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Approaching Content Strategy for Personalized Websites

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |19 May 15 |

There’s a curious concept in astrophysics known as the Drake Equation. Developed to quantify the potential for intelligent life in our galaxy, it raises a number of odd questions, among them: does having intelligence, in the long run, actually benefit or harm a species? In other words, will amoebas ultimately outlive humans in the face of eternity?

If you’re like me, these are the types of things you think about while listening to hold music before conference calls. But as a content strategist, I can’t help but ask the same question about something my clients suddenly seem to be clamoring for: personalized user content.

It sounds great in theory: content that is more targeted to the user can provide a richer, more precise experience. But there is also a dark side: used improperly, targeting risks invading privacy and eroding trust. As Drake supposes, true intelligent life is rare, in part because it has the potential to destroy itself.

So how might you dip into this intelligence without wrecking your content in the process? How can we approach personalized content in a way that is sustainable and respectful, not self-destructive?

Personalization basics

For good or for evil

At a basic level, personalization (aka targeting) means serving unique content to a user based on something we know about him or her—from geographic location to specific browsing history. And as you’ve likely observed, the value of personalization is largely in how you wield it. It’s helpful to us when Amazon makes recommendations based on our past viewing history. Conversely, we’ve all been bothered at some point by a creepy targeted ad—the one that either somehow knows too much about you, or is trying to sell something you don’t want.

Historically, the average UX person hasn’t played much of a role in either of these scenarios, the latter being controlled by online marketers, the former monopolized by the Amazons of the world. But the recent advent of so-called “experience management systems”—like Adobe Experience Manager, Sitecore Experience Platform, and Episerver Personalization Manager—has (somewhat precipitously) made the ability to personalize content more accessible to clients. You don’t have to look much further than the goodie bag from the last conference you attended to see that all of the big name CMSes are now aggressively marketing their own flavor of personalization software.

Do you even need it?

So what do you do when your client says they want to personalize content? The good news is that the foundation of personalized content strategy is the same set of tools you know and love: a core strategy statement, a set of guiding principles, and a basic content model. You now must consider how (or if) targeting can advance these directives. For example:

Good reasons to target site content:

  1. Your audience can be segmented in ways that are meaningful.
  2. Narrowing your message provides incremental value to your users.
  3. Personalized content is tied to specific KPIs or business objectives.

Bad reasons to target site content:

  1. Because we can.
  2. Some variation of #1.

You may face some strong headwinds if your client just bought a shiny new EMS and can’t wait to start solving world hunger. Again, as is always the case with the technology du jour, the product demos for these things are very seductive and typically involve light shows and kittens and free ecstasy. You may have to be the voice of reason. But that’s why you went to content strategy school, right?

Partial steam ahead!

Next, consider your targeting technology. As a general rule, the systems that support targeted content will be one of two things:

  1. Rules-based: The more manual approach, this involves setting up discrete audience segments in the system and writing rules for when and how to show them content. Example: It looks like Colin’s IP address is from Washington, DC, so let’s show him what we show everyone in that location.
  2. Algorithm-based: The “secret sauce” approach, this focuses less on the overall segment and more on a specific user’s behavior. Example: Colin clicks on 3.65 articles/day about soup, so let’s show him a campaign for soup.

For our purposes, we’ll take a closer look at a rules-based model, since this is more likely what you’ll be running into if your client is just starting out with personalization. You’ll first need to determine your “segments.” Similar to UX personas, segments are groups of users with some distinguishing set of traits like age, interest, or location. The difference here is that a targeted segment will be determined by real-time data, either internal or external to your site. Typically this data will be fed through some type of centralized rules engine accessed by your CMS.

Applying a personalized content framework

This is all getting a bit abstract, so let’s imagine for a moment that we’re creating a new site for An Airline Apart (obviously the next logical brand extension). We want to target busy creative professionals who travel regularly for work. What online content should we create to give us an edge with this audience?

Our first bright idea is to start a content campaign that takes the stress out of business travel. Easy enough, right? But that actually makes a lot of assumptions—what does “stressful” even mean? Can we break it down by audience?

Defining segments

A recent study from Carlson Wagonlit Travel asked 7,400 global business people who travel regularly for work to rank how stressful business travel is to them at each stage of their trip. Here’s what they found, sorted by gender:


A chart showing how men and women feel stress at different times during travel.

Source: Harvard Business Review. Data from HEC, Carlson Wagonlit.

There are clear differences: women tend to find the pre-trip phase the most stressful, while for men this is the least stressful phase. And for some reason, at the post-trip phase, it’s the complete opposite.

It gets even more interesting. Here’s what happened when they sorted the data by role:


A chart showing how people in different roles feel stress at different times during travel.

Source: Harvard Business Review. Data from HEC, Carlson Wagonlit.

According to this, business travel stress changes wildly depending on company role. For example, high-level employees are least stressed before the trip, and more stressed after; for support staff, it’s the total opposite.

Now, if we were doing this properly, we would absolutely want to drive into the “why” behind this. But for the sake of our sample exercise, we have more than enough justification to pursue a segmented content approach to our campaign. We could potentially set up 12 segments across gender and role in our system; here, though, let’s limit our focus to senior execs, male and female.

Mapping segments to content

From a technical point of view, personalizing content comes down to running targeted rules on individual components on a page. So let’s say we have our An Airline Apart homepage with typical content zones. If we didn’t know who you were, we would show our usual default content:


A wireframe showing content blocks for a website called An Airline Apart.

Art Credit: Kristina Bourlotos

Now in theory, we could write rules to target content for all of these blocks for our users. But how do we know where to begin? This is the “substance” question in content strategy, and where we need to consider very specifically what value we are adding.

To help us think through this, our team at ICF Interactive developed a framework for the four core types of personalized content. The first two have to do with the “task at hand,” or what the user came to your site to do today. The second two have to do with the “big picture,” or what you’re trying to get people to see and feel as part of your larger brand experience. Here’s how it breaks down:


A chart showing four types of content as a framework for personalization.

Source: ICF Interactive

  1. Content that alerts. This type of targeting improves the customer experience by displaying relevant, time-sensitive information, such as a weather delay, service disruption, or other real-time issue.
  2. Content that makes tasks easier. The second “task at hand” category, this type makes users’ lives easier by helping them do what they came here to do—e.g., “smart” navigation, deep links to useful tools, or automatically deprioritizing unrelated content.
  3. Content that cross-sells. This type may make your inner designer squirm, but it will realistically be one of your most important use-cases (and likely the one most directly tied to project ROI). Whether you’re a global oil conglomerate or a non-profit that provides hugs to reindeer, this is your place to market whatever it is you need to market. Again, the trick here is to show users something relevant, not just what you want them to see. Examples: ad for a new product, announcement for your upcoming conference, call to join or donate, etc.
  4. Content that enriches. A close cousin to the cross-sell, content that enriches a user’s experience is supplemental to their overall brand perception. This might include blogs, articles, community features, social networks, or third-party content. Think of this as the “soft sell” versus the “hard sell.” On a standard task-oriented page, this content will typically occupy the least critical zone.

Going back to our example, here’s how we could apply this approach to the personalized content we want to show on the An Airline Apart homepage:

Type of personalized content What to show senior execs
Alert A list of flight cancellations impacting this user in real time
Make easier Some shortcuts to content for our Priority Flyers service
Cross-sell An ad for our new business class upgrade
Enrich Tips on pre-trip (female segment)
Tips on post-trip (male segment)

Remember our bland default page? With our rules up and running, a senior exec will instead see this (color-coded by type):


A wireframe showing how content changes depending on the viewing audience.

