A few years ago I decided that Elexicon needed to re-focus as an agency. I felt like we were drifting a bit, and lacking direction … and that started at the top, with me. Without going into much “inside baseball,” we spent some valuable time that summer of 2014 in weekly meetings where we discussed a range of different topics: Our history, my vision for starting the business, pinpointing what we’re really good at, and identifying what we might not be as good at. We looked at some of the classic wisdom and models for increasing effectiveness and productivity, such as Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits and the Eisenhower Matrix, along with devising some thought exercises of our own.
Another source of inspiration for our meetings was Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why, and his highly popular TED Talk of the same title. The book’s subtitle is “How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and its premise is that leaders inspire by discovering and defining the “Why” of their team or organization’s work. Sinek wants us to focus on Why we do the work that we do, and make that the foundation of How we do our work and What we ultimately produce. Since the TED Talk was made way back in 2009, I’m sure many of you reading this have probably seen or heard of the “Start With Why” model and watched the talk. If not, I recommend this 20 minutes of viewing…
Now that everyone has at least seen the video, I will say that Start With Why isn’t a panacea or magic bullet. The “Golden Circle” does not apply to everyone and everything, but I do think it’s a valuable concept to consider and a worthy exercise to go through in most cases, as we do in many of our client strategy sessions.
So, I started to relate the Golden Circle concept to our work at Elexicon. From the start, it was very useful in helping me not only think about the “Why” I started the business in 1999, but also Why our team and I were passionate about our work 15 years later. The next question: Was the “Why” the same as it was in the beginning? For the most part, I thought so … which was reassuring: The firm I envisioned had become a reality — with the caveat that at that particular point in our history we were wavering from that original vision.
The D.N.A. of “Why”
Entrepreneurs start their business for a variety of different reasons, but their motivations usually involve: a.) Doing something they’re good at and passionate about; or b.) A great new idea for a product or service that they feel has a chance to get first-to-market. More often than not, the business vision is a mix of both. For me, it was mostly “a” with a little bit of “b.” My education and career path in the 90’s aligned well with a burgeoning new field called “web design.”
- I earned my degree in Technical Communication, with a specialization in Technical Illustration.
- My first job was with an agency called (appropriately) Technical Marketing, Inc., as a technical writer. I primarily wrote assembly instructions and user guides for office furniture.
My second job started out as a technical writer tole that expanded to also include graphic design, illustration, and U.I. design for a manufacturer of color quality control instruments and software called X-Rite. I wrote and designed guides to help their users understand the basics of color science (and how to use their products), helped design their software interfaces, and wrote software Help systems in HTML.
The next role in my career was marketing manger for a small software company, CCMS Inc., where I wore all of the above hats: Writer and designer of their technical and marketing communications; their print materials and their software Help systems.
Then … this software company needed a web site.
More building blocks
I loved working with all of these skills, especially when I was able to “multi-task:” When I was able to write, design and illustrate a manual for X-Rite, or write and program a Help system for CCMS. And the common thread through all of these projects was that I got to explain how things work with words and pictures, and organize all of this information with hierarchy and taxonomy, with typography and hyperlinks.
I quickly moved from learning how to build my employer’s web site to picking up freelance web site projects to deciding that I wanted to design as many web sites as possible. As I absorbed as much information as possible about how to create great web sites, I soon found my brethren in the vanguard of this burgeoning new industry: The information architects, the usability experts and user interface designers — professionals who blended technical savvy with written and visual creativity into “information expertise.”
The Information Architects
Richard Saul Wurman’s iconic “Information Architects” book defined a new discipline that had already existed when it was published in 1996, but didn’t have a name. But with this seminal work, boy did “I.A.” have an identity now, serendipitously arriving at the dawn of the World Wide Web when it could branch into a whole new frontier. Wurman profiles designers of print and environmental information systems, as well as interactive designers and their work in the adjoining years of the CD-ROM and Internet eras, such as Clement Mok and Nathan Shedroff. But there is no question that Wurman — previously a “traditional” architect by trade — is the godfather of the discipline himself. (Wurman would go on to found the TED conferences that continue to thrive today.)
