This is the transcript from a three-minute talk I gave at Side Project Society recently. I crammed a lot in those three minutes, and I hope it encourages you.

Photo by @april_lelia on Instagram

Photo by @april_lelia on Instagram

As a UX professional, I care deeply about talking to the people I build products for and meeting their needs, and, as I often preach to others, so much insight is hidden deep in the bowels of casual conversation. So, it should come as no surprise that a string of these types of conversations changed my career and helped me launch multiple successful side projects, starting specifically when I decided to move on from doing creative media in churches.

I decided to ask what I call God—you can call it your gut if it pleases you—hard questions and decided to listen to an inner voice, instead of making it scream like we’re prone to do. From there, I knew my wife (the smartest person I know) would help guide me. I asked God and April hard questions often and listened intently to their responses. I still do.

When I had final interviews for one startup and a massive company that both offered exciting jobs, I asked them directly about my family coming first. I listened to their response.

So, I didn’t take either of them because I asked good questions. Later, I’d have lunch with John Saddington, who would actually end up telling me what to look for in an opportunity. I listened to him.

When I interviewed at Pardot, and my then boss told me he wanted me in a different position, it rang of what John had told me, so I asked the owners of the company how they approached running a company and how they felt about my family coming first. I listened. I launched my career in UX there, which has felt like what I was always supposed to be doing. I now affect thousands of peoples’ lives every day.

When that same boss encouraged me to keep up the public speaking, I listened. I toured Europe last year.

When I went to Grok several years ago, I asked a group a question about a music startup I’d worked on. Their answers directly led to a long-lasting partnership with local record stores in which we’re not only making money, but a difference for these stores.

When I had an idea for something now called Evermore, I dedicated a year to asking people about their needs, and truly listened. I asked a smart, older mentor type a question about pricing and listened. A friend of mine became my co-founder because I was listening while we were talking casually one day. It all paid off: we’re growing, our customers love us, and we’re achieving product-market fit more quickly than most.

So, stop trying to get the answers you’re looking for.

Start talking to smart people, ask hard questions, shut up, forget about yourself, and listen.

People are always the key.

I used to blog … occasionally. It felt tedious and time-consuming.

Most of all, it seemed like a bunch of work for an unknown return. Who would read it? Would it be interesting or matter? Would it result in more work or speaking opportunities or notoriety?

Did I have anything to say?

Yep.

Last year, I went on a speaking tour of sorts in Europe with my good friend, Mat Sweezey. We did a ton of events in just under three weeks, and had countless conversations—many of them about the power of content and the importance of understanding what it means to be the consumer of that content.

Not only were people giving me an hour of their time to hear what I had to say, but they wanted to talk more once it was done. They wanted my input, specifically. Many of these people didn’t even primarily speak English.

Why? Because I’m famous? Obviously not.

My input was helping them. I was being conversational, yet helpful. That’s when I realized I could probably write without all the pressure, and still do something worthwhile for other people.

So, I committed to writing once a week. With one or two exceptions, I’ve done that for an entire year.

What Worked

The most important thing that happened is I started to find my voice through disciplined, consistent writing and speaking. It was a worthwhile venture for that alone.

As I brought up in that post, I learned to focus on writing about people, big ideas, and how design and business fits into that. I learned to listen to feedback from others and give true value back. I learned that posts that bring in the most visitors (by far) are the simple, tactical ones (like exporting notes from Powerpoint or dealing with WordPress gallery styling) thanks to search engines, but that doesn’t translate into much beyond creating value for that person in that moment. Writing consistently about your expertise takes much more time to turn into big numbers in your analytics.

Instead of focusing on getting inbound traffic that doesn’t help me meet my goals, I focus on giving value to the less than 100 folks who read my posts every week.

These have been the five most popular posts that aren’t “How To”s:

  1. Cancellation as a Feature
  2. Your Work is Bad and You Should Feel Bad
  3. Get Started in Professional WordPress Design & Development
  4. The Interminable Pursuit of Best Practices
  5. Grow as a WordPress Developer

The two WordPress posts were kicked off by me essentially crowdsourcing the topic, so I’d like to do something a little like that again.

What’s Worked?

I’ve completed my commitment to disciplined blogging. Now, I want to commit to valuable blogging—however often that ends up being. As Chris Lema says, blog “as consistently as you can do it while being helpful”.

So, I’d love your help. If you read what I write, I’d like your feedback, so I can continue to meet my goal of being helpful and valuable. Your answer to this one question will shape what I write about and how often I write going forward.

Thank you for letting me be a part of your day. I’ll continue to try and earn it.

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December 5, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content

In my last post, I covered how to be smart with your images and avoid negative reactions by properly engaging sympathy and empathy. I mentioned that seeing another human face has psychological effects on its own. Let’s unpack that a bit.

A basic understanding of the power of another person’s face as an image on a website is crucial to ensuring you don’t do the wrong thing. You need to be aware of what happens when people see a face and how flippant stock photography selections can actually result in an entire section being ignored.

