Posts About Business and Startups
Posts About Business and Startups
You Want A Phone, But You Don't
When my son started middle school, he asked my wife and me for a phone. Since he was going to be walking to school, Lisa and I decided yes to this luxury. Our reasoning was not because he was now older or more responsible but because we wanted to be able to contact him! When I offered him one of my old Nokia handsets, which is still a great phone, he nearly lost his life. 'That's a dinosaur Dad! It's as useless as a flip phone!'
For a kid, having the ability to contact your parents is not the reason to ask for a phone. My old Nokia or StarTac handsets were cool phones in their time. Call quality was great but let's face it, predictive text? That's an alien concept to anyone whose baseline is a smartphone. Who remembers trying to text, while waiting and hoping for a 28.8 kbps internet connection handshake to happen? Hmm...do you want to go back?
Some very successful people still rock the flip phone! But let's face it, this is not a product or a fashion accessory that will come back into vogue for the masses. It's not what people want when they ask for a phone today.
Enter the Experience Era
Experiences like this get me thinking about what makes us use one product vs. another. And, how has our appreciation of innovation changed from an end user perspective?
Mobile phones are now multi-use devices. We don't say 'where's my entertainment, communication, and personal or business computing device?' What we want is a device that delivers all these needs wrapped in best experience possible. Yes, most of us have morphed into needy people. We need to be productive, efficient, entertained. We expect things to work. We expect and from a consumer perspective, demand a great experience in the process.
How Did We Get Here?
Hardware engineering and companies like Fairchild Semiconductors started off the Valley ecosystem. Mike Markkula, an angel investor and the second CEO of Apple, made his mark at Fairchild and Intel. He worked in marketing, but he had a degree in electrical engineering. Historically, product leadership in companies such as Fairchild and Intel centered around Hardware Engineers. Having engineers as the Product Managers' made sense due to the complexity of their products and the innovation they were driving. Building a chip requires a level of experience that's lost on many from a software programming perspective.
The rise of the business and then the home computer started to bring software into its own. The ascension of the Software Engineer and their leadership era began. Companies like Microsoft and Netscape began to shift the pendulum. Bill Gates may have started off as a programmer, but it was his business focus and leadership that made Microsoft.
When the internet made its way into our homes, MBA's got into the product leadership act to try to sell us more stuff. The big portals like AltaVista, Yahoo, and others introduced more aggressive digital marketing systems. Ads were everywhere! The 'business person' now drove the product definition with more and more ad units.
But then we saw the revenge of the nerds. Google was born, and data accumulation with better algorithmic search became king. With targeted ads and more efficient algorithms, the programmers returned with their analytical efficiency. Organize the data, sell more ads. Computer Science grads become the new ad men and also the Product Leads. In 2001, Larry Page tried to fire all managers with technical reports. The reason? Engineers should not be supervised by people with limited technical knowledge.
Next came a kid in a hoodie. Mark Zuckerberg was a program engineer but he also heralded in the concept of a company being a product. Facebook had learned from all the waves and companies that have come before it. Engineering was not enough. Ship product enhancements that focus on connecting people through news and experiences.
Lastly, no timeline about consumer product cannot refer Apple; the former outlier turned golden child. There's no denying that Apple makes great products. Their first foray was not a success, and it was Microsoft who rescued them with a $150m cash injection. Apple is, however, a great product design company. Their products are easy to use and reflect their focus on the user first, not as an afterthought. No product manuals needed. In many ways, Apple took engineering, design, and marketing to another level. Apple Product Leads understand the overall package and convey the experience to be created. It's a formula that worked, and many try to emulate.
Design Is the Differentiator
The world is now wired for great design and craves the speed and simplicity of a great experience. Successful products layer complexity to ensure a low cognitive load for users. People demand a great experience whether in work or personal situations. This is an evolution in the mindsets of both the manufacturer and the consumers. People such as Simon Sinek have talked about this concept and starting with why as opposed to the what or how. This evolution towards the experience also leads to a need for new types of product leaders. The question is no longer, does it work but how can the experience be better for the user.
Humans are visual creatures, remembering more about experiences and feelings, than written details. We've all heard about the importance of storytelling and bringing people on a journey. So, how has the role of the product leader evolved and where is it all going?
Who's Behind the Wheel Now?
The pace of change in the world of tech continues to speed up. People have more choices than ever before. Loyalty is fleeting! People want everything to be well designed and to reflect who they are. Apple got people to appreciate the experience created by their products. Today, apps, products, or websites need to have the best experience or people will move on. Design driven companies are outperforming the market. Just look at the success of businesses like Slack, Airbnb, and others.
If you were going to design a house, who would you want to be the lead, the builder or the architect? This brings up a lot of interesting questions from a software product creation perspective. If the product experience is now the differentiator, who should be leading the product charge? Who is most qualified to balance all the key factors required to build a product and business?
This journey leads us to a group with limited experience in leading, but loads of potential. A group that lacks the alumni network at executive levels. A group that does, however, bring new and essential skills to the table. Please welcome the Designer to the Product Leadership table. Hardware Engineers, you built and continue to build amazing objects. Software Programmers, we'll continue to need your skills to make features operational and efficient. Business person, you taught us how to be more revenue focused. But, times have changed again, and this isn't a revenge of the nerds' situation. Yes, software may eat the world but this is more introspective. Design just ate your software!
Designers, the baton is being waved in your face to become the Product Leads. You can create the businesses and the experiences people will care about.
It's up to you to take it. Are you up for it?
Let's be honest. People are messy. Organizations are incredibly dumb. Code can look like spaghetti. Given those facts, it's absolutely amazing that anything of significance (or even functioning) can be built by people from around the world that have never met. Yet here we are, almost five years into this Foundation product, today releasing Foundation for Sites 6.2.2. It's incredible to see over 12000 commits by 1000+ contributors. How in the world does this all work?
Given that we were not professional open source coders, the whole thing was a tad intimidating when we embarked on this journey in 2011. But we've learned a lot these past 5 years, and we're more excited than ever about the ways the community is contributing to Foundation's future. We've examined what's helped grow Foundation and narrowed it down to three things.
Here are the elements of success:
Have A Strong Opinion
This may sound counter intuitive, but the way you keep a vibrant open source project is by saying 'no' more than you say 'yes.' How can that be? Because strong opinions guide the growth of a project, attract like minded contributors and keep the quality level high. Foundation has always been more than a tool for us, it's a philosophy, a point of view. We have a clear mission here at ZURB, to change the way people design connected products and services, and Foundation is one the ways we're helping transform organizations.
Our vision for Foundation is not simply to create tools for implementation, but rather to create a shared language for designers and developers to communicate about what they are creating. This vision helps shape which contributions we accept and which we don't. As a product design company, we're constantly dreaming of new ways to push the limits of what the web can do, and we use Foundation day in and day out to make those dreams a reality.
Tools Matter Less Than Collaboration
As a technical product, we're selective about the tools and services we use to develop Foundation. The development process all flows through Git, a revision control tool that was created by Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, and specifically optimized for the problems that arise when managing a large software project with hundreds or thousands of contributors. Building on top of that, we use Github, giving us a web-based hub for our source code.
