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You're Thinking Too Big: Create Impact with Microinteractions

Jennifer wrote this on November 10, 2016 in . Share this Post

Two products hit the market. Feature wise, they're nearly identical and they are competing pretty closely on price as well. The difference, though, is that people love using one of them and want to pull their hair out every time they use the other. Why is the experience of using one so great and the other so awful? More often than not, it boils down to microinteractions.

Microinteractions are the magic little things that keep us coming back to the products we love. They're the satisfying little details that happen when we perform a single task. They humanize products and make them more enjoyable to use. How so? Well Nick Babich was able to sum it up in one word, acknowledgement. Humans have a very real need to feel acknowledged. We want our actions to be accepted and validated and need that reassurance. Other humans react to everything we do, so it feels more human when the things we interact with do it too. Just think about it, in a world without them we would be constantly frustrated and second guessing if our actions caused anything to happen.

As designers, microinteractions challenge us to think small. They force us to focus on the tiny moments that people engage with a digital or physical object, the moments in which people are provided with assurance and ease. But because they are so small, they are extremely easy to forget about, which would be a huge mistake.

Take your car key fob for example. Its function is to lock and unlock your car doors. Simple enough. But how do you really know that the doors lock when you push the button? Your car assures you that it understood your action and performed the task by beeping and flashing lights. If you're looking the other direction the honk can reassure you. If you're too far to hear it, the light assures you that your car is safely locked. Satisfying right?

Now imagine if you clicked the lock button and you did not hear a sound or see lights flash, would you trust that the doors locked? How would you know? Would you feel satisfied? Probably not. More than likely, you'd feel enough anxiety to walk back to the car and pull on the handle.

It's the same for your digital products, when people click something, type something, or interact with your product in any way, they need feedback from this microinteraction to assure them their work is saved, their image is uploading, or that the action they've took has been acknowledged. When the system registered what they intended and makes that known, it prevents anxiety. In other words, your product needs to learn ways to be a good listener.

The 4 Components of a Microinteraction

In his brilliant book, 'Microinteractions: Designing with Details,' Dan Saffer breaks down microinteractions into four components: The trigger, the rules, feedback, and loops/modes. Each of these components are critical to building a successful microinteraction.

The Trigger: This is the event that starts the microinteraction. Triggers can be broken up into two groups. Manual triggers happen when someone interacts with the product intentionally. These are things like the flip of a switch or push of a button. In many modern devices, it could even a clap or a wave of the hand. System triggers are automatic and occur when certain conditions are met. Your toaster beeping when your toast is done or the chime you hear when you receive a text message are system triggers.

The Rules: These are the parameters the microinteraction follows. What happens when you push the button? What can or cannot be done? The rules define exactly what happens after a trigger is performed. For example, with your car key fob, when you push the lock button, your car door locks.

Feedback: This is the verification of the microinteraction, the signal to the user that their action has been acknowledged. It can be a sound, a visual cue, vibration, movement or something else. For example, an iPhone vibrates when it is switched to silent mode.

Loops and Modes: A loop determines the length of the microinteraction. It determines whether the interaction repeats or if it changes over time. When you finish a load of laundry, your washing machine will play a sound and if you don't open the washer door, it will repeat to remind you. You want to be reminded that your wet clothes are finished so they don't sit there and get moldy. In this case it's important, but not every microinteraction needs to be repeated. Modes change the typical way things function and operate. Examples of this are changing a location in a weather app or setting a 'Do not disturb' mode on your phone.

To sum it up: The trigger initiates the feedback, the rules define what type of feedback occurs, and the loops and modes help define special cases where that feedback occurs or not.

Give me a sign!

Of all of these 4 components, by far, the most important one is feedback. But why?

It assures users that something is happening. The animation of swiping to delete an email is very useful. When you swipe, the email moves in the direction of your gesture. We've encountered examples without that animation and instead there is a popup window asking to confirm the deletion. The animation is much more related and contextual to your motion, where the popup doesn't give you continual feedback as you're interacting with the email and it feels very disconnected. Apple's Mail app does a great job of this:

Animation of Apple Mail iOS

It educates users on what's happening. When you're waiting for an image to upload, the loading indicator assures you that the system accepted your image and is processing it. Without that loading indicator, you're left to wonder if anything is happening and might try to keep clicking the upload button. Or if there is an error, feedback will help guide them to know something is actually wrong and help them figure out how to fix it.

