We’re all in this together … no matter where “this” is.
If you’ve clicked on this post, you’re probably one of our clients or colleagues, (also known collectively as our friends). If you’re a “new” friend, thank you for clicking! I’m the founder and owner of Elexicon. I can’t believe it’s been over three weeks since that Monday in mid-March when we all returned to work from the weekend, for the most part via webcam from our home offices. The COVID-19 crisis arrived so quickly, and now does not appear to be leaving any time soon — like it’s moving in fast-forward and slow-motion at the same time … such a strange time. We’re all in uncharted territory without a map, as parents of children, as children of older adults, and as professionals and business owners.
From my point of view of being a small business owner, I wanted to give you an update on what we’re doing and how we’re doing, now that I have a few weeks of perspective. At Elexicon we’re doing our part to social-distance, we continue helping our clients, and we stand at the ready to help more. We’re especially thankful for the health care workers who are on the front lines of the battlefield for us. They inspire us every day.
Work and the office
We moved into a new office in downtown Grand Rapids in December, and we’re located just above the row of restaurants, a coffee shop, bars and a microbrewery on Ionia Avenue. It’s been sad and surreal to see the once-bustling street go quiet, and those great new neighbors that we were just beginning to get to know need to close down. We’re looking forward to hearing the muffled sound of voices and music from HopCat below us, and the shouts and honks from the street outside again soon. Now that we’re settled in, we might otherwise be planning an open house right now that would spill down into visiting you all, as well. We wish everyone the best.
Our new office is smaller than our previous home base, a decision we made because our team had become a hybrid of office- and home-based workers. Some were in the office all the time, some worked from home most of the time, and some had a mixed schedule. As a result, the all-work-from-home approach for Elexicon has been a smooth transition. Our work continues, perhaps not quite business-as-usual, but let’s call it business-as-unusual.
The COVID-19 crisis has impacted our clients in different ways. I won’t go into much detail about who they are or specifically how they were affected, but our clients are generally falling into three categories of impact. We’ve had a small handful of great clients who unfortunately were abruptly impacted, each in their unique way, by the cancellations and postponements of live events. We’re already seeing them improvise their offerings into the virtual space, but they have understandably needed to scale back their work with us on digital services and marketing.
For businesses like these, we’re advising them to stay visible through their own communication channels and remain on the minds of customers and prospects. Online events are a great idea, even if they are no substitute for the live alternative. Another activity to consider may be easier said than done with so many other stresses and concerns on your mind, but organizing your thoughts into occasional social media, video or blog posts may be therapeutic, as well as helpful to organizing wrapping your mind around your business’ return plan.
Smaller businesses may need to adapt and become something different when you re-emerge, but stay focused on returning. Get creative, rediscover that passion … this crisis doesn’t change the fact that you’re an entrepreneur and survival is in your DNA.
As many of you know, we have several healthcare clients, as well. I mentioned above how thankful we are for the front-line caregivers, and we’ve also been unsurprisingly impressed with our client colleagues in the digital and communications departments. Michigan communities are getting concise and transparent information from their healthcare organizations, about an ever-changing medical crisis that can otherwise be frightening and confusing. We’ve been proud to simply have the opportunity to be called upon here and pulled in there to help support these monumental efforts for some of the best of those organizations. We’re also glad to see some of the digital communication platforms we’ve built get called into a new level of service to inform the community.
These clients have truly risen to the moment and were well prepared (even for this), so our only advice to them has been to keep up the awesome work, while proactively sharing creative ideas and keeping technical platforms running smoothly. Simple, direct, transparent and clear communications are such an important resource to communities that are stressed, scared, and otherwise confused by the barrage of information overload and noise they’re receiving from elsewhere.
