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.

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

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

These are remotes in my household.

Direct TV Remote and Apple TV Remote

One of them has so many choices that I have to look down to find the button I need to make the interaction I want happen.

The other has fewer and, thus, makes it a bit harder to jump to a direct interaction. Yet, because it has less buttons, and those buttons have a simple layout and tactile differences, I’m able to stay engaged with the interface (a TV, in this case). I’m able to complete the task more easily and, usually, faster.

At any rate, the experience of using the Apple TV remote is better. Why?

It’s not better simply because I’m in the interface more, which is an easy assumption to make. If the interface wasn’t relatively well-designed, it wouldn’t be better at all. In fact, it would probably be worse.

It’s better because that combination of control and interface has an effect: it makes me think about my Apple TV less.

Less Snags for Better UX

Great user experiences are often described as simple, easy, or intuitive. They feel effortless.

You can make your interface more modern or improve the layout of your content or simplify your navigation or make everything faster—and all of those are crucial. But, the bedrock of a great experience is the ability to have that experience without thinking about it too much while it’s happening. This is what creates the sensation of effortlessness.

To get there, you have to do two things: intimately understand the user’s task at hand and get yourself out of the way.

Jobs to Be Done

The two remotes I mentioned above are simply tools I employ on my way to completing a task: watching something. I don’t consciously set out to interact with the Apple TV or the screen or the remote as an end unto itself.

To remind ourselves of this, we have to employ tactics to help us take the focus off the tool and, instead, on the job that the tool is needed for. I’ve mentioned job stories before, and the mentality of understanding circumstances and motivation is crucial in delivering a truly great experience.

Consider another way I’ve heard this put:

When someone goes to hang a picture on the wall, they’ve got to use a nail and a hammer. They’ve got no choice but to use those tools. They might purchase the nail with built-in analytics and the hammer with Bluetooth for a variety of reasons, but they’re not really buying the tools—they’re buying a picture hanging on the wall. The things they need to get there should be easy to use and effective.

Just a Tool

One of the hardest parts of the jobs-to-be-done mentality is that we have to emotionally detach from the product or service we’ve built in order to truly understand its utility.

People don’t go to work every day excited to use Excel, though they might be excited about what they do with Excel each day.

By humbling our product back into the role of being hired to get something done, it’s much easier to seek out improvements that are truly beneficial. When you need a new idea or improvement to be at least 9x better for users to accept it willingly, don’t you need all the help you can get?

The excellent byproduct of this mentality is a never-ending backlog of snags—once you gain this perspective, you won’t be able to help but see all the little ways you get in peoples’ way. You thought you were already tough on your product! Just you wait. But that’s exactly the perspective that great designers take.

Where Innovation Happens

Not only do great designers take this perspective, but great companies do. If you think about it, this is where so much “disruption” happens. Innovation peels back the layers of an interaction and streamlines it.

Think of Uber and Lyft: plugging the gaps from problem to pleasant solution.

Or, consider the example Jared Spool often gives: newspapers. Craigslist has all but killed newspaper classifieds. Why?

With a newspaper, you:

  • Buy a newspaper (or have it delivered)
  • Go to the classifieds section
  • Scan
  • Read in detail
  • Call
  • Meet
  • Exchange

But, with Craigslist, you:

  • Visit Craigslist
  • Search
  • Read in detail
  • Call or email
  • Meet
  • Exchange

Steps are either removed or made easier. Airbnb is finding new ways to streamline a particular interaction that Craigslist offers. And so it goes.

Be great. Be simple. Be innovative. Create raving customers by being all about what they’re trying to do.

September 26, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, CX, UX