Animation of Shazaam animation

It can delight users with something unexpected. A surprising detail doesn't always have to serve a purpose other than to entertain and delight. These details make using your product fun and exciting. It's always fun trying to find Yelp's hamster:

Yelp hamster

It can create memorable instances for your brand. Some microinteractions are so unique and memorable that they become synonymous with brands and even go on to influence how other products are builts. 'Pull to refresh' was an interaction invented by Loren Brichter for the Tweetie app which Twitter later acquired. The action is now forever linked to Twitter and can be seen in many other apps. Another example is Facebook's 'Like' interaction:

Animation of Facebook Like Button

How can we take those opportunities for feedback to assure users, educate them, delight them, and create a memorable product brand?

Share Me Details

To successfully work microinteractions into your product, they can't be an afterthought. They aren't window dressing you include after you've built your product, they're critical components to layer in throughout the process. Think of microinteractions and the acknowledgement they provide as a sort of guiding principle throughout your design and development process. By actively looking for ways microinteractions can enhance your product early, you can shape your product around delivering an amazing experience for the user.

That being said, mockups and prototypes can never fully replicate what it's really like to use your product. It's extremely difficult to think of meaningful microinteractions when our product only exists on paper or in a wireframe. Use your live product, iterate on it, and be brutal and critical with how the experience feels. By using your actual product in real usecases, you'll uncover opportunities to enhance it with microinteractions you may have missed in prototype form.

Ultimately, remember that we're designing for people, and people want (and need) to feel acknowledged. Products that are full of well thought out, meaningful microinteractions are products people love to use. All of us crave that confirmation that what we're doing has been accepted, is valid, and is generating a result. In these small ways, you can help satisfy that very human need in your user.

Tribute.js: A New, Lightweight, and Easy to Use Javascript @Mention Plugin

Jordan wrote this on May 03, 2016 in . 20 reactions

The problems we've run into designing amazing products have inspired us to build powerful tools, frameworks and resources that have helped us design better and faster. We've made many of these resources freely accessible to the open source community, and it's been nothing short of awe inspiring to see how millions of designers and developers use them to create amazing sites, apps and emails.

Today, we're thrilled to announce our new, open-source, native, lightweight ES6 Javascript @mention engine, Tribute!

From Frustration to Inspiration

About a year and a half ago we began combining several of our design apps into the ultimate tool for product designers, a platform called Notable.

The Code module of Notable introduced some interesting complexities because we wrap our interface around your content in an iframe. We then inject JavaScript into the page to enable interaction with our Angular application in the parent window. This allows for some very interesting ways to present feedback around a live web page, but it also creates a potential for conflict between the pages JavaScript and our own. To solve this, we needed to go native.

All of our logic inside the iframe is written in native JavaScript. In the latest Notable update, we added @mentioning support. @mentions build on one of Notable's greatest strengths, improving communication between teams, stakeholders and clients. There is no better way to pull people into conversations and keep the dialogue moving forward.

We didn't want to use standard frameworks or libraries like jQuery, Angular, Backbone, etc because we knew that our customers would be using them too. A native solution would greatly decrease the chance of conflict or breaking their pages logic.

We scoured the net for an open source, native, @mention library and came up with nothing. So we rolled up our sleeves, put our heads down, and got to work. The result of which is Tribute, and we're incredibly proud of what we've created.

Check out our Playground Page to see how it works and give it a try!

Check Out Tribute!

TestSubject: A New Tool for Composing Email Subject Lines That Increase Open Rates

Danny wrote this on March 01, 2016 in . 33 reactions

According to recent research, 33% of people open emails based on the subject line alone and 68% decide to open based on the 'From' name. Most people spend hours of their time crafting the perfect content for their emails, neglecting these two important factors that can prevent all of that hard work from ever being seen. The truth is that people decide in seconds whether or not they will open that email you spent days working on. Subject lines, sender names and even preheader text (the preview of our email that gets displayed in our email client) all matter significantly. In general, short, clear and direct subject lines perform best for most industries. Vague, overly long, or boring subject lines kill open rates.

