8 posts from June 2009
Refreshed by your first eight hours of sleep in what feels like a decade, you stroll into your office, only to be stopped cold by the message light blinking on your voicemail.
It's your client, with a three-minute description of how their new shopping cart system—which you'd been slaving over for months, and finally deployed late last night—has been balking while trying to process credit card purchases. For hours. To the tune of many thousands of dollars lost in sales.
How will you resolve this issue, and how are you going to communicate a plan of action to your client?
Where we most often fail in the client management process is when, after all that work, errors still slip through—and we can't formally explain to our clients how we'll resolve them to their benefit.
Depending on the scale of your client's business, an error in project implementation could have a major fiscal impact—not to mention the drag on your long-term customer experience. Errors like the ones I noted above happen more often than we would care to admit. Most web designers understand the value of testing protocols, debugging code, and stabilizing a build in order to deploy a website or web app. But it's how we manage the errors that slip through while testing, printing, or fulfilling your design work that forges project success. Dealing with project errors in a professional manner is what defines the longevity of designer-client relationships.
Here's a quick primer on how to maintain your professionalism and protect the integrity of your client relationships when resolving these kinds of major project errors.
This July, I'll be making the leap to the Seattle office of frog design—as a senior interaction designer.
I'm very excited to be joining a firm whose work and legacy I've followed through my career. Their recent establishment of the publication Design Mind—as well as their devotion to engaging high-impact pro bono work alongside their always-stunning client projects—are borne out of a sustained commitment to design's pivotal role in industry and culture.
It's been quite a journey to arrive at this destination.
The following advice sounds easy to put into practice, but it isn't.
If you're participating in a major brainstorm, you need to move beyond conversation as a way of communicating your creative ideas.
Act out your layouts. Make physical prototypes. Role-play different scenarios in character. Challenge the need to provide critique. Leave your rational mind behind and feel free to go random, as long as your launch pad is the creative brief. And always have someone record every idea that's being shared in the room, from start to finish—both in word and in sketch form. Record everything on video if you can't take notes fast enough.
Why is it so hard to foster ideation that extends past the spoken word? Companies like IDEO have been plugging this mindset for eons, but I sit in brainstorm after brainstorm where people fall into ideation patterns. One person has an idea, which they share out loud. Then another person has an idea, which is verbalized in the same manner. There's a slow verbal dance back and forth about those ideas. Sometimes, someone writes that idea down on a whiteboard or notepad. We explore through language the nooks and crannies of what's being communicated through only one medium: spoken words.
This is a real shame, because there is important information not being communicated about your ideas—nuances and options that aren't being communicated, captured, and otherwise emoted.
And that extra information is where the real surprises happen in a brainstorm. The more information you get into the brainstorming group, the more ideas you'll get out as a result. This is just simple math.
I listen to the nest of baby starlings outside my front window. In the midst of their morning song, I have picked out their attempts to recreate the sounds of car alarms, police sirens, foghorns from boats on Lake Union, cars accelerating, the cry of a toddler, doors shutting, and the calls of robins, crows, flickers, and a wide range of other birds that throng the trees and marshes near our home.
The song of the starling seems like a random melange of clicks, whistles, warbles, and otherwise incongruous chatter. But the starling does speak in a pattern—one that is barely perceptible to the human ear, but possible to decode. Philosophy professor and musician David Rothenberg wrote a lovely book called Why Birds Sing that delves into this very subject:
"Starlings eat everything, and they absorb all manner of peculiar sounds, choosing those that fit their own aesthetic... a full starling song, which takes about a minute to sing, is composed of four distinct kinds of phrases... [where] each [phrase] is repeated two or more times before the bird moves on to the next type... First, one or two descending whistles, out of a repertoire of two to twelve different kinds; then a quieter, continuous warbling, in which imitations of various birds living in the starling's territory are often inserted; the third part of the song is a series of rapid clicks, up to fifteen per second, a rattling or ratcheting with no clear breaks between; finally, the song concludes with loud, high-pitched squeals, repeated many times."
Mr. Rothenberg encourages us to listen to a starling after reading this description. "You'll immediately hear things you did not hear before," he says.
I did what he said, and he was right: the structure of the song was immediately perceptible. I could actually pick up the shifts between phases of the song.