The Usability Experts
Then there were the usability experts like Jakob Nielsen, who may be credited with single-handedly maintaining the sanity of the early World Wide Web. That’s a bit hyperbolic, but Nielsen should be recognized as the authority in bringing the best practices of software user interface design to the Internet — and for reminding web designers and developers to value the practice of simplicity. While browsers and devices have changed over the past 20+ years, his 10 Usability Heuristics still hold a “ten commandments” level of relevance in the world of U.I. design.
The Information Designers
A related discipline within the sphere of the Information Architecture and Usability is information design and data visualization. Wurman folded some examples of this work into his profiles of designers and communicators who are practicing Information Architecture, but the more recognized authority on this specific practice is Edward Tufte. Tufte’s equally iconic books’ titles say it all: Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, Beautiful Evidence.
In these books, Tufte highlights what he considers to be extraordinary works of creating simple-to-understand visual representations of complex data and information. In his first book he identifies what he considers to be the “Citizen Kane” or “Sgt. Pepper’s” of genre: Charles Joseph Minard’s statistical graphic (created in 1861!) that tells the story of Napoleon’s march to Moscow by literally visualizing distance, direction, size and even temperature. (A poster of the Minard drawing has been proudly displayed on my office wall since before Elexicon was founded.)
When I studied these publications and their authors, I did not decide, “that’s what I want to do for a living.” The situation was rather the opposite: I already knew that being a visual communicator was what I wanted to do, and what I was becoming good at. Wurman’s “making the complex clear,” Nielsen’s “practice of simplicity,” Tufte’s “clear thinking made visual” — these men and their helped me identify the very best practices that I should follow when starting my interactive design agency.
(Quick story: When I sat down with my boss to tell him that I was resigning to start my own business, I explained my decision by showing him my Minard poster. I stated: “I want to start a business that does this,” assuming he’d understand that I wanted to create awesome visual design work that made complex data clear and easy to understand, and that I did not want to start a business to invade Russia.)
Leap taken. Agency named. Elexicon is born…
Everything comes together
Let’s fast-forward 15 years, and return to our work on the “Start With Why” explorations. We reflected on my personal professional history, and then focused on the agency’s work and found rather obviously that the agency’s original D.N.A. remained strong. Our clients, team members and projects continued to add “strands” to that D.N.A.: I would hire like minds, we would create an excellent infographic or build an elegant information architecture, and those deliverables and capabilities would lead to similar projects. Looking back at our body of work, we seemingly had remained on the path we started down. But what was that path exactly? How would I describe it? If it was indeed the same path, if we remained true to our D.N.A. for that decade and a half … that could define our “Why.”
Building our Golden Circle off Sinek’s examples, we (like probably everyone) started with the “Apple Why” that has prominence in the YouTube video:
Why: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.”
How: “The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly.”
What: “We also happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”
To Elexicon, “we believe in making the complex clear by practicing the art and science of simplicity” was our “we believe in challenging the status quo.” Inject that with our copy writing style that follows that very mantra and: We Make Things Clear.
Why: Everything we do, we strive to Make Things Clear. To clarify the complex by practicing the art and science of simplicity.
How: We do this by prioritizing visual strategic planning, information architecture, and human usability into all the work we do: Planning, writing, creating, designing, developing and marketing.
What: We create usable structures, clear content, simple designs and beautiful code for web sites and apps; user-friendly interfaces for software; and engaging experiences for marketing and technical communications, including as infographics, data visualizations, and explainer videos. And we simplify our process through thoughtful planning, project management, measurement, and analytics.
In the spirit of the Elexicon brand, we had some fun with our own “golden hexagon” below. All our engagements and projects have a Why, a How and a What, but we always start with “clearly, beautifully, thoughtfully…” Whatever work and deliverables come after that are driven by the goal of making things clear.