In some cases, a poorly chosen subject line or sender name can go beyond merely just being dull or ineffective and actually end up being rude, shocking or offensive. How so? Well, on mobile devices, subject lines and sender names are truncated. This can occasionally lead to some truly disastrous results. And mobile matters, a lot. More than half of emails are first opened on a mobile device. TL/DR: It is absolutely critical that your subject line reads well on all devices.

We're no stranger to emails here at ZURB. We've been spending a lot of time studying every facet of email and email delivery as we put the finishing touches on Foundation for Emails 2, a responsive framework for crafting HTML emails. This very framework was born out of our own needs ' we send thousands of emails every day. Foundation for Emails helps us speed up our process by drastically cutting down on development time and ensuring that our emails are fully responsive so they look great on any device.

But while we have a groundbreaking tool for developing amazing and beautiful emails, all of that hard work could be foiled by a subject line blunder. That got us thinking ... there had to be a way to quickly test out what our subject lines, sender names and preheader text looked like on the most popular mobile devices.

Sure, there are top notch paid services for testing and previewing emails on different devices, email clients and operating systems, and we are huge fans of them. But sometimes you need something quick and easy that you can test on while you're still crafting the content, without the need to go through the whole process of coding up the email.

Meet TestSubject, our latest Playground resource. TestSubject is a simple, free and easy to use tool to get a quick snapshot of what your email subject line, sender name and preheader text will look like on the most popular mobile devices. Simply copy and paste your content in and you'll get an instant preview. Avoid embarrassing gaffes and blunders, and make sure you've got a compelling message that gets people opening your message and reading your content. Using this tool will help you visualize how your subject line, sender name, and preheader text can better work together to get your email opened.

Visit the ZURB Playground and give a try!

Try TestSubject!

New ZURB Master Class: Responsive Email

We've compiled all of our knowledge and insights on responsive HTML emails in a new online video course! Master responsive email by learning how to rapidly design and develop responsive emails that are on-message and display well on just about every screen, browser, and email client out there ' even Outlook.

Learn More

Introducing the New Motion UI

Geoff wrote this on October 08, 2015 in . 754 reactions

In preparation for the upcoming release of Foundation for Sites 6, today we're open-sourcing Motion UI, a Sass library for creating custom CSS transitions and animations. Originally bundled with Foundation for Apps, this updated version includes more robust transition options, an animation queueing system, and flexible CSS patterns that can work with any JavaScript animation library.

Prototype to Production

Motion UI includes more than two dozen built-in transition and animation classes that make prototyping easy. When you move to a production environment, the library gives you total control over how your effects work.

The core of the library is a set of powerful transition and animation Sass mixins, which give you complete control over the details of an effect, from what direction an element slides, to how far it spins, to how intensely it shakes. Motion UI also includes a large number of pre-made CSS classes to help you get going quickly.

<div id="panel" data-animate="slideInRight" class="slow bounceIn"></div>

The library was designed for use with the Foundation frameworks, but can be adapted to work with any framework's animation library, such as Angular or React.

Motion is the New Flat

While previewing Foundation for Apps last year, we wrote about how 'motion is the new flat'. Animation allows us to design more expressive interfaces, by giving users queues around hierarchy, spatial orientation, and more. Foundation for Apps shipped with Motion UI, a Sass library that makes it easy to create CSS transitions and animations for your designs.

As we continue to develop the Foundation family, we're looking for ways to streamline the experience of using the three frameworks. This includes more consistent styling, naming, and architecture; revamping our CLI to build projects in any of the frameworks; and building standalone libraries that can be used by multiple frameworks.

You can use the new Motion UI in an existing Foundation for Sites 5 and Foundation for Apps project now. As for Foundation for Sites, version 6 it will include Motion UI and a JavaScript library that makes it easy to hook into, both with our built-in plugins like Reveal, and with your custom components.

Head on over to the ZURB Playground to see the library in action.

Play with Motion UI

Get inside info on the release of Foundation for Sites 6:

Make a Flipbook with Pure CSS

Danny wrote this on October 02, 2015 in . 492 reactions

Just admit it, we've all done it. As designers working on responsive websites, we all grab the edge of our browser window and shrink it down to see how designs change and collapse. We thought it would be cool to add a bit of whimsy to this common interaction, or at least a little surprise and delight. We call it the CSS Flipbook!

