One of the most difficult (and least talked about) facets of designing in any environment is presenting the work. As a designer, it’s been your job to determine how important content should get delivered to customers and prospects and readers, and the success of that presentation and interaction is directly tied to revenue and peoples’ jobs.

No pressure.

You were hired (in whatever capacity) because you’re the expert. You have training and experience and knowledge that others don’t, and you can leverage that to make the best choices possible. As such, you owe it to whoever hired you to insist on being the expert and to take full responsibility for the things you were tasked to do.

Yet, if you come into the meeting having busted down the door with a battering ram, immediately take a condescending tone, and talk about your design decisions like you just taught a master class a Harvard, you’re only going to isolate and demean the people crucial to the design’s success.

In my experience—and in others’, as I’ll show—there are some choices you can make to set the right environment for design presentation without having to take a negative or defensive tone. Here are three that I find highly important, and I’d encourage any designer (but especially greener ones) to give these some serious thought.

Giving Options

One of the more common problems which tends to create doubt and confusion is caused by the inexperienced and anxious executive who innocently expects, or even demands, to see not one but many solutions to a problem.

Paul Rand (not to be confused with Rand Paul, mind you) was one of the most influential designers of all time. In “The Politics of Design”, amongst several hangups that can occur in a corporate setting, he calls out the frequent request to see options. This is a bad practice that needs to be nipped in the bud—yet, just like spec work, you can’t wholly dismiss anything that looks like it on the surface.

It’s your job as the designer to explain why throwing several approaches out and merging together everyone’s favorite parts is the only approach that will definitely not result in the best work.

Theoretically, a great number of ideas assures a great number of choices, but such choices are essentially quantitative. This practice is as bewildering as it is wasteful. It discourages spontaneity, encourages indifference, and more often than not produces results which are neither distinguished, interesting, nor effective. In short, good ideas rarely come in bunches.

You must guide the process in which everyone does their part, but understands that it must be a singular effort. Multiple options simply gives room for personal preference to dictate direction, and that should have little-to-nothing to do with achieving business goals.

The designer who voluntarily presents his client with a batch of layouts does so not out prolificacy, but out of uncertainty or fear. He thus encourages the client to assume the role of referee. […] Bent on impressing the client with their ardor, they present a welter of layouts, many of which are superficial interpretations of potentially good ideas, or slick renderings of trite ones.

As Paul Rand points out, your uncertainty or fear can put clients/stakeholders in the exact wrong position. You’re essentially telling them you don’t know, but you had a few decent guesses. That’s an abdication of your responsibility. No designer knows the answer (because there usually isn’t one), but you shouldn’t pass that uncertainty on to others. It’s your job to bear and parse that uncertainty.

That said, options themselves aren’t the problem, and you shouldn’t dismiss it wholesale. For instance, I recently gave a client two choices during a branding project, but I didn’t start by saying, “Here are two things I thought of. Which do you like?” Instead, I clearly communicated that a branding process, especially for a new company, is often an exercise in unearthing existing concepts of identity. As such, I wanted to see which option seemed to align most with the client’s perception of the company. I presented an option that was playful and an option that was exceptionally refined, but made it clear that neither was to be considered a proposal for the brand. I asked for trust by going through the exercise.

It worked. Options aren’t wrong, but using them to pass along uncertainty is.

Asking About Personal Preference

I think it’s safe to say most designers understand that nothing should be build because Janine likes blue or Rahul likes the look of Amazon.com. We understand that personal preference is beside the point.

However, it gets tricky when the people who insist on advocating for their preference are the people who get to make the decisions. On one hand, you certainly want to please them enough to get a good design through. On the other, you know you’re not doing yourself any favors by following every whim conceptualized by the only people in the room who are not designers.

Too far one way: you’re completely dispensable. Too far in the other: you’re a complete jerk.

The secret is in your focus on the goal and your ability to get everyone focused on the same thing—that often begins by guiding the feedback.

You should almost never ask, “Do you like this?” Anyone who’s not a designer thinks “this” means “what we’re looking at”, but what you often mean is all the work that went into it to get there.