A third category consists of midsize and large companies who have been, for the most part, weathering the storm over the past month, aside from adjusting to their significant transitions to a remote workforce. One impact on the sales and marketing front has been — and will continue to be — travel restrictions and trade event cancellations. We’re working with some of these clients — and would advise any business that falls into this category — to develop alternate strategies for using digital communications and channels to demonstrate their products and services, from videos and explainer animations to mobile apps and “virtual” showrooms. This crisis won’t be an extinction-level event for trade shows, but they may never be the same, so there’s no better time than now to plan alternative strategies to trade shows, conferences, and seminars. We recommend thinking outside the box of Zoom events and webinars to really stand out.
Redrawing the maps
I will expand on some of the thoughts above, as they relate to what lies ahead of us in the coming year as the “new normal,” in some upcoming blog posts. In January we all held our own maps to navigate the landscape that lay ahead of us in 2020. Now that landscape has drastically changed, and those maps suddenly would get us lost. We need to quickly and decisively understand the new landscape, and draw new maps. As expert digital strategists, communicators, designers, developers and marketers, that’s what Elexicon does, has done before, and will be here to do it again: Understand new landscapes of business opportunities, and draw new maps to find them, together.
Stay safe, everyone,
Revisiting inspirational quotes and speeches during these times? JFK’s “go to the moon” speech is a good one—especially the less-famous part of its most quoted sentence.
- An insightful presenter at a conference I attended a couple years ago drew my attention to this part of JFK’s speech.
Before I share my thoughts about an inspiring speech from 57 years ago, I’d like to thank all the medical professionals and caregivers who are on the front lines of this health crisis right now and truly inspiring us every day.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” — President John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort, September 12, 1962
The first half of that quote gets printed onto motivational posters and placards, and is the oft-used sound bite in archival footage of President Kennedy, standing before a large crowd in Houston. I personally have always liked the second part, though. I interpret JFK’s words as stating that while the destination is putting a man on the moon, the journey to get there—to create, to innovate, to find bold solutions to new problems—is what will truly benefit the nation in the long term.
A few sentences later Kennedy inserts a mention of “winning,” and the fact that the U.S. did beat the U.S.S.R. to the moon in 1969 was a point of national pride. But the collaboration—the “meeting of the minds”—of the best entrepreneurs, experts, scientists and engineers led to a new era of technological advancements in health care, public safety, transportation, computing and more. And the journey that began with that speech still has not ended. To borrow another iconic quote from these events, the “giant leap for mankind.”
A thought for these times
I’m reminded of how we are now being forced to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While we as a nation did not “decide” to take this journey, and perhaps we were instead un-prepared in many ways, I think it’s important to remember that we as Americans and as humans are capable of re-inventing the world as we know it for the better.
Sometimes we are challenged to do so, like emerging mere decades after World War II with not only a powerful, greatest-nation-on-earth United States but also a rebuilt and productive Europe and Japan. Other times governments or entrepreneurs set a goal, like someday relying completely on autonomous vehicles to save time, lives and natural resources. I’ve been a skeptic of when and if a driverless society will happen, but I am very certain that the energies and skills involved in that quest have already led to safer vehicles today.
Now we face a new challenge, and this health and financial crisis may be the biggest we’ve seen as a nation and as a global community. On March 20, 2020 these events seem scarier than any world war or terrorist attack. We’re all looking for reassurance, and my article here can’t give you a whole lot of that. All I do offer to those who are reading this is a reminder that the United States has shown a great tendency for collaborating and innovating toward a long-term goal, with a complete acceptance that the journey to that goal will require a lot of hard work and heartache. Another passage just a bit later in Kennedy’s speech:
“We ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous, and dangerous, and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
We need to control the spread of, treat, and find a vaccine for COVID-19, that is no doubt the goal. And we must organize the best of all our skills and energies for the journey toward that goal and beyond. We can find better ways to minimize and control viruses. We can discover effective new ways to travel, educate and work, even as we return to our old airports, schools and offices. We can re-invent logistics and the supply chain. We can improve how we care for our elderly and protect our children. These are unprecedented times that will require unprecedented vision and innovation, and these qualities are embedded in our nation’s DNA.
When social distancing ends, we can also end cultural and political distancing. We can emerge from this less divided, and more whole. The years since our last all-encompassing crisis in 2008 have also been among our most divisive culturally and politically. But now it’s time to re-examine our shared DNA, to re-discover who we really are—a nation built on one moon shot after another.
