Fell Swoop Blog


Thoughts and observations from our team

Designing for seniors – respect required

Previously published on Website Magazine, 3/23/17

If you missed the phenomenon of the rather adorable grandmas tagging themselves as rapper Grandmaster Flash–yes it did happen albeit somewhat inadvertently–it brings up the important point that in designing for seniors we need to make additional affordances and recognize the difficulties they may face.

gma-tag

And why do grandma and grandpa matter to the tech industry? They’re the most rapidly growing demographic on the Internet, now with over 60 percent of American seniors online and still growing, according to Pew Research. In the next decade as Baby Boomers continue to shift toward the senior spectrum, we will continue to see expanded growth in this demographic. Given the upcoming generation of seniors is expected to be the wealthiest yet, it would be imprudent not to cater to this demographic.

In designing for seniors it is important to recognize that they can face physical challenges in using technology and may have difficulties learning new technologies. Key areas where design considerations can be made are for vision and hearing, motor control, cognitive processing, and recognizing seniors may have a lack of experience with technology.

The good news is websites that are better designed to accommodate seniors are generally better for everyone. Let’s take a look at a few sites that are getting it right.

AARP

With nearly 38 million members, the AARP’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for all as they age. The AARP has made several key design decisions to help accommodate seniors on their website. The site uses a large text throughout and a san serif font which for people with low vision, is easier to process and recognize san serif characters. The site also makes use of warm colors, as vision declines so does the ability to discriminate certain hues. Seniors are more apt to confuse pale colors in the blue-green region of the spectrum with other pale colors. The red, yellow and orange colors AARP uses throughout its site are easier for seniors to differentiate, and the high-contrast AARP utilizes make it much easier for seniors as well.

Information overload is one of the most common problems identified for older users. Too much information on the page makes it hard to focus on relevant material. The AARP recognizes this and has a clean and uncluttered site making use of large headlines and concise descriptions to clearly separate and differentiate information

AARP-SITE

Social Security Administration

The Social Security Administration website has been quietly rolling out new features and updates and citizens are starting to take notice. In 2014, the SSA’s achieved an excellent rating in the ForeSee 2014 E-Government Satisfaction Index, attributed to extra help with Medicare prescription drug plan costs with a score of 90 – they out performed several top private-sector brands including Amazon and Apple. In 2016, the SSA had the highest-scoring public sector sites dominating the federal website rankings and they also received ForeSee’s Digital Excellence Award in part for having the greatest improvement in score since the start of measurement.

The Social Security Administration’s website has great accessibility, in addition to supporting multiple languages and sign language, seniors who find it difficult to read online can use the BrowseAloud functionality to have the text spoken to them. The site also offers web accessibility help with information on increasing text size, magnifying the screen and changing background and text colors.

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Road Scholar

Formerly Elderhostel, Road Scholar is the nation’s first and world’s largest educational and travel organization for adults 55 and over. Road Scholar has incorporated a generous text size in their website design and simplified the menu. Also, the elimination of fly-out menus with the replacement of menus that open with a single click or tap is a key design choice as some seniors struggle with precise motor movements and can become frustrated if they click in the wrong place. To accommodate a possible lack of precision with motor movement, larger button sizes have also been incorporated throughout the site.

Two other features which are great for all audiences appear as well. The phone number for help appears prominently on all pages and is easily visible, with further help just one click away and the site is responsive allowing for optimal viewing on any type of device.

road-scholar

As the senior demographic continues to grow and becomes increasingly tech savvy, we need to be more cognizant of the constraints seniors may face and make a greater effort to build sites that are inclusive for this demographic—especially if this is a demographic you’re actively targeting. Key considerations designers should be aware of are for vision and hearing, motor control, and cognitive processing. If you’re just getting started in designing senior friendly websites, here’s a couple of great references to checkout:

  1. The National Institute on Aging has outlined a broad set of research-based guidelines that are an excellent resource and starting point. You can download their tip sheet here: https://www.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/making_your_website_senior_friendly.pdf
  2. The Web Accessibility Initiative has a set of accessibility guidelines on developing websites for the elderly which can be found here: https://www.w3.org/WAI/older-users/developing.html

Social media: it’s #personal

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What millennials want brands to know about social advertising

Previously published on MediaPost, 3/10/17

Social marketing is getting more and more important to brands. In fact, according to 2016 State of Social Business by Ed Terpening and Aubrey Littleton, ad budgets increased by 73 percent last year and are expected to grow even more in 2017. As brands look to make social a bigger part of their efforts, they need to ensure that they’re using it in the most effective way. So, what do they need to know? We asked the first generation to actually come of age with social. We interviewed millennials, and here’s what they want to tell brands about advertising on social media.

 

“You are in my personal space now.” – Jesse, 31

Social is getting more and more personal, and consumers can easily feel violated by pushy social advertising if is not targeted to them in the right space and the right time. Not only do they use social media for personal things, like “checking in on family and friends”, they have spent countless hours shaping their feeds to cater specifically to them. This level of personalization leads to a very strong feeling of ownership. And you wouldn’t just walk into someone’s house without asking, now would you?  No, you’d be polite, friendly and maybe even bring a gift. So, remember: you’re in their personal space. Act accordingly.

