thing for what it is, name it, and decide not to accept it without a fight. It’s not always possible to do this as a consumer, but when you’re in a maker role, you get to put your big person pants on and just say “No.” to unclear. You get to stare unclear beasts in the eyes, probe, ask hard questions of subject matter experts, isolate, immobilize and target the gremlins of unclear and thereby help bring order to chaos.
It’s also worth noting that things are not always clarified quickly. Sometimes months of effort and customized approaches are needed. But regardless of the time it takes, it’s incredibly fulfilling and extraordinarily important to make things clear — and you’ll likely find other clarity curmudgeons (I know of a few) who are ready to join in the fight.
“Take your time. Accuracy is a virtue.” — Boba Fett, The Mandalorian Armor
So after seeing and targeting the unclear beasts … then what happens? Well, lots of things. But where to begin? As the composer John Cage has famously said, “Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis.” His advice: “Begin anywhere.”
But if you’re really stuck, a few potential make things clear kickoff action items might be:
- Contain the complicated. Complexity and an abundance of detail will always be with us, but look for ways to put the simple communication up front, with drill-down information suppressed, but still available to your audience if they choose to seek those details out.
- Ask yourself (in reference to a thing’s aesthetic) “What does this ‘say’ to the audience at first glance?” Record all the descriptive words that first come to mind as answers (good or bad). Ask others the same question and record those answers. Is what you’re trying to visually communicate quickly coming through? This is a simple technique to arm yourself with anecdotal, but valuable data in your quest to be clear in what you’re making.
- Simplify simplify simplify. Do this with an image, type choice or messaging and content. This might kick off with accepting migrating visual trends, moving from the skeuomorphic to the flat. It might progress to paring down word count, or investing heavily in the content editing phase of a project before anything else takes place. You rarely want to go too far with simplification efforts that you land at under-informing (unless mystery is part of the desired result), but you do want to always make sure what you have in place is clear.
So without further ado, look around you. What you see is the unclear world as it sits right now. Go make it clear.
Do you prefer Mr. Roboto for your customer service? I’m not completely sold.
In their 1983 single “Mr. Roboto,” the Chicago rock band Styx envisioned a campy dystopian future where robots substitute for manual labor and, incidentally, rock and roll is outlawed.
Well, 35 years later that once-critically-panned/now-guilty-pleasure hit seems to have been half-correct. “Robots” in the form of algorithm-driven streaming services are helping keep popular music alive, but automation is indeed also continuing to supplement, augment, and replace people and jobs.
In the three decades since that time, electronic and digital interfaces have been enabling unprecedented efficiency and convenience in customer service and manufacturing. For consumer transactions in particular, we’ve seen ATMs supplement bank tellers, kiosks augment airline agents and grocery clerks, and pay-at-the-pump systems completely replace gas station attendants.
E-commerce transactions have also, of course, allowed us to evade human contact with phone representatives, brick-and-mortar stores, and travel agents. Lately, some of these transactions have migrated to smartphones, where you can hail an Uber or unlock a Zipcar. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have also arrived as mostly in-the-home technologies for now, but along with chatbots they’ll widen the “net” further of things (through the “Internet of Things”) driven by artificial intelligence.
Up next: Restaurants
You may have noticed this trend at restaurants. Table-side digital kiosks are popping up at Olive Gardens and Applebees, and you can place your order on an iPad at the gate-side “Minnibar” at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. These tools mainly assist the waitstaff and bartender with drink re-orders and payment processing. The human staff is still involved in placing your initial order, bringing your food and checking in on your satisfaction.
Arriving recently on the fast-casual restaurant scene is Eatsa, featuring virtually no waitstaff or counter help. Their (delicious-looking) quinoa bowls are prepared behind-the-scenes (by humans, we assume) based on your order from a digital screen, and delivered to you through a Star-Trekky portal window.
President Trump’s original choice for Secretary of Labor raised eyebrows, partially because of his frank talk about work automation. Andy Puzder happens to be the CEO of CKE Restaurants, the holding company for Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. In the past two years before his nomination, Puzder has written opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal making some interesting commentary and arguments about digital UI’s, AI and robots, and intersected them with wage costs and customer demand.
You should be able to read the piece as free content as a non-subscriber to WSJ; however you may require a subscription.
