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10 posts from March 2008

The Three Fundamentals of Creative Strategy, Pt. 2

Business Strategy

See Part 1 here.

Great creative strategy always starts with a clear articulation of a business problem, and a rational strategy for solving it. This is the outer layer of the onion that peels away to expose a marketing strategy -- or a sales strategy, or a need to retool existing products or services due to customer feedback, etc.

To forge the right approach, quantify the business problem, qualify the competition, and distill what you've learned to show understanding of their need. Let's talk about quantifying the business problem in this post.

Quantify the Business Problem(s)

New clients can articulate a wide range of business needs, but most often, their business requires short-term sales generation and stable, long-term growth in revenue that leads to profit.

Short-term sales are contingent on tactical marketing decisions. Long-term sales require a holistic view of all marketing communications and a full awareness of the client's brand equity and its increase in value over time. Solving a long-term business problem often requires making large assumptions, and since they are often not in your direct control, your marketing solutions will require some measure of flexibility.

Even if a client walks in the door requesting an awareness-generation campaign that has no sales metrics, it's inevitable that in the long-term view, they need to make money from selling their soda or flat-panel TVs.

With this in mind, I try to strip away the tangibles from a client request -- we need a new identity, help us improve our advertising -- and work backward into what business need is driving their request. I always try to understand how they arrived at this decision, and what needs to happen after the decision in the short and long term to ensure it has an impact.

Here's how some of these client requests can be translated from tactical requests into business needs, and then attacked as creative challenges.

If it's a short-term problem (1-3 months): I need to sell 5,000 loaves of bread by May 31st.

Why? Because I am $100,000 short on revenue this quarter and I need to fulfill our budget objectives to maintain our profit margin.

Why is this valuable to know? It allows us to determine if there are more creative approaches to bringing in the million dollars in revenue. Could we sell more pastries and dinner rolls along with the loaves of bread? Creative thinkers are good at thinking around business challenges to find these novel approaches.

If it's a long-term problem (4-12 months): I want to launch three new MP3 players over the next year and gain a 6% share of the MP3 market in sales, while raising our brand equity by 10%.

Why? We've lost 20,000 customers to our largest competitor in this space and our research has shown that our brand equity has decreased by 4 points due to our competitor's behavior. If this continues, we will take a net loss that may require selling off this portion of our business.

Why is this valuable to know? Knowing the reasons behind their request creates an opportunity to do due diligence. Can their business problem be solved with marketing alone? Over the long-term, what activities from both a business and a marketing perspective would be necessary to forge a clear plan of attack?

Remember to be respectful in how you ask clients for this information. Often, they are in trouble when they ask for your help, and want you to approach their request as an opportunity (a positive challenge), not as a problem.

Continue on to Part 3 >>

The Three Fundamentals of Creative Strategy, Pt. 1

The 3 Fundamentals of Creative Strategy

This is the era of design as more than just a strategic business initiative -- it's a way of life and a method of bringing creative thinking to rational, left-brained business professionals.

With the current shift from design as a decorative function to design as a business requirement, designers have been forced to equip an arsenal of tools that go beyond what we'd traditionally call design. As such, we designers have been appending the word "strategy" to everything that we do, perhaps in the belief that it creates a higher-level business orientation to our often intuitive decision-making process. Brand strategy. Content strategy. Design strategy. Interaction strategy. Media strategy. We've developed a strategic nomenclature that is like peeling back the layers of an onion. The list goes on and on and on.

But design within marketing as a core business function only has three fundamental strategies. These are what our clients recognize as indispensable foundations for any creative project, though they aren't all "creative" in the traditional sense. And design strategy can't exist without them.

1. Business Strategy

This is big picture thinking that encompasses the most important questions for any corporation: cash flow, product creation and distribution, and overall operations. Marketing strategy and tactical strategy fall out of overall business strategy and support the overall business needs.

To make a bold generalization: this is the area that designers often impact the most, with the least desire of input by the business principals. After all, we have BFAs, not MBAs.

2. Overall Marketing Strategy

Based on our business needs -- which may be informed by marketing -- what actions should we take in the market to better sell our products or services?