 

“Be relevant or be hidden.” – Ray, 29

Advertisers need to be mindful of each platform and tailor native content for each. As one of our millennials summed up, “You don’t want automate your content or advertising to be mass distributed, it doesn’t work anymore”. They want to see something made for Instagram on Instagram, and something made for Facebook on Facebook. This generation has grown up using these channels, and they can tell when a piece of content was obviously repurposed from another channel. Many social channels have robust targeting tools, and marketers need to get smart on how they use them. If it’s not right for them, millennials will either ignore it, or worse, block it. And they will even begin to resent brands that do this consistently. Many of our interviewees echoed this statement: “Don’t be pushy. If it’s not relevant to me you can’t force it.”

 

“Show me something I haven’t seen before.” – Adam, 28

The best way to cut through the clutter is still to show people something they’ve never seen before. And that rings especially true with millennials. Not only do they want to see interesting things, they want to share them: “Create something that I can share that will make me seem smart, funny or interesting. I love it when I’m the first one to show that new, funny video to my friends.” Sharing is great because it not only expands reach beyond your audience, it endears them to the brand. “If I share your content, I am more likely to consider it later when it is an advertisement.” Because of this, creating unique, sharable content should be every marketer’s focus.

 

“Know your brand voice, and incorporate it everywhere.” – Jess 25

Brands need to look cohesive. Knowing all the touchpoints on social and bringing your brand to life across them does not go unnoticed by Millennials. This expands into digital to. If your goal is to drive people from social to other properties, make sure those sites remain true to the look, feel, and messaging on social. “If an ad is unique or funny enough I’ll click just to see how the rest of the experience might be. If the ad is good, hopefully the rest of the brand is, too”. This means brands can no longer silo social teams off on their own. Social, marketing, and brands teams need to work together to give audiences the cohesion they want.

 

On top of all this, we also asked our millennials how they use and what they think of certain social channels. Here’s some quick examples of what they said:

Facebook

“I use it to catch up with Family and Friends, I only check it once a day.”

“I use Facebook messenger for sharing more than I do on my Facebook page.”

“I use messenger to chat and share articles with friends and family”

“I’ll clock on relevant ads, but retargeting can be really annoying. If I already purchased the item, or if I was just doing a random search, and the ad keeps popping up in my feed it can be a big miss for an advertiser.”

Instagram

“I use it to get inspired, and see pictures that I care about.”

“The platform is less emotional and easy to digest”

“It’s a bit more about mindless browsing and time-passing than Facebook.”

“The ways to connect on Instagram are a little more limited than Facebook. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to reach out to others on the channel with tagging and comments.”

Twitter

“Twitter’s really good for timely, in-the-moment news and discussion.”

“I used to be Twitter obsessed – I was on so many channels I had social media burn out and something had to give, and that something was Twitter”

“There is an expectation of immediate response on Twitter. It can create anxiety, feelings of guilt if you are ‘not getting back to people’, retweeting, sharing interesting things etc.”

“I am just a viewer on Twitter I am not active.”

“Humor or shock value works great and gets my attention – Trump tweets, I pay attention.”

Snapchat

“I use Snap chat for more 1:1 interactions with friends, some groups”.

“Marketers really need to cater their ads and message to an individual person, because group interactivity isn’t the same as on other channels.”

“Stories are big now, marketers should keep this in mind.”

“Filters are huge – one of the only things I save and share on Snapchat”

 

Millennials have a lot to say about social, but listening to it all is key if you want your brand to be successful. If you are trying to advertise on social, remember: you are in someone’s personal space. Be mindful of how they are utilizing each channel and how you can best fit into to that behavior and their personal space. Nobody like a door-knocking solicitor coming to their house and disrupting them during dinner. So, don’t be a solicitor: create native, interesting, thoughtful, targeted content. Utilize video and each channel’s content in an interesting, smart way to be a part of the discovery, research, and purchasing process. Millennials have lived in this world all their life and they move fast. If you want to stay relevant, you’ll have to keep up.

10 SEO tips for site redesigns

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Previously published on Chief Marketer, 2/27/17

Understanding the aspects of design, technology, and content that affect search engine optimization (SEO) is an essential skill for any web team, but they are particularly important when undertaking a major redesign effort.

During a redesign much can go wrong, from technical issues and change-adverse audience reaction to traffic loss and usability problems. Any one of these problems can severely impact key metrics. Here are 10 simple tips to follow to ensure your website stays on page one after you throw the switch.

1. Use descriptive links.

Designers and marketers know the value of a good call-to-action (CTA). And historical best practice says verb-noun pairs work great for users in terms of setting expectations and enticing action. The problem, from an SEO perspective, is that this practice has led to vague and repetitive CTAs on many homepages.

Homepage CTAs are one of the most important tools available to tell Google which content is the most important. Before you litter your page with “learn more” or “view details” links, consider providing more context. For example, “learn about diamond buying” is a far more descriptive link that just “learn more.”

2. Reduce your links.

What you say in your links matters—and how many links you have also matters. Every link on a page reduces the potential link equity that can be spread to key pages.

This situation can be challenging in a world of mega-menus and super footers that result when everyone wants a piece of the homepage. One way to mitigate this is to avoid over-linking to pages that are unimportant for SEO. For example, multiple policy pages can often be combined into one page. Another way is to be diligent in relegating lessor links to your sitemap.