Fortune.com has a similar article on the topic that features Puzder and reflects many of his same thoughts.
Puzder’s nomination was eventually withdrawn due mostly to various other personal issues, but many members of Congress also questioned why an executive who touts replacing workers with robots—and, in conjunction with this thinking, questions raising the minimum wage—would be the right choice for Labor, and I agree. For the purpose of this essay, however, I think Puzder makes some interesting observations about consumer preferences, and speaks bluntly about doing the economic math.
Before I succumb further to the strong gravitational pull of the politics surrounding Mr. Puzder and the new Cabinet, I’ll remain focused on the picture he paints of customers preferring to transact with a kiosk instead of a human—and what that means.
I’m (usually) a people person
I usually prefer to interact with a human. I’m not one of those folks who Puzder describes in his article who line up at the digital screens while a lone remaining counter attendant waits, disengaged. If I encounter that scene, I’m making a beeline for the personal service. I scour the attended grocery check-out lanes for short lines before bailing out to my longtime pet peeve, the self-scanners.
My boys would often laugh at how frustrated I’d get when using the self-scan lane at the supermarket. Something would inevitably go wrong between the scanner and scale, the “help” light would begin blinking, the mechanical voice would call loud attention to my plight, and a helpful young steward would come over, swipe their employee card, and flush out the error. I’d suppress the urge to ask the innocent youngster “why do they even have these? They still need to pay you to constantly monitor them anyway!?”
I’ve noticed significant improvement in self-scan function recently, and my angst has subsided. Check-out attendants are still there to monitor security and provide help, which seems more complementary. It’s good to know that someone is there, but I no longer have this customer experience where I’m doing most of the work while someone is being paid to be on standby, ready to jump in and help just in case.
The same goes for kiosks in restaurants and bars. I’ve visited an Olive Garden and the aforementioned Minnibar, and found that the waitstaff and bartender needed to remain well-connected to the whole process even though I had to also fiddle with the iPad. They saved some time when I was ready to pay and leave, circumventing that moment where your companion polishes off her cocktail and says “are we ready to go?” and you reply “still waiting for the check,” or “just need to get my card back.” So that was nice. And at the airport I felt like the bartender would rather I just ignore the iPad, implying “it will be easier and better for both of us.” Overall the joint digital-human customer service partnerships didn’t seem to be gelling quite yet.
Putting customers first
Looking at Puzder’s comments and reflecting on my experiences, I can recognize that technology-driven customer service is continuing to find its footing while it continuously evolves. Electronic and digital transaction interfaces take steps and leaps forward, and then when a brand-new paradigm is injected into the ecosystem, things seem to take a small step back. Everything is hurtling forward at breakneck speed and sometimes customer service takes a back seat to the bottom line (and people’s jobs sometimes get caught in the crossfire).
Personally, I like the idea of taking a bit more care to ensure that we’re always putting customers first before sacrificing user experience for profit margins through the narrow mechanism of reducing purely for the sake of labor costs, which is always a faulty equation. Profits are of course, in the most basic terms, the difference between your revenues and expenses. But value is also a component of profits. We should always think about how digital interfaces and other advancements like artificial intelligence and virtual reality enhance the value a customer places on the experience. What not only brings customers in the door, but keeps them coming back?
- Are customers in a hurry? If they have no use or need for human interaction, an all-digital, self-serve approach will be preferable and we’ll see more on-the-go “giant vending machines” like Eatsa, for example, for a quick-grab before or during the work day. Carl’s Jr.’s CEO seems to have his eye on this approach as well.
- Do customers want to be attended to? This is where kiosks in sit-down restaurants can get a little awkward. Does the digital screen sacrifice a desired personal touch for fewer waitstaff and a bit more order accuracy? As this approach matures, kiosks, tablets and waiters should continue to have a more seamless role in providing service where everyone’s working together.
- In the most posh, upper-scale restaurants, replacing a knowledgeable and highly attentive waiter with a digital kiosk would be out of place, but any restaurant—from fast food to fine dining—could benefit from a more streamlined digital payment system. Think checking out at the Apple Store, where there are no registers to speak of. I don’t know what they do if you want to pay in cash.