Art Credit: Kristina Bourlotos

Notice we’re now showing content specific to our executives, with the added nuance that the bottom right zone (“enrich content”) differs for our female versus male audience, based on that research nugget around stressful travel.

Bear in mind that these two are looking at the same site at the same time from two different locations—the CMS is targeting the content based on what we know about them, so they effectively get a different experience (and if everything is set up correctly, a better one).

Content on crack

You’re starting to see the implications, right? If we were to follow this through, instead of writing one content strategy, we now effectively need to write 12—one for each audience segment we had identified. As a content strategist, you’ve probably swallowed your content gum. The technology is there to help you accelerate that process to some extent, but this is precisely why taking a disciplined approach to personalized content is critical. Otherwise, you will be quickly overwhelmed, not only in terms of creation and execution, but also maintenance and support.

Taking the first step

What’s that you say? You’re not intimidated? Great! Just a few things to keep in mind.

Have the right resources

Remember that putting personalized content in the field requires not only a sound strategy, but also the resources to support it. You may still need some work if:

  • You don’t have enough content to make targeting useful
  • You don’t have enough staff to maintain targeted content
  • Your content is not semantically rich—you need a taxonomy, metadata, etc.
  • You don’t have a CMS that supports it
  • You don’t have analytics and tracking in place to gain insights and adjust

Be respectful

There’s a whole other conversation to be had around the ethics of targeting, but suffice it to say there is a line between providing helpful personalization and invading privacy. If you find yourself trying to force content on people with your newfound power, stop. Think of Ida Aalen’s core model. Is your content truly at the intersection of user and business goals, or just business goals? Approaching targeted content strategy with respect for your users will ensure that your site lands on the right side of web personalization history.

To infinity

Sound like a lot? Consider that it doesn’t have to be that complex. In fact, can you guess the number one method of personalized content in use today? That’s right, email. So chances are you’re probably already doing targeting on some level, and have an organizational starting point from which to build. With the right strategy and technology, you’re really only limited by your imagination, and your ability to adapt to mistakes along the way.

And who knows? You may discover that the web can, in fact, support intelligent life.

Approaching Content Strategy for Personalized Websites

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |19 May 15 |

There’s a curious concept in astrophysics known as the Drake Equation. Developed to quantify the potential for intelligent life in our galaxy, it raises a number of odd questions, among them: does having intelligence, in the long run, actually benefit or harm a species? In other words, will amoebas ultimately outlive humans in the face of eternity?

If you’re like me, these are the types of things you think about while listening to hold music before conference calls. But as a content strategist, I can’t help but ask the same question about something my clients suddenly seem to be clamoring for: personalized user content.

It sounds great in theory: content that is more targeted to the user can provide a richer, more precise experience. But there is also a dark side: used improperly, targeting risks invading privacy and eroding trust. As Drake supposes, true intelligent life is rare, in part because it has the potential to destroy itself.

So how might you dip into this intelligence without wrecking your content in the process? How can we approach personalized content in a way that is sustainable and respectful, not self-destructive?

Personalization basics

For good or for evil

At a basic level, personalization (aka targeting) means serving unique content to a user based on something we know about him or her—from geographic location to specific browsing history. And as you’ve likely observed, the value of personalization is largely in how you wield it. It’s helpful to us when Amazon makes recommendations based on our past viewing history. Conversely, we’ve all been bothered at some point by a creepy targeted ad—the one that either somehow knows too much about you, or is trying to sell something you don’t want.

Historically, the average UX person hasn’t played much of a role in either of these scenarios, the latter being controlled by online marketers, the former monopolized by the Amazons of the world. But the recent advent of so-called “experience management systems”—like Adobe Experience Manager, Sitecore Experience Platform, and Episerver Personalization Manager—has (somewhat precipitously) made the ability to personalize content more accessible to clients. You don’t have to look much further than the goodie bag from the last conference you attended to see that all of the big name CMSes are now aggressively marketing their own flavor of personalization software.

Do you even need it?

So what do you do when your client says they want to personalize content? The good news is that the foundation of personalized content strategy is the same set of tools you know and love: a core strategy statement, a set of guiding principles, and a basic content model. You now must consider how (or if) targeting can advance these directives. For example:

Good reasons to target site content:

  1. Your audience can be segmented in ways that are meaningful.
  2. Narrowing your message provides incremental value to your users.
  3. Personalized content is tied to specific KPIs or business objectives.

Bad reasons to target site content:

  1. Because we can.
  2. Some variation of #1.

You may face some strong headwinds if your client just bought a shiny new EMS and can’t wait to start solving world hunger. Again, as is always the case with the technology du jour, the product demos for these things are very seductive and typically involve light shows and kittens and free ecstasy. You may have to be the voice of reason. But that’s why you went to content strategy school, right?

Partial steam ahead!

Next, consider your targeting technology. As a general rule, the systems that support targeted content will be one of two things:

  1. Rules-based: The more manual approach, this involves setting up discrete audience segments in the system and writing rules for when and how to show them content. Example: It looks like Colin’s IP address is from Washington, DC, so let’s show him what we show everyone in that location.
  2. Algorithm-based: The “secret sauce” approach, this focuses less on the overall segment and more on a specific user’s behavior. Example: Colin clicks on 3.65 articles/day about soup, so let’s show him a campaign for soup.

For our purposes, we’ll take a closer look at a rules-based model, since this is more likely what you’ll be running into if your client is just starting out with personalization. You’ll first need to determine your “segments.” Similar to UX personas, segments are groups of users with some distinguishing set of traits like age, interest, or location. The difference here is that a targeted segment will be determined by real-time data, either internal or external to your site. Typically this data will be fed through some type of centralized rules engine accessed by your CMS.

Applying a personalized content framework

This is all getting a bit abstract, so let’s imagine for a moment that we’re creating a new site for An Airline Apart (obviously the next logical brand extension). We want to target busy creative professionals who travel regularly for work. What online content should we create to give us an edge with this audience?

Our first bright idea is to start a content campaign that takes the stress out of business travel. Easy enough, right? But that actually makes a lot of assumptions—what does “stressful” even mean? Can we break it down by audience?

Defining segments

A recent study from Carlson Wagonlit Travel asked 7,400 global business people who travel regularly for work to rank how stressful business travel is to them at each stage of their trip. Here’s what they found, sorted by gender:


A chart showing how men and women feel stress at different times during travel.

Source: Harvard Business Review. Data from HEC, Carlson Wagonlit.

There are clear differences: women tend to find the pre-trip phase the most stressful, while for men this is the least stressful phase. And for some reason, at the post-trip phase, it’s the complete opposite.

It gets even more interesting. Here’s what happened when they sorted the data by role:


A chart showing how people in different roles feel stress at different times during travel.

Source: Harvard Business Review. Data from HEC, Carlson Wagonlit.

According to this, business travel stress changes wildly depending on company role. For example, high-level employees are least stressed before the trip, and more stressed after; for support staff, it’s the total opposite.

Now, if we were doing this properly, we would absolutely want to drive into the “why” behind this. But for the sake of our sample exercise, we have more than enough justification to pursue a segmented content approach to our campaign. We could potentially set up 12 segments across gender and role in our system; here, though, let’s limit our focus to senior execs, male and female.

Mapping segments to content

From a technical point of view, personalizing content comes down to running targeted rules on individual components on a page. So let’s say we have our An Airline Apart homepage with typical content zones. If we didn’t know who you were, we would show our usual default content:


A wireframe showing content blocks for a website called An Airline Apart.