3. Limit h1 tags to one per page.

Every page should have just one h1 or header tag and it should be specific to the page. The more that it matches a user’s potential search query the better. While it may be tempting to rely on your site’s name and branding for context, specifics help. For example, a page called “How to buy a diamond” is more helpful than “How to buy.”

4. Hand roll your site maps.

It sounds old school in a world of XML sitemaps submitted to Google and Bing, but you’ll want a hand-edited sitemap too. Hand-edited sitemaps give you an opportunity to use different words and phrases than you might use in your space-constrained navigation. This is particularly true for multi-national sites with longer words (i.e., German) crowding navigation menus.

One example is spelling out common acronyms or using long-form references for key topics vs. shorthand ones. This gives search engines more information about your pages. Alternatively, if your page name is rooted in important industry jargon consider descriptors with lay-person language to attract both neophytes and initiates. Since the sitemap has a lot of links into it throughout your site, you could also prioritize how you list the links and keep the more important ones near the top. Hierarchy counts in design, and in SEO too.

5. Use PDFs selectively.

Search engines prefer not to send people directly to PDF pages. This does PDF content a real disservice as it’s a common format for in-depth information like research, specifications, white papers, and thought-pieces—the kind of content Google loves. You can still have the content available in PDF format for easy offline reading, but by integrating it into the page you greatly expand your unique content footprint.

Additionally, if others link to the page, vs. bypassing it and linking directly to the PDF, you improve the site’s overall link ranking.

When using PDFs as lead generation bait, common on B2B sites selling costly software and services, try integrating a strong sampling of the content into your page body. This will not only help Google, it will also help would-be customers determine if they want to provide the lead information sufficient to download the rest.

6. Check your analytics.

Redesigns often entail shifts in content strategy and information architecture. Before you revise your navigation review your analytics. Some long-forgotten pages might be functioning as landing pages and generating valuable organic (free) traffic. Make sure these pages retain a presence in your sitemap so search engines can continue to find them. While you’re under the hood checking your analytics, be sure to look at your goals. Some of those pages might not only be generating traffic, they might be driving real business results. If so, consider elevating those pages, not just retaining them.

7. Be wary of subdomains.

While domain decisions are often the province of IT, there are very real marketing and SEO factors to consider. Google considers a subdomain (anything taht precedesthe primary domain like finance.yahoo.com) as an independent domain. As such, a new subdomain will have little to no initial equity in SEO terms. So, if you’re adding a new platform, particularly if its potentially rich in content, like a blog or forum, add it as a subfolder of your primary domain. This way your primary domain will accrue the SEO value.

8. Go responsive.

Every marketer and designer knows the world has gone mobile, but did you know your site’s mobile friendliness is now an SEO factor? It is. Google’s preferred approach to mobile-friendly design is called Responsive Web Design (RWD). A responsive website adapts to the user’s view port size so they see the same experience on their iPhone as they do their ultra-wide monitor. So, if you’re considering your approach, a responsive site design will provide your customers with a great experience and make Google happy.

9. Install webmaster tools.

It might seem counter-intuitive to clean up any of your current site’s SEO issues before you redesign, but the sooner you get on good footing with Google (or Bing) the better. Install Google Webmaster Tools and the Bing counterpart to diagnose how well, or not, your current site is being indexed. If you see any major errors fix them now. You know the saying “the best time to plant a tree is yesterday?” The same is true of SEO. SEO takes time so start your clock as early as possible.

10. Draft copy with care.

While it might be tempting to give your copywriter free range to express your brand in unique ways, take care to consider the words and phrasing for those who may want to discover your business. Promotional copy that’s doesn’t align with how people think about your product or solution might play great for those who know you, but it might not attract Google and could limit your reach.

Real bike, digital road – how augmented reality brings gaming to training.

Bike Short

To say I love cycling would be an understatement. I’ve taken cycling vacations, sponsored a racing team, and even worked with a trainer to enhance my performance. To stay in top form, the Fell Swoop racing team does weekly rides on Wednesday, but the Seattle weather doesn’t always cooperate. On those days, we’re often forced to complete our training indoors using stationary trainers. These are fine, but they’re no substitute for the real thing; fortunately, augmented reality is making the transition a lot easier.

Zwift is an augmented reality game that’s taking the cycling world by storm. It’s an online environment that brings a gaming-like experience to a cycling trainer.

The game allows riders from all around the world to train, race, and connect with one another.

To experience Zwift, you’ll need three things

  1. Bike
  2. Computer (connected to the internet: a laptop or desktop will do)
  3. Cycling trainer (ideally a smarttrainer: I use a Wahoo Kickr)

A cycling trainer lifts your bike’s rear wheel off the ground and applies some resistance for stationary training. A smart trainer works with Zwift to give you the full augmented experience. When you speed up, your avatar in the game speeds up. When you go up a hill, the trainer increases the resistance and it does it in a way that feels natural.

More and more people are using it every day. For myself, a tech guy that only discovered cycling and racing in recent years, my interest in Zwift wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. What has surprised me however, is how lifelong cyclists and bike racers with decades of experience have truly embraced the platform. Cycling is by no means a new sport, but riders who observe one-hundred-year-old traditions have somehow rapidly made room for this new way of training and connecting with fellow riders. And with this connection, we can see the true potential of augmented reality.