“Why” is product- and service-agnostic
Notice how interchangeable the “How” and the “What” are! We can swap out services and deliverables under the “Why” terms of Clearly and Beautifully and Thoughtfully, and the bullet points still work! As Sinek notes in the book and video, consumers will buy the next “thing” that Apple brings to market, not because of what it is, but because of Apple’s compelling and now-entrenched “Why.” His example there was, who would buy an MP3 player from Dell? Apple wasn’t just a computer company, but they were able to become a music and phone device company (among many other non-“computer” products) without anyone batting an eye.
Over the past 20 years, our core services and deliverables have remained similar, but they’ve gradually evolved as technologies have changed rapidly year after year. By always putting our “Why” front and center, we’ve been able to weather all those changes. We’ve never hung our hat on a specific type of creative deliverable, or specific development platform. Instead, we start with Making Things Clear and let that guide us toward the client’s goals, and the right strategies, tactics, deliverables and platforms. And Make Thing Clear has created a more natural and cohesive foundation for our agency culture.
What about you?
What passionate pursuit did you build your business around? What purpose have you instilled in your team that makes them jump out of bed in the morning and race into work? Some of you may know it for sure, and have your own “Why” statement. Others may just need to think about it a little more. In any case, Elexicon is an agency that can help you bring your “Why” (and your How and your What) to life through creative and digital communications.
You’ve heard the old adage, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s the “How” (the hammer) and “What” (the nail) taking the lead. Starting with your “Why” opens up the toolbox to more possibilities. Clients and teams don’t want to work with a “hammer and nail” company. Customers, employees and consumers are looking for a little sense of what you believe in, and maybe they can believe in it too.
If our particular brand of agency focus above fits with how you would like to differentiate and promote your products and services, connect with us.
You’ve just been put in a room with 4 other people and it’s dark. Can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face kind of dark.
Each of you have been told that there’s an item directly in front of you, and that you need to describe it.
You reach out and place your hand on what feels like a hard, leathery, textured wall. The person nearest to you describes a long, protruding spike that’s smooth and solid. Another feels a vine-like hairy rope.
Who’s right, and how can you decide what it is?
Without seeing the whole picture or knowing in advance, each person can’t communicate with the other that what they’re actually describing is a rhino.
On-boarding and communicating your digital strategy within your company’s team structure can often feel like trying to describe something in the dark that has many facets and attributes:
If you’re in marketing, a digital strategy likely involves your website, social media, online campaigns, and design approach.
If you’re a stakeholder, you’re likely more focused on analytics and ROI.
If you’re in IT or data networking, you’re likely focused on things like information and data processing, storage and backups, etc.
If you’re in sales you’re likely concerned with the integrity of your CRM database, making sure it’s reliable, and with conversions.
With so many ways your company’s digital strategy can be approached, it can feel overwhelming. This shows in companies even today where everything seems to be online.
The 2016 Report on the State of Digital Business found that
- 62% of survey respondents felt their companies were in denial about the need to transform their business approach digitally,
- 55% were worried that they would have only a year or less to make the proper steps before they would suffer both financially and competitively, and
- 59% were worried that it was already too late to start the process of creating a digital strategy.
(Hopefully since the report’s release the companies that were surveyed have taken necessary steps.)
There’s no denying that an effective digital strategy in your business or organization is important. But how do you personally implement a digital strategy well? What’s the difference between having a digital strategy, and just creating digital products?
We’re here to help answer those questions.
For over 20 years, we’ve specialized in working alongside companies to design, establish, and successfully execute digital strategies, both internally and externally company-facing. The way that we see this played out most commonly for our clients is through a combination of website content, social media, mobile and application development, email/CRM/CMS integration, and project data analytics, among others.
Each of these are often seamlessly woven together into the client’s existing business ecosystem. This means that our clients don’t have to start from the ground up when implementing their digital strategy. We’re working alongside them to help keep their ongoing business momentum while merging a digital strategy into those processes.
It starts with a conversation.