Art Credit: Kristina Bourlotos

Now in theory, we could write rules to target content for all of these blocks for our users. But how do we know where to begin? This is the “substance” question in content strategy, and where we need to consider very specifically what value we are adding.

To help us think through this, our team at ICF Interactive developed a framework for the four core types of personalized content. The first two have to do with the “task at hand,” or what the user came to your site to do today. The second two have to do with the “big picture,” or what you’re trying to get people to see and feel as part of your larger brand experience. Here’s how it breaks down:


A chart showing four types of content as a framework for personalization.

Source: ICF Interactive

  1. Content that alerts. This type of targeting improves the customer experience by displaying relevant, time-sensitive information, such as a weather delay, service disruption, or other real-time issue.
  2. Content that makes tasks easier. The second “task at hand” category, this type makes users’ lives easier by helping them do what they came here to do—e.g., “smart” navigation, deep links to useful tools, or automatically deprioritizing unrelated content.
  3. Content that cross-sells. This type may make your inner designer squirm, but it will realistically be one of your most important use-cases (and likely the one most directly tied to project ROI). Whether you’re a global oil conglomerate or a non-profit that provides hugs to reindeer, this is your place to market whatever it is you need to market. Again, the trick here is to show users something relevant, not just what you want them to see. Examples: ad for a new product, announcement for your upcoming conference, call to join or donate, etc.
  4. Content that enriches. A close cousin to the cross-sell, content that enriches a user’s experience is supplemental to their overall brand perception. This might include blogs, articles, community features, social networks, or third-party content. Think of this as the “soft sell” versus the “hard sell.” On a standard task-oriented page, this content will typically occupy the least critical zone.

Going back to our example, here’s how we could apply this approach to the personalized content we want to show on the An Airline Apart homepage:

Type of personalized content What to show senior execs
Alert A list of flight cancellations impacting this user in real time
Make easier Some shortcuts to content for our Priority Flyers service
Cross-sell An ad for our new business class upgrade
Enrich Tips on pre-trip (female segment)
Tips on post-trip (male segment)

Remember our bland default page? With our rules up and running, a senior exec will instead see this (color-coded by type):


A wireframe showing how content changes depending on the viewing audience.

Art Credit: Kristina Bourlotos

Notice we’re now showing content specific to our executives, with the added nuance that the bottom right zone (“enrich content”) differs for our female versus male audience, based on that research nugget around stressful travel.

Bear in mind that these two are looking at the same site at the same time from two different locations—the CMS is targeting the content based on what we know about them, so they effectively get a different experience (and if everything is set up correctly, a better one).

Content on crack

You’re starting to see the implications, right? If we were to follow this through, instead of writing one content strategy, we now effectively need to write 12—one for each audience segment we had identified. As a content strategist, you’ve probably swallowed your content gum. The technology is there to help you accelerate that process to some extent, but this is precisely why taking a disciplined approach to personalized content is critical. Otherwise, you will be quickly overwhelmed, not only in terms of creation and execution, but also maintenance and support.

Taking the first step

What’s that you say? You’re not intimidated? Great! Just a few things to keep in mind.

Have the right resources

Remember that putting personalized content in the field requires not only a sound strategy, but also the resources to support it. You may still need some work if:

  • You don’t have enough content to make targeting useful
  • You don’t have enough staff to maintain targeted content
  • Your content is not semantically rich—you need a taxonomy, metadata, etc.
  • You don’t have a CMS that supports it
  • You don’t have analytics and tracking in place to gain insights and adjust

Be respectful

There’s a whole other conversation to be had around the ethics of targeting, but suffice it to say there is a line between providing helpful personalization and invading privacy. If you find yourself trying to force content on people with your newfound power, stop. Think of Ida Aalen’s core model. Is your content truly at the intersection of user and business goals, or just business goals? Approaching targeted content strategy with respect for your users will ensure that your site lands on the right side of web personalization history.

To infinity

Sound like a lot? Consider that it doesn’t have to be that complex. In fact, can you guess the number one method of personalized content in use today? That’s right, email. So chances are you’re probably already doing targeting on some level, and have an organizational starting point from which to build. With the right strategy and technology, you’re really only limited by your imagination, and your ability to adapt to mistakes along the way.

And who knows? You may discover that the web can, in fact, support intelligent life.

Meta-Moments: Thoughtfulness by Design

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |19 May 15 |

Ever had a moment on the internet when you’ve been forced to stop and think about what you’re doing? Maybe you’ve been surprised. Maybe you’ve stumbled across something new. Maybe you’ve come to see things in a different light. I call such experiences meta-moments: tiny moments of reflection that prompt us to think consciously about what we’re experiencing.

Take Google. In the early days, its clean white page helped distinguish it from the pack. While its competitors tripped all over themselves telling you how great they were and how much they had to offer, Google’s quieter strategy seemed bold and distinctive. “Our search experience speaks for itself,” it suggested. No need for spin or a hard sell. Over the years, as Google has continued to develop its search technologies, it has managed to retain that deceptive surface simplicity. I love that its minimal homepage has stayed intact (in spite of incessant doodling). Encouraging a thoughtful moment remains central to Google’s design.

Yet the prevailing wisdom within user experience design (UXD) seems to focus on removing the need for thought. We are so eager for our users to succeed that we try to make everything slick and seamless—to remove even a hint of the possibility of failure. Every new service learns about our movements in order to anticipate our next move. Each new product exists in an ecosystem of services so that even significant actions, such as making a purchase, are made to seem frictionless. The aim is not only to save us time and effort, but to save us from thinking, too.

Steve Krug’s seminal book Don’t Make Me Think! may have helped to shape this approach. This bible of usability is an undisputed cornerstone of UXD. But it can be taken too far. In fact, Krug himself has unofficially rechristened the book Don’t Make Me Think Needlessly! In doing so, he acknowledges that there are times when thoughtful interactions online are worth encouraging. While we shouldn’t need to think about where to find the search tool on a site (top right, please!), we should, of course, be encouraged to think before we purchase something—or, for that matter, before we make any significant commitment.

It’s a question of courtesy, too. When asking for deeper attention, we should feel confident that we’re not wasting people’s time. What we offer should more than repay them for their efforts—though there aren’t many moments when we can guarantee this.

I’m currently working on a project—an online version of a medical self-screening form—that has a valid reason for making users think. Success will involve making sure that users really understand the meaning of each question, and that they take the form seriously—that they take the time to answer honestly and accurately. My teammates and I find ourselves designing a slow experience rather than a fast one.

But what slows people down and makes them more thoughtful? And what is it about a particular design that makes people really invest their attention?

Laying the groundwork for thoughtfulness

In my experience, there seem to be three main strategies for encouraging meta-moments.

Roadblocks

Inbox by Gmail makes you think by confronting you with a barrier. You can’t just try the service. You have to be invited. You can request an invitation (by following the instructions on their site), or a friend can invite you—but you can’t get started right away. Anticipation and excitement about the service has space to gather and develop. And it does. In its first few weeks, invites were going on eBay for $200.

This strategy certainly worked on me. Within moments of landing on the page, I went from being slightly intrigued to a state of I-must-have-it. Following the instructions, I found myself composing an email to inbox@google.com requesting an invitation. “Please invite me. Many thanks, Andrew,” I wrote, knowing full well that no one but me was ever going to read those words. Why hadn’t they simply let me submit my email address somewhere? Why were they deliberately making things hard for me?

Something clever is going on here. Adding a barrier forces us to engage in a deeper, more attentive way: we are encouraged to think. Granted, not everyone will want or need this encouragement, but if a barrier can create a digital experience that is noticed and remembered, then it’s worth talking about.