Augmented reality and user experience

Zwift 1

Augmented reality is not supposed to substitute for reality. It, well, augments reality. It adds to the experience. It helps us experience things we might not have been able to otherwise; like training with cyclists from around the world, all while staying away from the rain. Zwift has found a way to connect users on a social platform, all around an augmented reality game. Zwift understands that cyclists love riding together, and that sometimes life gets in the way of “real” rides. The augmented experience brings us together in a new way that isn’t really a substitute, but a great alternative to riding alone on a trainer. Where Zwift has seen success, others are likely to follow. In fact, Zwift recently announced they are adding running to their platform.

If your workout of choice is lucky enough to have an augmented option, ask yourself a few key questions when you kick the tires: does this detract from my experience, or add to it? Is it just a new game, or does it let me connect with others in ways I couldn’t before? Any good design should add to the user experience. Zwift figured that out, and we’re excited to see what other companies can bring to the table.

Come ride with us

Now, if I’ve piqued your interest, you should join the Fell Swoop Racing Team for a ride sometime. Every Wednesday a 5:45pm PT we have an hour-long high-intensity training session. Group rides like these are an everyday occurrence in the cycling world. With casual cycling clubs, friends and racing teams joining one another for a casual spin or team training session. Now these group rides are also happening in a virtual gaming world, and they sure are fun!

So come ride with us: we hope to see you on Zwift.

 

How these 3 Seattle-based retailers are differentiating in Amazon’s backyard.

Previously published Jan 10, 2017 on Geekwire.

The Amazon Bookstore in Seattle – Photo from GeekWire


 

Amazon’s appetite for disrupting retail appears as if it will never be sated. In the past two years, we’ve seen them launch bookstores, add a restaurant delivery service, integrate shopping capabilities into its voice-controlled home assistant Alexa, and beta test an innovative urban grocery store with a virtual checkout.

And they aren’t just innovating.

Amazon’s business results have also impressed. This holiday season Amazon doubled their volume of shipments from 3rd parties – a staggering number when you consider third party fulfillment is not a new offering.

While other retailers cannot keep pace with these volumes, nor with the pace of Amazon’s innovation, they aren’t exactly asleep at the wheel. Last May, I wrote about how born-on-the-web etailers have been opening stores to expand their reach in urban centers.

Meanwhile, traditional retailers, arguably those slow to initially react to the rise of e-commerce, are also fighting back. Filson, Eddie Bauer, and Nordstrom, all Seattle-based, are investing in differentiation, but each in their own way.

With Christmas rapidly approaching, I set out to do some holiday shopping and a bit of field research.

What would Eddie do?

After filing for bankruptcy twice, Eddie Bauer is returning to its mountaineering roots by focusing on performance-based apparel. It’s a crowded field that includes the likes of Patagonia, the North Face, and its in-town direct competitor, REI.

Over the past few years Bauer has been steadily investing in reinvigorating its brand with new campaigns as well as in-store investments to better align with its more focused strategy.

Bauer’s recently remodeled flagship store in Bellevue Square includes a walk-in “Ice Box” to let consumers try on apparel in below freezing temperatures. I must admit on hearing about this I thought it was a bit gimmicky, but, after a quick trial, the ice box is (forgive the pun) pretty cool.

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Upon arrival I was surprised to find I didn’t need to sign a waiver or be escorted by a salesperson to enter the ice box (tip of the hat to Eddie Bauer’s Chief Counsel).

To properly kick the tires, I donned a down jacket and stepped inside. I was looking for something lightweight to wear skiing. I was skeptical that such a light weight jacket would be sufficiently warm, but the ice box field test worked great and assuaged any concerns. In this regard, the in-store experience completed my online research in a way no website could.

Bauer isn’t the first retailer to integrate in-context trial experiences into their stores.

REI’s Seattle flagship has a mountain biking trail and climbing wall. Brooks Running’s flagship store in Fremont integrates stride analysis and treadmills as part of its sales process. Such experiences are great for high consideration purchases where field use is key.

And, importantly, they differentiate the retail experience from what Amazon (presently) offers.

The Personal(ized) Touch

Like Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom is not immune to the challenges of adapting their business in the face of strong online competition and evolving customer needs. Earlier this year Nordstrom laid off hundreds including over 100 technology-related roles, but they haven’t stopped innovating in their e-commerce or in-store experiences.

Renowned for their service, Nordstrom has been exploring different means to play to their strengths. Armed with a very real gift-giving challenge, finding something suitable for my mother’s Christmas present, I decided to pit their recently launched chatbot-based gift recommendation service against an in-store personal stylist in a head-to-head challenge.

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I started with the chatbot experience in hope of avoiding an in-store visit. Integrated directly into Facebook’s messaging client, the user experience of the chatbot was seamless.

However, right at the on-set, the questions didn’t inspire confidence. I was surprised to find age and gender of the recipient weren’t questions.

And the emoji-based questions felt forced. The resulting recommendations were either on-the-nose obvious (the Leica camera presumably derived from my camera emoji choice) or entirely inappropriate for a woman in her 70s (fake tattoos).

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Common sense prevailed so I decided to try my hand with the personal stylist instead.

Right away, the stylist booking experience seemed promising. After selecting my preferred store, I was pleased to see they inquired about the gender of the recipient as well as the nature of the visit. Appointment types ranged from quick updates to multi-hour sessions.