- Starbucks customers leverage their app and a “membership” to easily order-ahead so that they can just walk into the store, grab their drink and go with minimal waiting-around friction. Could some food services go all the way with the “Just Walk Out” technology of Amazon Go? Probably! Eatsa could go that route pretty easily, it seems.
Digital technologies are amazing and have improved the quality of life in myriad ways, from safety to efficiency to pure fun and enjoyment. The possibilities are endless and new transaction models are coming online all the time. So, without a doubt there is a place in just about every industry for exciting enhancements. But we should always ask the two-part question:
- First, are we replacing too much human interaction with the customer?
- And are we replacing human interaction purely to save labor costs?
The optimal experience
As the owner of a digital agency, one would think that I’d be excited about all the opportunities out there for our skill sets to design interfaces. Of course — if that’s the best user experience. I am more concerned about the overall experience, not just what happens on a screen. If a customer will receive the maximum value from your product by whizzing through an all-screen/zero-human user flow, I’m thrilled to design that. But first we need to begin by looking at the entire transaction process holistically. It’s imperative that business leverage technology as best they can, but companies and brands should examine specifically how technology, their people, and their customers can work together.
The aforementioned Starbucks and Apple Store experiences are good examples. Technology helps streamline the transaction process but you still have access to a human being to get your specialty latte just right or show you how to switch your iPhone 7 from defaulting to taking photos in Live mode.
In those restaurants with table-top kiosks, those could be used in conjunction with a tablet that the waiter carries, helping ensure order accuracy but also helping with order customization. Waiters could wait on more tables and maintain a higher level of attentiveness when the tablet augments the process of notifying when food is ready to be served, drink refills and re-ordering, up-selling, and handling most of the payment transaction process.
A restaurant that runs at optimal efficiency prevents many of the factors that lead to bad customer experiences: Incorrect orders, and long wait times to get a table and then to get served and cashed out. Instead, tables turn over faster, an extra drink or two is ordered, perhaps even that elusive dessert up-sell. Customers may be willing to absorb slightly higher pricing at such an establishment, and gratuities may not take a hit despite the service being assisted by the kiosk. Finally, all of this may allow for some trimming of labor costs but fall well short of a staffing overhaul.
One of many examples
The Puzder nomination and Eatsa stories have me more fixated on restaurants, but there are many more examples of fascinating intersections between customer service and ever-burgeoning technologies. Everyone talks about what will be the next AirBnB or Uber, and soon “the next Eatsa” may be invoked.
One of my favorite follows on Medium, Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly publishing fame) has a great post as part of his “WTF: What’s The Future?” series: “Don’t Replace People. Augment Them.” I think that’s where I’m going with my thoughts above on my Utopian restaurant (hey … how does “Café Utopia” sound?)
I still value human interaction, and I like O’Reilly’s idea on having the imagination to think beyond “what jobs can we replace with machines?” I’ll trade a little extra time for getting personal attention, even if I barely have the time. But I like that I’m getting the personal touch at my favorite stops these days alongside some slick digital tools—far fewer pens that don’t work, trying to sign curled-up paper receipts; and not so many paper rewards punch cards that get forgotten then need to be “combined.”
Now if only everyone could get on the same page when it comes to using that chip card slot or not. Seeing the makeshift “NO CHIP!” cardboard stuffed into the slot sets all this cool tech stuff back a few years doesn’t it? Maybe that will be a topic for a follow-up post.
Or, driverless vehicles 😉
I’m the kind of person who will immediately pick up any book of Hubble Space Telescope photos or read about galaxies in my spare time. I make Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog a daily must-read and have a sky map app on my phone’s homescreen. I’ve currently got two different space photos set as my desktop background on two monitors.
I don’t claim any real level of expertise, but I’m fascinated by this stuff.
I mean, look at this mosaic of the Andromeda Galaxy:
This post isn’t just an excuse to post some great space photos, though it’s at least partly that. Here’s another:
That’s our galactic center, including the region containing a supermassive black hole in the white area on the right.
But that’s just the stuff we can see.
My amateur interest in space recently got me thinking about how something we can’t see, a concept in astrophysics called dark matter, might relate to my professional interest in content and the work we do with it for our clients.
I’ll let Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain what dark matter is:
The too-long-didn’t-watch version: it’s something we know must exist, but don’t know much of anything about. Yet.