This is yet another “design trend” you might discover and implement without getting the full explanation, and that can lead to gaining nothing at all or even making things worse.

Aesthetics in Mathematics

Any time we take a look into why something appeals to us as people, and it turns out it’s happening on a subconscious level, the explanation feels ridiculous. It sounds like it couldn’t possibly be happening to us. We’re designers! We’re developers! We’re researchers! We’re writers! We’re above that, aren’t we?

Nope. Every time we discount the understanding of why something works, we risk misuse.

Seeing the human form triggers an emotional reaction, because our brain is constantly trying to relate what we’re taking in through our senses back to us. It helps us make sense of the world. So, using an image of a person on your site gives you the opportunity to connect emotionally, but that also gives you the chance to create the wrong emotion.

Now, try to put down any issues with how our society perceives beauty, culturally-speaking. You need to understand and use the science. It’s nuts, but most of what we know about how we perceive beauty aesthetically points to the golden ratio.  It’s been used intentionally for centuries because our brain identifies with the proportions it creates. It’s all around you:

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It directly relates to how humans perceive beauty in faces. And, our best understanding for why the golden ratio is pleasing to us is that we’re capable of interpreting images our eye takes in faster when they feature it.

So, it’s far less about age or skin color, and far more about the ratios inherently present in the human form presented.

The Power of the Image

Though there’s lots more to successful photography than the following, two elements of the contents of an image can help you avoid undesired reactions and shape emotional connections.

Line of Sight

If the person in your image is looking somewhere other than straight ahead, people will actually follow that line of sight!

20090316-ppjuax3s371pecmbt9cuakwanhSo, take care of where you’re sending your visitors’ gaze! I’m betting you won’t want to direct them away from the most important elements of your site. Instead, take advantage of our human reactions.

 

Cropping

Aaron Walter points out in “Designing for Emotion” that the cropping of a photo can shape the visitor’s emotional perspective as well:

Photographs cropped tight to the subject’s face encourage an emotional response from the viewer, while emphasizing the personality of the subject. Wider subject cropping emphasizes the physical appearance of the subject.

Do you want people to connect with the people in the image, or what the people in the image are doing? Proper cropping can help you get the right message across, and it’s easy to forget when so many designs are auto-cropping images.

The Wrong Picture

Our brains developed a way to help us be more efficient on websites, and it’s been documented for nearly a decade already. It’s called banner blindness, and it’s pretty same to assume it’s only gotten more well-tuned.

Essentially, we’re able to recognize things that look like advertisements on a page without even looking directly at them.

Know what looks like ads these days? Cheesy, obviously staged stock photographs. Avoid them like the plague.

Always opt for actual photography (as in hiring an actual photographer to shoot the images you want). If you can’t do that, pick images that look natural, even if they cost more money. Ask for second opinions on images if you’re not sure.

Bad photo selection, editing, and presentation can make or break your site. Use this to your advantage!

November 28, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Photography

This past weekend, I drove by a billboard with a massive human toe on it. It took up about half the width of the billboard and went over the top of the rectangular sign.

It was a huge toe … with serious toenail fungus.

As you can imagine, the target of the billboard was people with toenail fungus, and the message is that there’s a business that can fix it!

It may do a great job of getting attention, but it demonstrates a misunderstanding of how images affect us. A clearer understanding can make a big difference in our websites.

Empathy

Many years ago, I built a site for a local nonprofit that dealt with infertility. The reason the organization even existed is that the founder dealt with personal infertility and managed to overcome it. She wanted to help others in their time of need, and raise money for couples to get medical assistance.

She could empathize, because she’s been there.

At one point, we were discussing images for the homepage, and she suggested we show a smiling couple holding a newborn baby. It’s a natural thing to consider, especially because that’s the dream that that organization can help clients realize!

But, I asked her to imagine seeing the website with that image back before she had medical success. What would it feel like to be the type of people you want coming to your site? What would you feel if you saw that image while struggling with infertility?

She answered pretty easily with something along the lines of “defeat”.

Yes, people buy outcomes and dreams and stories, but you have to help them bridge the gap between where they are and where they could be. Your story has to be believable. Jumping straight to a nearly unbelievable “happy ending” simply reinforces negative emotions about the way things are today. Going from infertility to parent is a hard road that’s often literally impossible. Extend your empathy.

Conversely, if the path forward for someone is clear and believable, reinforcing an existing, negative situation isn’t helpful, either. The aforementioned massive fungal toenail might catch attention, but it only works in spite of itself (if at all). A healthy toe would catch the same attention, but would likely not trigger the same negative emotions as the parenting image, because the transition is believable.

Be aware of what triggers negative feelings in your target audience, and make sure that affects your image choices. Images affect our brains in powerful ways.

Sympathy

There’s a reason we’ve seen so many sad images in advertisements from nonprofits dealing with things like extreme poverty. There’s a powerful, science-based explanation for why it works. The problem is it’s easy to overextend, and so many nonprofits and companies use negative imagery even when it’s not helpful (as in our toe fungus marketing effort).