Putting up a “roadblock,” though, seems like a risky way to encourage a meta-moment. Stopping people in their tracks may make them simply turn around or try another road. For the roadblock to be effective (and not just annoying), there has to be enough interest to want to continue in spite of the obstacle. When I encounter a paywall, for example, I need to be clear on the benefits of parting with my money—and the decision to pay or subscribe shouldn’t be a no-brainer, especially if you’re hoping for my long-term commitment. iTunes’s micropayments, Amazon’s “Buy now with 1-Click,” and eBay’s impulse bidding all represent a trend toward disengaging with our purchases. And in my own purchasing patterns, things bought this way tend not to mean as much.

Smartphone apps have a similar impact on me. Most of the time, it seems that their only aim is to provide me with enough fleeting interest to make me part with a tiny upfront cost. As a result, I tend to download apps and throw them away soon afterward. Is it wrong to hope for a less disposable experience?

In-app purchases employ a kind of roadblock strategy. You’re usually allowed to explore the app for free within certain limitations. Your interest grows, or it doesn’t. You decide to pay, or you don’t. The point is that space is provided for you to really consider the value of paying. So you give it some proper thought, and the app has to do far more to demonstrate that it deserves your money. FiftyThree’s Paper, my favorite iPad app, lets you have a blast for free and includes some lovely in-app promotional videos to show you exactly why you should pay.

Roadblocks come in many shapes and sizes, but they always enforce a conscious consideration of how best to proceed. Navigating around them gives us something to accomplish, and a story to tell. This is great for longer-term engagement—and it’s why digital craftspeople need to shift their thinking away from removing barriers and instead toward designing them.

Speed bumps

Speed bumps are less dramatic than roadblocks, but they still encourage thought. They aim to slow you down just enough so that you can pay attention to the bits you need to pay attention to. Let’s say you’re about to make an important decision—maybe of a legal, medical, financial, or personal nature. You shouldn’t proceed too quickly and risk misunderstanding what you’re getting yourself into.

A change in layout, content, or style is often all that is required to make users slow down. You can’t be too subtle about this, though. People have grown used to filtering out huge amounts of noise on the internet; they can become blind to anything they view as a possible distraction.

Online, speed bumps can help prepare us mentally before we start something. You might be about to renew your vehicle tax, for instance, and you see a message that says: “Hold up! Make sure you have your 16-digit reference number…” You know that this is useful information, that it’ll save you time to prepare properly, but you might find yourself getting a little frustrated by the need to slow down.

Although most of us find speed bumps irritating, we grudgingly accept that they are there to help us avoid the possibility of more painful consequences. For example, when you fire up an application for the first time, you may see some onboarding tooltips flash up. Part of you hates this—you just want to get going, to play—and yet the product seems to choose this moment to have a little conversation with you so that it can point out one or two essentials. It feels a little unnatural, like your flow has been broken. You’ve been given a meta-moment before being let loose.

Of course, onboarding experiences can be designed in delightful ways that minimize the annoyance of the interruption of our desired flow. Ultimately, if they save us time in the long run, they prove their worth. We are grateful, as long as we don’t feel nagged.

In spite of the importance of speed bumps online, we tend not to come across them very often. We are urged to carry on at speed, even when we should be paying attention. When we’re presented with Terms and Conditions to agree to, we almost never get a speed bump. It’d be wonderful to have an opportunity to digest a clear and simple summary of what we’re signing up for. Instead, we’re faced with reams of legalese, set in unreadable type. Our reaction, understandably, is to close our eyes and accelerate.

Diversions

Online diversions deliberately move us away from conventional paths. Like speed bumps, they make us slow down and take notice. We drive more thoughtfully on unfamiliar roads; sometimes we even welcome the opportunity to understand the space between A and B in a new way. This time, we are quietly prodded into a meta-moment by being shown a new way forward.

A diversion doesn’t have to be pronounced to make you think. The hugely successful UK drinks company Innocent uses microcopy to make an impact. You find yourself reading every single bit of their packaging because there are jokes hidden everywhere. You usually expect ingredients or serving instructions to be boring and functional. But Innocent uses these little spaces as a stage for quirky, silly fun. You end up considering the team behind the product, as well as the product itself, in a new light.

Companies like Apple aim for more than a temporary diversion. They create entirely new experience motorways. With Apple Watch, we’re seeing the introduction of a whole new lexicon. New concepts such as “Digital Touch,” “Heartbeat,” “Sketch,” “Digital Crown,” “Force Touch,” “Short Look,” and “Glances” are deployed to shape our understanding of exactly what this new thing will do. Over the course of the next few years, you can expect at least some of these terms to pass into everyday language. By that time, they will no longer feel like diversions. For now, though, such words have the power to make us pause, anticipate, and imagine what life will be like with these new powers.

The magic of meta-moments

Meta-moments can provide us with space to interpret, understand, and add meaning to our experiences. A little friction in our flow is all we need. A roadblock must be overcome. A speed bump must be negotiated. A diversion must be navigated. Each of these cases involves our attention in a thoughtful way. Our level of engagement deepens. We have an experience we can remember.

A user journey without friction is a bit like a story without intrigue—boring! In fact, a recent study into the first hour of computer game experiences concludes that intrigue might be more important than enjoyment for fostering engagement. We need something a little challenging or complex; we need to be the one who gains mastery and control. We want to triumph in the end.

Our design practices don’t encourage this, though. We distract our users more than we intrigue them. We provide the constant possibility of better options elsewhere, so that users never have to think: “Okay, what next?” Our attention is always directed outward, not inward. And it—not the technology itself, but how we design our interactions with it—makes us dumb.

UXD strives toward frictionless flow: removing impediments to immediate action and looking to increase conversions at all costs. This approach delivers some great results, but it doesn’t always consider the wider story of how we can design and build things that sustain a lasting relationship. With all the focus on usability and conversions, we can forget to ask ourselves whether our online experiences are also enriching and fulfilling.

Designing just one or two meta-moments in our digital experiences could help fix this. Each would be a little place for our users to stop or slow down, giving them space to think for themselves. There’s no point pretending that this will be easy. After many years dedicated to encouraging flow, it will feel strange to set out to disrupt users. We’d be playing with user expectations instead of aiming to meet and exceed them. We’d be finding little ways to surprise people, rather than trying to make them feel at ease at all times. We might tell them they need to come back later, rather than bend over backwards to satisfy them right away. We might delegate more responsibility to them rather than try to do everything for them. We might deliberately design failures rather than seek to eradicate them.

How will we test that we’ve achieved the desired effect and not just exasperated our users? Usability testing probably won’t cut it, because it’ll be tricky to get beyond the immediate responses to each set task. We might need longer-term methods, like diary studies, in order to capture how our meta-moments are working. Our UXD methods may need to shift: from looking at atoms of experience (pages, interactions, or tasks), to looking at systems of experience (learning, becoming, or adopting).

It will be a challenge to get people behind the idea of adding meta-moments, and a challenge to test them. The next time we create a design solution, let’s add just one small barrier, bump, or quirk. Let’s consider that the best approach may be a slow one. And let’s remember that removing needless thought should never end up removing all need for thought. Putting thought into things is only part of a designer’s responsibility; we also have to create space for users to put their own thought in. Their personalities and imaginations need that space to live and breathe. We need to encourage meta-moments carefully and then defend them. Because they are where magic happens.