But the really important part is the collaboration these tools enable. Github helps us issue reports and have conversations that are rooted in the code. Slack and email help us have bigger conversations and involve the whole team. And the Foundation Forums put us in direct contact with users around the world. There's a misconception that software development is carried about by isolated nerds wearing headphones, eyes fixed on screens, and saying little to each other. The nerd part is true, granted, but development of something as big as Foundation is a very communication intensive endeavor and requires all kinds of interactions to be a success. While tools are important, it's the interactions that they foster that carry the most value.
Project Inspired (Not Project Managed)
Foundation has it's roots in our internal styleguide, and is used every single day in all of our client work. We absolutely depend on it, it has to work. You can imagine how hard it was for us to let go and open it up to the world. But you know what it? It made Foundation better! This is not to say we didn't have a few bumps in the road.
When we started opening up the Foundation development process more to the community, quite bluntly we had no idea how to update our processes to facilitate community development. We accepted pull requests on a rather haphazard basis, but mostly we continued to manage development and issue fixing mostly in-house. And you know what? Project managing sucks!
We realized that instead of project managing, we needed to share our goals with the community, provide a few guidelines, and let these brilliant developers run with it. We set up some contributing guidelines to get us all on the same page and christened a new team of superhero devs, the Yetinauts, to lead the way. We're proud to be able to say that our last 2 releases have been over 80% community driven.
Five years into this, and Foundation remains the leader of the pack, advancing not just frameworks forward but the web as a whole. It was difficult to 'let it all hang out', but moving development out into the open was the best decision we could have made. With your help, we're upping the ante even further. You can start by talking in the Foundation Forum, dig into the Foundation for Sites outstanding issues, or get involved with Foundation for Emails 2. This is your chance to help change the future of the web.
Contrary to popular belief, 'the lone genius' locking themselves away and coming back with the magical solution to all of our problems is a myth. Unfortunately, it's a myth that is especially persistent in the design community. We've been told that there are magical unicorns that understand all of the problems and know all of the answers. We 'ooh' and 'ahh' as they lift the veil and reveal their latest and greatest product. A product that seems near effortless for them to create, the result of things simply 'clicking.' We hate to break it to you, but that's not how it works. We've helped over 300 companies big and small design and develop sites, products and services, and it's never as easy as the keynote portrays. It's time people know how the sausage is really made.
The truth is that teams are intrinsic to designing and building amazing products. This includes everyone that supports the design of the product. But this presents a ton of challenges. As design leaders, we haven't necessarily had the training and mentors to be effective leaders. It's a very different thing to go from being an awesome designer to an awesome leader. While it's easy to make progress when you're working solo, it can be extremely difficult to work with a group of people in an effective way.
Guiding teams to be productive and generate consistent results requires that design leaders learn how to communicate in a way that drives action. With our focus on empathy, you would think this is an easy skill to master, but it isn't. Empathy will only get you part way. There are several other tactics we can employ to help us build trust, grow influence and keep our teams productive. Here are five small things you can start doing today to improve your communication as a design leader and guide your team to big wins:
1. Get to know your people
If you have the luxury of being in a smaller team you have the opportunity, scratch that, the obligation to get to know the people on your team. As you do this, you'll soon realize that everyone is in different places in their life, and that people can't separate home life and work life as well as they think they can. Stress from outside of work can manifest itself at inopportune times. While we as professionals should keep this to a minimum, it happens, we're human. Putting forth the effort to help a team member stay on track and work through their projects during a stressful time will win you loads of trust and goodwill.
Building trust is important for a number of reasons. Most people like to feel some sort of attachment to the people they work with, especially those they work under. This isn't to say you need to be best friends with everyone, but it helps to be a little candid. Talk about mistakes you've made in the past and what you've learned. Above all else, have a sense of humor. Laugh at yourself. If your team sees you as human, they'll be more willing to trust you and open up when they experience problems. Trust begins with you.
2. Do the work
I think we've all had the experience of that one boss that had no clue about how long things took or what went into what they were asking. How did it feel working for them? Did you respect them or even like them? Probably not. A boss with outrageous expectations and no understanding of what it will take to meet them doesn't extract the best work out of their team. On the contrary, they usually find their team will purposely underperform out of sheer resentment. Not good.
As a leader, you should have a clear understanding of everything you ask your team to do. Ideally, you should have hands on experience. There's no faster way to lose respect from your team than not understanding the work and having unreasonable expectations. Now, this is not to say you have to be an expert, but you should take an interest and learn as much as possible.
Anyone who comes into a managerial role and has no interest in learning about what goes into the work they demand usually ends up with a bitter team and zero respect. So get your hands dirty. Learn as much as you can about everyone's roles, ask lots of questions, and become as familiar as possible with the process it takes to get everything done. Doing this will help you speak from a place of understanding, make sure your expectations of people are reasonable and earn you the respect of your team.
3. Check in
As a leader, it's your job to make sure that your team is productive. The problem is that it's rarely ever as simple as telling someone to do something and coming back moments later to see it finished perfectly and on time. Projects can be complicated and things never go to plan. In addition to that, people encounter all kinds of roadblocks, both external and internal that can bring momentum to a screeching halt. The solution? Check-in regularly with your team.
Are you thinking of the boss character in Office Space? Don't. That's not the kind of checking in we're talking about. These interactions should be positive and built on a foundation of empathy and trust.
Ask what each person is working on, have them actually show the work to you, and ask them how they're feeling about it. It's not enough to just ask 'How things are going?' and leave it at that. You won't get any meaningful answers, and you may not even receive the truth. Remember, people don't always voice when they are stressed or overwhelmed. You'll have to be perceptive and pay attention to things like body language. There's a difference between the look of someone who's concentrating and someone who is drowning in stress. If you've built up enough trust with your team, they'll open up about what's on their mind and you'll have a chance to coach them through it. Do this right and they'll feel supported by their team and you'll earn more trust. Everybody wins.
4. Tell them the 'why' behind your requests
You want to know a great way to get people to do what you ask them to? Tell them why it's important. People want to know that what they're devoting their time and talent to is going to result in something positive. Explaining all of the details, and multiple times, will help keep everyone on board.
We've all been there, you ask 'Does anyone have any questions?' *Crickets*... So much silence. People will not always let you know if they don't understand or are confused. When it comes to this awkward moment, think of what questions people may be thinking and ask them yourself. When people are well informed and see how their contributions fit into the whole, they put forth their best work.
Did you know there is a difference between 'hearing' and 'listening'? Hearing is the act of perceiving sound. During the course of your day you 'hear' thousands of things. Planes flying over head, the buzz of an airconditioning unit, the squeak of office chairs, etc. Listening is different. Listening is paying attention to draw meaning from the sounds you are hearing. Listening requires effort.
It is absolutely critical that you, as a leader know how to listen. Believe it or not, not everyone has been taught how. The first step involves letting people talk without interrupting them, learn to hold your tongue and listen. Another helpful strategy is to take notes and ask questions. Lastly, don't worry about having all the answers right then. A good leader knows that sometimes people just need to get things off their chests. Ultimately, it's your responsibility to make sure that the work environment is a place where people feel they can share what's on their minds.
Strength In Numbers
No matter how talented we may think we are, teams, not lone geniuses, are at the heart of great product design. When groups of people are in sync and working towards the same goals, their potential for impact is nearly unlimited. Improving internal communication removes roadblocks, boosts morale and fosters camaraderie to strengthen your team. Implementing these five tactics will help you grow your influence no matter what your position within a company, and guide your team to big wins!