Using some Sass and a tiny bit of HTML we recreate the feel of a flipbook. Grab the edge of your browser window and pull it back and forth for a nifty little animation, no JS necessary!

Check out the example in the Playground, download the code and start having some fun. There's all kinds of fun uses for this snippet and we'd love to see how creative you can get, so feel free to share yours with us in the comments! Who knows, we just might send you a special gift from the team!

Make a Flipbook

How The Next Web Redesign Puts Content First

Danny wrote this on July 30, 2015 in . 448 reactions

Boris and Alex of The Next Web

(From left to right: CEO and Co-founder Boris Veldhuijzen and Lead Designer Alexander Griffioen)

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
Notable Annotations Set of The Next Web Redesign

(Click on the image above to view the Notable Annotation set and see the conversation between our Design Principal Alina Senderzon and The Next Web Design Lead Alex Griffioen)

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.

Illustration of all of the different cover image styles

(The six predesigned layouts in the cover editor)

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

Notable Annotations Set of The Next Web Redesign

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.

The Next Web Navigation

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:

  1. The name has to be short, yet leave no doubt as to what type of content to expect there.
  2. 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

Notable Annotations Set of The Next Web Redesign

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.

Window that inspired The Next Web's font choice

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

Notable Annotations Set of The Next Web Redesign

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.

Holy Changes, Batman! Surviving Negative Feedback

Danny wrote this on April 22, 2015 in . 205 reactions

zurb signal

The Batman comic series has one of the most passionate fandoms in history, and never was this more apparent than in the summer of 2006 when it was officially announced that Heath Ledger had been cast as the film's iconic villain, the Joker.

The internet exploded as fanboys and fangirls largely panned the decision. Vitriol spewed from forums all over the web.

This guy couldn't act his way out of a paper bag.
I am NOT seeing this movie if he's in it.
Probably the worst casting of all time.

Believe it or not, there are a few lessons designers can learn from this story that can help us stay on track and focused as we develop new products.

Big Changes Can Spark Big Reactions


Director Christopher Nolan was tasked with completely revitalizing a damaged brand, and almost every part had to be refreshed to bring it back on track. As designers we are sometimes asked to completely refresh a product, fix a broken interface or improve an interaction. Our changes may be exceptional and undeniably better solutions than what existed previously, but we have something working against us. Science has proven that people don't like change. Whether we're aware of it or not, we all have a bias for the familiar. When we see something really different or unexpected like, say, the star of "10 Things I Hate About You" being cast as one of the greatest villains of all time, we tend to be negative.

Recently we had two members of the Rdio design team, Geoff Koops and Mike Towber, over for one of our Soapbox events. In the Fall of last year, Rdio underwent a drastic redesign that included bold use of album art, typography and image blur. It caught many people by surprise. Some users expressed frustration over some of the interface changes and were quick to voice their criticism on social networks.

Strong Opinions = Users Who Care

Nolan's unexpected casting decision prompted such a strong reaction because fans have an incredibly personal connection to the Batman mythos. In the same vein, Rdio's passionate users have a deep connection with music and the way they consume it.

"We are blessed with passionate users," Geoff said half-jokingly. While we all chuckled a bit, Mike was quick to expand on Geoff's thought, "It always feels great to have people care enough to say something." They touched on something that everyone who has created anything should understand: If people have strong opinions, even negative ones, it means they care. They care enough to voice their opinion. They're engaged with your product. These are the kind of users you want to have!

Keep Calm and Carry On

keep calm superhero

After launching our product or redesign, negative feedback can make us feel threatened, causing us to panic. There's a biological reason for this, our fight or flight response kicking in.

Recent neuroscience research has shown that our brains and bodies can respond to certain interpersonal situations the same way we react to literal threats to our physical safety.

Harvard Business Review

In the face of less-than-flattering feedback, our brains tell us we're in danger. We make hasty decisions as if our lives depend on it. These knee-jerk reactions can harm us in the long run. The solution? Stay calm and try to delay your response if possible.