Crafting a Design Persona

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |02 Jun 15 |

Every product has a personality—whether it was deliberately designed to or not. Reddit is quirky, hyperactive, and sometimes sarcastic. Amazon is like a salesperson with an eidetic memory and amazing talent for statistics. And One Kings Lane evokes a sophisticated, well-dressed interior designer with a carefully curated library of style collages.

But sometimes products have unpredictable, temperamental, or multiple personalities.

At Weather Underground, where I worked until this May, we realized our website was suffering from personality problems while taking an inventory of all our products and pages before undergoing a design overhaul last year. For example, we used far too many exclamation marks when inviting users to join and contribute to our community (“Welcome! Join the Conversation! Start a Weather Blog!”). And we gave users very little indication when there was an error, much less an apology for it. (Our 404 page said simply, “An error has occurred.”) Overall, Weather Underground came across as unpredictable, awkward, and in need of a lesson on social graces.

Weather Underground was the first weather website on the internet, so we wanted our new design to stay true to this history and even strengthen the “weather nerd” aspect of our personality. Yet we also wanted to modernize our visual design and make WU more enticing, welcoming, and friendly. In this moment of designerly tension, we realized Weather Underground’s product personality needed definition, and the best course of action was to articulate a design persona.

Unlike a user persona, which characterizes your users’ goals, motivations, and desires, a design persona characterizes how your product should communicate and ultimately build rapport with your users. Both are articulated in terms of a fictional character, but they are used to solve different design problems. A user persona helps you understand your users’ existing relationship to your product, whereas a design persona helps you understand how your product can build a relationship with your users.

In this article, I’ll show you how we came to think of our product as less of an “it” and more of a “someone” with an engaging, yet consistent, voice. I’ll also show how our design persona has become a continual source of product ideas.

The persona party

One of the most difficult aspects of creating a design persona (and arguably the most important) is to think of your product less like a collection of algorithms and more like a person. To achieve the right mindset, I asked our designers to imagine a fictitious “persona party” attended by all of our user personas, our key content creators, and, of course, our design persona. Here is the prompt I provided:

Imagine that you are WU, the essence of Weather Underground, and you’re at a party. You see [one of our meteorologists] surrounded by a small audience of enthusiasts nodding sagely as he discusses the storm system moving toward Florida. A group of Personal Weather Station owners are hanging out together discussing the record extremes they’ve recorded. In one corner there is [our comedic videographer] drinking something out of a mason jar and cracking jokes about winter storm “Janus.” There is also a gaggle of Wunder Photographers eating all the cheese dip while they ogle and praise each others’ photos. These are your friends and they are all hanging out at YOUR party…

I told the designers that if they found it difficult to imagine Weather Underground as a person, they could imagine how someone similar, like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, would act, and then ask whether WU would act the same or different.

We then used scenarios to brainstorm our design persona’s potential reactions. For example: “Someone wanders up to you and asks, ‘Do you think I’ll need an umbrella today?’ How do you respond?”

  • Yes. It looks like you’ll need an umbrella today, because there is a 40 percent chance of rain after 3 o’clock.
  • Don’t say a word, just point at a graph.
  • It’s going to be sunny and warm outside today, so break out those jogging shoes! (This weather update brought to you by Nike.)
  • You’ll need a bigger umbrella than the one in your cocktail! (Haha!)
  • Get out your phone, we’ve got a great app for that!
  •  

For each reaction, we debated how desirable it was and how true it was to our persona. For example, we realized that WU frequently displays graphs and tables of rich weather data, similar to the example response of “Don’t say a word, just point at a graph.” We decided that it would be much more approachable, friendly, and desirable to provide concise explanations of weather forecasts in addition to the detailed graphs and tables. However, several designers were quick to point out that WU shouldn’t be too friendly—for example, it would be off-putting and distracting to tell a joke when users are looking for the forecast.

After going through a number of similar activities and debates, we noticed themes in WU’s personality that shaped our subsequent discussions. We decide that WU should:

  • Answer questions directly, but always back it up with rich data.
  • Speak in a colloquial and friendly tone, but never oversimplify explanations.
  • Occasionally use humor in a conversation, but never in discussing current or serious weather.

These observations guided our definition of WU’s brand traits. Ultimately, we decided that WU is:

  • an advocate, but not an evangelist
  • intelligent, but not condescending
  • technical, but not unapproachable
  • playful, but not distracting

We articulated our brand traits in a “this-not-that” format, similar to how Kate Kiefer Lee and Aarron Walter described their brand traits at MailChimp, because it allowed us to qualify them against brand enemies.

These traits now act as design constraints for all projects, making consistent designs much easier to develop. They also provide heuristics for design reviews, allowing us to critique designs in terms of concrete, established goals.

Responses in context

While the brand traits highlight some of WU’s more admirable qualities, they do not identify WU’s approach to specific scenarios. Or, as Kate Kiefer Lee might put it, articulating our brand traits helped define WU’s voice, but now it was time to figure out WU’s tone.

As the next step in our activity, we decided to create a personality map. Aarron Walter uses this tool in Designing for Emotion as a way to describe a personality on an x-y axis. On one axis, you have the degree to which the person is submissive or dominant in their interactions. You can think of a dominant person as one who takes charge and presents themselves as an authority, whereas a submissive person would rather follow someone else’s lead. On the other axis, you have the degree to which the person is affiliative or unaffiliative—interested in building a connection, or interested in maintaining distance. Aarron Walter uses the terms “friendly” and “unfriendly” here, but I think “unfriendly” conveys active meanness or abrasiveness, while “unaffiliative” simply conveys emotional or professional distance. For example, your doctor may act friendly toward you, but also make it clear with their behavior and demeanor that it would be inappropriate to ask them out for coffee later.

A four-quadrant personality map, with different areas marked for WU’s personality in different moments.
The WU personality map.
     

When I asked everyone to pick the one place on the personality map that best represented WU, everyone picked distinctly different spots. And for each selection, there was a supporting story and context:

  • WU should be dominant while discussing the weather, because that is WU’s expertise.
  • WU should be submissive when apologizing for a server outage.
  • WU should be affiliative when discussing interesting weather events that have happened in the past, because we want our users to join the conversation.
  • WU should act affiliative and moderately dominant when introducing educational content, because we want to come off as a nerdy, friendly professor.

We realized that people (and design personas) behave differently, and may assume a different identity, depending on who they are talking to and the context of the conversation. For example, your doctor may be dominant and unaffiliative while discussing medical treatments with you, but will become submissive and affiliative while discussing Thanksgiving dinner plans with their grandmother. We are never just one spot on a personality map; our design persona should act differently depending on the context, too.

We decided that rather than picking a single spot on the personality map, we would draw out multiple points and context zones. For example, you can see that during “Severe Weather,” we want WU to sound and act like an authority. However, when we have a system failure and end up in the “Apology Zone,” we want to be conciliatory and apologetic.

Debate the minutia

The personality map was only the beginning of our many debates.

For the next phase, I asked everyone to think of responses WU would give in specific website scenarios, such as welcoming a new user, telling a user their action was successful, and informing the that user an error had occurred. Each team member contributed a possible response, and we discussed how well each matched the brand traits we had defined and what we knew about our persona so far.

These conversations led to a number of debates: should we ever address a user by name? (Verdict: Yes, but sparingly.) When, if ever, is it appropriate to use humor? (Occasionally, but we are always serious about the weather.) When and how should we apologize to users? (Always for technical errors, but not for incorrect forecasts.)

Each debate added to our growing library of response examples and taught us more about the nuances of our personality. And while these debates seemed, at times, tedious and narrow, we were actually working through problems in product consistency that we had previously overlooked. We were learning that to have a consistent product personality, we needed to know how WU should present itself across product, design, content, copy, and branding.