'Leader' is a word that's thrown around a lot these days, but it seems like fewer and fewer people seem to know what it really means. Everyone thinks they want to be a leader, and plenty of people are calling themselves one. It's understandable. Who wouldn't want to tell others what to do and be able to sit back and reap the rewards? But this isn't what it means to lead. The word 'leader' is derived from the ancient word 'leith' which means 'to go forth and die' like' as in battle. Does that sound like someone that sits back while everyone else does the tough stuff? Hardly. That's describing someone that's out in front, down in the trenches, with their sleeves rolled up setting the pace for others to follow.
Designers usually don't mind getting their hands dirty, in fact, getting in there and creating things is what draws most people into design in the first place. It's the second component, the occasionally messy business of leading people that designers are reluctant to take hold of and has been a contributing factor to the design leadership gap. Leadership requires learning a whole new set of skills that may not come naturally to many designers, but they can be learned. And organizations play a critical role in developing future leaders.
Organizations Shape Future Leaders
Most people by now have gotten away from the old school, 'rule by fear and consequences' style of leadership and are beginning to think about what the new generation of leader is like. But that doesn't mean there is consensus of where to go next. There's the typical startup mentality, 'we're all doing stuff, maybe you're being directed or maybe you're not. It's cool though cuz we're having fun!' And then there are companies that are completely hands off' until you screw up. But even if your company's leadership sucks, you can't place all the blame on the people in charge. Bad company culture and poor leadership expectations play into lackluster leads.
Who are your leaders being bred to be? This stuff begins with your company's values. Who do you want your team to be? In our world at ZURB, our leaders are multi-dimensional. They are leaders, coaches, and when needed, they can be managers. It depends on the situation and the needs of the ZURBians involved. We've posted ZURB's values, and not long ago we wrote about the skills and qualities that great team members are made of. Now we thought we'd break down a few of the values we try to instill in our leaders:
Ever hear people say 'If you want something done right, do it yourself.' The real question here is, why can't you trust your team? Why do you hold the people around you down? Why haven't you worked at building trust with your team? The 'I'll do it myself' mentality doesn't make you look better in the eyes of others. People want to be included, you're alienating yourself and your team. Stop it. Invest in others. Train them to be better. Teach them what you can.
2. Great leaders make expectations clear, achievable and hold people to them
*Warning: You need to have trust first if you don't want to be seen as a 'Manager.'
You're guiding people, so you need to have an idea of what the end result could look like. Don't assume your team is all on the same wavelength. You have to clearly explain the destination, the plan, and the pieces and people involved. Most importantly, help people understand the why - why you're asking them to do something and why it's important to you. So often things are nebulous and that can be confusing enough, having a lead who is just as vague can make the situation even more bleak. Once everyone has clarity, you need to hold people accountable to executing their part of the plan. Which leads to our next point...
You gotta do the hard thing, you absolutely have to tell people when they're not performing' and it sucks. But before you have that conversation, go back through your actions to see if you missed an opportunity to teach them to be better. If you realize your expectations weren't clear, you didn't set your team up for success or you dropped the ball, take ownership of that. Being candid and taking responsibility for your share of the problem resets the expectations with the person and builds trust. If they see you owning up your mistakes, it's more likely they'll do the same.
If low performance isn't attributed to missed leadership opportunities, use this as a training opportunity and come at it in that way. Nobody likes to hear they aren't doing well, especially if this is the only time they interact with their boss. Naturally, if you haven't built trust they will be defensive and not open to listening. Even if you have to have the difficult conversation, don't let them leave the room unhappy. This is your chance to be a coach and help them come up with a strategy to get back on track and back in the game. Let them know in clear and simple terms what steps they need to take and give them a chance to let them do it.
4. Great leaders look for opportunities to recognize effort
This goes back to not letting the negative be the only reason you talk to your team thing. If you only have conversations with your team when they've messed up, then you're breeding fear and they will dread interacting with you. They will never trust you and you'll never truly get the results you want. You may have them now, but just know they are one shred of hope away from leaving you. FYI most people these days will leave a job and take one for less money if it's better work environment, or at very least, the promise of one. Instead, look for opportunities to commend team members. Bonus points if you can highlight their great work in front of the rest of your team. A few nice words about someone's job well done shared with the group makes everyone happy and inspires people to put forth great work so they too can have their moment in the sun.
All human relationships, whether in the workplace, the family or anywhere else, are all based on trust. And as a leader, you'll need as much trust as you can earn to get your team to the places they need to go. There's no shortcut here either. You'll need to have conversations, eat with your team, and show up to any fun events your organization has planned. You'll need to take time to get to know each person individually so you can tailor your management style to them. A great time to build trust is when the team fails. Great leaders don't blame their team when things don't work out. You gotta go down with the ship, captain. And when your team wins, it's not all about you either. Give credit where credit is due, your team.
Not as easy as you thought, huh? Being a leader often means you work the hardest. On the upside, being a leader, a real leader, is incredibly rewarding. To see people grow under your watch because of lessons they've learned from you makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Even cooler is when you see your team pay it forward and grow into great leaders themselves.
Facebook just unveiled a new way for their users to interact with content, Reactions. Users of the site now can express their thoughts and feelings on content through 6 emojis, love laughter, happiness, shock, sadness and anger. This presents a huge opportunity to companies placing content on Facebook, but also presents huge risk. With public sentiment from 1.4 billion people now front and center, how do you test how people feel about your content?
Social Test for Facebook
We're excited to announce we've expanded Notable's powerful selection of testing features with a brand new option for seeing how your content will perform on Social Media networks. Product and Marketing teams will find this app extremely powerful for testing how a product feature or content piece will be received by their audience. We call it the Social Test for Facebook.
Take a sample test and see how it works.
Purchase Test Results
Using our worldwide pool of diverse testers through Enroll or your own users, you're now able to test and get an accurate reflection of how your content will be received using the same style of 6 emoji reactions. Optimize your content to get the best results before posting live, and set your content up for success!
This powerful new testing option is available in Notable, our design collaboration platform. Request access to our private release today and start optimizing your content.
The internet is in an uproar today. People on all sides of the issue are chiming in with their opinions about why this happened, how this happened, and who's to blame. So what has touched the collective nerve of the world wide web? Is it the erratic stock market corrections? The upcoming presidential elections? Nope, the source of all of the passionate interchange is Google's new sans-serif flat logo.
Google's logo has changed a lot over the years, but it settled into the version most of us are familiar with in 1999 with little change until this week.
The original logo was designed by Ruth Kedar who now serves as the Creative Director at Coupons.com. Ruth met Larry Page and Sergei Brin through a mutual friend at Stanford. They were looking for something that would set Google apart from their competition and convey the voice of their brand- a voice that was trustworthy, yet playful and fun. The result was a serifed typeface that harkened back to man's collective knowledge locked in the printed page, but with a modern twist that pointed to things to come. It represented the company for 16 years until this week, when this new logo was unveiled:
As the 'mother' of the Google logo most of us have grown accustomed to, we were really interested to hear Ruth's thoughts on this new direction so we gave her a call. She refrained from passing judgment, staying open minded and even highlighting how it's nearly impossible to tell just what the future will bring.
We judge things based on our past experiences and it is often hard to anticipate what change will bring. I'm looking forward to see how the new identity will solve problems we don't know exist yet.