Be Prepared to Fight for Your Ideas

At ZURB, we're not afraid to explore crazy or outlandish ideas. When we first dive into a project, we try to explore all kinds of things, because even bad ideas can lead to great ones. Riskier ideas require more support through the process, but that risk can often pay off in big ways.

Sometimes we need to step up to the plate and defend an idea to prevent others from trampling over it. Nolan's risky decision was based off of data he had gathered and long conversations with Heath about the direction he wanted to take the character and the story in general. He defended his choice to the media and had the data to back up his decision. The Rdio team did data gathering as well, through a custom tool built to test new ideas amongst different customer categories based on their behavior.

"It was ugly," joked Mike Towber, "but we tested tons of users. It helped us." The data this tool yielded influenced and validated their designs, making it possible for them to be confident in their choices.

In the End, Good Will Prevail

Good will prevail superhero

"The Dark Knight" was released in North America on July 18, 2008 to nearly unanimous acclaim. Nolan's epic crime drama captivated critics and audiences alike. Much of the buzz revolved around Heath's mesmerizing performance, which immediately spurred Oscar talk. Forums everywhere espoused Nolan's 'genius' casting choice, vindicating the director.

Rdio too, is enjoying an uptick in traffic due to their innovative redesign. Music is now exactly where it should be, front and center. Users are finding it easier than ever to discover and listen to music on their own terms, the main goal of the redesign.

There's much we can learn from both Christopher Nolan and the Rdio design team:

Stay calm: Don't take things personally. Passionate users are users who care. They're connected with our product on a deep level. Stay calm during that first wave of criticism and try not make any rash decisions. We should welcome feedback of all kinds and look for ways to improve, but hasty changes will hurt more than help us in the long run.

Make decisions with data: Nolan had several deep conversations and knew he had found someone with the talent and understanding to execute his vision. The Rdio team went to great lengths to understand their wide spectrum of users, analyzing listening styles and behaviors to find out what people value most.

Be prepared to defend your choices: If we've done our homework and feel strongly about our choices, be prepared to explain them to others. Truly great ideas need advocates, especially if they're a little crazy. Some of the biggest advancements in history came because people were willing to take risks, and design is no different.

We want to thank Geoff Koops and Mike Towber of Rdio for coming down and sharing their insights at our last Soapbox event. We're incredibly excited to sit down with our next guest, Tim Van Damme of Dropbox at noon PST April 24!

Don't Miss Out on Our Next Soapbox

Your Brand is Like a Television Show

Ryan wrote this on April 16, 2015 in . 145 reactions

"The ZURB sitcom," proclaimed our Chief Instigator about a year or so ago. A sitcom? What did he mean by that? At the time, we were considering how exactly we were communicating our story on the blog and our approach to content creation. But our Chief Instigator sparked an idea in us. There's a reason people love sitcoms ... well, television in general. There's something familiar in it, something that keeps the audience coming back again and again.

I Love Lucy TV

Now, he wasn't suggesting that we abandon design and start filming our own weekly show. But television is the perfect model for writing a brand story. A lot of television shows are brands in themselves. With that, we took a hard long look at what made certain shows successful — "Star Trek," "Friends," "I Love Lucy" and a few others.

Shows have an addictive quality to their premises, worlds and characters. These three crucial ingredients make up any episode in any show. Take your pick: "Star Trek" or "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad." And these elements are something that any brand or piece of content can ape. When talking about brand, most start with voice and tone. And for good reason, because what you stand for as a company is very important to creating that tone and voice. But to create that voice and to understand that tone, we can look to the magical ingredients television has to offer. Which is precisely what we did.

The World, the Situation and the Characters

Let's break it down a bit more. Any television show has these three elements:

  • There are characters who get into adventures and misadventures.
  • There's a world that they inhabit, where they interact and where those escapades take place.
  • There's a situation — a premise — in each episode.

And every show has a pitch line. For instance:

  • "I Love Lucy": Lucy Ricardo is a New York housewife who always tries to get one over on her husband, nightclub singer Ricky Ricardo.
  • "Friends": Six friends living in New York navigate the turbulent single scene.
  • "Star Trek": A group of intrepid explorers venture into the depths of space on a five-year mission to seek out new life and civilizations.