This is an aggregate view of tactics that can be taken and their intended reactions in the market at large, concerning long-term brand equity and value as well as short-term sales gains. Most designers want to own this space, as they can predict and control each project that they engage.

3. Tactical Marketing Strategy

What is the approach that governs each individual action that we need to take, and in what channel(s)? This is where we get to do the tangible design work, and reap the rewards of implementing a project properly. Without the proper tactics, you won't have creative that makes an impact.

Over the coming weeks, I'm going to outline a taxonomy of how our creative strategies, as designers, can be properly forged by these three fundamental marketing strategies. I'm also going to outline some baseline rules that can govern what creative strategies you choose, what you outsource to partners, and what you decline to include in your core set of capabilities that you share with your clients.

Continue on to Part 2 >>

Dirty Little Deadline Tricks

Morning Schedule

Here's some dirty tricks I've seen used to get solid work out of designers, and have been used on me in the past. But I don't recommend using them. You'll see why.

Go ahead, take as many hours as you want. Within a ridiculously tight timeframe.

I've worked at some agencies where you had free reign to bill as much time as you wanted to your live projects. The rub was that you only got a few days for what should take weeks. It's a dirty management trick: the shorter the project schedule, the more likely you'll take a profit on the project. So squeeze it out of the creative staff.

Hello, designer. Clear your deck so your design time doesn't get chipped away. Focus, focus, focus. We will keep you out of meetings, push off your other projects, and bring you food to eat. But you only get two days to do those three logos. With color studies. And recommendations for look and feel on two brochure concepts.

Sometimes designers forget, when you're juggling a ton of projects, that sweeping everything aside and focusing tightly on one single problem can exponentially improve your work, especially when you're working with a tight team that meets every hour or two to compare notes and inspire rapid progress.

I've seen great results come out of this approach. But also spectacular failures. And the failures would often happen when management got greedy and did this to the same designer over and over again, since they hadn't grumbled that it was unfair. They would also happen when staff got "nickeled and dimed" with small tasks from other live projects. Without enough clear space to focus, there really isn't enough time to succeed without dragging into evenings and weekends. And who wants that?

Every deadline is equally important. You can't miss any of them. Or else.

Some designers respond well to this lie. Others have it used on them so often that they start to see through it.

What's useful, when working through a project schedule, is knowing what deadlines are somewhat arbitrary and which are crucial to a project's success. Time can then be redistributed to ensure no one gets crushed.

What does a designer hate to hear? That they've lost time on their luxurious design schedule because of something they can't control. The client needs a few days to forge a new business strategy, but the publication date for the ad won't change. Your vendor needs two weeks to produce your beautiful design, and can't give you any wiggle room to assure quality. The testing plan for your Web site is forcing a few late nights, because your testing resources have a fixed schedule and if you miss your window, you'll lose days on your schedule.

Knowing when to negotiate is critical. This is a matter of quality of communication, and shared values across your company -- that you won't make a staff member or team fully pay for an internal mishap or a client's revised needs. Time is money, and this is where it can be appreciated.

Our internal project deadline is just as important as a client project. No leeway here.

Personal and internal project deadlines should always be somewhat flexible, within reason. Here's why.

There's a distinct path your design will take on a trip through your studio or agency, through their company and their partners and focus groups and testing. Sometimes your designs even make it out into the world. But the ones that really shine above all the others rarely appear without, say, a creative brief, some kind of rudimentary competitive analysis, research, and an understanding of the psychology of your audience.

The same thinking applies for internal work. Many designers and agencies think they can step around their client-facing processes to do a task because it's "for themselves." This is a fallacy. It will require just as much time, or even more, to negotiate a project through your own internal politics. This is the time that we usually sit around and wait for client feedback on our paid work. While we wait, they're working hard, reviewing the design and getting feedback from key stakeholders. In an internal project, we have to deal with that stakeholder feedback firsthand. This takes more time and energy.

There should definitely be strong general deadlines for internal work, especially when it results in something that needs to be delivered to an external vendor by a specific time. But there always needs to be more room to negotiate timing than a traditional client project.