She also shed some light onto the factors that determine whether a design is timeless or not:
Design is often influenced by technology advancements and or their limitations (think how chisel, quill, fountain pen and typewriter have influenced type design). However it is interesting to see that once a solution to a new challenge is presented, it will often become the norm. Some will be only passing fads, while others will become classics. Only time will tell which ones will make it into the latter.
It always ruffles a few feathers when something we're comfortable with changes, but Ruth had some great perspective:
It is always a risk when a well known and established brand decides to move into new territory. No force on earth is stronger than inertia, and people don't always immediately embrace change. Think of Bob Dylan going electric in the 60s. He was booed on stage but stuck to his vision as an artist and continued to grow and develop a brilliant career.
Google shot the serif, but it didn't shoot the SVG
While Ruth purposely held back from forming an opinion too soon, the internet was quick to pick sides. All kinds of clever comments were posted on this informative Gizmodo article, including headline used above (Thanks to TheLittlestTroll and Ubiquitin for their wit). In the article, Alissa Walker outlines a lot of the practical utility that going sans-serif provides. The Google Design Team published this length post explaining all of the thinking, considerations and effort that went into the new design. Useful? Sure. Practical? You bet. Pretty? That's up for debate.
Some feel it's a little dull:
Google's new logo is like taupe paint, Virgin Cola, or the 'modern art' that hangs in the waiting room at a dentist's office: it's inoffensive to the point of being bland. It's almost a generic redesign: take the existing logo and typeset it in a geometric sans-serif, dust your hands, and call it a day.
Others feel it looks a little too familiar:
A few type aficionados are diving deep into the construction and criticizing the angles and ratios, even offering their own fixes they feel are better balanced.
But many designers, including some of most talented and creative branding experts in the industry, have given the new logo a resounding thumbs up. Yep, there's no shortage of opinions from the design community, but we thought we'd collect opinions from users around the globe using a Notable Concept Test. These tests are completely customizable and give instant test results using an international pool of testers. Within moments, results poured in from 25 different countries and gave us all kinds of data and perspectives from people of all demographics. Here's what the data revealed:
Does it even matter?
The new Google logo follows a trend of companies reducing their logos to the bare minimum, scrapping serifs and going flat. We're also seeing a simpler color pallette with the primary colors front and center. With more and more companies following suit, some argue that it will become harder and harder to stand out with this style. The debate rages on about Google's decision and the timelessness of their choice. Was this a bold move or are they blending in with the crowd? Is this logo going to hold up another 16 years or is it too trendy? The more interesting question though, is 'Does any of it even matter?'
Back 2008, we made the bold claim that logos aren't as important as most people think. The web has changed the way people interact with products and brands, and the logo's role in influencing people's behavior is waning. Once the sole advocate of a product on a crowded store shelf, it's now the favicon that's connecting with companies and brands. The URL has taken center stage and let's people know they're in safe waters.
It's the experience, the product and/or the service, that contains the perceived value and sets brands apart. And by that standard, Google stands unmatched. Will their new logo stand the test of time? Hard to say, but according to the data, the new logo is already connecting with a new generation of users.
Since our humble beginnings in 1998, we've considered our customers and employees integral parts of our success as a company. No matter their job title or role, we consider all of them designers. They've helped us build an amazing company and consistently focused us on designing great products and services. Our recent ZURB Wired is a fantastic example of teams coming together to design amazing results.
In our fourth principle of Progressive Design, Everyone is a Designer, we explain why everyone can do this. When we interact with clients, students in our classes, or others, we work hard to get them to understand how to contribute feedback on visual ideas, to build off those ideas, and then to own them and carry them on into their everyday practices. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing a former client voluntarily explore five ideas to gather feedback instead of just building the first one!
What is design?
Design methods have exploded over the last two decades with the growth of the web, concepts like experience maps and user stories are gaining traction in organizations. And companies will continue to embrace more design methodologies because design conscious companies continue to outperform the market. Since more companies are embracing design, we need to ask, what is design?
We believe everyone at ZURB has the capacity to add value to the practice of design. We understand that the narrow definition of design, akin to window dressing, must be forgotten to truly create an impact in organizations. John Hockenberry concludes we're all designers and describes good design is supplying and acting with intent. Don Norman elaborates, "The best kind of design isn't necessarily an object, a space, or a structure: it's a process- dynamic and adaptable." Further he states:
We are all designers -- because we must be. We live our lives, encounter success and failure, sadness and joy. We structure own worlds to support ourselves throughout life. Some occasions, people, places, and things come to have special meanings, special emotional feelings. These are our bonds, to ourselves, to our past, and to the future. When something gives pleasure, when it becomes a part of our lives, and when the way we interact with it helps define our place in society and in the world, then we have love. Design is part of this equation, but personal interaction is the key.
People are at the core of design. Successful design isn't an artifact, it's the interconnection of the people who use the products and services everyday with the team who influences the outcome. In a world of connected products and services, teams must continuously influence outcomes. Everyone is a designer. In fact, everyone must design if teams are to create successful products and services that can adapt to daily change. Change is happening so quickly that teams must rely on all members to make solid design decisions in rapid succession.
Design practitioners must lead the way
If everyone is a designer, then the role of a design practitioner must evolve in an organization. There's a greater purpose at hand and teams need designers to unlock this design potential by stepping up to lead. It's unfamiliar territory for most designers, but if they can empathize and foster the design talent within their team, they won't necessarily need to drive a heavy corporate management agenda (many designers fear driving business decisions). They really need to facilitate design collaboration.
Designers should focus on shaping outcomes. Jared Spool states, "The designer imagines an outcome and puts forth activities to make that outcome real." Don Norman suggests the role of a practitioner has a specific place in the design process to make products that are attractive, work well, and make us fall in love with at first sight. In Progressive Design, we build off both these ideas by expanding on the idea that designers must be user-centered and concern themselves with outcomes. However, we take this a step further by suggesting that they must also influence stakeholders, who are both users and executives, to achieve better outcomes.
The emerging role of a designer aligns with Rohini Vibha's view on product management, "You're not managing a product. You're managing the problem it solves." This view is supported by a lot more designers who take an active role in shaping the product. At Skillshare, the design team is equipped with skills like a deep understanding of business, operations, and analytics ' they've been able to create more impactful products at a higher velocity.
A title won't solve the design problem
Professional designers may be intimidated knowing their success is dependent on a team with contributors that also have design skills. Companies propagate this fear by failing to help designers extend their reach or gain comfort in a facilitation role. Design titles only reinforce this divide.
Companies continue to hire UX designers, but they haven't done much to figure out how to build design centric teams. The role of a UX designer isn't going to solve an organization's product or design leadership problems. We believe many organizations have made a huge mistake. They have siloed user experience design as a role, with the hope of plugging holes with individuals. Organizations that figure out that designing great products is the responsibility of everyone have a huge advantage over their competition.
We've been quite vocal with our ideas, sometimes creating division with our proclamations, that user experience design doesn't exist. Seven years later perhaps we're splitting hairs over a term, though it's clear that designers and companies are still hungry for clarity. In theory, the concept of UX is good, but most organizations set up UX departments with people who don't have the support skills to execute the desired end result or means to solve most of the design problem with their own labor. For example, designers that code pages can create momentum with an idea much faster.
In the end, what's important is not what titles are used, but rather building organizations around the skills needed to build successful products. Great product teams break down silos and engage everyone to participate in creating better experiences for users.