The pitch is very important when it comes to television. Survive the pitch and you get to make a pilot (think of it of a prototype of what the show will be). When it comes to brand, you'll want to survive at least past the pilot to become something that airs from week to week for a long run.

Brand as a Television Show Pitch

coke commercial on TV

A'right, time to put on those showrunner hats. We're going to show you how to walk into a pitch meeting and sell your "show" (read: product) so you can get the green light to make your pilot. First, let's take a look at a huge successful brand story — Coca-Cola. This is a brand that's got its story down. The story has evolved over the decades yet stayed so familiar. Coca-Cola is still about a shared experience.

If you were to pitch the show that is Coke to a room full of studio execs, you would say:

People around the world who share their time with each other over a Coke.

And that's the story they've worked hard to tell for more than 100 years. Coke is about sharing happiness with another person. As Bill Backer, creative director of the "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" ad, once said:

I began to see the familiar words, 'Let's have a Coke,' as a subtle way of saying, 'Let's keep each other company for a little while.

So let's go back a second to the world of Coke. It's the entire world, sure. But there's a mission in there as well: "sharing and togetherness." It informs their characters and the situation of their brand. And it gives them a unique voice that enables storytelling.

Through storytelling, Coke is able to create an emotional connection. They've evolved to be about happiness — but the mission remains the same, as do the characters and the situation. And with that, Coke has created a unique voice and brand that resonates.

Crafting a Better Brand Pitch

Star Trek on TV

OK, Coke was easy. What about something with more opportunity craft a better story ' the Internal Revenue Service, or the good ol' IRS. Yes, folks, it's tax season for those of us in the States. And if there's a bigger brand than Coke, it has to be the IRS because only two things are certain in life: death and taxes. The IRS actually predates Coke by a mere 24 years, but the IRS has a bad rep, one that it's been unable to shake. The IRS has a reputation of poor customer service, where folks wait hours on end in lines or get the so-called courtesy disconnect (read: they hang up on you on purpose). And that's sent taxpayers on a flame war against the governmental agency.

But as John Oliver points out on his Late Night show, is it really their fault? After all, the IRS budget and workforce has been slashed amid scandals of overspending and wasted efforts, like a "Star Trek" parody that boldly went nowhere. But the most cardinal sin of all is that the IRS just comes across as plain boring, which John Oliver is also quick to point out. As a governmental body, they're all facts and no personality. Just check out this tweet:

Money and parting with it can spur strong emotions. But there's no emotional connection from the IRS. Where's the soul? There doesn't seem to be an understanding of the world they live in, or who their characters are in their story. They don't seem to be aware of the emotions that money can stir. What they need is a better brand pitch.

How would you pitch the IRS? First, lets define the world. It's certainly not the cold government buildings the IRS occupies. It's a bit broader than that. It's all 50 states, from sea to shining sea. The characters are the taxpayers, of course. Now the situation. Well, that's tricky because we've vilified the agency with a nefarious purpose. But our taxes pay for things that keep the country ticking. Yet is that a situation that speaks to people? Not really. A situation that relates more to their investment. You've got to speak more on a dollar to dollar basis, like:

Say what? $1 of tax enforcement yields $6! Now that's a pitch. You mean to say that the money that goes into the system has a return? Now let's pitch the heck out of this to our Studio execs. Here we go:

The safest investment for your money that yields $6 for every dollar spent on tax enforcement.

Get to Make Your Pilot

Friends on TV

A pitch can help your brand create a stronger story that is consistent, and tells a compelling yarn that customers will want to be part of. And by figuring out what your world is, what is the situation in that world, and who your characters are, you can create your unique voice. And tell your story. More importantly, you'll survive the pilot season and get to make your show ... um, product.

Don't Hoard Those Boxes of Old, Rusty Skills

Shawna wrote this on April 13, 2015 in . 88 reactions

welcome to the new job

Congratulations, you've arrived. Maybe you're a clean slate, tabula rasa, and this is your first job. Or not. After all, the dynamic is changing among the new generation of workers, where it's more common to leave one job for another. Whichever it is, you've done the work to get your new job. You've impressed people. You've hobnobbed with the hiring folks, the company's leadership and its team. Let's face it, you basically assembled the shrine of the silver monkey and got that new job. But now what?

