Ian’s Last Post @ EAT

Here’s the short version:

Next week, I will be joining Razorfish.

Britta will be taking over EAT and bringing it back to its roots: Content strategy, content development and strategic consultation.

Here’s the longer version:

Nine years ago, Britta and I launched EAT as a content agency.

At the time, we were New York expats living in South Florida, a little beat up by the dot com bust but driven to carve out our own path. And we did. We bought a pink 1920s fixer-upper a block from the water. We spent the days tearing down ceilings, walls and floors, and the evenings building a business on our laptops.

That’s not a metaphor. I mean that literally.

EAT beginnings

As advertising/publishing/tech people, there wasn’t a ton of work for us down in swampland. But we’re a resourceful team and before we knew it, had two big named clients with big content and strategy needs. We hadn’t ever heard of a content agency, but that’s what we were starting. It wasn’t long before a baby came, and then our first office, and then our first employees. Our little agency was cranking out tens of thousands of words of high quality branded content each month and the strategic “how” requests about content kept rolling in. Those were the golden days of content, before Demand Media became a thing.

Soon clients started to ask us to run their web projects from start to finish. And there we were happily in the UX/CX business delivering the entire experience: strategy, IA, design, code and content. That’s when we brought out the big guns, the tomahawks and the jeweler’s screwdrivers in a quest to deliver content-first experiences — from content audits to wireframes to designing and building the full-blown kit and kaboodle. The Sunshine State was smiling on us but one fateful day, while on a bizarro vacation (leaving Florida to vacation in Cape Cod) we realized the Northeast was really home. Ten days later we packed up whatever would fit in a Uhaul and moved back to New York — just before our second child was born. Then last year we had two more children (at the same time). Suffice to say we like change. We trust that knowing and intuiting are fine paths to follow separately or together, in life and in work.

So, while I’ve led the charge speaking and blogging about CS/UX and other topics (hip hop, ahem) over the past few years, Britta is the content strategy superstar and she’s back from the land of spit up and strollers. Clients love her advertising background, strategic mind, and love of bringing law and order to content. She’s going to carry on the torch that went from NY > FL > NY and now resides in Dobbs Ferry, aka the town that built Zuckerberg.

I’ve had the great fortune to work with universities, Fortune 500 companies, non-profits and startups. I’ve hit some projects out of the park, struggled and learned lessons from other ones. Some clients have become great friends and others trusted advisors. My peers in the CS/UX/Design/Code/agency community have been unbelievably influential and generous.

Along the way, I’ve seen content strategy go from something clients asked us to remove from the proposal (“just dump the dollars into design”) to something clients seek out. I’ve watched UX go from a nice to have to a must have. And I’m currently enjoying the championing of change management as it relates to digital.

I will miss our team, our sweet office overlooking the Hudson and the challenges of a running a small biz.  But I’m excited to see Britta’s passion and talent take the driver seat — hire EAT here. Excited to work with peers @ Razorfish whose work I’ve admired for years.  Excited to immerse myself in service design, product strategy and UX over at Razorfish. Excited for the challenge of change itself and the opportunity to exceed expectations.

I’ve been more than lucky to work with great people over the last 10 years including:  @brittaalexander, @ninamaxdaly, @dougrushkoff, @heatherfield, @jonathanmaziarz, @wendybiddlecombe, @johnmiller, @kristinejubek, @briandurkin. With an especially huge thanks to @brianhughes. And a best partner in the world huge thanks to @johnfakorede.

Stay tuned. Stay relevant and be good.

Thanks for everything,

Ian

P.S. I’ll be continuing to blog @ UXtopian.com and opining on Twitter @IanAlexanderNY

CANTEEN – A Content Strategy Project Framework

The contract is signed. The check has cashed. Now what?

There are many ways to kick off your content strategy project. Here’s where we start.

How to start a content strategy project with CANTEEN

CA  – Content Assessment
Rarely do you start with a blank slate. More often than not there’s a legacy site, one-sheets, old campaigns, white papers and newsletters to review. Discard what’s irrelevant, shelve what needs help and indicate what’s core to the brand and the business goals. (Don’t forget to review analytics.)

N – Navigation
Establish your navigation and information architecture after you have vetted your content, pinpointed your target audience and prioritized your CTA.

T – Test
Test your assumptions and initial flows with users first, stakeholders second.