Phil Plait goes into slightly more detail:
Dark matter was discovered a long time ago, when it was found that galaxies that live in clusters were moving way too fast to be held by the cluster gravity. They should just simply shoot away, and clusters would essentially evaporate. This implied that clusters of galaxies were either very young and hadn’t had time to dissolve — which we knew wasn’t true; they’re clearly old — or there must be a lot more gravity holding them together. We can add up all the light from the stars in the galaxies and estimate their total mass, but what you get is only about 5-10% of the mass needed to hold clusters together. So most of the matter making up the clusters must be dark. Otherwise we’d see it.
It’s also what gives galaxies their rotation speed—without it, galaxies would rotate slower.
Dark matter is an essential piece of the cosmos. The problem is that we can’t observe it directly, which makes learning more about it difficult. But we’re working on that.
Cosmologist Sean Carroll recently explained why it’s important to study dark matter, despite the fact that we can’t see it:
Only 5 percent of the universe, by mass, is the ordinary stuff out of which you and I are made. So, if you care about understanding the universe, 95 percent of it is dark matter and dark energy. If you want to know how the universe works, you have to understand that stuff. (my emphasis)
Carroll went on to say,
It’s very annoying to us, as scientists, because we know it’s there. We know how much of it is there. We know where it is. But we don’t know what it is. We don’t know what is actually making up the dark matter. So the more we can study its properties, how it collects, how it evolves over time, the more of a hope we get to understand what it is made out of and why there is dark matter at all.
The team of scientists used computers to painstakingly study 2 million galaxies in a miniscule patch of sky, detecting tiny changes in apparent shape in those galaxies caused by dark matter’s gravity distorting their light.
The reason for making this map is that quest for knowledge about the universe Carroll talks about above. Maps like this help scientists make sense of what we see out there, whether it’s how galaxies form, move and evolve, or how they collect together in clumps. Maps like this helps scientists take dark matter into account.
What does this have to do with content?
At the start of many web projects, content is like dark matter. It’s something—text, data, graphics, video, audio—both agency and client know exists, but it’s not fully understood. We know it’s essential to the website, that it makes up the largest chunk of the site’s mass, that without it the site wouldn’t work or hold together very well.
Despite that, it’s easy to get caught up in what I’ll call the luminous material, the design and development. Those are the stars and galaxies of the web, the stuff that’s easy to see and conceptualize—and they’re essential pieces.
However, design and development without a full accounting of content is like cosmology in the days before the discovery of dark matter. At the time, scientists’ theories for galaxy rotation and clustering didn’t match up with observation. Model galaxies would fall apart, because dark matter wasn’t part of the equation. The models had to adapt for the presence of the stuff in order to work.
The same is true for websites: you need to understand your content if you want to keep your site from falling apart or spinning too slowly.
Fortunately, we can observe content directly. If we take the time, we can catalog it, organize it, adjust it, cull it, create it, plan for its future, and more. In other words, we can build a dark matter map. We call this map content strategy.
Content strategy is an essential component to any successful website project. A good content strategy will tell you what you have, why you have it, what you need, and where you’re going with it. It will align with and inform your goals, making them achievable from where you are now. It will turn your dark matter into a fully-known piece of the puzzle.
We’re interested in helping you discover what makes up your dark matter. Together, we’ll plot out how it collects and evolves. And we’ll help you plan for its future.
What can we map for you?
On January 8-9, 2015 I had the pleasure of attending Owner Summit in Austin, Texas. Owner Summit is a two-day event delivered by Bureau of Digital, an organization created by Greg Hoy and Greg Storey of Happy Cog and partner Carl Smith. Happy Cog is an industry-leading digital agency that also produces the longtime industry-benchmark web site A List Apart (as well as the publication series A Book Apart). With that impressive pedigree, Bureau of Digital runs a series of “camps,” “summits,” and workshops for digital project managers, operations managers, creative directors, and — rather uniquely — the agency owner.