Your needs aren’t your competitor’s needs. Your business is uniquely your own, and your digital strategy shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach.
The backbone between us and our clients is always our relationship, and part of establishing that relationship is working with the client to determine their unique needs, and how our team of experts can come alongside their existing internal teams to aid in the implementation of their digital strategy, or work with them to open up this channel of content where they might not be capable to do so on their own. We explore what our clients are doing digitally currently that they feel is effective, what their goals are, and areas that they’re feeling pressure to evolve their approach. Based on this information, we’re able to communicate a solution that works for our clients, as well as offer recommendations to approaches they might also look to consider.
It’s more than just a product.
As I mentioned, your digital strategy is more than just a product. Your website isn’t your digital strategy. Your CRM database and promotional email schedule isn’t your digital strategy. Your social media channels and content aren’t your digital strategy. These are all pieces of a greater mechanism that we like to look at with you and create a way that all these tools (and more) can work seamlessly together—making you more noticeable, your online business more effective and measurable, and your future digital initiatives more scalable.
Analyzing your effectiveness.
Although the concept isn’t new, a major buzzword over the last half-decade has been ‘UX’ or ‘user experience’. Its implementation on the digital landscape in your company ultimately comes down to your ‘digital equation’ — adopting data analytics and metrics to build up your analytical thinking which will help drive your digital business decisions.
We see this play out a number of ways. We can help you implement tools and show you how you can analyze data and insights for your current online systems, or for new products, which help you deliver better, more responsive services to your customers. Through user research, A/B testing, persona research, and user feedback, we can fine-tune your website, software, and applications to better suit the user, quicker and more effectively than ever before. We set up our digital products in a way that allows us to build, execute, analyze, and optimize as we go.
Digital Strategy at Work.
For your consideration, a recent example of digital strategy at work in a project completed for one of our clients.
Two years ago we were tasked to work alongside the Amway Global team to develop a digital experience for their media guide that, to that point, lived solely in a print publication. The desire was to have a single, long-scroll page that would keep the user’s attention, divide the content up into digestible, navigable chunks of content, and that was high-design and interactive. The client also desired to have data they could analyze to see what information was being consumed and where users were gravitating to on the page.
We worked with Amway to not only meet these expectations, but to throw in some additional features along the way.
The digital solution we crafted was a long-scroll page that was managed by a content management system where the team could easily edit the content of the page, move content around the page, and manage multiple levels of in-page navigation to access that content in an experience that was immersive and effective. The client had the ability to track what sections of the page were being clicked on and which products were most popular. This all wrapped into a single, 30,000+ pixel long, mobile-optimized page.
The foundational strategy of the page also was that we wanted the solution to be scalable and manageable. Because of the pre-planning and work that went into this strategy, the next year we were able to update the content and look and feel of the page at a fraction of the cost that it would of taken to start over, or go a different direction. What originally took months to design and develop in 2017 took a matter of days to update with a fresh look and content for 2018.
Regardless of your company or organization’s size, you can’t afford to be unfocused in your digital strategy. Tackling it on your own can be a daunting task, and this can cause you to fall behind your competition and to put you into a cycle of feeling the need to always be catching up. We’re ready to partner alongside you to build your digital strategy. Whether you need a team of professionals to hit the ground running on something new, or need someone to work alongside your internal team to help see your initiatives through effective completion, we’ve got your back.
“If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”
Identifying the originator of that sublime quote has been the subject of m`uch debate over the years—one that has encompassed a who’s-who list of the world’s most influential thinkers, from Voltaire to Mark Twain to Winston Churchill. This article on Quote Investigator seems to trace it back to French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th Century.
Pascal’s saying sounds odd the first time you hear it, but then its premise almost immediately becomes clear: Clarity and simplicity take time. Pascal otherwise prides himself in crafting concise, informative letters to his friends and colleagues that communicate his key thoughts, waste few words, and leave little doubt about his intent. Most of the time, Pascal likely researched, scribbled, sketched, made a list, sorted his thoughts, wrote and re-wrote before putting his final version’s pen to paper. Only after all that planning and envisioning of his message does he arrive at a message that is all signal and no noise. Any information not on point was left on the cutting room floor.