E – Exit page
Design the exit page. This could be the receipt post-purchase/signup or even the entire check-out flow. Crafting the end of the experience first ensures the customer’s experience is in sync with your business goals.

E – Entrance page
Design the homepage, or a key landing page. Build off of the previous decisions to craft an engaging experience with a clear path, a strong CTA and a healthy balance of trust, perception and information.

N – Say “No”
Whether you are a stakeholder, project manager, developer or designer – find a way to politely say “no” to communicating too much. More satisfies in meetings but performs poorly in practice.

Drink up friends.

—Ian

8-Bit Inspiration – A Free eBook From EATagency

8-Bit Inspiration is an ebook about the lessons we learned from the Golden Age of arcade gaming, and how to use them to make your product/service better than ever. We touch on the classics: PacMan, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, as well as UX, change management and lean methodology.

Enjoy!

8-Bit Inspiration: The Golden Age of Arcade Games Can Make You a Better Designer and Strategist

EATagency8BitStrategyCover

 

-Ian

Kids Play With Rocks All the Time

Kids play with rocks all the time but we never let them play with matches. That’s because anyone can strike a match.

One match head against a striking surface can set just about anything flammable ablaze. Once it ignites, there’s no turning back. But slamming two rocks together in search of a spark requires a more discretionary process of arrangement: tinder, then kindling, and finally timber. There is an investment in process, a study in vantage points and respect for the craft of getting it right. Spark + oxygen + tinder is a ceremony of creativity—an investment in the potential of change.

No matter how lean your thinking, there is always the hope that this solution, the one you’re sketching out right now is the one. Perhaps with just a few minor tweaks, this could be it. Business objectives addressed—check. Users needs solved—check. Market and pricing established – check and check. If we can just present this to the client correctly, we’re golden. (High fives around the room.)

Queue up Powerpoint and Omnigraffle. Volley the pitch language back and forth on Google Docs. Set that meeting to present your solution to the client and then: wait. Perhaps you tweak, polish some pixels, sharpen the copy but mostly, you wait.

Patience vs Waiting
Patience makes the choice to select small rewards in the short term—or to hold out for a more valuable reward further down the road. Waiting consists of sitting on your hands, in suspension until the next move or counting on being selected. (More often the latter.)

Waiting is a common trait of the failed solution. It often highlights failures in client/agency or intradepartmental communication, lack of clarity in scope, or a broken/unearned circle of trust. It’s an indicator that those grand ideas will likely remain ideas, or else be sublimated by committee. The reason? The environment required to nurture the solution is not in place. The change management required for the concept to flourish is too much for your organization to tackle.

Friction is a necessity of good creativity
Differences of opinion get a bad rap. Exchanging information about a project—data points, best practices, past project histories, team members, business goals, user needs etc.—is an exercise that thrives on the collision of assumptions. It’s the consistency of that friction which creates energy and change, not the big presentation or the one-off strike. In fact the danger is the one off strike, the big simplified presentation.

We want both to cut our meetings down to 15 minutes and ensure that we are leaving no stone unturned in our discovery and research as we march towards an innovative solution. But you can’t have both until you are operating in a culture that values true solutions. Finding the next great idea or innovation is not that hard if you are patient. There are smart, talented people in your organization (or at the agency you work with) with creative concepts that, with a little friction, could start a fire that radically improves your business. But friction requires two stones, not a stone and wall. Untangling the resistance to change is often an exercise in artfully reassessing power structures. That’s sometimes really hard work. The answer is not a new creative director or an agency shift or a revolving door of CMOs, but a commitment to a culture where friction is honored as a means for propulsion.

 

-Ian

Getting Beat Up is Good

Lessons from a 17-year-old MMA fighter with limited English to whom I gave a ride home last week.

“If you don’t get beat up when you are sparring. This is no good. You not learn anything.”

Great fighters have amazing footwork. They know when to circle away from a punch, when to pivot and when to push off and into an opponent. Great product managers (developers) apply similar techniques. They know when to avoid feature rabbit holes, when to take things in another direction and when to race ahead.

Climbing into the ring is hard part #1. But putting yourself in a position to get knocked around a little bit is the only way to become #1.

-Ian

Staples On a Telephone Pole

We still see staples on a telephone pole — the analog begetting the digital — staples as remnants of past messages. There’s something nice about seeing a flyer stapled to utility pole. It’s a reminder that the tactile, the tangible — the item, or service, or support – is the end goal. It’s why the NFC ‘hello’ bump is a hollow substitute for the handshake. Google Hangouts is an intermediary for sitting across the table.

