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

Incorporating Random Chance into UX Design

Netflix recently presented a neat model for working random chance into UX design when they rolled out A/B testing for their new My List feature—an alternative to their long-running Queue feature. The new design comes packaged with a Random Suggestion carousel on top of more tightly focused behavioral-adaptative recommendations. It’s a smart way to get around the problem that automated curation can cause. We’ve all run into Pandora or Spotify dead-ends, where one lousy day of appreciating Gordon Lightfoot’s genius comes back to haunt your recommendations for months to come. It’s an unintended consequence of behavioral adaptive AI: a feedback loop of ever-narrowing personalization that shrinks your taste to a cartoon of itself.

Evolutionary change occurs via random mutations, and non-random selection that comes from interaction with the environment. In the world of content strategy and design, that environment is your iterative or editorial process, the testing field which determines those new forms to keep and those to discard. In the user’s interaction with your product, it takes the form of experimentation and selection with novel content.

Incorporating random chance into your design gives you and your users the opportunity to break out of old habits, to test new content, expose yourselves to new markets, and maybe, if you’re lucky, grow a little as individuals. It’s an escape hatch from the echo chamber, a way around those occasions when we don’t quite know what we want. It’s a free bit of insight into what’s been overlooked. Tap into that expansive, multifaceted quality of your users. Open your UX to the possibility of a little luck and you’ll discover unthought-of directions.

Ask the Dumb Questions

“Question Everything” is a hammer and a magnifying glass. Depending on its use, it can undermine certainty or clarify understanding. The difference usually lies in the complexity of the question. The bloggable twist: contrary to supposition, the “dumber” the question, the greater the clarity.

Ask the dumb question. Start with the dumbest and work your way up to smart. It’s the dumbest questions that offer the incontrovertible facts. It’s the smart ones that leave otherwise intelligent people debating semantics, or how many use cases can dance on the head of a pin.

It’s inevitable that people will initially advocate for a strategic path that treats dissent as adversarial—to be overruled. Conversely, an unconvinced party will treat pre-buy-in strategy as antithesis to be undermined. An adversarial approach to truth-finding might serve us judicially, but in product-development or content strategy, consensus is the interpersonal goal, while maximal simplicity/grace—not zero-sum victory—is the material goal. The dumber the question, the more incontrovertible the resolution, the less potential for antagonism.

Non-technical stakeholders have a right to explanations that start with no-brainer antecedents and expand from there. Developers shouldn’t be expected to divine nuts-and-bolts logic from high-flown abstractions. You all deserve a map of the decisions and assumptions that have moved your project from the crudest axioms to the most refined experiences.

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

 

 

 

Two Types of Work

Your Bottom Line is Your Customer’s Experience

Finished products are often merely that – finished. Nothing more, nothing less — just complete. We’ve all been involved in these projects. Necessary on some level but uninspired, destined to move no needles nor make any waves. Upgrades rarely reassess. Instead they operate under the assumption that the original, proven hypothesis is still relevant—well, maybe it isn’t. Things change.

Projects that affect your customers aren’t ever finished. Done correctly, these projects never really end.  Customer-first projects operate under the assumption that a hypothesis is always worth going back to, that nothing is forever and that everything changes, quickly and dramatically.

Asking why is the exhaustive (and exhausting) work that puts your users’ ever-changing needs ahead of yours. And your users are more nimble than you. They’re more up to date, more connected and unfortunately more fickle. They don’t have ERPs/CRMs/customer service systems that need to be integrated. They don’t need policies and style guides to use the latest social media tool.

This makes the kind of work we do every day vital. When your customers are researching brands on the web or cruising around Facebook, they aren’t concerned with social media budgets or test markets. They only care about how interacting with your brand makes them feel. The trust you’ve established after 50 years of making pants or flour or bikes might be worth something. But unless you’re selling cigarettes (please don’t be selling cigarettes), brand loyalty is a scarce commodity. Customers/users will happily follow whatever new brand speaks to and engages them. Your ad spend muddies the issue. Your tagline likely means nothing to them.

What matters are the uncounted little things: The thoughtful design of a receipt. Copy in a thank-you email that exceeds boilerplate. A careful wrapping job. The feeling that they are the only customers in the world. These little things are the Big Thing—the Only Thing. This is today’s marketing work, content strategy work, UX work—even product work. The budget may be fixed, but you always have the opportunity to choose what type of work to do.

You Can Do Things Your Way or Your Customer’s Way

Your Way – (Potentially) Insignificant change, pursued because doing otherwise would be operationally painful to someone with the authority to veto big change. This type of work is usually performed in a vacuum and will have a minor impact on customers.