How Elexicon helps our clients empower their customers with the knowledge they need to accomplish their goals
I recently heard Elexicon’s Creative Director Mike VerStrat cite the aphorism “knowledge is power” to distill the essence of how we add value for our clients. He pointed out that our work is fundamentally about helping our clients organize, optimize, and deliver knowledge for their customers.
The last part of that phrase got me thinking—something like “knowledge … is power … power … energy … knowledge is energy? We’re an energy company (but not that one).” YMMV, but that’s where my mind went. So.
The Energy Business
Energy companies are in the generation and transmission business. The same is true for Elexicon. You want the knowledge you’re developing, organizing, and delivering to act like a sort of energy, galvanizing your customers to make a purchase or set an appointment or otherwise use your product or service. We can help with that. We also deal in a kind of infrastructure maintenance to support both generation and transmission.
In the context of a website, content is electricity—it’s necessary for the site to run. And as in regular life, the source of the electricity matters. Is it cheaply produced but toxic in the long run like a spewing well of crude oil? Or is it carefully adapted to the need and sustainable like a wind turbine off a windy shore? Is the byproduct of its production going to pollute the surrounding air and blunt the cognition of its users? Or is it suited to the local topography and prevailing winds, enabling fresh air for smooth comprehension? Elexicon strives for the latter in both cases.
We could help a client get up and running with cheap fuel, but the long-term damage that can do to a brand is never worth it. We’d rather carefully sight out the project and craft an energy solution that is suited to the landscape.
The most important thing in this context is that the customer gets what they need and feels good about the source. Our content services, including strategy, writing, editing, and management, ensure you deliver clean energy to your customers regardless of medium.
Energy is no good to anybody if it’s not transmitted where it’s needed, when it’s needed. We understand that. We build delivery systems that get your knowledge where it needs to be, whether on a website, social media platform, trade show booth, or executive report—when it needs to be there.
We can redo your existing wires with a website overhaul or just update them to get up-to-speed with a rebrand. And if the need is an all-new hookup in the form of a spin-off brand or product launch, we’re there too. Whether the infrastructure already exists or needs to be built from scratch, our branding, strategy, design, development services can make sure your project connects.
The real life Grid is a hodgepodge network that requires constant upkeep to avoid a system-wide shutdown. It’s in desperate need of modernization. Elexicon’s energy production and delivery systems are held together with more than duct tape and chicken wire. We use modern frameworks that lay down a strong foundation, enabling simpler upkeep and reduced reliance on costly workarounds. And we work with reliable, stable hosts that help us avoid systemic risks analogous to power lines perilously close to tree branches. But if a tree branch falls on a line on a unusually windy day, we’re there to repair the line and restore service.
A bit of a sidenote while on this topic: in terms of real life energy used, we strive to ensure the work we do is lean and makes efficient use of the world’s energy while directing our customers to responsible hosts.
Reducing Energy Loss
Another feature of the real life energy grid is energy loss due to transmission over long distances and at various points from generation to point of service. For our purposes, this translates to anything that increases bounce rates, prevents user action, and, in most cases, reduces time on site. We work to avoid energy leeches in our work, working hard at optimization to enable your users to feed off the energy you produce, interacting with or reacting to it—even adding to it via social media or user-created content.
Power to the People
The phrase “knowledge is power” is a translation from the Latin “scientia potentia est,” where “potentia” is “power.” Without getting too deep into the muck trying to be cool with root words, it’s worth noting the connection to the English word “potential.” Knowledge begins as potential. We can help you make it more than that.
Whatever product or service you offer, you want to enable customers to do something. Like a real energy company, that’s our goal too. We enable you to empower your customers with the knowledge they need to accomplish their goals through your product or service.
What can we help you power?