However, in this one particular instance that allegedly produced the famous quote, Pascal was short on time and simply needed to start writing. The letter probably meandered a bit, was not as well organized as usual, and contained more information and ideas than the recipient really needed. It may have been difficult to sort through Pascal’s thoughts and identify his intent. For that, Pascal apologized, basically saying “I was short on time, so I had to throw in everything … Sorry about wasting a bit more of your time than I intended to.”
If Pascal lived in our modern day he’d be a big fan of Post-It™ Notes, I’m sure. Digital project managers, creatives and developers can certainly appreciate Pascal’s approach. Our research, strategy, sketching and wireframing, information architecture, and prototyping represent the “more time” that Pascal preferred to take. This is the work that comes before any design comps, or any lines of code — because it needs to come first. While design and code often seems to many as being more “tangible” progress, a well-thought-out, properly-invested-in Discovery phase involving strategy, research, mapping, and planning is the most important progress of all.
Your project’s goal is to deliver a “shorter letter” to your audience:
- an easy-to-navigate web site;
- a delightful mobile app experience;
- an efficient business software user interface;
- an infographic, data visualization or explainer that conveys complex information.
In short, without the right amount of up front planning, you may be apologizing for a hastily-delivered project being such a “long letter.”
If you work in consumer-facing health communications, you face the considerable challenges of language barriers and health literacy gaps. Here’s how the US Department of Health and Human Services assessed it:
Only 12 percent of adults have Proficient health literacy, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. In other words, nearly nine out of ten adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease.
That level of health illiteracy is of course concerning, because health is related to everything we do. Our health is affected by the amount of sleep we get, the nutrition we put into our bodies, the amount of social interaction we have with friends or family in a week, and even the way we sit in a chair. All of these factors impact our overall health.
So, how do health communications professionals work on this issue? How can they create content that is more understandable, and then spread that information as far and wide as possible? How does a healthcare brand make its important communications ‘contagious’?
Contagious is a sublime book written by Jonah Berger. He goes into six “STEPPS” that can help your content go viral. His framework can be incorporated into health communications and help professionals work smarter—not harder—with their content.
Berger’s STEPPS are as follows:
- Social Currency
- Practical Value
Understanding these can help you plan your content to make it a ‘social epidemic.’ If you want to spread your information fast and become top-of-mind, then you need to think about how to apply each of Berger’s STEPPS into your marketing campaigns.
Step 1: Social Currency
Social currency is the knowledge you have to add value to a conversation. The more you know, the more “status” you often have in society.
People are always talking about what was on the news and what they saw on social media. They use this information to start conversations at work, among friends and family, and even with total strangers. When we do this and share the right type of information, we gain social currency.
According to research cited by Buffer, there are two main reasons people share content:
- “to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about”
- “to stay connected to people.”
The research showcases that people want to be liked. Berger explains that “[the] desire for social approval is fundamental human motivation.” With this knowledge, health organizations need handcrafted, creative content so people can engage with it.
Health organizations need to dive deeper into their target audience(s) and find valuable content based on the consumer’s interests and motivations. The content also needs to be remarkable. According to Berger:
“Remarkable content provides social currency because they make people who talk about them seem more, well, remarkable.”
In healthcare communications, you should almost always provide an example or visual to help explain the health-related concept. This will not only help with readers with lower health literacy rates, but it will also boost the attention and social currency value of the content.
Step 2: Triggers
Triggers are prompts that keep people talking about your brand or product. Berger provided a great example of triggers that may help you understand this concept better.
Rebecca Black’s song, “Friday”, has a prevalent trigger associated with it. Can you take a guess on what it is?
Drum roll please… the song’s title, “Friday”, is the trigger! When this song was popular, every Friday people would turn on this song because it was Friday.