I opted for a half-hour and then was asked to choose a stylist. I found this aspect of the experience wanting as there was nothing to distinguish the stylists save for their name and a clearly template-based description. After a frustrating scheduling process, I provided a briefing on my Mother’s size and preferred brands. An email confirmation arrived immediately.

A few days later, I made my way to the store for my scheduled appointment. As if sensing my location, I received a text message when I entered directing me to the 2nd floor. I was greeted warmly by my stylist, offered a bottle of water, and shown a dressing room laid out with a broad array of choices that were clearly tailored to my appointment.

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I checked a few prices and quickly decided on a vest. I paid for my item, with no additional fees for the style consult, and was out the door with my gift-wrapped package within 15 minutes. Humans 1, chat bots 0.
What I loved about this experience was that it fused the convenience of technology with the human touch. Additionally, it was a great extension of the Nordstrom brand which places a premium on service. Armed with a gift for Mom, it was time to find something for my Dad; an avid outdoorsman and athlete.

Made in the USA

Founded in 1897, Filson is perhaps the longest standing retailer in the Northwest; preceding Nordstrom by 4 years. Getting their start outfitting the stampeders to the Klondike Gold Rush, Filson is dripping with heritage and authenticity.

Their new flagship store south of downtown Seattle is a love letter to active retail with its barn ceiling, open fire place, and integrated restoration department. While the store lacked a means to battle test their gear, they do stand behind it with a lifetime guarantee.

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More than just a flagship store, Filson also does its manufacturing on site. Just below the store you’ll find scores of sewing machines and products in varying states.

Like Shinola, Filson’s partner in watch design, Filson is doubling-down on it’s made in America story which strengthens its brand and helps justify higher price points.

And while I didn’t find a gift for Dad, I did fine some great hiking boots for myself.

A flagship future

If there’s a pattern here it’s retailers finding new ways to tell their brand story by investing in the in-store experience. Forced to reduce costs and shift more business online, retailers will likely continue to shut doors in small markets.

Having fewer stores lets retailers invest in building out flagships in key markets which benefit from not only from international travelers, but also the reversal of urban flight. Cities are becoming increasingly dense which lets flagships do double-duty becoming galleries to market their brands to the affluent masses.

Of the three retailers reviewed only Nordstrom has gone to great lengths exploring different ways to drive users from site to store. Their size and capitalization gives them room to experiment through trials and acquisitions.

Other retailers, no doubt, will benefit from their public experiments, adopting those that work and adapting them to suit their brands and consumers.

There are few industries that adapt as quickly as retail. With Amazon keeping the pedal down we’ve got a front row seat on the future of retail – right in our backyard.

We Gave Adobe Experience Design (XD) a Try. You Should Too.

We like trying new tools, especially ones that aim to improve our design workflow. The faster we can get to a clickable prototype, the faster we can see what works – and what doesn’t. Adobe’s latest all-in-one UX design tool is still in beta, and we’re sure there’s more to come, but we decided to give it a test drive. Here’s what we like so far:

Align objects in a snap.

When everything needs to line up just right, Adobe comes through. XD makes it easy to see the relationships between multiple objects on the page.

Spacing Final

Replicate items with ease.

The Repeat Grid tool lets you replicate any item or groups of items vertically and horizontally with a simple click-and-drag. This saves us tons of time when it comes to creating and editing lists.

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Quickly transition from wireframe to visual design.

It’s in the details. The ability to batch-edit content, both image and text, is a big time-saver for us iterators. That, as well as XD’s thoughtful transform interactions (changing a square to a circle has never been so rewarding).

Circle Final

Although Adobe XD is already a useful tool, it’s not quite ready for prime time. Here’s why:

  • You can’t underline text. A small issue, but this makes a chore out of repetitive tasks (like clearly defining links on the page).
  • There are no interactive html elements. Not being able to test interactions means we’ll still need to lean on other tools.
  • No text styles. It’s hard to keep things consistent without them.

Adobe XD shows plenty of promise and we can’t wait to see how it evolves. Download the beta at Adobe’s website here. You can also take a look at their feature request forum to see what’s being developed and help shape the program yourself.

 

Is responsive design making the web a sea of same?

If 2016 showed us anything in the world of digital design it was the mainstreaming of responsive website design (RWD). From flagship etailers to corporate B-to-B players, responsive sites are everywhere, and, with the continued proliferation of mobile devices, it appears they are becoming the standard.

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For those not familiar with the term, a responsive website adapts to the user’s screen or view port. The result is that a visitor to your site will see the same experience on their ultra-wide monitor as they do on their iPhone. RWD sites are characterized by their fluid grids and flexible images; the necessary ingredients to stack and organize content dynamically as screen sizes change.

Responsive design also has strong support from the development community, who no longer want to support separate sites. Finally, RWD is also Google’s preferred means of making websites mobile-friendly. And once Google shared that mobile friendly design was a contributing factor in their SEO ranking, people really started paying attention.

The drawbacks

While the case for going responsive is strong, its implementation has some drawbacks. Faced with a common problem-set, reducing layouts dynamically, designers and developers have embraced patterns and frameworks. A quick look at a handful of responsive sites and you’ll see the layout similarities; horizontal panels with alternating colors, square modules aligned in rows and columns (AKA card-based designs), an abundance of carousels despite what most conversion studies say, and the ubiquitous ‘hamburger’ icon  providing navigational access.