What you should really be asking is, “Does this align with your brand?” Or, in product design, you might ask, “Does this seem to enable users to accomplish the task?” You need to explicitly tell people what kind of feedback you need to get to move forward.

Personal preference isn’t irrelevant, but once you let that cat out of the bag, it tends to turn into a litter and take over the room. Your design deserves better. Even when I ask for thoughts, I’ve framed the conversation so that the thoughts are on that.

If someone is going to break the flow of the conversation to give you completely subjective preferences, they’ll at least have had to think about it and consciously decide to do so. Your job is to relate your design decisions back to research, best practices, or experience, and show how your decisions will lead to the ultimate success of the client. If you can’t do that, either admit that you don’t know the answer, but it’s worth finding out, or explain why you think it’s not important to the end goal.

Taking It Personally

Design is not pure art. It ought not be a personal expression of your life story. It can be artful; it can appear artistic. But you were not hired to be an artist. You were hired to solve problems, and those problems don’t need to be taken likely. Design is a job.

A wholesale rejection of your design is not a wholesale rejection of you. In fact, if you can remember this and not get all self-conscious in the middle of a conversation, you can very easily find all the things that people do like about it. The more you can explain about your process and decisions, the more places there are where agreement can occur. Go back to where the client stops agreeing with your process and discuss how to move forward from there.

When you find yourself getting bombarded by critiques that seem unfounded, heed Mike Monteiro’s advice:

When the client starts critiquing the work, listen to what they are saying. Don’t feel like you have to defend all of their decisions then and there. You also don’t have to promise them anything then and there. Sometimes it’s best to sit on it for a while. It’s perfectly fine to say something like “That’s interesting feedback. Let me think about it.”

Be the expert. Keep your authority, but understand that authority exists to help your client meet their goals. Tie everything back to that, and you’ll find yourself selling designs with more ease and less stress.

November 7, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Design, UX

Some things just cannot be undone.

How many wrong, dumb, or intentionally hurtful things have left our lips that we wish we could get back the moment they’re spoken? I know there have been plenty of those times for me, and I’m sure there will be many more.

Even more wild, sometimes, are moments when we say or do the wrong thing without even realizing it and don’t hear about it for days, weeks, months, or years. We don’t hear about it in time to stop the bleeding, so to speak. We’ve unknowingly used a hurtful tone, or phrase with a hidden meaning, or misrepresented someone.

On top of that, add the pressure of representing a company. If something goes haywire, not only is your own reputation on the line, but the company’s is, too. Your boss might be upset. Customers might leave. Stakeholders could demand someone more “responsible” grab the reins.

Embedded Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

As dramatic as it sounds, that can be the backdrop to someone hitting “Send” on a company email campaign. Once email is gone, it’s gone gone. Even if you realize within minutes, the best you can usually do is send a quick follow-up to the same people to set the record straight. And now you’ve stuffed peoples’ inbox with two emails, looking quite unprofessional.

It’s a scary moment! In a presentation on MailChimp’s voice and tone, Kate Kiefer Lee talks about this moment, and how it led to very particular copy accompanying their big, final “Send” button.

Now, take that context of sending things that cannot be undone and multiply it by however many actions you might take inside an automated marketing campaign. Interaction with one email can set off a chain reaction of further emails, CRM actions, prospect tagging, and more. This is the power of marketing automation and some of its truest value. By structuring these campaigns well, you can fill up a sales pipeline (or move people through it) with efficiency only dreamed of before. Yet, the pressure of getting everything just right can be extreme, and setting things in motion can be scary.

Pressing one of the most important buttons in a product I work on can be scary. Taking the most valuable action can easily be done while feeling fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

The problem is that we all can easily miss that as people working on our products. We’re excited to share the power of a feature, but we can often miss the places where users are taking important steps from a place of fear.

Uncovering Moments

At Dreamforce this year, we got to show off some of the cool stuff we’ve been working on at Pardot. One of those awesome new things is Nurture Studio, which is our reimagined builder for lead nurturing (and other types of automation). One component that got folks excited was a testing interaction where you can walk through your own campaign as if you were one of the people you’re sending to. It’s the most obvious place where we’ve chosen to fight embedded FUD for our users, but that approach is interwoven throughout the entire experience. Everything from the building interface to the reporting was designed for empowerment.