That is, unless you only have two days to do those three logos. See above...

Sorry, We're Clopen Source

Clopen Source

My brilliant colleague Carrie Byrne came up with the title of this post and the term. I'm just the messenger.

Clopen source is the spirit of open-source application creation -- crowdsourcing, product development by a vocal community, free sharing of information to encourage innovation separate of a technology provider -- with very strict boundaries that ensure the profit of the key patent-holders. The key boundary is the device that holds the applications.

Clopen source means more than just having a community of users contribute to the success of a technology or device. It requires mechanisms for profit as part of its motive. And it requires purchase of a specific product or service to play ball. This ain't your father's UNIX, which is really the last frontier for true open source goodness.

Apple Software Development Kit (SDK) for the iPhone? Clopen source. More apps on their phone means more minutes used, more iPhones sold, and more SDKs sold to third parties. Create a community that develops apps for you, then monetize it. This has been the game on all smart device platforms, until Android came along.

Google's Android OS for smart devices. At first, doesn't seem like clopen source. Google is making the device OS 100% open source for developers, but the platform still needs to be monetized. So, who wins here? Phone sellers push more units at similar prices to Windows Mobile phones without paying for licensing, while Google makes more money off mobile search and advertising tied into the apps. This would be clopen source at its heart. You can't just give it away.

Free code, or even full applications, that drive your Web site? Clopen source. Using the code encourages the adoption of a specific server-side technology and the use of a development platform. Just choose your flavor and its overall software cost to you.

Neuros OSD, which lets you archive your DVD and video content? Clopen source. The box runs on Linux and Neuros encourages developers to improve the device's feature set. But it's a closed community, and you have to fork over for the box to play ball.

I don't think there's anything wrong with clopen source. It seems to be the best way to make money off interactive technologies in today's "free economy."

In many ways, clopen source is the great hope of keeping ahead of the curve and advancing the next killer app. By having product audiences have access to personally improving company technologies, and allowing those companies to absorb that learning into their own products, will have massive impacts on the speed of technological growth in immature markets like mobile computing, smart device generation, and other technologies that blur the lines between product categories.

Design and Business Sustainability in 2012


One of my co-workers recently lent me a copy of the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. The entire book is a stunning thought experiment about what would happen to the world if all the humans suddenly vanished. How long would it take for nature to recover from our influence? What are the real impacts of our daily lifestyle choices on the world at large? What systems do we have currently in place, such as nuclear and petrochemical energy creation, that would have an explosive impact on the Earth if we weren't there to manage them?

As I read the book, I jotted down a few questions that came up that we designers should be considering now, as part of our day-to-day responsibilities. It will take us some time to formulate real ways to answer them.

Should we worry more than we do currently about the environmental impact of an interactive property, and plan our user experience accordingly to lessen its effect?

I could see this movement as having the following slogan: Make Hits Mean More. Code your apps tight. Make them efficient on your processor. Make sure your hosting service uses green IT. Improve overall usability. Save a kilowatt or two.

Last month's Harper's magazine had an interesting short piece about how each Google search burns a certain number of watts. When you tally up the number of searches engaged by search engines on a daily basis, we're burning a helluva lot of power to see where Britney Spears had lunch on Tuesday.

We will have methods to quantify this impact on our power grid, and perhaps even be charged for our electricity consumption amortized across the Internet, the number of searches we engage, and any other wasteful Internet usage. There will be systems to quantify power used across a web site or Internet application. We may even test our code for browser compatibility alongside its overall wattage use per click.

Will people be warned of the environmental impact of their purchases online or in a physical store?

As designers, we will need to develop rationales to guide our clients into greater transparency on whether the world needs their products, and if so, what kind of impact purchasing their products will have on society as a whole. People will need to see, in product marketing, the long-term effects of their choices beyond their own lifespan.

For example: baby clothes and toys, which are swiftly outgrown. You can recycle baby clothes and toys by passing them along to new mothers, but eventually, the polyester and plastic clothes will enter a landfill and degrade into tiny bits that in a few thousand years will perhaps be eaten by microbes that have evolved to consume plastic and its derivatives.