How design systems enable a tighter focus on what matters
I’d recently stumbled onto a thread on Twitter where one of the tweeters twittered (ok, I’ll stop) that current-day digital designers are no more than glorified digital “scrap bookers”— taking pieces and parts from things already created to slap something together and call it their own. The original arguer was making his case that modern-day digital products (and in turn producers) have become lazy and complacent, and are stifling design innovation. I understand the frustration this individual was feeling, though my experience may be different. I just think the complaint misses a larger point.
Let’s look at the ‘glorified scrap booker’ argument, this idea that most sites or digital products now produced are a smattering of already-set frameworks, APIs, code snippets, and repos that should work together to create something, as opposed to something uniquely created from scratch for a single purpose. I admit that there’s some truth to this. For instance, our agency leverages Boostrap‘s core for many of our projects (among other tools). This in turn gives us access to many UI components and built-in experience mechanisms and default styling that can be adjusted to fit the specific project need. It also allows us to quickly prototype and help make first-pass iterations on projects in a timely, and more affordable fashion.
There are dozens of common frameworks similar to Bootstrap that serve a similar purpose, such as Materialize CSS, Semantic UI, Material UI, UIkit and Foundation. Take your pick. Most offer similar functionality and serve similar purposes. Like any tool, they’re only as effective as the particular implementation.
Our goal with using such tools isn’t to diminish product value by using preset functionality. It’s to reduce effort on the mundane task of building things that can be shared or re-used, and focusing attention instead on the client’s/user’s specific issue or project goals to create something that suits the need.
It may be helpful to think of houses and what makes a house a home.
At a macro-level, when you look at a neighborhood of houses, everything seems the same. Think about when taking off on an airplane, and you look down and see all the rooftops. There’s some amount of truth to this. The majority of houses all have a basic, similar framework. You have a roof, windows that (normally) open and close, a door at the front, and at least four walls holding it all up, with separate rooms within that each serve a purpose. We all use or benefit from the ‘standard’ house and all its out-of-the-box ‘functionality’ and uses. Door frames all share a set of sizes that they might come in. You can expect ceiling heights to fall into a certain range. You could remove the ceiling fan from one house and reinstall it in the next with little or no question of how to make that adjustment. This similarity and sharing of general features and parts is intentional to allow for more efficient, affordable building and maintenance, while still giving the owner choice to make this house their home.
While a basic house framework is shared by all, there’s still the opportunity within these constraints to use those components to make something specifically tailored to the “user”. Looking at a more detailed view of a house, we see that people make it their own, either on their own (thanks Chip and Joanna) or with the aid of an architect/interior designer/contractor. We paint and remodel. Decorate and stage. Some hire builders to come in and take these general concepts of the house structure, and custom tailor that into home exactly to the owner’s requirements.
A great example of someone who took the foundation of a structure and then tailored it to the individual is Franklin Lloyd Wright.
Wright was famous for taking every detail into account for his clients when it came to making his houses into homes, down to the smallest detail. He was known to take into consideration the height of his client when determining the height of things like the windows, counters and even the furniture that he’d have made, so that line of sight, working heights and how a person lived in the home was completely tailored to that person. He worked with his clients to sort out exactly what was needed to make the project successful. Wright’s empathic and independent perspective played such a crucial role in the success of his designs, and is why he’s considered one of most prominent architects of a generation. Wright considered the “end user”, used general, shared frameworks and concepts, and then applied his ability to communicate design decisions tailored to his customer, which ultimately led to his success and timeless designs. Wright’s ability to harness the frameworks that he worked within while understanding his customer helped pave the way for not only his personal success, but also allowed him to innovate and drive architectural design forward.
Charles and Ray Eames, as described by Eames Demetrios in the book The Eames Primer describes our roles as designers well:
“… the role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests…We decided that this was an essential ingredient in the design of a building or a useful object.”
Our roles as designers and our relationship with our clients is one that we’re to use our tools and skills in such a way that when we take into account our end products, we’re doing so with an anticipation the end-user, how our products functionality effects its intended use, how scalability and maintainability of the project plays into all of it.