I jumped at the chance to attend, and I’m glad I did. In the 15 years Elexicon has been in business, I’ve never had this kind of opportunity to meet and share experiences with my peers. I have to admit, the idea of comparing notes with other owners was as intimidating as it was intriguing, but once I immersed myself with the group I felt right at home. When over a hundred passionate digital agency owners take time out of their busy and hectic schedules and get together to exchange stories, develop relationships, break bread and share ideas, lots of good things happen. Richard Banville of Fresh Tilled Soil shared his findings from research on (literally) how the very best agencies become the best. Tracey Halvorson of FastSpot gave a talk on client relationships. Karen Lyons of ClockWork presented on work/life balance and how for owners it’s not so much a balance as a blend — “it’s all life!” The inimitable Mike Monteiro gave us heartfelt advice on how NOT to screw up design presentations; and Bryan Zmijewski of ZURB, creators of the Foundation responsive framework talked about the opportunities and pitfalls of developing a “side” project or product.
What I learned
Agency ownership is an art. This was my biggest takeaway, the realization that the most successful interactive agency owners manage their business like one big digital project. They bring their same idealism for strategy and planning, ideation, people-centered design, sensible technology roadmaps, clear communication and project management to the art of running an enterprise.
Different paths, similar passion. Each owner at the summit “got here” differently. Andi Graham of Big Sea delivered a great talk on her “accidental agency,” while other visionaries had seemingly drawn up the blueprints for their agency in grade school. (Me? I fall somewhere in-between … Elexicon story fell into the right place/right time category.) Even though we all traveled different roads to get here, it seems we’re all now on a similar path and share a common passion.
This is a sincere and generous group that I hope to join up with again at a future summit. Insights and ideas flowed freely among the group, with the full intention of helping make each other and their businesses better. The focus was on strengthening the value of digital consultancy services — everything from strategy and design to development to marketing — to the benefit of not only these agencies and their teams but also to clients and their customers.
What I learned about Elexicon
We’re the same… I didn’t walk away from Summit with a new plan to turn Elexicon 180° upside down and try all the new ideas I learned from the industry’s leading agencies. That’s not why I attended, so thank goodness! On the contrary, the Summit validated many of our existing practices and processes while simply adding some helpful new perspectives. It was nice to see and share that we’re doing a lot of things right and that “it ain’t broke.” Many highly successful agencies of all shapes and sizes, literally from across the globe were represented, and Elexicon fit right in.
…But not totally the same. Elexicon is in its 15th year and this accomplishment really stood out in my conversations with other owners, where I received many congratulations on our longevity. Over those years I think we’ve created our own unique way of doing things in some facets of the agency business, that have led us to be very fortunate in the areas of client relationships and team culture. I returned to Grand Rapids feeling like I’d learned a lot but that perhaps a few of the newer agencies and younger owners I talked to at the summit may have learned a bit from me, too.
We’re onto something. While I first attended Owner Summit in 2015, I first heard of Bureau of Digital’s Owner Camps and Owner Summits about a year earlier. During that year of waiting for the next Summit to happen so I could attend, I drew inspiration from the “camp/summit” concept and started an “Agency Camp” within Elexicon during the summer of 2014. With an entire treasure trove of new ideas and insights from Owner Summit, we’re doing Agency Camp 2015 this summer.
The concept of Agency Camp is, in a nutshell, getting together as a team every so often in the morning and talk about how to make ourselves and our agency better. This will be a topic of a near-future blog post of its own, so stay tuned. In the meantime I’ll just close with a word of thanks to the Bureau of Digital crew for the Owner Summit opportunity and the way it inspired our Agency Camp, and I look forward to attending again!
Part of our business model at Elexicon is continued education and training through conferences and other group learning experiences.
I recently I had the opportunity to attend the Midwest User Experience Conference (MWUX) in Indianapolis. MWUX is a smaller conference, but it packs some great sessions with engaging speakers on topics like design and development, as well as the future of this industry, and what we can expect to see and ultimately contribute if we apply ourselves.
I was able to pick up on a few key themes during the conference, each of which I think will be useful for my own workflow, as well as our agency in general.
Learn, teach, repeat.
Many of the speakers touched on the concepts of learning and teaching. There were talks on managing your UX team, learning how to learn again, how to work well with developers, and how to become more valuable by how we articulate our designs and process.
Jared Spool opened the conference Friday morning with a thought-provoking talk on the nature of today’s designers, the design and technology industry as a whole, and what needs to be done on the individual level to ensure that we as designers are able to keep up with the demand on our industry.