We can't expect our clients to shoulder this kind of burden while we're just pointing the way. It will likely be a shared responsibility, and we'll have to create methods to kindly shame the big companies into shifting their business strategy.

Will the environmental impact of a future product, or even a meme, be accurately measured and rated before it hits the market?

The tools don't exist to make this kind of assessment over time... yet. But they will.

"Great thought, Jim. You'll make millions off it but it'll generate at least 20 million pounds of carbon waste, use as much water as Lake Michigan in processing, and kill dozens of whales and three species of waterfowl. Should we come up with something better, or see if we can improve your idea to have less of an environmental impact?"

People will need to make judgment calls before they even engage on making a product or service. This kind of filter for a business decision hasn't been clearly articulated across Wall Street, because both public and private corporations had been traditionally focused more on making money than on leaving no trace. Sustainability is the next arms race for public corporations, and will be full of claims such as: "We use 5% less waste in our packaging, reducing our overall waste by 50,000 tons." All while the bottle's still made of plastic. And not being recycled.

Are we really being creative enough about finding a better way to assess a product's long-term impact? Companies will need to evolve existing products that sell well to either minimize their impact, or make the decision to cut them entirely (such as spray aerosols) and invent new products that aren't as convenient, but won't, say, destroy the ozone layer accidentally over New Jersey.

Designers will need to be vocal and raise their hand when they see potential problems, both in product design, development, and marketing, to ensure the long-term interests of the Earth aren't being trounced.

Designers can also encourage innovations that, for products with a short lifespan, biodegrade gracefully with low or no environmental impact. A company that makes tricycles, for example, could replace the plastic with a corn derivative or another compostable substance, which would break down over a year or two. This is already happening with plastic silverware. Consumers will need to be sold on the benefits of owning a product that will fall apart quickly and return to the earth in a non-harmful way.

The only danger with this technology is that we'll need to be sure we don't overtax the land necessary to grow the crops we'll use to create the plastic alternatives.


I have other questions, but in order to save a watt or two, I will beg them off for another post. However, I'd like you to expend some watts by posing some more questions regarding the future of design and sustainability.

Effective Design Strategies for Rich Media Ads

Rich media advertising has morphed from a simple way to create a more engaging banner or skyscraper placement into little mini-sites within a larger publication, complete with streaming video, games that visitors can play, built-in data capture and referral mechanisms, and other sophisticated interactive elements that five years ago would have required its own Web page and heavy development chops.

The following trends, which I noticed in recent online ads deployed by EyeWonder, exhibit many of the hallmarks of compelling user experience and design for rich media placements.


Build Your Concept from Real-World Examples

It's easy to fly some copy into your ad, show a nice photo of your product, and toss in a big button that says "Buy Now" with a low price next to it.

What's much harder is finding a real-world experience and marrying it to your product. One recent online ad that caught my eye was for the show DogFights on the History Channel. Upon rolling over the placement, the navigation of the ad is like flying your own fighter jet and locking onto a target. Upon "shooting" one of the planes you're chasing, you reveal an area of the ad. Try it out here.

Strong advertising like this doesn't require a traditional menu for navigation, or any of the common UI features you'd expect in the microsite. The behavior of the navigation is instead more like a video game -- which is an interesting analogy, since a fighter jet video game is still borrowing from the real world experience of flying a jet. (Not that I've ever flown one...)

I also love this mini-Space Invaders that my colleagues at Worktank made for the HTC Advantage, which is always great fun and can lead to some solid click-through.


Ease Your Audience Into the Virtual Experience

If you're designing a rich-media advertisement, generally you're going to disguise some kind of extended experience in a banner or skyscraper, presenting some call to action asking someone to roll over the ad. Smooth the transition into the experience, and reward them with the depth of it. Otherwise, they aren't going to interact with it over a long period of time -- and gain more interest in purchasing your product or service.

Here's an example that's less like a game and more like going on vacation. Different areas of content are part of a portion of an island in the Galapagos that you can "visit" when you expand open the placement. Try the demo here.