Let your light shine

Now that we had a product personality that we thought would resonate with our user base, we needed to find ways to let that personality shine. For our final design activity, we decided to brainstorm ways to create opportunities.

We started with a simple framework based off of Aarron Walter’s description of design personas in Designing for Emotion. We focused on:

  1. Creating interactions that inspire surprise and delight.
  2. Giving users a sense of anticipation.
  3. Rewarding users for their continued patronage.

We generated no fewer than 35 unique ideas to delight or reward our users, from Easter eggs on Groundhog Day to redesigned 404 pages. One of the simplest, yet most powerful, ideas was enabling our users to thank their local Personal Weather Station owners for their weather data. The implementation details of this functionality are trivial: button click → thank-you message sent. But it has tremendous product engagement potential, because it simultaneously lets users know that their weather data comes from a real human who has generously added their data to the WU community, and thanks those owners for their contributions. The team is currently working on the final details of the PWS thank-you feature and hopes to release it in conjunction with a “PWS Owner Appreciation Day” marketing effort.

Another idea that emerged was WunderPosters: artistic posters depicting interesting and beautiful natural phenomena created by one of our in-house designers. We released WunderPosters during Weather Underground’s twentieth anniversary, coupled with a contest where fans could submit ideas and vote on which weather conditions they would like to see turned into a poster. The project spanned departments (design, engineering, and marketing), and has engaged our users over multiple channels. It also speaks directly to the “weather enthusiast” aspect of our design persona.

Ideas like these confirmed for us that a design persona is not just about keeping your copy and voice consistent—it also provides a source of design inspiration.

Start your personality adjustment

Disjointed product personalities can emerge in the best of websites when small, non-technical details are repeatedly neglected over time. But solving your product’s personality problems is as important as solving the technical ones.

To start your own personality adjustment, gather a small group of people from throughout your company (including marketing, design, engineering, and product management) and take an inventory of existing copy, iconography, and content. Identify the points in which the tone of your product seems overly dramatic, familiar, brusque, formal, or odd. These will be the initial personality trouble points you solve after defining your design persona.

As you go through activities like the ones I’ve outlined throughout this article, try using this worksheet I created to get everyone thinking about your design persona individually before discussing it as a group.

Photo of a poster explaining Weather Underground's brand traits for internal staff.
WU Brand Traits poster, hung on the back of a bathroom stall.

Finally, make sure you record and summarize the insights, decisions, and examples you generate. At Weather Underground, we created a WU cartoon figure to represent our design persona and featured him with our other mascots on a series of posters. We then hung those posters in places where our coworkers were sure to see them—such as the back of bathroom stalls.

Crafting a design persona is an intense exercise that requires the the time and involvement of team members throughout your company. While the work may seem daunting, it is well worth it. By investing in your product’s design persona, you are investing in future advocates of your product—and creating a source of design inspiration for your team.

Crafting a Design Persona

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |02 Jun 15 |

Every product has a personality—whether it was deliberately designed to or not. Reddit is quirky, hyperactive, and sometimes sarcastic. Amazon is like a salesperson with an eidetic memory and amazing talent for statistics. And One Kings Lane evokes a sophisticated, well-dressed interior designer with a carefully curated library of style collages.

But sometimes products have unpredictable, temperamental, or multiple personalities.

At Weather Underground, where I worked until this May, we realized our website was suffering from personality problems while taking an inventory of all our products and pages before undergoing a design overhaul last year. For example, we used far too many exclamation marks when inviting users to join and contribute to our community (“Welcome! Join the Conversation! Start a Weather Blog!”). And we gave users very little indication when there was an error, much less an apology for it. (Our 404 page said simply, “An error has occurred.”) Overall, Weather Underground came across as unpredictable, awkward, and in need of a lesson on social graces.

Weather Underground was the first weather website on the internet, so we wanted our new design to stay true to this history and even strengthen the “weather nerd” aspect of our personality. Yet we also wanted to modernize our visual design and make WU more enticing, welcoming, and friendly. In this moment of designerly tension, we realized Weather Underground’s product personality needed definition, and the best course of action was to articulate a design persona.

Unlike a user persona, which characterizes your users’ goals, motivations, and desires, a design persona characterizes how your product should communicate and ultimately build rapport with your users. Both are articulated in terms of a fictional character, but they are used to solve different design problems. A user persona helps you understand your users’ existing relationship to your product, whereas a design persona helps you understand how your product can build a relationship with your users.

In this article, I’ll show you how we came to think of our product as less of an “it” and more of a “someone” with an engaging, yet consistent, voice. I’ll also show how our design persona has become a continual source of product ideas.

The persona party

One of the most difficult aspects of creating a design persona (and arguably the most important) is to think of your product less like a collection of algorithms and more like a person. To achieve the right mindset, I asked our designers to imagine a fictitious “persona party” attended by all of our user personas, our key content creators, and, of course, our design persona. Here is the prompt I provided:

Imagine that you are WU, the essence of Weather Underground, and you’re at a party. You see [one of our meteorologists] surrounded by a small audience of enthusiasts nodding sagely as he discusses the storm system moving toward Florida. A group of Personal Weather Station owners are hanging out together discussing the record extremes they’ve recorded. In one corner there is [our comedic videographer] drinking something out of a mason jar and cracking jokes about winter storm “Janus.” There is also a gaggle of Wunder Photographers eating all the cheese dip while they ogle and praise each others’ photos. These are your friends and they are all hanging out at YOUR party…

I told the designers that if they found it difficult to imagine Weather Underground as a person, they could imagine how someone similar, like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, would act, and then ask whether WU would act the same or different.

We then used scenarios to brainstorm our design persona’s potential reactions. For example: “Someone wanders up to you and asks, ‘Do you think I’ll need an umbrella today?’ How do you respond?”

  • Yes. It looks like you’ll need an umbrella today, because there is a 40 percent chance of rain after 3 o’clock.
  • Don’t say a word, just point at a graph.
  • It’s going to be sunny and warm outside today, so break out those jogging shoes! (This weather update brought to you by Nike.)
  • You’ll need a bigger umbrella than the one in your cocktail! (Haha!)
  • Get out your phone, we’ve got a great app for that!
  •  

For each reaction, we debated how desirable it was and how true it was to our persona. For example, we realized that WU frequently displays graphs and tables of rich weather data, similar to the example response of “Don’t say a word, just point at a graph.” We decided that it would be much more approachable, friendly, and desirable to provide concise explanations of weather forecasts in addition to the detailed graphs and tables. However, several designers were quick to point out that WU shouldn’t be too friendly—for example, it would be off-putting and distracting to tell a joke when users are looking for the forecast.

After going through a number of similar activities and debates, we noticed themes in WU’s personality that shaped our subsequent discussions. We decide that WU should:

  • Answer questions directly, but always back it up with rich data.
  • Speak in a colloquial and friendly tone, but never oversimplify explanations.
  • Occasionally use humor in a conversation, but never in discussing current or serious weather.

These observations guided our definition of WU’s brand traits. Ultimately, we decided that WU is:

  • an advocate, but not an evangelist
  • intelligent, but not condescending
  • technical, but not unapproachable
  • playful, but not distracting

We articulated our brand traits in a “this-not-that” format, similar to how Kate Kiefer Lee and Aarron Walter described their brand traits at MailChimp, because it allowed us to qualify them against brand enemies.

These traits now act as design constraints for all projects, making consistent designs much easier to develop. They also provide heuristics for design reviews, allowing us to critique designs in terms of concrete, established goals.