We knew we were on target after conversations with folks at Dreamforce who said it was “crazy awesome”. The thing is, we were already pretty sure we were on target, because we started the entire process by talking to users and finding ways to empower them.

We chose to spend time interviewing users before we designed a single thing or made any decisions. In those interviews, we were able to expose the areas that make people unsure of themselves instead of only trying to fish for desired enhancements.

As it turns out:

  • People often have a hard time quickly understanding what they’re looking at in visual workflow builders because there are so many similar things to look at and so many directions it can all go in.
  • People doubt that they put the right assets in the right places.
  • People doubt that the automation will start and stop at the right times.
  • People doubt that they will know when an accident does happen and will be unable to course-correct.

We could be pompous and assume that those doubts are inevitable in powerful applications—many companies do. It’s easier to talk about fancy features than conquering user doubt. But we choose to empower people instead of focusing our tools, which pays off in the long run.

Instead of experiencing negative emotions when interacting with key components of our product, people experience the positive feeling of confidence and excitement. People enjoy what used to terrify them. People are able to focus on what they do best (like content or marketing flows), instead of focusing on preventing massive errors.

It’s not an easy approach, but it’s the one that modern applications should take. Make your users feel like absolute, unwavering champions of what they do and they’ll do better work for their company—and they’ll be much more likely to keep paying you to help them do it.

October 31, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Email, Marketing Automation, Research, UX

The relationship between content and design is often that key ingredient that makes people love what you’re offering.

Everything from a simple blog to a company’s flagship software to a retailer’s in-store offerings operates on the principle of wrapping content (words, images, data, products) in a layer of presentation (layout, colors, typography, delivery) and interaction (filtering, searching, exporting, purchasing, responding).

It’s a hard relationship to get right, because the variables are difficult to quantify, and things change so quickly. How do you present the valuable content you have in a way that not only doesn’t scare people away, but keeps them engaged? What does success look like in what Seth Godin calls “attention economy”?

Companies are just beginning to throw massive amounts of resources into creating the right experience for customers. From user experience design to emotional design to material design, the approaches to figuring out how to perfect these experiences—that relationship of content and design—are increasing and giving great insight. It can still be easy to miss the forest for the trees, though, and focus on methods before understanding the foundation.

Conversation

I like to explain this foundation by using conversation as an analogy. Maybe it’s because it hits home with me, personally.

Your content is what you’re trying to say, but your personality dictates how you’ll say it. It doesn’t matter how true what you’re saying may be if you say it like a jerk, or if you seem too obtuse, or if you’re too verbose.

And I know this because it’s something I’ve been working on personally for a long time. I can give the right answers all I want to, but if I don’t inspire the person I’m talking to to take it to heart, it ends up falling on deaf ears.

Insight is useless without the inspiration to act on it.

If my personality doesn’t do a good job of presenting what I’m saying, it comes across as self-righteous, judgmental, or—worse—irrelevant.

Your content may be valuable, but the presentation of that content will make or break it. It must be designed, and it must be designed well. Designing that presentation of content—the experience—takes a lot of learning, time, and experimentation. Not only do you have to understand the foundation and the methods, but you have to be willing to find out if and how it connects with your audience.

Knowing When You Nail It

People Over Pixels: Meaningful UXYou’ll never get that balance of content and design right the first time. You probably won’t the next 100 times you try, either. You have to make a best effort, be observant, and implement what you learn.

I’ve been giving a new presentation this year called “People Over Pixels: Meaningful UX”. The content is close to my heart, because I show how UX efforts can and should meet business goals and how, in order to do so, you actually have to forget the business goals and focus on people, instead. Then, not only do you meet the business goals you need to meet, but it actually has some incredibly important side effects that improve the lives of people.