Both of these rich media ads are experiential in nature, matching up to the content of the television programs they're advertising. How do you translate this kind of approach into more traditional advertising for products and services? Here's a great example that raises interest while foregrounding a solid product.


Make Pass-Along Easy, and Integral to the Concept

The following example from Nissan hits the two points above and completely integrates referrals. You can use various keys on your keyboard to trigger breakdancing moves from the on-screen avatar. If you press record, the ad unit tracks your moves and allows you to forward the "movie" to your friends. This ad works like gangbusters, using some really smart ActionScripting create a big impact, and create some big awareness around the car for the right audience. Try it here.

Designers Create Artifacts, Not Art

Accounting for Taste

The best graphic designers seem to possess the most finely honed aesthetic apparatus of any type of visual artist, when it comes to clearly communicating an idea.

We may not create works on par with the great painters of antiquity or the boldest conceptual artists of our current age, but we create works that have to retain meaning consistently through reproduction. This not only requires an artistic sensibility. It requires great empathy for a body of people -- our audience, per the creative brief -- and a shared cultural language that ensures our work doesn't turn into a tangle in our audience's minds.

The work that I admire as a designer, the work that contains a sense of meaning no matter what the cultural or business context, retains a kernel of the impact that a true, physically-made piece of art would hold. But it isn't art.

Strong designers are able to scrape away at the page or the computer screen until they uncover a hint of the aura of art, then shape it into a consistent communication. This takes patience, intuition, and the ability to smell an idea that can survive replication in its production and delivery. Clear conceptual thinking. Simplicity of thought that is consistent in delivery. Otherwise, the audience can't clearly discern what you want them to feel.

Any posturing from a designer that they are an artist of any stripe only holds true when they're making personal work. Calling your day-to-day design work in a corporate context artful does not mean that it's art. (Though many agencies I've worked at hang the actual designs we've done around the office, artfully shot and presented as such.)

The critic Walter Benjamin, whom I had to read when in college, made a huge impact on my personal design work only because I've resisted his thoughts for some time. Of course, in resisting them, I was only validating them:

"That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art... One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes the plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced..." (from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction")

Walter Benjamin published these words in 1936, and it never reached an English-speaking audience until 1968. I can think of no better description as to what designers need to be aware of in their work -- and their own disposition.

Design ideas have to transcend the computer and consistently create the same impact in our audience's minds independent of delivery medium. Our work is truly "conceptual art," just married to a commercial parent and continually attempting to resist the flattening that occurs in mechanical reproduction. It also, through its replication, ceases to be individual and instead becomes cultural. Political. Part of a discussion that transcends the personal.

All of this said, however, points to a painful truth: because of its reproduction, design is generally lacking in tangible value compared to a singular work of art. There may be an art of creating effective advertising or a competent brochure, but that doesn't mean that the ad or brochure in its reproduction ever holds value independent of its association with a product or service. The Internet blew that argument right out of the water.

If you're a product designer, then what you create can add value to a product for sale. Designers can create artworks that are sold in limited editions and are viewed as art. A well-crafted identity can skyrocket the overall equity of a product. But the vast majority of design work that we create is valueless without association to something tangible and meaningful. Sure, you can make beautiful logos all day long -- but if they aren't attached to a real company or political candidate, what weight do they really hold?

The highest praise we can give to design work is that it perfectly resonates with thoughts and feelings latent in the audience, and draws them out effectively. Artistic means may be the delivery medium, but in the end, it is merely an artifact that generally ends up in the recycling bin, awaiting its return to the zeitgeist.

(Except for this gorgeous monoprint I want to buy from Hatch Show Print... is it art in the vein of Robert Rauschenberg? Is it design in the vein of the recent explosion of gig poster design?)

How Many Concepts Should I Present?

How Many Concepts

Ah, the age-old question. Sure, it says you'll show three in your contract, but you just know they'll buy the twinkly idea that hit you in your morning shower. Why go through the hassle of designing out those lesser ideas that won't get client buy-in, but will demonstrate "range" and "value" as part of your ongoing relationship?

I have a few business rules about how many ideas to show. In numerical order.

