“From the store windows, the store touchpoints, the website, social media or a magazine – it has to be one pure customer experience, not just to gain market share but to gain mind share.”
-Angela Ahrendts, CEO Burberry
The process of making a website or application is tricky, and not only in regards to design and development. Often just as challenging—and seemingly overlooked—is the process of properly identifying who you’re building for.
When we work on a client project, we’re not really working for the client. We’re working for client’s customers or audience. We’re ultimately working to ensure the experience your customer has with you is a positive one that reinforces your brand’s validity, encourages use, and ultimately shows you a return on your investment with the project.
How do you manage a seamless experience across an always changing and increasing number of content channels, though?
Honestly, you can’t.
But, what you can do is influence your users’ experience by being very intentional about where and how you deliver your brand and content, doing so in a way that is consistent across platforms. When we do this, it’s what we call “designing the experience.”
This is how we do it.
Identify Your Audience.
You may already know your audience, or you may need help determining who they are. If you do know, it can be worth it to do the research anyway. The goal is to focus the project’s direction by identifying the audience: your customers, current and/or potential.
Gaining a better understanding of your customers can be accomplished through the process of user and A/B testing, market research, and other early-stage research methods.
It’s very possible that you already have a good understanding of who your audience is, but it’s equally important to know your audience’s why and how. Why will your audience be interested in what you’re doing? How will that affect the way they view your brand? How do you keep your audience returning and engaging?
Now that you understand your audience, you need to know who within your audience you’re designing for.
During the discovery phase of any project, it’s important to keep in mind how the design, functionality, and content will affect your customer. This often means putting aside personal preferences, putting away egos, and establishing a cohesive direction between the client and the agency. That requires clear direction and communication from the client, and a sense of trust that the agency has the (client’s) customer’s best interests in mind.
It’s the agency’s job to combine that with a clear understanding of what will work best from an industry perspective and ultimately enrich the customer’s overall experience.
Just because you want to create an app doesn’t mean that your customers are going to install and use it even once, let alone on a regular basis.
Or visit that website.
Or ingest that content, evoking the desired response.
Understanding the why behind your customer’s need (implied or apparent) will ultimately be a gauge for design decisions along the way.
Set Measurable Goals.
We see it all the time: client wants a project completed, comes to an agency. Agency creates the project, hopefully to the client’s liking. End of story… right?
Not here, at least.
It’s important, especially early on, that the client and agency sit down and set measurable goals for what they want to accomplish with their project. Hardly ever is just launching the site or application the measure of success—nor should it be.
Setting measurable project goals does a few things.
First, it gives the client a baseline to measure a project’s success against once it’s completed.
Second, it provides a foundation upon which they could build in the future if a change in direction is required.
Third, it gives the agency a framework to work within to provide a solution.
After all, an equation can’t be solved without first having a problem, right?
Walk, Don’t Run.
This next point might seem a little blunt, but it’s important. Because we care. Really.
Don’t be too anxious to jump right into design and production, at least initially.
It’s pretty normal, and honestly expected, that a client will come to the table with what they feel to be a pretty solid understanding of exactly what needs to be done and created, but without taking preliminary steps of discovery and planning. The thing is, discovery and planning can make the difference for a successful project.
Even if it’s not within your project budget to account for variations of the steps listed above, it’s good to be at least open to sitting down and having an honest conversation about the project. Give your agency a chance to really make the project work for your customers. In doing so, you may find that your good idea really has the potential to be great.
In the end, we’re all on the same team, playing for the same goal: hitting a home run for your customers by providing the most seamless possible experience that enforces your brand’s integrity and messaging, leading to engagement, sales and growth.
It’s the Elexicon way.
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.
Last month, Matt Haughey of MetaFilter published a piece on Medium about the status of one of the true stalwarts of the internet:
MetaFilter is the little weblog that could, established in 1999 as one of the first community blogs. Over its fifteen year history it has expanded from a place to discuss interesting things on the web to include Ask MetaFilter as a community question and answer (Q&A) site, along with more subsections for things like music by members, completed projects by members, meetups among members, and most recently TV and movies.
While MetaFilter is relatively small (only about 62,000 have paid the one-time $5 for an account to date and 12,000-15,000 of those members come back to interact with the site every day), we have a great group of members, and I think we consistently have some of the best discussion on the web, with the sites attracting over 80 million readers last year. Our commenters are literate and thoughtful, and our site is watched around the clock by a staff of moderators. Despite the site’s modest stature its influence makes waves in the larger world (like mentions on popular TV shows: Tremé andMythbusters).
Unfortunately in the last couple years we have seen our Google ranking fall precipitously for unexplained reasons, and the corresponding drop in ad revenue means that the future of the site has come into question.
Haughey goes on to explain the situation at length.
His story is alarming for a number of reasons. MetaFilter is highly-regarded, with a reputation as a good citizen on the internet and has a community that is generally one of the best. The realities Haughey and his staff now face this are brutal and should have been avoidable.
However, the nature of Google in 2014 is such that determining where MetaFilter went wrong (or even if they went wrong) is difficult.
What we do know is that, as the company has grown over the years, Google has become increasingly opaque and monolithic. It has also become seemingly hostile to some of the principles it was originally known for. The famous but informal Google motto “Don’t be evil,” has become a punchline to some observers, particularly after the sudden shuttering of Google Reader and the intrusive full-court press on Google+. This MetaFilter story only adds to the narrative of a Google that is losing sight of the open internet, where the cream rises to the top.
At the surface, the MetaFilter situation is related to positive changes Google has made to their algorithm aimed at reducing instances of low-quality content and serving up high-quality content. However, if you do a Google search today, you still get content farm results and low-quality answers from sites like Ask Yahoo! If this were a case of MetaFilter losing out to quality competition, or utilizing unsavory SEO techniques Google is flagging, it wouldn’t be so disturbing—it would be expected. As it is, you have MetaFilter losing out for reasons that remain opaque to the outside.
Here you have an extreme case that offers a harsh lesson: you can do all of the right things and still lose out if you are too dependent on a third party company for your success. It’s true with Facebook and other social media sites, and it’s true with Google too.
MetaFilter, for example, is now pivoting to another, less ad-dependent business model, but it seems they should have done so earlier as a safeguard against the shifting sands of Google’s algorithm.
Our guidelines for customers remain what they were before: keep your SEO efforts clean and produce good content while striving to engage your users in a meaningful and lasting way. Just remember that what happened to MetaFilter underlines the importance of the engagement component. Search results can change, but a proper web strategy can minimize the damage to your business when they do.
For some more background on the story, check out this episode of the TLDR podcast.