I knew it was crucial that this content not just be presented in a standard, bullet point slide deck that I walk through matter-of-factly. So, it works more as a narrative. I wanted to tell a story—one that people could understand they could participate in. I wanted to inspire people to dig into their UX work.

It’s been going well, to be sure. I’ve gotten good reviews and positive feedback from my previous presentations, and I keep getting invited back. That’s good! I take the feedback and tweak the presentation to improve it.

But, last week, I presented this talk at Dreamforce to a theater of folks. The feedback was different. Emphasis mine:

“Do you know if they posted the A/V for [this talk]? I am requiring our team and execs to listen/watch it. Thanks, amazing session!!”

“Cliff gave – by far – the best presentation of the week! It had substance, was engaging, and provided me with ideas I can use as I return to the day-to-day of work.”

“speaker was very engaging and interesting”

“Best, most passionate session I’ve seen in a long time!”

“Speaker was unbelievable. Really awesome job. Most compelling I’ve attended.”

You’ll need to believe me that this isn’t a #humblebrag in disguise, because I want you to see that the words people used of their own volition were about engagement, and they often came coupled with an action. The words matched the way I wanted the story to come across, and the actions matched what I wanted to see happen. I’m less concerned with being right or interesting; I want to compel people to act. I want to inspire them to work hard.

These are the moments you look for. It’s like magic. That certain je ne sais quoi transmitted your content into a design that people embrace. The biggest mistake we can make, though, is assume that this means simply replicating exactly what was done going forward will produce the same results. It won’t. It should, though, spur us onward and teach us that we’re going in the right direction.

Again, for me, personally, getting this kind of feedback has been important to me over the years. Often, my job as a UX Designer is to sit in a room and politely, but clearly, say, “That’s not good enough. We need to do better.” I can speak truth all I want, but if I don’t inspire people to take the feedback and build something better, I’ve failed. So, I follow up with people after meetings (especially if they’re seemingly tense) to ask how I came across and make sure I made sense.

But, when the feedback is different, I take special note. Yes, that means the unabashedly negative stuff, but that’s just telling you what not to do. It’s the different positive feedback that gives you the deepest insight.

For instance, one day Matt Medeiros asked me for feedback on his Conductor plugin, which hadn’t launched then. He asked for for my frank thoughts, and I definitely gave them to him. It wasn’t all positive, but I definitely wanted him to know that I thought he was on the right track. When I saw this tweet right after, I knew I’d nailed it:

In your quest to build experiences that people care about, pay close attention to when inspiration swells up in others. That’s what ideal user experiences are anyway: content that does something for real people so directly and transparently that you hardly notice it was designed at all.

October 23, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content, Speaking

You might have heard rumblings in the last couple of years about programmers saying everyone should code. Usually, the argument has to do with being prepared for the future, making yourself available for high-paying jobs, and equipping children with necessary skills.

For the most part, I think that effort is healthy, especially when it comes to equipping children of families with low income levels. I’m also seeing more folks than ever go 5, 10, or 20 years into a career and then choose to learn to code to make a big change. That’s great stuff!

In fact, I met a lady this year who was in her 40’s that was working a desk job and wanted a change—so, she enrolled in The Iron Yard. She was at the end of her time there, and I asked some questions to find out how much she’d learned. After all, many traditional schooling environments don’t do a great job equipping students to work on the web.

Within a few sentences of her response, I could tell she was ready to work in Javascript full-time! She was talking about her favorite advanced frameworks and excited about that technology.

While it’s absolutely awesome that someone can make a change like that for a relatively small investment of time and money, it can often be the only narrative for people already in a non-coding career. What if you don’t want to change careers?

I’d like to present a slightly different viewpoint, clarify the goal a bit, and show you how knowing the foundational languages of the web can be helpful to anyone. If you already code, I hope this will equip you to empower others with more practical reasons to be fluent in the languages of the web.

Web Standards Model: HTML, CSS, and Javascript

If you never plan on coding for a career or as a hobby, you really don’t need to learn PHP, Ruby on Rails, Java, or any of the other languages that build applications. What you should understand, though, is that all languages that build web sites and applications compile logic to turn it into HTML, CSS, and Javascript, which are the foundational languages of the web. Everything you view in your web browser utilizes those three languages.