Responses in context

While the brand traits highlight some of WU’s more admirable qualities, they do not identify WU’s approach to specific scenarios. Or, as Kate Kiefer Lee might put it, articulating our brand traits helped define WU’s voice, but now it was time to figure out WU’s tone.

As the next step in our activity, we decided to create a personality map. Aarron Walter uses this tool in Designing for Emotion as a way to describe a personality on an x-y axis. On one axis, you have the degree to which the person is submissive or dominant in their interactions. You can think of a dominant person as one who takes charge and presents themselves as an authority, whereas a submissive person would rather follow someone else’s lead. On the other axis, you have the degree to which the person is affiliative or unaffiliative—interested in building a connection, or interested in maintaining distance. Aarron Walter uses the terms “friendly” and “unfriendly” here, but I think “unfriendly” conveys active meanness or abrasiveness, while “unaffiliative” simply conveys emotional or professional distance. For example, your doctor may act friendly toward you, but also make it clear with their behavior and demeanor that it would be inappropriate to ask them out for coffee later.

A four-quadrant personality map, with different areas marked for WU’s personality in different moments.
The WU personality map.
     

When I asked everyone to pick the one place on the personality map that best represented WU, everyone picked distinctly different spots. And for each selection, there was a supporting story and context:

  • WU should be dominant while discussing the weather, because that is WU’s expertise.
  • WU should be submissive when apologizing for a server outage.
  • WU should be affiliative when discussing interesting weather events that have happened in the past, because we want our users to join the conversation.
  • WU should act affiliative and moderately dominant when introducing educational content, because we want to come off as a nerdy, friendly professor.

We realized that people (and design personas) behave differently, and may assume a different identity, depending on who they are talking to and the context of the conversation. For example, your doctor may be dominant and unaffiliative while discussing medical treatments with you, but will become submissive and affiliative while discussing Thanksgiving dinner plans with their grandmother. We are never just one spot on a personality map; our design persona should act differently depending on the context, too.

We decided that rather than picking a single spot on the personality map, we would draw out multiple points and context zones. For example, you can see that during “Severe Weather,” we want WU to sound and act like an authority. However, when we have a system failure and end up in the “Apology Zone,” we want to be conciliatory and apologetic.

Debate the minutia

The personality map was only the beginning of our many debates.

For the next phase, I asked everyone to think of responses WU would give in specific website scenarios, such as welcoming a new user, telling a user their action was successful, and informing the that user an error had occurred. Each team member contributed a possible response, and we discussed how well each matched the brand traits we had defined and what we knew about our persona so far.

These conversations led to a number of debates: should we ever address a user by name? (Verdict: Yes, but sparingly.) When, if ever, is it appropriate to use humor? (Occasionally, but we are always serious about the weather.) When and how should we apologize to users? (Always for technical errors, but not for incorrect forecasts.)

Each debate added to our growing library of response examples and taught us more about the nuances of our personality. And while these debates seemed, at times, tedious and narrow, we were actually working through problems in product consistency that we had previously overlooked. We were learning that to have a consistent product personality, we needed to know how WU should present itself across product, design, content, copy, and branding.

Let your light shine

Now that we had a product personality that we thought would resonate with our user base, we needed to find ways to let that personality shine. For our final design activity, we decided to brainstorm ways to create opportunities.

We started with a simple framework based off of Aarron Walter’s description of design personas in Designing for Emotion. We focused on:

  1. Creating interactions that inspire surprise and delight.
  2. Giving users a sense of anticipation.
  3. Rewarding users for their continued patronage.

We generated no fewer than 35 unique ideas to delight or reward our users, from Easter eggs on Groundhog Day to redesigned 404 pages. One of the simplest, yet most powerful, ideas was enabling our users to thank their local Personal Weather Station owners for their weather data. The implementation details of this functionality are trivial: button click → thank-you message sent. But it has tremendous product engagement potential, because it simultaneously lets users know that their weather data comes from a real human who has generously added their data to the WU community, and thanks those owners for their contributions. The team is currently working on the final details of the PWS thank-you feature and hopes to release it in conjunction with a “PWS Owner Appreciation Day” marketing effort.

Another idea that emerged was WunderPosters: artistic posters depicting interesting and beautiful natural phenomena created by one of our in-house designers. We released WunderPosters during Weather Underground’s twentieth anniversary, coupled with a contest where fans could submit ideas and vote on which weather conditions they would like to see turned into a poster. The project spanned departments (design, engineering, and marketing), and has engaged our users over multiple channels. It also speaks directly to the “weather enthusiast” aspect of our design persona.

Ideas like these confirmed for us that a design persona is not just about keeping your copy and voice consistent—it also provides a source of design inspiration.

Start your personality adjustment

Disjointed product personalities can emerge in the best of websites when small, non-technical details are repeatedly neglected over time. But solving your product’s personality problems is as important as solving the technical ones.

To start your own personality adjustment, gather a small group of people from throughout your company (including marketing, design, engineering, and product management) and take an inventory of existing copy, iconography, and content. Identify the points in which the tone of your product seems overly dramatic, familiar, brusque, formal, or odd. These will be the initial personality trouble points you solve after defining your design persona.

As you go through activities like the ones I’ve outlined throughout this article, try using this worksheet I created to get everyone thinking about your design persona individually before discussing it as a group.

Photo of a poster explaining Weather Underground's brand traits for internal staff.
WU Brand Traits poster, hung on the back of a bathroom stall.

Finally, make sure you record and summarize the insights, decisions, and examples you generate. At Weather Underground, we created a WU cartoon figure to represent our design persona and featured him with our other mascots on a series of posters. We then hung those posters in places where our coworkers were sure to see them—such as the back of bathroom stalls.

Crafting a design persona is an intense exercise that requires the the time and involvement of team members throughout your company. While the work may seem daunting, it is well worth it. By investing in your product’s design persona, you are investing in future advocates of your product—and creating a source of design inspiration for your team.

Resetting Agency Culture

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |02 Jun 15 |

The internet is full of stories of “dream” agency environments: Google’s “sleep pods,” Yelp’s KegMate, this place’s air hockey table, that joint’s Zen rock garden. They read well in viral articles intended to induce cognitive salivation—the 3 p.m. cubicle fatigue equivalent of a SkyMall Bigfoot Garden Yeti statue while flying coach.

But the truth is this: there’s so much more to fostering investment and growth in our team members than gimmicky perks. A true dream office, then, is one that invests deeply in the success of its employees.

While “investment” is often contextualized via finance-centric terminology, the way it anchors a healthy agency culture cannot be trivialized. Agency culture is the result of many factors and influences, but a healthy environment is one that encourages team members to speak up; that fosters inspiration through collective brainstorming and problem-solving; that doesn’t micro-analyze the way time is spent; and that enables employees to listen to and learn from one another.

Sadly, many agencies support a model that’s more about draining workers of every available bit of brainpower. A team member is hired to work and contribute, clearly, but not at the expense of being devalued or dehumanized. Employees are not the equivalent of a dust-bunny-gobbling Roomba, careening from point A to point B with little to no direction. Thoughtful changes in approach—from the way people are brought into the team, to the approach to creativity and communication, to the support for professional development—can make a big difference in employees’ happiness and dedication.

The new Day One

With new hires, many agencies operate under the “jump right into it” methodology; I’m sure most of us have experienced this at some point in our own careers. On Monday, we commute into the new office, are greeted by a terse “Welcome” and a handshake, then get seated at a workstation and immediately lobbed into a project. But by then, the grandest of opportunities toward employee investment—acclimating them as a human rather than as a “worker”—has already been lost.