Compounding the matter is the wide acceptance of development frameworks like Bootstrap that provide working code; making responsive site development faster and cheaper to build, but even more consistent in behavior.

While these conventions are good for users who have become trained-up on how sites behave, they are also limiting. And experience limitations can be problematic in intensely competitive industries like ecommerce. With Amazon looking like an increasingly immovable object it’s up to the individual etailer to create an irresistible experience. It’s a daunting task without added constraints.

Storytelling to the rescue

While responsive design and development frameworks have fostered a more consistent web, there’s no reason you need to make trade-offs between branding and usability. Establishing your brand’s digital experience relies on perhaps the oldest and most effective means of communication – storytelling. Whether describing the story of your founding or simply giving your audience a look inside, an authentic and inspiring story will set your digital experience apart.

Some companies, like Patagonia, have a higher calling like protecting the environment and supporting fair trade. Everything they do is in support of this from the materials they use to the labor they employ. Even their product merchandising frequently takes a back seat to their mission.

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The Warby Parker founding team sought to disrupt the eyewear oligarchy, but similarly value social good. For every pair of glasses sold, Warby gives away a pair. Warby wisely translates this to the impact you have as a consumer; helping others in an enticing one-to-one way.

Buy a pair, give a pair

The key is finding your story and sharing it in an authentic way. Even if your company story lacks an inspiring, change-the-world dynamic, the tale of a problem effectively solved will resonate with the like-minded.

The team at Bonobos couldn’t find a good fitting pair of pants. The founder of Untuckit just wanted to stay untucked. Dollar Shave Club wanted to help men get a great shave at a great price. You get the idea. However, simply having a unique story is just the start. To bring your story to life you need to leverage the three pillars of digital storytelling including great content, impactful photography, and an authentic voice.

Content – the Once and Future King

Leading brands know great stories require great supporting content; whether saving the planet or outfitting you in style. Take the purveyors of men’s style – Mr. Porter. Mr. Porter, an e-tailing stalwart, seeks to make style, and not fashion, socially acceptable for men.

One of the lynchpins in their strategy is to partner with established tastemakers to develop high quality content. The association does double duty as endorsement and provides social air-cover for men who might look at fashion as a knock on their masculinity. Talking a digital page from Esquire Magazine, Mr. Porters’ daily style guides provide a reason to return and great SEO in the process.

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Detroit-based Shinola knows a thing or two about storytelling. By capitalizing on their story of helping resurrect American manufacturing, Shinola has expanded their product line from premium watches to accessories and leather goods. The press-friendly story has helped garner tremendous attention furthering their reach and justifying their high price points.

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A picture’s worth…

The most immediately impactful element of storytelling is great photography. Bang & Olufsen (B & O) are perhaps the most well-regarded designers of home theater and audio systems in the world. What sets B & O apart, aside from their dizzying price points and quality materials, is the industrial design of their products. They don’t just sound great, they function as art. And B & O takes full advantage by integrating their products into lifestyle shots of Soho lofts and Palm Springs bungalows.
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Furniture design upstart JoyBird knows all to well the challenges of selling furniture online. Furniture is tactile, expensive, and often a shared decision; making it a very high-consideration purchase. They check all the boxes with great product photography, but they didn’t stop there. Joybird furniture is also shot in their warehouse; reinforcing their story of American design and manufacturing. Additionally, Joybird has turned storytelling on its head by showcasing customer stories that include gorgeous lifestyle and interior shots of customer homes (carefully curated of course) that allow readers to ‘shop the look.’

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It’s how you say it

In today’s world of bite-sized content it can be easy to dismiss the power of the written word. Don’t fall into this trap. Your brand’s voice is one of the best ways you can distinguish yourself from competitors and resonate with intended customers. A unique voice is particularly important for upstarts trying to make a name for themselves in a crowded field.

Take Dollar Shave Club. They could have focused on the simple articulation of their value proposition; a great and convenient shave at a low price. But that alone wasn’t enough to garner attention. Their bold and humorous web videos took care of that.

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A great voice is also important for brands that have little to no direct person-to-person interaction with their customers. Email marketing power house Mail Chimp could have focused on simply creating an intuitive utility, but their fun and smart tone manages to educate and entertain consumers without being patronizing. Mail Chimp even went so far as to publish their Voice & Tone Guidelines; opening it up and encouraging adoption and adaptation.

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The verdict

Setting your digital experience apart through storytelling isn’t easy, but it’s the best way to set your site apart from others when patterns prevail. And while the conventions of responsive may chafe your inner brand-maven, those patterns are actually helping you tell your story by getting interface problems out of the way so you can focus on what makes you, you. A website’s user experience is like a great musical score. It should support your story, but not distract or deter.

Finally, keep in mind that your website is never done; it’s a fluid presence that should adapt iteratively as you learn how to tell your story more effectively, or as new patterns emerge.

Where social media falls in the hierarchy of needs.

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Social media satiates many basic human needs – the need for entertainment, the need for new information, and at the most fundamental level, the need for human connection. I don’t care what people say about social media making us more disconnected; that’s simply not true. We are just pursuing the same connections we always have through digital channels. More than that, it’s letting us connect to a wider world than ever before; connecting digitally only increases our capacity to invest emotionally, so long as we give ourselves permission to try.