All of our techie innovations seek to simulate in-person actions or interactions. As a brand, this places us at the slender intersection of convenience and personalization — this is the playground of #CX: Customer Experience.

There are approximately 130 million creosote-soaked trees propping up the ones and zeroes that drop packets into your devices. Yet most towns have a host pole with paper flyers for local sales, a band playing at the coffee shop or a house for sale – your iPhone and Facebook have not taken this away. In contrast there are 3.85 billion web pages (as of today), each one of them seeking a physical reaction: a purchase, a sign up, a laugh, a cry, a “hmm”, a share or a view of a brand message.

Technology aims to reduce effort but it never replaces interactions. When you are designing your customer experience bear in mind that email newsletters, tweets, micro-sites, mobile and surveys are tactics that employ scents of your brand. But when the next newsletter comes into a customer’s email box will they remember you? Or will you be another rusted staple on the telephone pole?

 

—Ian

 

 

 

“Being on Fire Is Your Emergency. Is This Correct?” Says Veronica in Customer Service

When I lived in Florida, I got to watch my SUV go up in a ball of flames while I was driving it. I was stopped at a red light when a kind gentleman with gonads hanging off his trailer hitch, and a decal of Calvin peeing on the Ford logo, rolled down his window. “Hey partner. You got some flames there,” he said pointing to my hood. I didn’t see any flames, but I got out anyway and opened the hood, at which point I saw a lot of flames. The light turned green, Citizen of the Month Mr. Truck Nuts rolled on by and I started scrambling to empty my truck of everything inside before it got char broiled.

Right about then, I spotted three fire trucks heading my way. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I started jumping up and down, waving my hands, pointing frantically at the flames — I may have even made a suggestive/ambiguous “I need a hose” gesture. But the guys driving the firetruck just smiled, and waved, and drove on by as the flames rose higher and higher and my SUV got meltier and meltier. For the next few months I cursed firetrucks and firefighters nonstop. Until someone explained to me that the headquarters for Pierce (where 25+% of all American fire trucks are manufactured) is about a block and half away from where my SUV had bitten the dust. Those hadn’t been firemen driving past me. They were Pierce workers test-driving the new trucks.

Problem + solution / timing

You’ve got a product. It solves a specific problem. Your customer/user, has that problem plus a credit card. Seems like a match made in heaven – until something stops working. When that something isn’t working on the provider side (like a user’s credit card not authorizing), you dispatch an immediate email, clearly communicate what needs to be corrected, and when, and what the consequences will be if it goes unaddressed – the account will be cancelled, access to files will be limited, or some other kind of wrist-slap. But when a user communicates a problem to the provider, the effect doesn’t always happen in reverse. It should.

Don’t get me wrong, not all customer emails are relevant. But they almost always tell us a story about our organizations — good or bad. Many users, especially of SaaS tools, send emails to customer service because the product either doesn’t work as advertised or they simply don’t understand how it works. When they send that email they are likely smack-dab in the middle of trying to do something timely, perhaps even urgent. The immediate problem for the user is only one of many challenges for the product/company. We read a lot about email overload and how to segment important emails from urgent ones. That’s probably adequate on the user side, but the challenge for products lies in time and transparency.

The time between a problem being identified and solved is not nearly as important as the time between its being identified and a user communication response being dispatched. This time gets conflated and compounded through the transparency of social media and outbound marketing communications. When a user receives a 20% off coupon before getting a real response to their service ticket, it feels like a personal affront. It’s not, but it feels that way. When a user sees a tweet or Facebook post from a brand they are waiting to hear from personally, they start to distrust the brand. Every public communication a brand makes is directed at both the singular user and the using collective. So when the single user has an unresolved issue and sees a communication to the group, which doesn’t address that issue, they make one of two assumptions:

1) The next guy or new user is more important that me.

2) You read but ignored my concern.

You’ll notice that neither of these assumptions include – “perhaps they didn’t get my message.” The SEND button presumes receipt, and tools like Yesware can verify receipt—and open—and reply. Sometimes your users calmly describe a problem, other times they frantically wave their hands and point at a fire that is (or isn’t) there. Customer Service is eventually about discerning real problems. But even before that, it’s about servicing the customer. That may mean extinguishing a real product-related fire, or just letting someone know you heard their concern. When brands have time to communicate to unknown prospects on social media, but don’t have time to respond to customer service emails, the message is clear — “Next in line.”