Highly emotional images and video, which cause us to sympathize (crucial distinction), raise our levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin increases generosity and trust.

See why this is powerful? Businesses can trigger trust; nonprofits can trigger generosity. Any moral implications aside, this has been understood and employed for decades because it’s been shown to work (even before we had the scientific explanation). Further, seeing another human face has psychological effects of its own that can be useful.

Again, though, the distinction is crucial: whether in “sadvertisements” or stories that pull on heart strings, the key is sympathy. While empathy is our connection to something we’ve actually experienced, sympathy is how we connect to something we understand, but haven’t gone through ourselves. Most of us have experienced neither extreme poverty nor the type of 90-minute emotional resolutions that happen in movies.

Images can have a serious impact on your visitors and their actions, but that impact can be negative. Understanding the difference between triggering sympathy and empathy is one way you can ensure you’re using visuals well.

November 21, 2014 — 1 Comment — In Blog

Ironically, today’s thought was sparked by BuzzFeed’s insistence on delighting users over boosting numbers.

(Really!)

In an article at Poynter this week, Dan Oshinsky discussed a 2012 email newsletter that went out from BuzzFeed that had an extremely high open rate. Its title?

“You’re fired.”

You might see how this would’ve gotten a massive open rate. You might also see why recipients replied with a fair amount of disdain for the tactic.

Wisely, BuzzFeed listened to the feedback and actively chooses to find less hilariously awful ways (arguably) to get the numbers they want.

Better Metrics

Choosing to be a little more humane wasn’t the only thing that changed at BuzzFeed as a result of that ridiculous email: it led to a revision of how success was measured.

BuzzFeed now de-emphasizes open rate as a “silver bullet” metric: It looks instead at click rate, the number of links readers click and how long each reader spends with the email. The newsletter team also monitors growth rates for every newsletter subscriber list and compares how many people are reading them on mobile and desktop platforms.

Email open rates are a great metric for ensuring you’re not cutting yourself off at the knees with a bad subject line. It’s not that they shouldn’t be used, it’s that it doesn’t tell you nearly as much about engagement. It’s often more of a way to know you’re setting the stage well for the killer content inside your email. From there, matching metrics up with your goals for the email is the key to knowing if you’re getting where you want to go. If your newsletter is a collection of links or seeks to drive recipients to a call-to-action, clicks are certainly paramount! If it’s got readable content in it, knowing how long the reader spends will tell you whether things are getting read or opened and archived quickly.

Web analytics information presents a similar trap: big numbers look good, but they often don’t actually matter unless they show that visitors are doing the right things.

For instance, many times a high bounce rate is perfectly reasonable! Consider these examples:

  • Sometimes, a call to action on a landing page will link a user to a new domain where they can log in to your product. That’s a bounce, but they’re going right where they should.
  • Your contact page often contains everything someone needs when they’re Googling for “company x phone number”. They’ll leave immediately, because they got what they came for.
  • Blog posts often have extremely high bounce rates, even if they’re great posts! A reader can get value out of it and still not want to click around further on the website.

In each case, you need better metrics to determine success:

  • For the landing page linking to a new domain, attach an event so you can see success in your reports.
  • On your contact page, use a tool to know how customers get your phone number. If you use AdWords, consider the WordPress plugin I helped write for CallRail.
  • Design for further engagement on your blogs to see if you can increase time spent on the site, but also take a look at returning visitors over time. Offering a newsletter subscription is another great option.

Wrong Metrics in Best Practices

The wrong metrics won’t just throw off your ability to know success and improve, it can also teach you the exact wrong things to do.

After one of my talks at Dreamforce this year, an audience member asked about some sales tactics he’d heard from successful salespeople and wanted to know how he could apply them to email marketing (which is also designed to drive sales). The concepts seemed a little iffy, but the salespeople had seen success. Why not try it?

Here’s why: the audience member’s business runs off renewals, while salespeople are often only incentivized to make the sale. There’s no way to know if these tactics would actually pay off in the long run, because the salespeople didn’t know (or care) if customers stuck around. Overselling a product or feature, for instance, can benefit someone who gets paid only off of the conversion, but the business takes the hit when the customer ends up disappointed in the experience.

So, as I told the audience member: there’s no way to know if those tactics would work, because yours goals don’t align. He needs to look for tips from people who are also incentivized to keep customers happy over the course of renewal cycles.

Trusting the wrong person’s tactics is an epidemic in content. Have you seen how many blogs have co-opted the clickbait/Upworthy style of creating titles? If your sole metric of success is ad revenue off of single page views, that may very well be a useful tactic for you. If you’re hoping to build readership, you probably ought to crank back the eye roll-inducing titles and work on having great content that’s worth reading.

It all comes down to ensuring that the metrics you’re trying to affect accurately reflect your business goals.

I’m wincing as I conclude with: maybe you should learn from BuzzFeed and take a fresh look at how you define success.

November 14, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content, Data, UX