Maslow famously described a basic, animalistic hierarchy, wherein purpose, self-esteem, safety, and love all play a part in fulfillment in our daily lives. I have to believe the wild growth and corresponding entrenchment of social media is a direct result of how strongly it resonates with Maslow’s categories. It can open us up to new purpose and passion by introducing us to new information, goals, and inspiration that we otherwise never would have come across. It can give us a sense of safety in a dangerous world; Facebook, for instance, allows us to near-instantaneously check in with all our loved ones after a tragedy. Finally, it gives us a global community, and helps foster a sense of belonging; boosting our self-esteem with every like or Instagram comment from friends both new and old. Does it feed into our narcissistic side? Well, yes, but that’s a post for another time.

Ultimately, digital connection plays such an important role in our lives because it directly resonates with each of our basic human needs, and does so whether we consciously recognize it or not. For Millennials, it’s already a way of life – they are digitally indigenous and have been exposed to this brave new world from the jump. Maslow probably didn’t foresee a world of upvotes and retweets, but I have to think that if he developed his theory today, there would be a good sized slice of that pyramid set aside for social media.

That’s why it’s so crucial for marketers and brands, and why we have so much success with emotional storytelling: it reaches us at a truly human level. It resonates. It stirs. Ultimately, it spurs us to take action by hitting us where we live. It enriches us.

And if we do right, it enriches our bottom line, too.

Big agency or small agency?

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They’ve both got a decent case to make. With a smaller agency, you can be the big fish in a small pond… but larger agencies are more likely to offer greater creative resources and global reach. Smaller agencies are often more nimble and responsive, while big agencies have deeper pockets and generally wield more power. Over the last 23 years I have been a part of agencies both gargantuan (600+ staff) and miniscule (3 staff), and a few sizes in between.

Given my druthers, I prefer working at a smaller agency. It gives me the chance to make a bigger impact at the firm and shape our performance for the clients we serve; that kind of individual empowerment and freedom is hard to pass up. On the other side of the fence, there are some pretty compelling reasons for clients to choose smaller agencies, too.

For starters, a small agency will be more willing to take on a smaller or pilot project. Onboarding a new client at a large agency often significantly delays the project with red tape and bureaucracy gumming up the works, and those delays make even smaller engagements significantly more expensive. On the other hand, a small agency can often hit the ground running and sort out the details later.

Regardless of agency size, the most talented individuals on the team tend to direct/lead new projects. Large agencies often have their A-players out in front to land a project or client… but once landed, those players largely check out. They’ll still participate in basic drive-by management, and maybe even the occasional meeting or two, but they’re not the ones truly driving and executing the project. Smaller agencies, by contrast, tend to be mostly or entirely A-players as they can’t easily carry lower-tier role players, and must generally “eat what they kill,” so to speak. Any promises they make, they must keep themselves; no handing the scut-work off to interns. From the client POV, there’s no risk of the bait and switch, and an implicit understanding that the people who sold them on an idea are going to be the people executing it.

Additionally, smaller agencies gravitate by necessity to fewer industries and verticals, developing specialized expertise and deeper insight. Larger agencies try to be all things to all clients in order to generate the business volume they need to stay big and bloated; though there are pockets of expertise, those resources can be difficult to find amid the staff, and are often spread thin to the point of irrelevance across an overextended portfolio. At small firms, most people must wear a few specific hats. Smaller agencies often prefer to employ T-shaped staff; people who have broad general knowledge supporting a deeper expertise in a particular area. In most cases, everyone at the company knows who those people are, and what they do best, so projects get staffed with the absolute best team for the job.

Small agencies are also scrappier, usually having fewer layers of management and less bureaucracy. Lower overhead and leaner staffing means you can get more service or product for your dollar. Even at larger agencies, most staff still must account for– and bill– their hours to clients and projects, which means extra hours and fees are often built into budgets to cover supervisory and process staff. Smaller agencies don’t have to serve all those extra financial masters.

There is a story I once heard about Steven Spielberg that echoes this dichotomy. While making the high-profile movie 1941, Spielberg went wildly over budget, and the film was not especially successful. On his next film, Spielberg teamed with George Lucas and his then much smaller and more streamlined production company. Lucas mentored Spielberg in being efficient and deliberate, telling him that he wanted to put every dollar they spent on the screen, not leave them lying on the cutting room floor. The movie they ended up making? Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like it or hate it, Raiders was an astronomical success and, even more impressively, it was exactly the movie they’d set out to make from the start.

The moral of the story? Small agencies must be efficient and deliberate in order to survive. That means delivering top-shelf results for their clients, and they can’t do that if they leave half the budget on the cutting room floor; any small agency that’s been around long enough to make your radar has figured out how to deliver focused, tailored, and efficient work at a level that your average big-time agency doesn’t need to bother with. Your mileage may vary, but in general a smaller agency is giving you more specialized work for less cash; don’t get tricked into making 1941 when what you really want is Raiders.