Your Customer’s Way – Inspirational, change-making adaptations that reshape how an organization relates to its customers. This work will likely have you reassessing your business goals and customer experience. The beauty is that it risks so little financially. The dread is that it will lead to sincerity, transparency, change—that it will succeed.

Jamming together

In the early 90s I sang in rock band. We were very popular, had major label record interest and despite barely being able to play guitar I wrote most of the songs. How did I do this you ask? I had help, lots of help. Romas Banatis, knife maker extrordinaire was my muse. Romas would spend hours listening to me fumble through song parts. Sitting on milk crates next to one another, he would reconstruct my guitar parts with the patience of a saint and transform them from barely distinguishable notes into songs.

“You mean like this?”

“Faster or slower?”

“Play me that part again.”

The result was a few songs on the local radio, some great shows and a creative partnership that centered around communicating an idea through song.

You see, sometimes the person with clearest vision and the biggest inspiration lacks the creative and/or technical capability to create the thing. And that’s ok. The inability to do can be overcome with the ability to communicate. Clunky chords or crappy napkin sketches can get the job done just fine. What’s required is an inspirational communicator and a great listener capable of asking questions, plus an agreed upon language (design language, brainstorming language) that will help  move you both towards a known goal.

People like my friend Romas are creative extraction experts — they see (more often sense) the germ of an idea and dig and pull and polish until it shines. UX designers and strategists perform much the same task. They pull and push, dig and polish, pivot and trash – until they find something that resonates with business goals and users.

When incredibly solid ideas and clearly stated problems are on the table you either won the proverbial Business Problem Lottery or something is fishy in fluorescent light land. More often things are undefined, problems are symptomatic of deeper problems but there’s always the temptation of the quick fix, the predictable coda. Resist that – there is no there, there.

The solution need not be obtuse but does need to work in harmony with systems, staff and users. Client and agency need to sit on milk crates (sketch on whiteboards) and jam until the solution and the idea have a harmony, a rhythm and a progression. Sitting with stiff fingers until one or the other says – “That sounds nice, play that again.”

The agency may have the perfect solution day one, or the client may have half the problem solved before they hire outside help. But creating a song isn’t a race, a solution shouldn’t be either.

Better Time Management and the Power of Pine-Sol, Baby

If I were craftier, I’d embroider Conran’s Rule of Housework* on pillows and trade them to agencies around town for cases of Diet Sunkist (aka ‘Daddy’s medicine’). There’s nothing like a time limit to winnow away the detours and eliminate those moments of self-doubt that drag fresh mornings into late nights. There’s no time for the fussiness that makes designs labored and heavy, no time to get lost in theory. Simplicity is speed and limitations mean freedom from distraction. The pressure of deadlines may be inspirational or paralyzing, but boundaries will always put focus back on the fundamentals.

*“It expands to fill the time available plus half an hour.”

You’re Going to Need to Wear Boots

When you go home tonight, put your bag down, do your Mr. Rogers thing and change into house clothes. But this time, leave the boots on – or put boots on if you have to – either way you’ll need boots. Next, find some groovy music. I recommend Massive Attack or Bowery Electric, anything without a ton of lyrics, or that reminds you of high school or is in 3/4 time. Head to the bathroom and grab a few towels, place them on the kitchen floor near the drawers and cabinets.

Now open your silverware drawer. If you have one of those utility-shit-collecting-random-utensil drawers, open that too. Pull the drawer out until it’s just about to snap the rails. Now here comes the moment of faith. I want you to pull the drawers all the way out and dump them on the floor into individual towels. You’re going to see corks, crumbs, tablespoons, toothpicks, spoons, knives, a broken #4 candle, a ketchup packet and the thermometer that only reads in celsius. I told you to wear boots.

Congratulations, this is day one of a UX/CS project.

Project Steps:

Step one: Toss the crap out.

Step two: Figure out if the drawer location is correct based on the flow of your kitchen. If it isn’t currently in the right place, locate the appropriate drawer location – pull that drawer out and dump contents onto the floor. Repeat Step one.

Step three: Clean everything. Put things into piles. If a friend calls say you’re busy, “knee-deep in taxonomy, bro.”

Step four: Determine what needs to go back in the original drawer. If you had to empty other drawers, cinch up those towels and put them aside. These are out-of-scope projects you’ll need to address later.

Step five: Sketch out an insert tray that holds all the items in the orignal drawer. Get some cardboard, scissors and tape — mock-up and adjust until all the items fit and contain a hierarchy appropriate with usage.

Step six: Schedule a dinner party where everyone has to cook their own dish at your house. If they question you about the other towels and missing drawers, blame it on the landlord or your father-in-law. Watch how the drawer is used, take notes and after they leave adjust your mock-up.

Step seven: Make a final product keeping in mind future utensil purchases.

Step eight: Order take-out.

 

—Ian