Jared asked questions like, “Why don’t design students come out of school knowing about responsive design or how to create mobile apps?” and “ Why are we having a tough time keeping up with the pace of innovation?” Jared focused on how it’s not enough to know what you were taught, but that we need to take our learning to the next level: where we know the right questions to ask as well as the right things to research to further develop our skillset and hone in our toolbox for designing the technology, applications and digital products we imagine.
Jared’s point was it’s not enough to know what we do and how we do it today. To be successful in this industry, we need to make a commitment to lifelong learning, as well as teaching. Jared explained that one of the most effective ways we learn is through teaching — taking a concept or practice that we know, and sharing it with fellow colleagues or people interested in the field. Being able to articulate why we do what we do not only helps us in our own process, but it also helps us to establish value for the work we do for our clients.
This need for passionate designers, especially user experience designers, Jared explained, is more necessary than ever before. In the U.S alone, there are over 24,000 unfilled user experience jobs. In reality, it’s a two-fold problem. There are just not enough qualified people to fill these positions. And employers don’t fully understand what they need to be looking for to actually fill these positions.
HR personnel for these companies call the user experience candidates they’re looking for “unicorns”, because of their rarity and scarcity. Large companies are buying up design agencies that understand and have expertise with user experience. These companies grasp the need for, and value of, a strong digital identity, and what that means for overall customer care. They see that there’s something missing in their digital offerings, and that they aren’t outfitted to appropriately meet that need, but that it’s important enough to take such drastic measures.
Whether individuals within these companies have the foresight to see the need, or consultants or agencies are pointing out the gap, it’s undeniable that there’s a growing disparity between the ever expanding digital landscape, and a full understanding of how we as designers best use and harness these concepts for our clients. It’s more important than ever for us as designers to be on top of our game.
The screen is [not] the limit
Related to the ever-expanding digital horizon, another topic that a number of speakers presented on was the changing landscape of the devices and screens we design for.
This obviously isn’t anything new, with the booming popularity of responsive design, native apps and a technological landscape that appears to have no bounds. Whether it’s the new 5K retina display on the new iMac, the tiny displays of smart watches or other wearables, or the forecasted landscape of no physical screens at all (it’s closer than you think), we as designers need to stop thinking so flat.
I’m not talking ‘flat design’ either, so you Apple/anti-skeuomorphic design toters can cool your washed out muted red blood. When I say “flat”, I’m referring to the linear content and content transitions we’re accustomed to. Beyond the fact that the technology we’re designing for, be it a browser or operating system, can handle so much more than the simple content transitions of the past, we also need to take into consideration how we can use these transitions and layering of content to create a more dynamic, user-focused experience.
We’re at a tipping point with how we interact with content and data, and it’s equally important that we find that balance between using these new new features to enrich the experience, and not letting that experience distract from the content, or become confusing for the user to navigate.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
Now we come full-circle.
We don’t know what we don’t know, and more importantly our clients don’t know what they don’t know.
It’s pretty typical that clients come to their agency with a project, usually accompanied with a project outline, some sort of project scope, and if, they’re ambitious, maybe even a projected project timeline. Depending on the client and their background, this may be perfectly acceptable.
But when was the last time you went to the doctor, and told him why your knee hurt, and how much time you had available for your full recovery? Not a perfect comparison, I know, but you get the idea.
It’s important that we as design professionals help knead and shape our clients in such a way that they understand this is our specialty, and we need to help set expectations on project scope, realistic timelines and what we can do within the time that we have available. Doing so will help to create happier clients, happier designers and happier developers on your team, and in the long run you’ll help to create a more valuable product. You’re also boosting your own credibility as an agency by offering solutions and producing results.
By articulating your work, designs, and process confidently and with excitement to your client, you’re getting them excited about the work being done. If you’re not buying what you do, neither is your client.
Because we’re experts at what we do, and have committed to lifelong learning because we love what we do (right?), chances are we have a leg up on our clients regarding something that they could be either doing differently, or aren’t doing [yet]. That’s the thing that would bring value to them and their customers if done right.
In the end, whether you call yourself a designer, a user experience professional, or whatever title seems fitting or trendy now, it’s your responsibility educate yourself, research what you do, as well as new and emerging services and technologies. You should be able to articulate what you do and present new services and products in a way to your clients that’s compelling and shows the value that would be added by incorporating them into their project.