Building a customer-centered organization from the bottom up

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How many times have you purchased a product or service from an overly attentive sales person only to discover after you’ve signed on the dotted line that the product isn’t all you were told? Perhaps the demos the sales person showed you aren’t actually built yet, or it’s impossible to find the support contact information on the website, or the social channels aren’t effectively addressing customer questions and concerns. These poor experiences result in an increase in churn, or loss of customers. It’s commonly accepted that retaining existing customers and reducing churn is the best way to continually build and grow a business. It’s simply more cost effective than generating new leads and converting new customers. This thinking has led to a greater emphasis on improving the customer experience across all phases of the customer journey.

Leading companies have addressed this by embracing customer-centered design, the methodology of conducting research to understand customer needs and using those findings to inform business, marketing and product decisions. Effectively involving customers and users in the marketing and design processes.

Below are the typical phases of a customer journey, who typically owns them within an organization, and the digital channels most commonly relied on during each phase of the journey.

  • Phase 1: Awareness
    • Owner: Marketing
    • Common Digital Channels: Social, Email, Online Video, Branded Content, Online Advertising
  • Phase 2: Evaluation
    • Owner: Marketing
    • Common Digital Channels: Website, Online Video
  • Phase 3: Acquisition
    • Owner: Marketing, Sales
    • Common Digital Channels: Website, App
  • Phase 4: Engagement
    • Owner: Product, Support
    • Common Digital Channels: Website, App
  • Phase 5: Advocacy
    • Owner: Product, Marketing
    • Common Digital Channels: Social

Creating a cohesive and optimized customer experience across all of these phases is incredibly difficult. Even companies known for a strong focus on customer experience have their weak links. To address these challenges companies have created new C-level leadership roles such as the Chief Experience Officer; a role focused exclusively on optimizing the customer experience across an organization. As obvious as this sounds, most organizations have yet to develop this role, and even if they have, many departments are often still working in isolation and out of alignment with the company’s broader vision.
If you find yourself in an organization such as this, what can you do to help optimize your funnel for long term success?

Step 1: Create a Customer-Centered Advocacy Team

It’s not uncommon for a marketing team and a product team within the same organization, who are theoretically (and ideally) serving the same customers, to have a completely different set of customer profiles or personas or none at all. It’s impossible to optimize the customer journey if your organization isn’t aligned around who your customers are and what they need.

Without top down leadership it’s difficult to define and distribute this type of information, and this is where bottom-up action needs to take place. One solution is to develop an ad-hoc team of representatives across marketing, sales, product, engineering and support. Working together, you can pool their diverse knowledge and expertise to document the knowns and unknowns that define your customers and the current state of the customer journey for your products or services.

Step 2: Conduct Market and User Research

Many organizations have clearly defined audience segments that identify market opportunities and include demographic and psychographic profiles. These profiles are necessary, but if they don’t include a deeper understanding of customer needs and goals when interacting with various touch-points throughout a funnel, they’ll be of limited use at best. At worst, they’ll be actively counter-productive, as departments within an organization end up making surface-level assumptions that lead to poor user experiences.

The solution is to ensure that market research and user research is not only conducted, but intelligently captured and utilized. Market research will clarify who you are actually targeting (as opposed to who you think you’re targeting) and the market fit for your product or service. User research will identify customer needs as well as specific goals and tasks your customers and users will want to accomplish when reading a content marketing piece, filling out a form in your buy flow, or using your digital product.

Step 3: Define The Ideal Customer Journey

Once you’ve developed a customer-centered advocacy team and clearly defined the market and user research, you can begin to document the ideal cross-channel customer journey, factoring in how a customer moves through your funnel and interacts with every touch-point along the way.
Every touch-point is an opportunity to address your customers’ or users’ needs. Customer-centered thinking can help you win customers at every step of the funnel. Here are some examples:

  • Awareness – Branded and social media content address actual questions and needs you know that customers have regarding your service because you’ve done the research.
  • Evaluation – Your website addresses your customer needs first and makes sure that the content your users are looking for is easy to understand and easy to use by conducting usability studies.
  • Acquisition – Ensure that your sales staff and your online buy flows are saying the same things.
  • Engagement – Make sure your product or service includes features your customers actually need and want, and that you make sure support content is available in any channel that customers may interact with, especially social.
  • Advocacy – You make it easy for customers to share good things about you in social media, and when they start a conversation, you actually respond, building a relationship between the brand and the customer.

This is only scratching the surface, of course, but it’s a solid foundation to build from.

Step 4: Share and Promote

Once you’ve formed an advocacy team, conducted market and user research, and developed a well-informed customer journey, you need to sell that vision across your organization. Be prepared for resistance, especially if that vision was shaped from the ground up without early buy-in from high-stream movers and shakers. In my experience, one thing that has always ensured a more receptive audience is presenting the nuts-and-bolts research and data to build your case, and present your analysis and vision to finish it. We all live and die by ROI today, but pure quantitative data alone isn’t enough. You need to paint a picture of the people your organization serves. You want each individual in your organization to empathize with end customers. To do this, you need to conduct qualitative research. Conduct interviews, usability studies and focus groups and capture video. Produce a short piece that emphasizes the key attributes of your customers and help the people in your organization digest this information as easily as possible. Tell them the data, show them the value.

If you’re successful in all of this, not only will you be helping your organization become more customer-centered, you will be improving the bottom line as well by designing campaigns, products and services that people need and want. Maybe your efforts will get you some attention, too. Maybe you’ll be your company’s first Chief Experience Officer.