Design requires greater collaboration
We need to rethink how our teams work together. It's not surprising that design practitioners don't always have the desire to work in teams ' they've been burned too many times or simply don't have the training to collaborate effectively. Based on my experience, there simply aren't enough resources, classes or mentors that help designers learn important teamwork skills. In our work at ZURB, structured debate helps design teams build momentum together through iteration. We try to keep the process manageable and teach designers how to facilitate conversations with their teammates.
"Collaboration means bringing different minds and skillsets together in a way that doesn't make assumptions about what someone is or isn't good at,"says Rosie Manning. By removing titles and individual insecurities within a team, we create a culture that enables people to collaborate more effectively and step into the role of a designer. This is incredibly important to facilitate collaboration and enable uninhibited working. Instead of thinking of team members, like engineers and marketers, as project participants they become key component of the success of the design work by working as designers.
The best designers understand how to inspire people to contribute feedback on visual ideas, to build off those ideas themselves, and then to own them and carry them on into their own practices. The discipline of design is complex and has wide applications ' but it's that expansiveness that allows great product teams to make amazing things happen for people. It's both a noun and a verb, and can't be looked at as simply a result or a process. Product design does require creating tangible results, though, and those people who can influence the final result with good old- fashioned elbow grease will get an upper hand in shaping the vision of a product. Everyone on a team can influence the design outcome through collaboration.
A method for design collaboration
Over the last century designers have tried all kinds of interesting ways to drive a design process forward. Some of it is really good, but most of it gets in the way of creating momentum with a team. In many cases teams try to overlap a user-centered approach with a production oriented mindset. The result is a flood of design documents meant to push a design process forward. Many of these documents, however, prevent collaboration and create a divide between those 'who design' and those 'who make decisions'.
In Progressive Design, The Design Feedback Loop is an opportunity for designers to pull people into the design process. A repeatable, consistent approach to drive design feedback can inspire critical thinking collaborators to become more comfortable sharing their ideas. Designers shouldn't push these team members aside, but instead, figure out how to make their contributions more significant and meaningful. Everyone should feel like an important design contributor ' a designer.
Creating momentum with a team requires iteration to work through failure, and our failures aren't preserved in these documents. Instead of focusing on documents, we need to make people on the team the central focus of our work. Here's how we pull our team into the design process:
- Prototyping and building things ' not documenting or "strategizing"
- Rapid iteration ' working through the problems with tangible prototypes
- Building strong teaching cultures ' successful products requires design literacy
- Project inspired, not project managed ' great products happen in-spite of project managers or program managers
- Loose contracts or specs ' design thinking requires flexibility
Even with great design process, it's also important to realize that teams don't always work. Teamwork is hard to do and we often have to make compromises. Design teams need to work hard to create collaboration across cross-functional groups and executives. Getting executives on board can also be challenging. Apple uses a technique called the the Pony Meeting. Most importantly, teams need constraints that create a shared boundary. Shared constraints help create unity.
The solution, he described, is to take the best ideas from the paired design meetings and present those to leadership, who might just decide that some of those ideas are, in fact, their longed-for ponies. In this way, the ponies morph into deliverables. And the C-suite, who are quite reasonable in wanting to know what designers are up to, and absolutely entitled to want to have a say in what's going on, are involved and included. And that helps to ensure that there are no nasty mistakes down the line.
Tools shouldn't be barriers to participation
Design tools shouldn't block team members from participating in the design process. Design practices are visual problem-solving tools accessible to everyone who can pick up a pen to express an idea, highlight a great idea, or mark up anything with constructive feedback.
Gutenberg and his printing press started a revolution in the 15th century by making the production of publications much easier. In the same time it took a monk to transcribe a bible, a printer could make hundreds of copies. It's important to note, however, that even with the invention of the printing press, the cost of roughly three year's wages for an average clerk made it prohibitive for most people to purchase a publication, let alone create their own publication. The divide between creator and consumer was huge.
Even up to the last 30 years, the tools available to designers were cost prohibitive for most and required advanced skills to use. Personal computers and advanced software created many barriers that professional designers found solace in ' this divide created a defensible gap between those who create and consume. But over the last decade the tools available to people who want to reach a worldwide audience have continuously become cost effective and abundant. Designers are even clamoring for simpler software that allow them to produce without the overhead that was once considered a benefit.
We now have half the world's population connected via a phone with tools that allow publishers the ability to connect instantly at a fraction of the cost of the original printing press. The cost is nearing zero.
Design is no longer the domain of designers
If design is the rendering of intent, then feedback helps us understand if we hit the goal. Feedback can come from anywhere. Now that systems like Facebook are so ubiquitous, designers who build these systems are continuously bringing in feedback that is based directly on users who add content to the system. Taking it a step further, the personalization and customization of these systems make the consumer a designer that morphs the interface in real-time, often times based on their own unknown behaviors.
Customers and users can become an integral part of the design process, often times co-creating as bits fly through the internet. For example, Amazon deploys to a production server every 11.6 seconds. To put this in perspective, if the average visit time on Amazon is over 11 minutes, the site will have changed 57 times in that users visit ' and that doesn't even include the learned preferences that Amazon is applying in real-time!
When product teams open themselves up to feedback, amazing discoveries can be made by extending the circle of influence in the design feedback loop. Slack embraced this customer centric approach in the early development of its product and it's paid off immensely. Potential customers become integral to the building process and designers get more opportunity to connect the dots.
Everyone is a designer AND should design
We all design in our daily lives and this is a great place to build empathy for customers and drive design collaboration with teammates. Design centric companies create more value ' so increasing design literacy across the organization is important to bring design methodologies to the forefront of product development. Not only must we embrace and invite people into our design process, we must lead our team, customers or organization by design to create more competitive and compelling products.
The cost and ease of use of design tools make it more practical to bring design methods into everyone's workflow. Engineers and marketers especially have the capacity to use these tools. Teams that build connected products and services can no longer separate the real-time analytics collected from the customized and personalized experiences they create ' the users are integral in the design process. Users help design the product, whether through proxy or directly contributing to the system.
It's an amazing time to be a designer.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
Last year we set out to challenge what people believed to be Design Thinking. Since then we committed ourselves to defining a design methodology that pulled from our two decades of design knowledge. We realized that the lessons and methods we discovered since our beginnings in 1998 would make it easier for millions of designers to take advantage of our insights and help their design teams create more value in their organizations. We found that in Progressive Design.
We've defined two principles of Progressive Design- Design for Influence and Lead by Design. In this blog post, we define our third principle, Iteration Builds Momentum. Design is a balance of doing, presenting, collecting feedback and collaborating with teams to push ideas forward. Great design happens when we build momentum with rapid design iterations.
Failure helps us get into a flow
Industrialized, rigid production processes aim to remove failure to create a consistent result. But this ultimately harms a designer's development and stifles creativity. The best design happens when we harness the power of failure to propel us forward. Far from being the enemy, learning to overcome failure is what fuels great design. It pushes us to solve HUGE problems, but it must be regulated.
Psychologically, increasing amounts of failure can crush people. Instead of taking on huge failures all at once, we break them into smaller, digestible chunks. Let's call that iteration. Teams can further help individuals overcome their own saboteurs as it relates to failure with structured debate. This regulates the pressure from growing too strong, keeping it at a healthy level. By keeping failures small and building up confidence by overcoming them as both individuals and teams, we create unstoppable momentum and get into a flow.