To prevent that, I’ve created a different kind of onboarding experience at my agency, Nansen. We begin Day One on a Friday, and use the following process for new design hires (though with some adjustments, the experience can apply to any role):

Acclimation

The first half of the day is setup: coworker meet-and-greets, personalizing and configuring their laptop for their own level of comfort, and working with the appropriate team members to secure licenses and install the tools they need.

Conversation

The day in the office proper effectively ends around noon. Over an off-site lunch, there’s conversation: on design, on creative inspiration, on how our team functions within the organization, on current and future projects. The clock isn’t watched, judgy gazes aren’t cast, and implications of seniority or hierarchy are left off the table. Taking a team member out to lunch on their first day isn’t rocket science; how they’re engaged (constructive dialogue versus cell phone tunnel vision) is where we see the most value.

Inspiration

With questions answered, there’s only one expectation for the day: we make a visit to anywhere in the city that inspires the designer. While the role is contextualized by digital endeavors, inspiration has no such limitations. For some, it might take the form of Chicago architecture; for others, a museum’s collection. Understanding what has influenced them creatively, then, provides insight into their approach to visual communication that exceeds what folio work can yield.

Reflection

By this point, a first day of copious amounts of healthy discussion (and coffee, and walking) has served to establish a tone of humanized dialogue. By the business clock there’s typically not much time remaining; as such, the remainder of the day and weekend can be taken for thought and reflection on what was, very likely, a first day unlike any other previously experienced.

Monday, then, remains the day to begin client and project understanding and familiarity. Now serving as Day Two, it has been prefaced by a tangible and immersive demonstration of how their thoughts and voice are valued, and how the creative team functions. While some of the day can be adjusted or tweaked per the role being filled, this process demonstrates our agency culture and fosters mutual respect and appreciation.

A healthy dynamic

It’s staggering how much relationship dynamics can, and will, undermine your team members’ collective confidence. Lack of constructive mentorship and supportive guidance, or leaders who elevate themselves above those whose skillsets they should be cultivating—these things are as poisonous as open hostility.

In a junior role I occupied eons ago, the culture was openly hostile toward mistakes and subjective failure. Whenever I was given the opportunity to present my work to a client, leadership’s attitude was one of baited anticipation toward mistakes I might make (perceived or factual), combined with self-preservation of ego. After wrapping things up, I knew it was a toss-up as to whether management would simply leave the room without event (best case scenario), or if I’d get pulled into any of a handful of Herman Miller-furnished offices for denigration. This type of “leadership” behavior induces anxiety, inhibits confidence, and is tantamount to psychological abuse. No amount of employee compensation validates flaunting your own insecurity.

In contrast, presenting work should always be an opportunity for employees to thrive and succeed. To that end, preceding any client-facing walkthrough of a project, I give my team some initial thoughts on what we should be covering—“Don’t assume the client knows what we know: why we did what we did and what the benefit is to the user and to the project’s goals”—and I clarify our presentation roles—“I’ll set the presentation up, and should I chime in during your walk-through, it’s to supplement your dialogue.”

If your team member is junior and hasn’t presented their work before, give them the chance per their level of comfort. It can start small. On completion, have an open conversation without any implication of retribution. Dialogue is formed by feedback, not belittlement and threats. The ultimate goal is exposing them to the process, and giving them the (well-supported) chance.

Providing and fostering an environment for open creativity and dialogue is valuable beyond measure. Value conversation over oration, collaboration over delegation.

In practice, a step further

One of the career development and employee investment perks we offer at my agency is sending our team members to a conference of their choice, anywhere in the US, all expenses paid. This is formally qualified on paper as: “Learn, contribute, and network at conferences of your choosing.”

The one stipulation is that, upon their return, the attendee presents to the agency what they got out of the opportunity, and the (potential) worth to other team members in attending next year. Not a bad deal, right? By and large, it’s a strong demonstration that we see employees as much more than pure instruments of client project execution; it shows that we want our team members to grow and evolve. That said, it could be taken further.

At Nansen a couple of years ago, we started a program called Wintercamp, with the goal of fostering active (over passive) learning. Everyone in our agency—all roles from our global locations—centralizes at a retreat in rural Sweden to create something together. We develop tools we can use in our daily process once back on home turf. We participate in open collaboration and non-adversarial discussion. We put faces to names of people only previously known from an email chain. Our titles are irrelevant; the teams we form, flat and collegial.

When participants aren’t focused on work, they cook for one another, have endless discussions about their mutual craft(s), and enjoy the surrounding expansive grounds and leisure activities. At the end of each day, the various project teams present to each other what they’ve accomplished, what the pitfalls were, and solicit open and honest feedback.

People return to their home offices recharged. Invigorated and inspired by their global coworkers, they can act as living embodiments of our culture and brand. The projects worked on at Wintercamp continue as formal entities once we’re back at our desks, which helps keep the momentum going. And teams function more effectively, having worked toward common goals and made deeper personal connections.

To those who sign the checks, the grand total per person equals around a third of the cost of the standard “conference offering.” And we’re by no means the first, nor the only, team to do something like this; numerous agency retreats and “hackathons” already exist. Clearleft’s Hack Farm was very much the model by which we structured Wintercamp. Twitter’s quarterly internal Hack Week has yielded everything from practical functionality like the ability to archive your own tweets to the more fanciful open-source photo-tweeting birdhouse. Many organizations have seen the value of these types of internal retreats; the wins, they are aplenty.

Let’s reset

For many agencies, what I’m advocating represents a shift in thinking, a shift in process, a shift in how we track and value employees’ time. But we’ve made similar shifts before—like when we had to begin advocating for the user at the discovery level, bringing UX into the forefront of our approaches. Today, it’s exceedingly evident that time spent on UX is vital for a digital project’s livelihood; we need to apply that same reevaluation to time spent on employee success.

Whether this serves as procedural affirmation or a wake-up call, team member advocacy is our obligation. If you’re in agency leadership and read this with head nods and all-knowing winks, the highest of fives to you, sir or madam. Conversely, if this all seems unfamiliar, even better—you have an opportunity to create a better environment, one that doesn’t use “being the last to leave the office” as your main metric of employee dedication (the norm in far too many agencies).

To those currently in unhealthy, unsupportive, unengaging cultures: that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach come Sunday evening as the work week looms large needn’t be the norm. When the passion toward your craft isn’t fostered and equalled by your agency’s leaders, your options are self-evident: an open and honest discussion with the cultural stakeholder(s), or liberating yourself from your current role.

If you’re looking toward new opportunities, taking the pulse of a potential new employer’s culture is a paramount step. Pay attention to a few key things:

  • What kind of story are they telling? Agency sites that tell a story are all the rage. Quite often, the result can reveal internal culture. For example, what’s the focus of their full-screen background video? Most importantly, what gut feeling does it give you?
  • What can you spot in the space? We all exercise hyper self-awareness during an interview. Was that handshake too hard? Am I speaking slowly enough? Do I have salad in my teeth? Once in the space of an agency you’re interested in, however, give awareness to your surroundings as well. A day in the life of that agency is effectively unfolding before your eyes, their culture revealing itself plainly and openly.

Whether in a leadership role as the cultural advocate, or as a passionate and dedicated member of the team, we can agree: a happy and well-supported employee is a fueled, charged, inspired worker. Quality of work is elevated, quality of life is strengthened, and the agency’s brand becomes organically championed by the very people it supports. Our team members truly—no matter the size of the agency, the industry focus, or the specific role—deserve nothing less.