Health organizations could easily take advantage of triggers because health is related to everything you do. Content could be focused on everyday health and wellness topics to prompt healthier decisions and lifestyle habits.
Step 3: Emotion
If you make someone feel an emotion with your content, you will create a bond with the recipient of your message. This person then has the ability to share your message with their network and spread your brand to potential new customers of your products or services.
According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, purchase decisions, brand loyalty, and customer engagement are directly related to the subconscious mind. Emotional benefits can overpower the rational benefits of a product or service because people care about how they feel with a product or service.
Healthcare organizations should be factoring in how they can make people feel. A prime example of doing this step right, is Health Beat, a brand journalism publication of Spectrum Health. Health Beat publishes inspiring patient stories of hardship, hope, love, joy, and excitement that spark a range of emotions in their readers, leading them to share those stories on social media so others can share in that emotional connection.
Step 4: Public
Another step that is crucial is “public.” A key factor of this step is observability — meaning if people see something, they will engage with it. How far the engagement goes depends on the content and the person.
Berger also relates this concept to “social proof.” Social proof can be seen in how people wait in line for an overpriced cup of coffee. People assume the longer the line, the better the coffee. But in reality, they are herding to “social influence.” Social influence has a big effect on behavior.
Health organizations can take advantage of this step, but have to be careful what topics they promote and educate about.
For example, Berger discussed how anti-drug ads aren’t always the best tactic to prevent people from using them. Although the aim of these ads is to prevent young adults from using drugs, the response was often the opposite. Berger informs us that anti-drug ads promote drugs as bad, but clearly showcase that people are using them.
Showing the drug use creates visibility and social proof that can increase the appeal of drug use among teens, and even create a larger problem. It is important to remember this example as a cautionary tale when moving forward with health-related campaigns.
Step 5: Practical Value
People share practically valuable information to help others. This includes useful information.
Useful content is different for every person. It could be a tutorial video on how to prepare a meal, or an infographic giving consumers useful, relevant information. The opportunities to create useful informative content in healthcare are endless.
So, how do you know if your content has value? Ask yourself if the content provides a functional or emotional benefit to someone. If it does, you have your answer.
Step 6: Stories
Stories carry things — a lesson or moral; information or a take-home message. According to Berger, stories “provide a quick and easy way for people to acquire lots of knowledge in a vivid and engaging fashion.”
So how do you know if you are creating a good or bad story?
Good stories provide social currency, emotion, and practical value. Bad stories do not.
If you want to create desirable, shareable content in healthcare you need to put these STEPPS into action.
- Social Currency
- Practical Value
Think about how your message could be woven into these important considerations, and then wait for your consumers to engage with it or not. Then make adjustments and try again.
Remember, you can’t make something viral, but your audience can.
Meet: Joe Greve
Welcome Joe Greve, our new web developer at Elexicon! We are thrilled to have him join our team. To help you get to know Joe better, we asked him to answer a few questions.
What is your educational background?
I have an associates degree in Web Design from Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and spent a year at Ferris State University studying Game Design and Animation.
What are five interesting facts about you?
- No matter the topic, I probably have some random fun fact about it
- I like to think I’m pretty great at making food
- I’m exceptionally detail oriented (sometimes to a fault!)
- I can repair most anything on a car
- I once solved a Rubik’s Cube, by following a guide
If you could visit anywhere in the world you’ve never been, where would you go?
Japan! Osaka, Tokyo, Toyota City, the mountains — all of it.
How do you wind down after work?
Usually by cooking myself a nice meal. I find cooking really therapeutic. Maybe just because you can’t really rush a good meal!
What’s a topic you wish you knew more about?
I feel like my answer to this changes every week. But right now, I think I’d say automotive metalworking.
If you had to listen to one song for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Africa, by Toto. Extra points for the Weezer cover.
Who inspires you?
In no particular order: Steve Jobs, Christian von Koenigsegg, anyone who can stick it out with a personal project for more than a few weeks, and my fiancé.