One Concept Is for Friends and Art. Or You're the Shizzle.

If you're designing an art project, like a band poster or a pro-bono project for a friend, one concept is fair. If you're a hot shot, in-demand designer -- Stefan Sagmeister comes to mind -- one concept is part of the cost of engaging their firm. One concept is the illusion of a perfect solution, delivered by a rock star. So you'd better be one.

For us mere mortals, if you're designing for a corporation of an appreciable size, showing one concept can come off as sheer arrogance. I've had heart-to-hearts with local marketers about showing up to client presentations for major branding initiatives and being handed one concept -- and a dud at that. In every one of these cases, they've had to argue their agency down from their lofty perch to even consider an approach within the creative brief and budget. Is that really good client service?

Working with corporations, they are going to want to see the range of your thinking to frame up that single perfect solution. Now, this said: I have walked into the shooting gallery with only one concept, but only at great peril and backed by heavy artillery in the form of fully-baked research and strategic positioning. But try it at your own risk. It's too easy to get burned.

Two Concepts Are for Day-to-Day Projects, Tight Bids, and... Pitches.

When working on "big idea" campaigns and day-to-day, meat and potatoes projects such as collateral and environmental graphics, two concepts fits the bill. How many brochure covers does the client really need to see to make an informed choice? How many ideas to you want to show when they're going to govern a huge campaign? Any more and you're just asking for it.

If the client doesn't feel either design concept or campaign theme hits the brief, there's likely some great ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor, just waiting to be executed. Either that, or the brief wasn't tight to begin with. If it's not your fault, you could hit them with a change order to cover that extra round of work. You can't "miss the mark" if the target was in the wrong place.

If you're forced into doing a pitch, don't ever show more than two concepts per assignment -- and your absolute best ones, at that.

Three Concepts Are for Real Challenges.

If you're going through a branding exercise or developing an enterprise-level Web site, three concepts are completely fair. However, scope needs to be tightly controlled at the first round. Don't show color studies for all your logos right out of the gate, or develop multiple Web page exceptions when the client hasn't even bit off on a Web page shell.

Keep each concept simple -- as the purest, most uncomplicated expression of your idea.

Four Concepts Should Never Happen.

Three is the magic number, not four. Show a client four ideas and you're just asking for Frankenconcepting. Too many choices is always a bad thing. Stick to prime numbers.

Five Concepts = Fat Wads of Cash.

In some heavy branding exercises, I've done five to eight concepts. Was that a good idea? Not really. In the end, they quickly whittled it down to the three we knew were top-notch. We were getting a hefty fee, however, and the client felt like we'd shown real range and value for their dollar. More projects came through the door from that client, and we were able to bring it back to two concepts for future work.

If you're getting great compensation and love the thrill of executing a dozen ideas to their last detail, feel free to throw every last concept at the wall. Just know that in the end, only one of them will ever stick.

Secrets of UX Design Productivity from Google

Google UX

Last Thursday, I attended a free session organized by SIGCHI, Puget Sound region at Google Seattle HQ. Jake Knapp, a very well-spoken user interface designer, entertained a packed house with a speech on 17 tactics that he uses for creating strong UX work in "the flood" of projects that pour through his UX department from month to month.

Since Google is well-known for its sprint approach to application development -- working quickly in small agile teams, touching base often to assess progress, aiming for short-term goals instead of having a long-term target, changing course to aim for quick wins -- I was very interested to see what methods they used to keep their many trains on the rails.

Jake did not disappoint, and unpacked his toolkit to show how he managed his workflow. I can't fit his whole talk into a single post, so instead I'll share what seemed like the top four main topics and their highlights.

Have Strong Project Foundations

The UX team at Google is fairly small, so they need to choose what to focus on wisely. When they start new design projects, they ask the following questions:

How much does this project matter? Is there a value for the UX department to take it on if they're extremely busy with big projects?

What is the business impact? If it's an app like Gmail or Google's search home, improving the user experience could have a huge impact on Google's bottom line. Better focus some attention on it.