You may need to provide a candle to light the user’s way. Or a hose to stifle a conflagration. If you do nothing else, respond with a note to say “I hear you.”  If you don’t, your old customers will soon be driving past you as you wave to them with coupons, e-vites and surveys. Their fires may have burned out by then, but yours might just be starting to smoke.

—Ian

 

 

Experiences Redefined

A cascade of social feedback alters our construction of experience to a degree that it can no longer really be considered “ours.” With the advent of social media the stages of experience are blending together, and accelerating, for better or worse. We now have to contend not only with the experience as it occurs, but with the echoing replicants that recording engenders.

Daguerre brought us the first replicant experience, but in his day distribution was limited, feedback virtually non-existent, and iterative capabilities slow and costly. What in Daguerre’s time proved to be a mostly two-stage experience of observation and capture today stretches into 6 rapid, self-reflexive stages:

1) The event in real time – watching my 5-year-old play Galaga.

2) Interruption for the purpose of capture – the decision to grab my phone and take a picture/video.

3) The immediate re-experiencing of the event – watching what “just happened” on the device. (sometimes while the event is still in progress).

4) Dissemination of the event – uploading and sharing the picture/video.

—An abyss of ownership in which control is transferred to those experiencing its recorded replicant (i.e. those not present)—

5) Reaction to the now-public event – social feedback and reinterpretation.

6) The experience redefined – Comments and opinions generated by social feedback, insinuate themselves and reshape the original experience.

As a company, or an individual, you need to think about all of these stages. An original experience – a conference , a sale, an open house – is a fleeting moment which shrinks in contrast to the eternity represented by its social reception and reassignment. Most brand experiences quickly become content, and content has endless options for new layers. But absent a cosmic Ctrl-Z or the ability to control those endless layer, what can content become? What you create and choose to share is a handoff to strangers with bullhorns and billboards. You need to determine if you are sharing content that will help you connect, serve as distraction or find redefinition as something you didn’t expect – good or bad.

 

—Ian

UX Voyeurism

I recently helped a friend perform a usability study and got a chance to see how he worked—and how his working affected where the actual finish line was. Inspiring stuff. The magic was not in the tools he and his team were using, but the speed and focus applied to the project.

Most projects resemble a game of Tron. Decisions that you, or your team, made three turns ago create roadblocks for decisions yet to be made. Sometimes budgets are to blame, other times platforms change their TOS, but more often it’s a case of getting caught staring at the finish line and missing the pothole two steps ahead. When you take the time to watch how someone else performs product design & UX (and trust me, this was, a performance) the spectator in you extracts process details and connects dots.

Meanwhile, back in my friend’s office, they are not manhandling an idea towards a subscribed goal. Instead they are letting the goal drive them towards some thing, some idea yet to be flushed out, nailed down and fully defined. The process of Lean, and being nimble, is just as exciting staring in from the outside as it is rolling in the trenches. Pull the curtain back, way back and get a good look.

–Ian

Content Doesn’t Like Band-Aid Solutions

A new app, an old site. A pristine Band-Aid, clean out of the box—a fresh scrape.

As a father of four, who recently made the chancy decision to build a bike ramp out of whatever was around, I’ve had a lot of time to think about Band-Aids lately. The bandage itself doesn’t heal the wound. Scrapes and nicks heal from the inside out. A band-aid covers over injuries, keeping them away from further harm. But left on too long, they actually slow down the repair process.

Likewise, content resists surface (Band-Aid) solutions because it resides at the core of your offering. Covering over content problems with a new CMS or a reskin keeps the poison in your system. Eventually the untreated system infects other systems and the beige perforated mask that was supposed to help, hurts. You could go to the doctor but you likely want to keep things in-house. Do you know what the actual problem is? When you find the root of the infection, how deep do you go? We would say: all the way down. But then, of course we would.

This is reality: You’ve got limitations—to your budget, your time, your patience. But if you can’t solve content complications at the foundation (if you can’t clean out the wound), at the very least don’t make things worse by covering over it with a big-beige complexity. You may think you can just keep replacing Band-Aids ad-infinitum but that strategy will get you sick, and tired.

Better to let your content air out than keep it covered and not know what’s going on under there.

 

–Ian