Don't do the big reveal
Steve Jobs was a masterful showman. With each successful product release, he made every company CEO jealous by ingraining the idea of "...and one more thing." The problem with this thinking, however, is that the surprise and delight of an Apple product release is not the same thing as magically arriving at that solution. When we see Apple doing the big reveal, this is a marketing technique, not a process to design a great product. We mistake the presentation approach with the design process to get to that idea. It's a psychological trick.
Designing for 'one best answer' isn't how great design happens. This design trapping is based on the idea of causal reasoning, "To the extent that we can predict the future, we can control it." states Saras Sarasvathy. Design agencies have perpetuated this concept for a century by removing the messy failures from the client engagement, and in doing so, obscure an important component of doing great work. The lack of a shared understanding of failure, and the pressure that comes with it, prevents teams from truly creating momentum together.
The big reveal leads companies to believe that with the use of a designer, they can arrive at a perfect solution through skills, reasoning and a plan. Most often this is not the case. In actuality, Steve Jobs pushed a highly iterative approach that sweated the details by consistently and constantly using a process of reduction to get to the essence of an idea with his team. Michael Lopp, senior engineering manager at Apple, described this as 10 to 3 to 1 as a process to get to one strong answer.
Get started with a volume of ideas
So if there isn't a single perfect answer, how do teams get started finding the best design answers? Start exploring ideas. Lot's of them. Producing in volume works because we can't predict what the final answer is going to be- we're creating a new reality by exploring the boundaries of an idea. Bill Hewlett said HP needed to make 100 small bets on products to identify six that could be breakthroughs. Sir James Dyson spent 15 years creating 5,126 failures to land on one that worked!
In fact, by producing in volume, the results can be fascinating. In one classroom experiment, a teacher challenged two sides of his class. Half of the class was tasked with creating 50 pounds of pots to get an A. The other half was tasked with creating a single, awesome specimen. The results showed that the half of the class that created in volume actually produced better pots. Students that produced in volume, and focused less on the craft, made incremental adjustments based on continuous learning.
Students that made adjustments based on their learnings let go of the assumption that there would be one perfect pot. There are many pathways to success through the process of effectual reasoning, which challenges the assumption that there is a perfect answer. Studies show that entrepreneurs have been using these techniques for a long time. The most successful entrepreneurs use this technique to filter through the volume of ideas to create momentum. They're able to do this because they know 'who they are', 'what they know' and 'whom they know'.
Momentum is created through small wins. It's a mindset
Creating in volume is necessary for iteration, but getting started can be the biggest challenge. Momentum requires an impetus. In design, we start creating by applying design methods. In sketching, that's finding a pen and paper. In code, it's jumpstarting the process by scaffolding with Foundation. We start by quickly removing barriers so the real work can begin.
So where does one start to find momentum in a design process? Sports is a great place to pull from- psychological momentum is defined as a state of mind where an individual or teams feel like things are going unstoppably their way. Success breeds success. Chris Myers further explains, "The impact is so strong, studies have shown that football coaches frequently change their overall behavior and adopt a more aggressive strategy after a single successful play early in the game."
Successful coaches are willing to accept small failures to gain this momentum. Relating this back to entrepreneurs and effectual reasoning, great coaches understand how to make these bets based on their skill limitations and team abilities. Coaches capitalize on small wins to create a favorable environment knowing that they can't completely control the outcome. This in turn creates a greater sense positivism within their teams and produces better results. Science backs this up through a concept called the As If Principle.
Structured debates through a repeatable process
If momentum requires small wins, creating an endless volume of ideas, however, won't dictate success. It's a start. Building momentum requires structure to keep creating product success. Again, the sports analogy is great for highlighting how to build a strong product team. Lebron James, the world's number one basketball player, started this past season with a losing team that eventually made it to the NBA finals. He described winning as a process:
We have to understand what it takes to win. It's going to be a long process, man. There's been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years. So a lot of guys that are going to help us win ultimately haven't played a lot of meaningful basketball games in our league. When we get to that point when every possession matters , no possessions off -- we got to share the ball, we got to move the ball, we got to be a team and be unselfish -- we'll be a better team.
Teams must learn to create small wins through consistent collaboration and practice- it's a process. Creating great ideas through design collaboration isn't just about brainstorming. Nor is momentum created by designers just sitting around coming up with ideas (this is a fallacy based on the lone genius myth). It's structured debate with a team. And as Lebron points out, every possession matters.
Structured debate helps teams move a creative process forward and creative debates can happen in lots of different ways. Pixar uses the idea of Plusing where ideas are considered gifts, not something to close down. Feedback sessions are an opportunity to make your partner and team look good. Randy Nelson suggests that we shouldn't judge ideas- it's an opportunity for the creator to say, "here's where I am starting, " and the critiquer to add, "yes, and." What's important here is consistency and a culture that supports the approach.
Charlan Nemeth's research, on the other hand, suggests that the rule "not to criticize" another's ideas is distracting and actually has the unintended consequence of thwarting creative ideas. But rather than randomly critiquing a sketch or shooting down an idea, the general rule is that you may only criticize an idea if you also add a constructive suggestion. Daniel Gogek further expands on this approach:
Science backs up the idea that structured debate is far superior to simply brainstorming. A study led by UC Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth found that when a team used structured debate, it significantly outperformed a team instructed to merely 'brainstorm.' Nemeth concluded that "debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them." What might be even more significant is that after the teams disbanded, the team that used structured debate continued to generate further ideas. It seems that the experience of a constructive debate lingers, and people continue to come up with new ideas.
In Progressive Design, we've come up with a system that produces amazing results. We've synthesized the best practices through 1000's of design projects into The Design Feedback Loop which facilitates a simple and repeatable design process. Momentum requires a consistent feeding of ideas and feedback. Without learning, we get stuck in one place. By using the The Design Feedback Loop through the entire design process, teams can gain understanding of the problem through consistent practice to uncover better ideas. This iteration reveals opportunities and problems using both convergent and divergent thinking.
Failing fast helps us move forward
In theory, working through a repeatable process should consistently produce better results through practice. And indeed, it does. But creating great products also requires constantly dealing with changing circumstances- markets are dynamic, which means teams must continually challenge their assumptions. Challenging these assumptions feels risky and can reveal that teams might not have all the answers. But when we are willing to overcome these potential failures, growth and momentum happen.
Fail fast, one of our values at ZURB, provides everyone an opportunity to learn through failure. It also allows us the opportunity to keep moving forward when we perceive something to be a failure. Are we really trying to fail? No. We're making it acceptable to fail- it's a mental technique to help us push forward. John Maeda captured this recently in a tweet, "Fail fast" and "embrace failure" miss the fact that failing isn't the goal. "Recover fast" and "learn from failure" matter way more.
In design, failure itself isn't really the problem, it's getting over the mental impact. Richard Branson equates overcoming failure with addressing fear, "I've always found that the first step in overcoming fear is figuring out exactly what you're afraid of. In your case, I wonder: Is your anxiety a reflection of doubts about your business plan? Or is it rooted in your experience with your previous venture?" It's not as easy as just moving forward from failure, we need to recognize the wounds failure inflicts. Failure makes our goals seem tougher, our abilities seem weaker, damages our motivation, makes us risk averse, limits our creativity and eventually just makes us feel helpless. It's no wonder momentum is so hard to achieve.