How much UX impact will it have? How complex is the system to represent? As an example, Jake showed a view of a sidebar menu from Google Talk versus a chart that needed to explain the whole process of going through a signup process with Blogger. A well-rendered chart could have a big impact on user experience for Blogger, so this is where they'd likely focus the most attention at first.

Is the whole team (a.k.a. internal clients) willing and ready to engage with the UX team in the right way? This question dovetailed right into Jake's next key point: when you're working with new clients, you need to know what their expectations for UX are, then aim for quick wins to establish trust with them and build up a strong relationship. This is consistent with what I hear from many designers that work in-house within a large corporation: behave like you've been hired as an outside designer, and approach each project with the same level of professionalism and client service.

Let the Code Be the Mockup

Since Google is in the process of getting great ideas produced quickly, Jake noted that they often whiteboard the implementation of an idea with the engineer, then let the engineer build it. Wherever possible, they reuse code and existing patterns from other applications, then iterate the user experience with actual working code to get to a result faster.

Often, this investment in application prototyping will pay off. Many of the Google engineers are strong designers as well and they bang out super-functional prototypes. This allows the UX design team to try it with users, find all the edge cases, then shipping it -- often saving a buck or two on engineering in the long run.

While I can't imagine taking this approach to a heavy Flash piece, it sure makes sense for the kinds of apps Google is looking to unleash on the world on a regular basis.

Be Smart About (Re)using Research

Within Google, researchers talk to each other all the time, ensuring that they don't duplicate each other's user studies. This research is then shared wholesale through the corporation.

When new research is required, Jake noted that they try to hit multiple projects simultaneously. Through field research, diary studies, and ethnography, they'll map out their personas and other necessary use cases. Then, as their project narrows into tangible prototypes, they'll enter into usability studies to confirm their research and ensure it's functioning well.

Research-based workshops were another interesting twist to their overall research methodology. In order to solve certain UX problems or brainstorm improvements, large teams will take part in an immersive research approach. The rough structure that Jake outlined was thus:

Research Immersion: 2-8 hours long, with 10-35 people

1. Show the group rough personas of the users they're looking to target.

2. Identify unmet user needs. As an open-ended exercise, everyone would write on Post-It notes their imagined needs. As a group, these needs were categorized into themes.

3. Brainstorm solutions. The overall group would brainstorm possible solutions to those top themes that seemed most relevant.

The work from the immersion session would then enter UX design. The most promising concepts would be mocked up and presented to an overall committee, which would critique the ideas. From these concepts, project managers would step in to help the UX team build a rough schedule and plan out next steps.

Designers Need to Create Memorable Presentations

Since much of what Jake presents is evidence-based, and much of his work is reviewed by a committee before it can be implemented, he's become expert in giving top-flight, simple creative presentations. His rules for getting a great presentation together were:

1. Have a singular goal for your presentation.

2. Start on paper, and see the big-picture story. His metaphor was, "Don't use a periscope to map the ocean."

3. Make horizontal and vertical storyboards. Jake showed a photograph of his presentation written out on Post-It Notes, from left to right. The "vertical" storyboard was a way to ensure that each Post-It, when pulled out of context, still made sense as its own contained message.

4. 3 words or less per slide. 'Nuff said.

5. Follow the 10/20/30 rule, per Guy Kawasaki. 10 slides. 20 minutes, even if you have an hour to present. 30 pt font for your text, though Jake advocated 32 pts or larger.

6. Be careful how you present mockups. Often, Jake would grayscale his tight designs, then slap on crappy graphics for the approval of the rough markups in PowerPoint to ensure that they were discussing the ideas behind the UX, not the design itself.

7. Drawings invite people to participate. Keeping the design work rough cues everyone to know it's a work in progress -- and treat it as such in discussions.

Plotting the Impact of Creative Ideas

Plotting the Impact of Creative Ideas

The wall has twenty or thirty sketches pinned to it, and you're in a big group of designers, account managers, project managers, and other creative types trying to determine which ideas make the cut and get executed for the big client meeting. The creative director turns to the group and says, "So, which of these ideas do you like the best?"

Always a loaded question.

Does it boil down to how I feel about it -- the gut level reaction?