Because you'll come to see that the job is not exactly like your last gig. We've learned over the years at ZURB that a degree of unlearning has to happen. Why? Because the educational system shoves us through memory and rote learning, thereby possibility killing our ability to be creative. And that's something we carry into the workforce where we strive for the "A," wanting everything laid out in front of us so we can pass. But in design and knowledge work, that's rarely the case. There is no clear point-by-point path or crib notes.

Unpacking Your Previous Knowledge

moving in

The "A" mentality of education can be detrimental to a learning organization, where answers aren't always apparent and can't be gleaned from a textbook. We've worked hard to create a learning environment that encourages not only learning new skills, but also encourages unlearning stagnant ways of doing things.

Why? Because what's needed these days isn't someone who's skilled in just one thing, but someone that has a deep knowledge and is able to work across many disciplines. Google calls this polymath a full-stack employee. We call it T-shaped. Regardless of what it's called, he or she is simply a person who's willing to unlearn one way of doing things and not be confined solely by past experiences.

It's important to be open to letting go of the previous way you've done things. Think of it as moving into a new, tiny apartment — an empty studio at first, and it's up to you to transform it into a swank place to live. You'll have to unpack what you need and box the rest.

Storing Your Past Experience … Until You Need It

messy horder

Now, we aren't saying your past experiences don't matter or that you should denounce what got you here. They are still important because they got you hired make you valuable to your new team and show the potential of what you can do next. It's just that your new team does things a little differently is all.

The value of your past comes from applying previous situations to new ones. For example, if you learned how to solve problems a particular way at your last company, and the solutions still work, then keep using them. But be prepared to learn other ways to solve the same problem that might be even better or help you out even more.

And this is where systems thinking comes into play, where you're thinking less about how solving problems affect you and more how they impact the whole of an organization. As Peter Senge, writer of "The Fifth Discipline" puts it:

We learn best from our experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.

At ZURB, we're a learning organization that helps foster learning. But learning for the sake of learning isn't enough. Personal mastery doesn't always equate to organizational learning. So while your experience is important, when you're part of a new organization you'll have to figure out how that fits into the larger whole.

Don't Sell Off Those Old Skills Just Yet

garage sale

Let's get one thing straight, however. We're not saying to garage sale your past experiences. You'll want to hold on to those experiences even if you're not practicing them now — you'll never know when the need will pop up. For example, I've had a total of five different roles through my career from face-to-face customer service to training to HR. I have all those skills, some I proudly display for all to see. Others I only bring out during special occasions like ZURBmas.

Inevitably, you will have ways of doing things that you'll have to put into a storage closet for later. Or you'll have to work a different way than you're used to. For some of our newer designers, it can be quite a shock at first doing visuals they way we do them at ZURB. We don't just make a solitary designer create visuals for a project. We have two other designers also come up with visuals. We're don't just pit designer against designer here. We're actually passing along knowledge. A designer who might not be as strong in visuals can learn from someone who is. Of course, the skills that the new designer has in visual design still comes into play, but now she or he can reframe how they actually work.

Don't worry too much if you can't figure out which past skills are relevant. It'll take a while to figure out how they apply to the new ones you'll gain. It'll take you some time to sort out what you'll keep and what you'll store in your brain attic. You won't have all the answers on your first day. There will be a moment when you might feel like you're trapped in limbo between old job and new job. Stop. Breathe. It'll pass.

putting it away

Learn All That is Learnable

Be a sponge in the first few weeks. That'll help you get over any apprehension. Learn all that is learnable at your new organization. And that takes a certain amount of unlearning, while you're adapting and moving away from the past toward tomorrow.

Wherever you go in life, you'll need to keep learning. Your job will change and your skills will need to evolve too. There is always more you can learn. After all, it's not like after 8th grade you say, "this is all the science I need," and stop learning new things about science. Even if a new skill is similar to something you've done already — learn what's different about it.

One thing that occasionally challenges our new designers is the art of writing an email that drives action. Here's where unlearning becomes crucial because we've all picked up nasty email habits over the years, where their emails have no clear objectives, tend to ramble and have no clear call to action. New designers have to purge themselves of those habits in order to write client and internal emails that are clear and directive. This is where they have to unlearn something in order to learn it anew.