When you “know enough to be dangerous” with these three languages, you can utilize your browser’s built-in Developer Tools to work with pretty much everything presented on the screen. You can move elements around, change colors and fonts, edit text, and execute your own Javascript—all without being dangerous or destructive. A simple page refresh will present the site the way you originally found it.

Cool, huh? There are some great details on how to work with these Developer Tools over at devtoolsecrets.com. For our purposes, here’s an except on how to find these tools:

As well as a menu shortcut, you can access the Developer Tools easily either pressing “F12” in Windows or “Cmd” ⌘, “Option” ⌥ and “I” on the Mac, or by right clicking on the page and selecting “Inspect Element”.

In Safari, you will need to enable the Developer Tools by checking the option in Preferences > Advanced > Show Develop Menu first.

In Opera, you will need to enable Developer Tools by checking the option in More Tools > Enable developer tools.

Since Firebug is an extension for Firefox, you will need to install the add on from http://getfirebug.com/

Now, what can you do with this newfound power?

Pulling Data

3753486898_6cd2c60a5eEver tried to copy and paste information you need from a site, only to find it’s impossible because of how it’s built? Or, maybe you’ve needed a column of data from a table. You’re not going to be able to get what you need without copying and pasting into a word processor and cleaning everything up.

If you know basic Javascript and use the Console in the Developer Tools, though, you can get the data just how you need!

For instance, you could grab the plain data out of the second column of a table with:


$('table tr').each(function(){
    console.log( $(this).find('td:eq(1)').text() );
});

Now, this requires that jQuery be loaded onto the page, but you can also do it with plain Javascript. You’d just plug that code into the Console, and you’d see the data you need right there! It looks at a table, runs through each row, and pulls the text from inside each cell. You can copy that data without any annoying formatting issues.

And, sure, that may look like a foreign language to you, but it’s an example of a simple application of Javascript knowledge. You’ll be running stuff like this in no time, because once you start getting your bearings on the language, you’ll know what to search for when hunting down a solution. That’s key to learning coding languages.

Traversing the DOM

369057688_4f019bbe17_zFirst of all, how cool does it sound to respond like this:

“How did you make it do that?!”
“Oh, I was just traversing the DOM.”

Many nerd points are immediately awarded to you! In all seriousness, those same Developer Tools allow you to look at everything in the DOM, which stands for Document Object Model. Basically, you can look through every bit of HTML that’s on the webpage and hunt through it for things.

For instance, if you’ve ever been blocked by a popup that won’t go away, you can actually delete that element from the DOM entirely! That’s come in handy more times than I can count.

Ever wanted to grab a picture “for your own purposes” from a website? You can look through elements (especially when the image is in a popup) to find the image’s source so you can download it directly.

Finally, another great feature of knowing how to run through the DOM is that you can edit the text on any website or change the colors, screenshot it, and send it to your friends to impress ’em. I have a good friend who manipulates my personal website and sends me ridiculous pictures of it. Certainly, there are more practical applications, but bringing laughter into the world ain’t so bad, either. 🙂

Troubleshooting

ssThink back to the last time you were on a website trying to do something important—signing up, making a change, or ordering something—and it just didn’t seem to work. There’s a good chance you encountered a Javascript error. These errors actually show up in the Console I mentioned earlier. Being able to see and understand these has two benefits:

  • You can sometimes get around the problem entirely if you know what’s going on and move on with your life.
  • If you can’t figure it out, you can start a support conversation with extremely helpful information, which will likely get you a resolution faster by exposing a bug.

Simply looking at errors and understanding them has put countless hours back in my life over the years.

Certainly, there are more than three reasons knowing these languages can benefit you, but I hope this fills a gap I’ve noticed: you don’t need to learn to program to benefit from knowing basic code. These three languages aren’t going anywhere for decades (if then), so consider being “fluent” in the native tongue of the web.

October 10, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Coding

The unsung hero of achieving product-market fit is the space between checking checkboxes.