To me, a great concept will always inspire some sort of emotion, twanging the heartstrings, so to speak. It also has some kind of poetry or sizzle that takes it to a place that demands some form of attention.

But is that what the client wants? Is that what the creative brief demands? And is that what the audience needs to hear?

All valid questions, which lead to great concepts being spiked before they reach the light of a Web site or a billboard -- and if unasked, allow the wrong kinds of concepts to slip through to the client.

After going through a few hundred of these concept evaluation meetings, I decided to get smart about forging a process to focus my concepts before they're evaluated.

Before I concept, I look at the chart above and determine in my head where my design work should land based on the business case. Different marketing needs call for different kinds of ideas. Before I go off into dreamland, I have an idea of where I need to steer to fulfill the client's objective.

Then, after I've got a few awful sketches and well-refined umbrella concept rationales and headlines, I'll pin them up on the wall and I'll ask myself the following three questions, keeping in mind the baseline strategy I've staked for the project:

1) What kind of emotion is evoked through the communication?

If I'm creating a product brochure with dry descriptions of enterprise-level accounting software, the kinds of emotion I'm seeking to express may be quite different from a global campaign selling soap. Understand where you need to land on the scale between logic and emotion ensures that the audience receives the right effect from the communication. Ideally, you're using the right blend of the two to address an audience's need or "pain point."

We always groan when we see the mother making the Prego spaghetti sauce, but it does evoke the right emotion and I remember the ad enough to write about it here. Plus, it addresses a real pain point: do I really have the time to go spend two hours in the kitchen making slow-cooked tomato sauce?

2) How tangible are the benefits in the messaging?

How many commercials have you seen where you remember the gimmick, but not the product? Usually the gimmick is only tangentially related to the tangible product.

At some agencies I've worked at, the art directors have said, "Be sure to make the product as small as possible in the corner." That umbrella solution sure doesn't work in the long run if you need to show tangibility, which in the long run points to sales, not awareness.

Remember that Infiniti car commercial campaign where they never showed the cars, just natural forms like leaves floating on the wind? The press positively glowed about it. Quite a good idea, but the lack of tangibility proved to be the ads' Achilles heel. The ads were found to be ineffective when it came to selling cars.

3) Is it evocative or just an echo of the mundane?

If you don't create something expressive to market your product or service, you aren't going to keep audience interest -- your work will veer from the poetic to the mundane. It's hard to create poetry with a tangible expression of a product like, say, toilet-bowl cleaners.

This is where real understanding how your audience approaches your product makes such a big impact on the quality of a creative idea. If it's evocative, you've reflected the audience's mindset and tapped into their impressions and emotions. And by evocative, I mean that it ceases to function in the realm of the literal and becomes figurative, metaphorical, or expressive in a way that transcends our notions of our day-to-day lives.


I think it's easy to play on the axes between logic/emotion and tangibility/intangibility. Where we really show our stripes as creative thinkers is where our ideas land on the axis between the mundane and the poetic. This is why many designers struggle when they can't create a communication that has a measure of poetry in it.

In my estimation, if you've come up with a really poetic idea and it creates the right emotional reaction in your target audience, and the tangibility of your product's benefits are visible in some way, you've found the "sweet spot" for your concept. From our recent bevy of Super Bowl spots, ones that caught my interest were the Monster ad with the two guys on bikes at the center of the Earth and the Tide commercial with the talking stain. Both of them expressed these three criteria in a measure that worked.

If the client just wants a rational comparison between three types of software, then you know your concepts need to speak to rational decision-makers. It's not going to veer into the poetic.

If you're selling a politician, you may veer into pure emotion and poetry and for a time, forgo all those things like, say, facts.

If your client sells security systems, you'll likely have an ad that implies that someone tried to break into your house, inspiring fear and playing on the literal risk of being hurt by a burglar, then it isn't likely you're going to shoehorn some kind of poetry into it. I can imagine it now... Security Alarms: The Musical.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether this model holds up beyond advertising and also can help designers determine their best work in areas like branding, identity development, and designing compelling environmental graphics. Thanks!