Freeing Ourselves to Focus on Expected Usability
Another benefit to leveraging tools and frameworks is that it allows us to then focus on other important, user-focused ideas like expected usability. Certain things that we do have an expectation of what the outcome should be once it’s completed. If we turn a door knob, we expect a door to open. A water knob that’s labeled with a blue sticker should pour out cold water.
Like a home, digital products have these same considerations that we need to account for. A user understands what a content tab is, and there’s an expectation behind what will happen when a tab is clicked. Buttons are expected to do a certain thing when clicked. We’re even seeing a meshing of experiences between applications and other SaaS products with websites and other traditional digital platforms as users become more ingrained with navigating a digital world. Users are becoming more proficient, but this shift also means that we have larger audiences to account for, and the need for focusing on consistency in user experience and usability in our products is going to only increase.
A Case For Design Systems
Over the past number of years, I’ve noticed a rise in discussion around design systems, and see more and more companies integrating these into their DNA. Google’s Material Design is a good example. Apple has its Human Interface Design standards. Even the U.S. Government has their own design system.
In its simplest definition, a design system is a collection of design rules, constraints and principles that are implemented and managed by design and code.
What a design system is not is just a style guide (though a style guide may be used as part of a design system). It’s also not a pattern library, and not just a front-end framework.
What is a Design System?
In a very basic sense, a design system is the classification of components, along with the process that is built and maintained by the company to help develop a superior user experience, and to strengthen the companiy’s overall brand perception.
A design system takes into account those expected usability considerations in the form of components, cohesive design, as well as tone and voice with how content is presented. When they’re executed well, it helps to eliminate users ‘pulling when they should push’, which in turn increases their overall experience with your product, while also helping to minimize design and development debt. When we integrate tools like were described earlier as well, we’re able to further reduce that design and development debt.
But, I Can’t Afford to Allocate Resources to This…
Although I hope you can see how a design system being implemented is important and that there’s value in proactively looking at how and why you’re designing and developing your digital product, I get it… putting together a thought-out, documented design system takes time, resources and money.
Before you completely shrug off the idea that you could afford having a design system be a part of your project, think about the cost of not at least taking these thoughts into consideration.
Design Systems Reduce Design and Development Debt
When we’re putting together a digital product, one of the questions that’s important to address is the idea of scalability. What are the short- and long-term projections for the product that should be accounted for? Having a design system in place helps to address this concept of design and development debt. As your product grows, more features are added to the original base design, and in turn, other features and design aspects become outdated and need to be replaced. Teams on the client-side contract and expand. Product/project focus may shift. Without some form of a design system in place, the original product can loose its originally intended identity, and might start looking like that scrapbook. It also can quickly become a maintenance nightmare, and you may find yourself in a place where even the simplest of front-end updates end up taking exponentially longer than you’d expect.
With a design system in place, as changes occur, be it to the product or the teams that manage the product, there’s always a baseline to return to for reference on what should be managed, changed and built upon.
We’re Already Getting You Started with Design Systems, Though You Might Not Know It 😉
That might be a surprise, but it’s true! When you work with us on creating a digital product, we’re getting you started on the right track with some form of a design system. As I mentioned before, by using Bootstrap we’re able to leverage UI libraries and components that we can custom-tailor to the product and implementation, and do so in a way that future-proofs the design for scalability, design updates, and enhancements. Our teams of designers and developers work together to write code that is maintainable and semantic, and we’re using tools like Sketch and Zeplin that work together to create style guides, component libraries, and design hierarchies.
While the examples I’ve cited above don’t replace a fully built-out, documented design system, we integrate design-system thinking into our design and development process to allow these concepts to take effect, regardless the project size. It’s a great first-step for our customers to have a design-system approach that helps to minimize that design and development debt that can accumulate over time, and as well it makes use more efficient and proficient designers and developers. It’s really a win-win for us and our clients.
I believe as we venture into this new year, we’re going to continue hearing more about design-system methodology, and my hope is that you see how these processes and concepts are beneficial, and find ways to implement some of these concepts for yourself on your products and projects. As always, if you need a hand getting started, our door is always open.
“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.