But what still stood out for me through all the of the buzzing and clanking of this small poofy bird was his clattletrap accumulation of observed sounds. I often feel like my job as a designer is much like the starling's everyday song.
“If you wanna innovate, you gotta design.” —Marty Neumeier
From the airy confines of interior design to the tailored minutae of the type designer, the varied disciplines of our profession continue to rush outwards like galaxies fleeing the Big Bang. And the force that drives our profession’s expansion? The universal process we call design.
As designers, we have lived and breathed this process often enough to embody its power, in whatever domain we choose. For a businessperson, however, design is nebulous. A slippery fish. When placed on a slide under the accountant’s microscope, design can perish—even in the most progressive corporate culture. And without design, there is no innovation.
But do not fear. To the rescue is Marty Neumeier, with The Designful Company. Much like Mr. Neumeier’s other bestsellers, The Brand Gap and Zag, his new whiteboard overview is set to completely reinvigorate how our profession engages executives in the boardroom. Finally, we have a shared vocabulary that marries aesthetics to business—and from a book with such simplicity, elegance, and verve, it’s downright humbling...
Apple's announcement on Monday regarding the iPhone 3G S, with voice control, represents more than just a way to manage your iPod state and dial phone calls in a hands-free manner. It's an important step in growing new flavors of user interface that are contingent on the intangible into the mainstream.
I'm not talking solely about Voice User Interfaces (VUIs), or the profession of Voice Interaction Design (VIxD), or the many small fiefdoms and associations currently blossoming around human-computer interaction governed by conversational speech systems. These are useful and important niches, but let's think big in our increasingly fractured and over-specialized profession of design.
Let me propose a somewhat radical alternative: roll Voice User Interfaces into a category that I'd like to dub the Intangible User Interface.
We have Graphical User Interfaces, which we know quite well from decades of struggling with operating systems. Our new friends, the Touch and Natural User Interfaces, rely on our physical bodies for operation beyond things like mice and keyboards. Intangible User Interfaces, however, would be a branch of interface that relies on everything but using your physical body in motion as an input mechanism. There's some wobbly semantics around the word "intangible," as it's often used to describe the attributes of a designed system that can't be visibly measured or quantified when observing users. However, it's that specific quality that I want to focus on: input and output contingent on what cannot be seen.
To get to point B, first you need to figure out how you arrived at point A.
Take the following example: You've been asked to lead a half-year marketing project for an international cruise line. They're launching a new luxury cruise liner that serves the Caribbean via Miami. Your new client wants you to help her sell out a full season on the new boat. They have a ton of ideas to share with you on how they can accomplish their goals.
Sitting down for your first meeting—an information-gathering session at corporate headquarters—your responsibility is to determine the scope of the campaign and help brainstorm tactics. After the meeting, you'll write a creative brief and prepare to kick off the project with your design team.
After a few minutes of small talk, your client starts to rattle off the details. Three new ports of call. An Olympic-sized swimming pool on the top deck. A new five-star dining menu with a first-rate wine list. Right away, the design ideas start flowing fast and furious in your mind. In the margin of your notebook, you start a few initial sketches that you just know will sell out all the luxury berths through the entire winter season. Suddenly, you blurt out: "Send the travel agents coconuts!"
Not five minutes had elapsed in your information-gathering session, and you've gone right to work. Such scenarios, where you have a clear vision of design solutions to marry up with a stated marketing goal, often seem serendipitous. But the habit of engaging in design ideation before having a thorough understanding of your client's business context is a bad one that should be broken. I'm not denying the value of intuition in the design process, but rather seeking that we employ our intuition after we have created a strategy by which to focus it.
Which leads to the crux of this scenario. A critical skill for any client-facing designer is the ability to scape away at the surface of a marketing problem to thoroughly understand its business context. Marketing is not business. Marketing is an activity that supports doing business. If you don't have a business context for a marketing project—i.e, understanding what business decisions led to engaging a designer's services to participate in sales and marketing activity—then talking strategy and marketing tactics can be somewhat ungrounded.
So, when situations such as these emerge during a client engagement, I immediately try to "unsolve the business problem." This is the act of shifting a client's conversational focus from the stated marketing problem to the underlying system of business conditions that led to its formation. By understanding the system of challenges in which your client's stated problem stands, you can better serve your client in forging a more strategic, better-designed result.
What follows are eight critical questions you can ask your clients—and glean insight into the business context around their marketing problems.