You’ve done everything right. You’ve prepared. You’ve researched. You’re experimenting. You have something worth buying. You have a business plan and goals.

The steady plod between idea and launch is well documented, and is honestly quite encouraging.

Even the time between launch and that first customer can be great. Unless you’ve made something that no one wants or are presenting in a way that interests no one, you’ll grab that first customer and celebrate with many gifs.

That space between your first handful of customers and that “rapid growth” everyone wants?

Oh, that’s mostly described as hard work.

Just pay your dues. Do things that don’t scale. Be patient. Move fast. Do literally everything at the same time. Don’t do too much. Experiment. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look to your existing customers for more leads. Look for new leads from social channels.

This is the time where growth gains its momentum, but how in the world you can go about finding the hill to push growth down to gain that momentum is anybody’s guess. It seems to work differently for literally everyone.

Identifying Different Customer Journeys

Let’s take Evermore here, for instance. We’re now in this infamous period of hard work. How do we kickstart growth so fast that my business partner, Kyle, has to start hiring people.

And just so you know it’s not limited to unthoughtful startups, we checked all the startup boxes:

☑ Solving a real, validated problem and providing demonstrative value
☑ One full year of market and customer research before building
☑ Successful testing period
☑ Scalable business structure
☑ Pricing structure from successful business mentors
☑ Favorable, honest product launch coverage
☑ Converting leads to customers successfully
☑ Happy existing customers

All that planning and patience got things much further, faster than expected. It was even a very agile process: I’d never intended to have a business partner, but it was a very organic and obvious choice when the opportunity came.

But, now that we’ve tackled the part where so many businesses fail and have a sustainable way of operating, how can we take this solution to the world? How do we meet people where they are to tell them about Evermore’s value?

After all, we haven’t fallen into the trap of selling a vitamin. Evermore is definitely a pain killer for some. If someone’s wasted a weekend trying to do things they don’t care about with WordPress just to get their website working, they understand the value. If they’ve had a really bad experience with a hosting or theme or plugin company, they understand the value.

Evermore can also be a vaccination for many businesses: prevent ever wasting your weekend, or learning things you don’t want, or being hacked, or debugging a slow website.

There are two very different entry points for businesses that would benefit from Evermore, but that doesn’t mean the product is unfocused. It means we have to account for those entry points.

Finding Pivotal Moments

This is the hard work: how can you be the obvious choice when the decision is made by a potential customer?

In Evermore’s case, how can we be there when someone experiences the pain of lost time or money dealing with a frustrating issue, and speak to that? And, how can we be there when someone wants to make an investment in their business’s website that will last?

Everything gets foggy here. You can start diving into every famous phrase for marketing: thought leadership, inbound marketing, social engagement, content optimization and testing. It all comes from a good place. They are all truly promising methods for being top-of-mind for a potential customer, but every business needs its own custom combination.

Depending on your budget, you may be able to hire researchers. Do so if you can.

Perhaps you have $10,000 to run your first series of advertisements, so you can see what works. Do so if you can.

Regardless of your budget, though, there are two fundamental, scalable approaches to finding your potential customers’ pivotal moments.

Talk to People

Engage in more casual conversation with your customers, potential customers, and people who understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

Yes, you should sell when the time is right, but don’t miss the opportunity to have a discussion all the other times. Kyle and I are constantly talking to people about Evermore so we can learn and understand more about the pain—even though we already know more than almost anyone about the particular problem. Never stop learning.

Never stop having the casual conversations where you can glean insight from all that nonverbal communication and word choice.

Do What Your Customers Do

How do you expect to understand your potential customers’ perspective without actually attempting to see things from that angle?

Do some recon: read the blogs they would read, understand the search terms they use, and go to the events they go to. The more context you can have, the more adequately you can reach people when they need the problem solved that you can help with.

We’re doing all this with Evermore, but it feels like it’s a slow process. It’s probably not. Understanding how to take the power of open source to a market that doesn’t know to care about it is complex, and it should take time.

May this post serve as encouragement to you and myself: the hard work is confusing, but worthwhile.

October 3, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Business, CX, Entrepreneurship