You can't be opposed to acquiring new knowledge. It might take a lot of upfront effort on your part. It's hard to admit that you don't know something. But saying something as simple as "I don't know, but I'll find out" shows you're human and committed to finding the answer.

Learning is also symbiotic within an organization. There's institutional knowledge — like writing emails — that can be passed down or learned through osmosis. And there is an obligation to coach newbies in an organization. But there's also an obligation for someone to better themselves and pass some of those skills on to others.

In order to be really good at your job or what you're working on, you have to work on learning how. Think about your new, tiny studio apartment again. If you were told to decorate it, you could just tape up some posters of your favorite band. Or you could go the extra mile and learn how to create art of your own to put up. And the latter will certainly be more fulfilling than just sticking a few posters on the wall.

Stories Not Screens

Danny wrote this on March 26, 2015 in . 286 reactions

paper to pixel

It's no secret that web design has its roots in print. In the early days of the web, the influence of print on web design was pretty inescapable. Websites were essentially virtual brochures, static pages with little or no interactivity. Designers were still learning the potential of this new medium and the technology had to mature. Slowly but surely, the differences between print design and web design became evident. But many designers are still thinking of their designs in terms of screens and images.

At one of our recent Soapbox events, Braden Kowitz, Design Partner at Google Ventures summed it up perfectly:

When you look at how people use products, they don't look at the screen, they don't look at the feature. They take this pathway through all your screens and features' So what you really need to design is that experience and that story.

Thinking of themselves as storytellers might be a new concept for many designers, but it's a fitting analogy. Unlike print designs, which serve a singular purpose and are meant to be viewed, design work on the web is entirely interactive. Users take various pathways through websites and apps as they try to accomplish a variety of things. Designers gently guide their users around obstacles, shepherding them to desired outcomes.

Put Yourself in Your User's Shoes

In order to become a successful storyteller, designers need to develop empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, to put yourself in their shoes. Designers need to know their users. They need to understand exactly what the user is trying to accomplish and care about their experience through the entire process. Even with the best planning, there will always be problems you didn't think of, interactions you didn't anticipate or things you didn't take into consideration. The only way to discover these issues is by trying a design yourself.

Braden and his team do this through sketches, a process he calls "story-centered design." He describes these mockups and their purpose like this:

Designers present every sentence the customer reads, every action they take, and every screen that system generates in response. The designs follow a customer from an initial trigger all the way through completing a goal, and they show how the design supports every step in that flow.

Like any good author, designers need to know exactly how their stories end so they can guide their users most effectively, knowing exactly which routes are available and designing the most pleasant experience.

Storytelling is in Our Blood

At ZURB, we've always thought of product design as storytelling, and we've been using Progressive Design to sharpen our storytelling skills and create amazing experiences. Our process has many steps that ensure we keep the user in mind at all times, because we design for people.


As with most anything at ZURB, it all starts with sketching. Like Braden and his team, we sketch out each screen and map out every workflow. Even at this very lo-fi level, we begin to define the paths users will take to achieve their goals. The next step is scanning these sketch sheets into clickable prototypes using Solidify. This tool in the Notable Platform helps us to interact with our designs as close to how the end user will as possible, exposing anything we left out and helping us refine our work.

The Progressive Design process involves constant iteration and feedback. We share our work with the rest of the team, inviting them to respond with any questions or concerns. If we're working with a client for our Studios business, we walk them through each workflow, using user personas to explain how different customers will interact with the product or website. If anything isn't working along the way, we step back, ideate more solutions, and test again. At times we use surveys to gather information about how real people interact with our work. This data helps us improve our stories.

Only when the workflows and paths within our products are complete do we focus on on polishing our visuals and refining our interactions. This user-centered approach helps us to eliminate problems early, prioritize the workflows and help our users accomplish their goals.

A Shared Story

It was great to hear how Braden and his team agree that designers need to be storytellers, a sentiment that many of our Soapbox guests have touched on as well. We'd like to thank Braden for taking time out and sharing his insights with us and our audience.

We're looking forward to our next event with Geoff Koops and Mike Towber of Rdio, amazing designers who have been telling some engaging stories with their users. We hope you can join us at the next Soapbox!

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