But let's take this concept further- it's not just overcoming failure, it's embracing failure. "Achieving resilience in the face of failure, perseverance in the face of adversity is a central part of any ultimate success, and part of our own evolution, " says Agustin Fuentes Ph.D. Design teams must embrace the uncertainty of failure to truly create great products. They must push their companies to embrace Antifragility. Nassim Taleb states in his book Antifragile, "Firms become very weak during long periods of steady prosperity devoid of setbacks, and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate silently under the surface, so delaying crises is not a very good idea." Further, we must seek out failure, "When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free'by a mechanism called stochastic resonance, adding random noise to the background makes you hear the sounds (say music) with more accuracy."
What coping mechanisms do we have to help design teams embrace failure? Perhaps it's focusing less on the actual failure, and helping teams work more like entrepreneurs. In my experiences at ZURB, many employees believe my decision making is sometimes delusional- but I don't stress because many of these feelings are based on embracing failure as a way to fuel us forward. As it turns out, it's a thing. Saras Sarasvathy points out that we can only expect to move forward through small risk taking, something she defines as "affordable losses." She discovered seasoned entrepreneurs will tend to determine in advance what they are willing to lose, rather than calculating expected gains. Her paper explains how effectual reasoning emphasizes affordable loss.
Deliver better results by timeboxing
If embracing failure helps us drive a design process forward, timeboxing helps us keep our bets small so that our failures don't overwhelm us. Decisions are made faster by reviewing design work, even if the work is not polished. At ZURB, timeboxing helps us deliver better results by constraining our time and focusing on a goal in each phase of The Design Feedback Loop. This happens in small intervals over a few days. Timing depends on the scope of the design task.
Each small, defined design task provides an opportunity to build momentum by helping the team react to the lessons learned. Small iteration cycles give teams an opportunity to work through small failures and wins. Timeboxing helps us create focus and keeps the team constantly aware of the next deadline so each decision pushes us towards a goal.
Peter Sims determined it's better to make a bunch of small bets through his research of some of the most successful companies. Companies have figured out different ways to apply this concept to their design teams. Google uses a technique of design sprints to arrive at solutions in a fixed week. By making the expansion and closure of ideas happen together, Apple is able to create a type of timebox through a process of paired design meetings.
A design process in motion stays in motion
Getting a design effort started requires doing! And in large volume. We must not worry early on about getting to single, great answer. Instead, teams must optimize for small wins to help catapult themselves forward in the design process. Through a structured process of giving and receiving feedback, we can find the wins necessary to fuel our momentum and keep our design teams on the right pathway.
The Design Feedback Loop in Progressive Design helps us structure the creative debate. A solid design process can help us build momentum, but we also shouldn't overthink the process- instead focus on keeping momentum by overcoming obstacles and failure that stop iteration from happening. When we accept failure as a part of the design process, we truly put our team in a place to learn. Iteration is an endless endeavor in a design organization, but as part of a design process, we must learn to timebox to complete our work.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
It's always thrilling to find others who share our passion for design and aren't afraid to take risks. We've worked relentlessly since 1998 to establish ourselves as leaders in the industry and are constantly looking for new ways to improve and take design further. Our Foundation family of open source frameworks has helped push the web forward, University has trained thousands of designers around the globe, 300 of the most innovative companies in the world have partnered with us to build better websites, products and services through our Studios business, and our design platform Notable has helped our team and others create better products. In order to maintain this level of quality and innovation, we're always on the lookout for new inspiration which is why we were so eager to dive into The Next Web's bold new redesign.
Through several conversations and a Notable annotated set of screens, we asked Co-Founder and CEO Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Lead Designer Alexander Griffioen some tough questions about why they made specific decisions, what kind of data was influencing their design and how the new design was helping them achieve their goals.
Bringing the Homepage Back from the Dead
Ironically, the thing that makes sites like The Next Web so much fun to read, constantly fresh content, is also one of their biggest problems. With new content coming in on a regular basis, sometimes by the hour, great articles were getting pushed off the front page and away from the eyes of readers.
We wanted to show more posts on the front page and have the option to move things around a bit and keep posts promoted for hours or even days. - Boris
For many publishers, the homepage is dead as most traffic goes directly to articles from social sharing and other sources. The team at TNW viewed this problem as an opportunity, the perfect place to try some new ideas and address some longstanding issues.
We feel having a single news stream with all content pouring in chronologically no longer makes sense. Tech has become too ubiquitous for a single stream to be relevant to everyone, so we split our front page news stream up into categories. - Alex
One of the first parts of the redesign that Boris and Alex started sketching out was the cover, an area that is so dynamic in traditional print but ironically stagnant on the web.
We found it striking that somehow newspaper publishers can completely overhaul their front pages every single day, yet us tech-savvy new media guys seem to be stuck with a single template. When Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $ 19 billion, didn't that merit a full-page announcement for at least a couple of hours? We wanted that freedom. - Alex
Boris, an ideas man, dreamed out loud of 'a Minority Report-esque interface that the editor-in-chief would resize and rearrange stories as they develop.' This novel idea inspired Alex and an elegant and versatile solution was born, the cover editor. Consisting of 6 pre-designed layouts, the cover editor gives editors the freedom to pick a layout that works best for the current news offering and fill the slots by dropping posts from the editor right into the cover.
The cover/hero section doesn't necessarily display our latest content. It could be stuff that we feel deserves more 'frontpage time' than it would otherwise get. - Alex
The New Navigation Situation
The Next Web is more than just a tech blog, they've got a wide range of other offerings that need to be easily accessible yet clearly differentiated to the user. The solution? A well labeled dropdown under the TNW logo.
In addition to that main navigation component, all of The Next Web's articles are now divided into 9 categories, the naming of which are guided by two simple criteria:
- The name has to be short, yet leave no doubt as to what type of content to expect there.
- Each section should have no or minimal overlap with the other sections
Nav is always a contentious subject, and this was no different for the The Next Web team.
This selection was actually months in the making and is probably the most updated Google Spreadsheet in the project. - Alex
Content is King
Ditching the content stream synonymous with the blog format, The Next Web divides their articles by subject and places them in neat rows they call 'shelves.'
Boris came up with the bookshelf metaphor; a horizontal list of latest stories. The irregular heights of the cards, akin to actual books on bookshelf, make for a 'pleasantly messy' UI. - Alex
Changes have also been made to the content in posts themselves. Instead of purely longform articles with the conventional title, image and body of text, posts can now consist of videos, galleries, columns, deals, quotes, etc., all represented with a distinct design that helps identify their nature.
Other design changes include a slick new sharing feature that automatically reduces the URL length and improved related article suggestions, but Alex is especially proud of of the updates in typography.
A typeface, to me, is like a voice narrating your content. The typeface determines whether the same words sound deep and masculine like George Clooney, or witty and quirky like Michael Cera. - Alex
Alex looked high and low for the perfect typeface, but the inspiration came from the strangest place. While riding past a Dutch employment agency, Alex spotted this window and fell in love. He snapped this pic and sent it to Boris immediately.
Serendipitously, the typeface is ARS Maquette by ARS Type, a one-man foundry situated a few streets away from TNW HQ.
I'm pleased to say our content now sounds like Bill Murray; witty, charming, and not without a sense of humor. - Alex
This passion for typography is shared among the team. Boris told us this hilarious story about a disagreement he had with the team about font size.
I remember I pushed hard for bigger font size on one part of the site, and after much heated debate I decided a certain font size really had to be 18pt and not 16pt. Alex hated it so much he talked to Laura and they made the changes as I wanted them but then every day from that moment on decreased that font size with 0.1pt. It was so subtle I didn't notice, but after 20 days it was at 16pt and we ended up launching the new site with that. They only recently told me about that and I thought it was hilarious and also very cool they really fought for what they thought was the better solution. - Boris
Ads That Can Be Confused With Art
A major challenge for any site collecting ad revenue are the size, location and behavior of ads. It's no secret that click through rates are dropping as people develop 'ad blindness' and use of adblockers rises every year. But more prominent or flashy ads take away from the user experience and can irritate users. There needed to be a way to increase the effectiveness of ads without being obnoxious. Boris was determined to figure out a solution that benefited everyone.
I challenged the team to think about an ad solution that was so cool that some readers would forget about the article they wanted to read because they were distracted by the beauty and interaction with the ad. If they would go so far as to even tweet about the ad we would've reached that goal. - Boris
With that challenge issued and the goals coming clearly into focus, Alex and his team jumped into action. The solution is one of the coolest parts of the the redesign, a bold concept they call 'Canvas Ads.' These gorgeous images typically incorporate bold photography and occupy the whole background of the article. Many slide the article to the right to give the ad full attention. Each canvas ad has 4 triggers that bring back the content for users, giving it an interactive feel. An interesting detail are the social sharing buttons directly on the ad itself. We know what you're probably thinking, 'Share buttons on an ad!?!' But according to Boris and Alex, it's working. The trick is the ingenious way the ads are selected. The ads don't always display commercial ads; about half contain art and portfolios from artists The Next Web team chooses. There are a few reasons behind this:
This has three advantages: the first advantage is for those artists we promote. They see their traffic grow and suddenly reach millions of readers around the world. The second advantage is for our readers. They see beautiful art works instead of ads. The third advantage is that it encourages our advertisers to produce really good looking ads. They compete with artwork so their ads better be works of art as well. - Boris
So the ads look nice and all, but are they performing? We pressed Alex for some numbers.
The results of the first series of canvas ads are well beyond everyone's expectations. Whereas the industry average CTR for display ads (i.e. rectangles, leaderboards) is around 0.2%, our canvas ads are doing between 4% and 8%. Our best performing ad so far had a 15% CTR. - Alex
Shaping the Future
All said and done, the redesign took about 8 months. No change was made lightly, as the team debated over even the smallest details like the number of milliseconds for the transition of canvas ads. The redesign is bold and in many ways bucks conventions, forging a new path for online media. This thinking, to leave no stone unturned and not be limited by status quo was intentional.
Once you decide you are free to do what you want you can challenge everything and things like 'but that's just how it's done' provoke only laughter. We constantly challenge ourselves and our industry to forget the old rules and really think about the best solution for everyone. It can be daunting and scary to not being able to rely on the past, but it also means you get to shape the future. - Boris
A bold design backed by solid data, The Next Web redesign does a great job of balancing business needs with a solid user experience and puts content front and center. We want to thank Boris and Alex for taking the time to chat with us about their redesign and all of the insights they provided.
Design is hot. Companies have realized that good design is good for business, that technology alone isn't enough to get customers excited, and that today's consumers have come to expect a smart and delightful experience in every product they touch. Designers are a hot commodity these days. Companies are going all-in, scooping up talent so their competitors won't. The stakes have never been higher.
However, it's clear that not many companies seem to know how to play their hand and they just haven't figured out what do with their design teams. Product managers are still at the helm, doing most of the decision-making, and passing their credo down to the design team to execute on. Too often, designers get put in a waterfall production line, stuck working on a sliver of the customer experience they so want to impact.
The Dull Reality
Many of us who pursued the career of design did so looking for an outlet for our creative ambitions. It's extremely exciting to design products, and we want a piece of the action (and glory for the product's success). The bigger the piece the better.
One might argue that when the pieces do get put together, the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts. The production line is very efficient, no doubt. Everyone is focused on their part — just UX, just visuals, just marketing, just mobile. Except as work gets passed from one designer or team to another, decisions get lost in translation. UXers can't quite vouch for the strategy, visual designers can't quite articulate the workflows.
It's a game of design telephone. A designer who's invested in a single part of the process can't possibly have full context for the solution they're designing. Every team layers in their own interpretation, and designers get stuck working on artifacts instead of having an opportunity to influence the relationship between the business and its customer.
Something Has to Change
To design cohesive customer experiences, designers must touch every part of the design process. Simple as that. But that's just not always possible, you might say. Many businesses are just not set up for that. At certain size, they have to rely on an org chart to keep accountability in check, and changing organizations is hard. We face this often in our Studios business, when a team is trying to move products and meet roadblocks the large org bought into their vision. So where to start?
You can start with transparency — the smallest step toward awareness. When full-on collaboration isn't possible, teams just have to share what they're working on. Say, when there's a place to see what everyone is doing (shameless Notable plug) — from strategists to marketers to designers — the onus is then on the team to be aware of where the product's been and where it's going.
Transparency opens the door to communication. For example, the marketing team shares their strategy, the onboarding team runs with the marketing concept, the product team incorporates the messaging from both in the app. Yes, it's still technically a waterfall. But it's a waterfall that talks to each other. Hopefully a lot! Which in turn creates trust and opens the opportunity for honest feedback. So teams can stop working on isolated features and together design a complex, cohesive, emotive experiences.
Change Is a Choice
It's easy to sit back and complain about lack of design leadership. It's not so easy to do something about it. Every member of the team is on the hook for having the guts to change the company culture. Driven people don't just sit around and wait for someone to rescue them. They fight or flee.
Change from the top can be met with resistance and resentment, unless operation pieces are in place to support this change, i.e. a process for holding the middle management layer accountable for follow-through. Small shifts at the team level can prove more sticky with less effort — that's how Slack got into big orgs, actually — when teams start being proactive and taking charge. Hiding behind the retina display isn't going to create the influence designers desire.
(Side anecdote: In advertising, why more copywriters become creative directors? Because when it comes to putting final touches on the presentation, the art director is pushing pixels while the copywriter talks up the ECD.)
Designers need to keep fighting for their seat at the table. Ask more questions. Learn the product marketing strategy. Talk to people on other teams, grab coffee with leads. Pick up the phone and talk to a group of customers, collect feedback and have a candid conversation with decision-makers.
And in reality, it won't always work. So what then? Ambitious designers will move on and find a place that will let them create impact. Maybe if more designers stopped putting up with being parked in front of their monitors and upped the ante, more companies would start paying attention to what design can offer to their business.
The Shift Will Happen
We've watched the appreciation for design grow over the last decade, and it's only the beginning. Businesses know they need good design to compete for customer dollars. And they're willing for fork up a lot of cash to bring great talent to their team. They just haven't quite figured out how to use it. Yet.
It will happen. It must. Because there's no amount of culture or resume clout that can tie down a passionate designer in a place where they can't practice and expand their skill. Instead of just accepting what they've been dealt, they'll find ways to create impact and hit it big or go looking for a place where they can. You can bet on it.
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