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RIP Eric Nordin, 6/16/49–12/18/12

On Tuesday, December 18, 2012, I lost my father, Eric John Nordin, to a two-year-long battle with lung cancer. Dad spent his life trying to turn his passion into a career. Sometimes, he was successful (for example, turning a passion for motorcycles into a 15-year career as a bike mechanic); other times, not so much (like his side business selling public domain software at the local flea market). I became interested in computers from an early age by watching him muck around in the dining room, building his own PC systems and playing text-based games like Zork—games which I soon fell in love with. He was responsible for my own passion for technology, and my interest in being an entrepreneur. In his later life, we were able to bond over our mutual love of karaoke, and his newfound love of fine cooking.

The Saturday before he passed, I took my daughter Charlotte down to Kent County Hospital to spend some quality time with her Pop-Pop before he was gone. The tumor that took him was taking up a third of his lung. By the next morning, it had doubled. By Tuesday, he was gone. 

I try to keep things professional on this site, but sometimes "professional" language isn't enough. Cancer is a fucking bitch. It took him too soon, and put him in too much pain for too many years. Watching my dad's mother pass away—also at 63 years old, also of lung cancer—was the reason I never became a smoker. I will miss him always, but I'm grateful that he's finally at peace.

It's a girl!

It occurred to me while caring for our delightful newborn, Charlotte, that I haven't actually announced here that she is, well, here. Charlotte Isabel was born on August 27th at 7:48pm, and turned two months old on Saturday. She is beautiful, healthy, and extremely vocal about what she does and doesn't like—much like her mama. Her father and I are exhausted, but couldn't be happier.

I'm working on a few more work-related posts, but many of those may have to wait until I have a bit more energy for thinky thoughts.

On maternity leave

As those who know me (or follow me on various social networks may have heard already), I’m expecting my first child in August. Any day now, in fact. Which means that, for the first time in my life, I’ve had to deal with the idea of going on maternity leave, and being away from my work for the next few months. 

As someone who has long admitted to workaholic tendencies, and has worked largely for herself for almost a decade, this idea has brought a bunch of new worries to the table. What will happen to the project I was in the middle of when I went on leave? Will the team I put together for that project be able to handle taking over? Did I document everything correctly? How soon will I be able to go back to work? Will I be able to find work when I do go back to it? And holy hell, how am I going to balance being a working professional with being a new mother?

Most of these thoughts, I recognize, aren’t terribly rational. But this has been my experience of being both pregnant and someone who generally goes through life with a vision of what’s next. Once I know that one piece of the puzzle will be in place, my brain wants to know where the other pieces are, and how they’ll fit into what’s already been created. The idea of taking three months off work terrifies me, as if life and my business will somehow come to a complete stop while I’m adjusting to life with a newborn. 

I imagine, though, that this is what most working mothers face; this idea of being defined by the work you do, and constant wondering how being a mother impacts that definition. Motherhood is one of those things that’s widely assumed to be all-encompassing, and one unfortunate reality of our culture is that we’re simply not set up well to allow women to be a mother while also advancing their careers. But I also know many women who are very capable of doing both, and who have made it work impressively. And while I don’t doubt that I’ll be one of those women, it doesn’t stop me from being anxious about how it all fits together. 

I suppose we’ll see. 

Targeting your audience: Don't forget the people you don't want to attract

At the most recent Design for Drupal Camp, I ran into someone who had attended a previous session I'd given at 2010's Camp about letting user experience guide Drupal workflow. In that session, I had discussed ways of quickly uncovering your target audience, and I mentioned the idea of starting with the people you don't want to attract, and building out your personas towards the people you do want to attract. My new friend was intrigued by the idea, and asked me to speak to the subject in a blog post. 

As designers and business owners, we hear a lot about "finding our target market." It's a big, broad, incredibly vague concept, and I've spent years helping companies large and small work it out for themselves. During the process of rebranding or redesigning a site, one of the most important things you can do is an audit of who your current brand and materials are attracting, and asking yourself, "is this still who I want to attract?" If not, it's time to start looking at who you do want to attract, as well as to figure out what it is about your current customers that isn't working. 

Although this idea is true of almost any business, it's particularly relevant to those, like me, who work for ourselves. In our case, we're selling our time, brain and stress levels directly to our clients—which means that highly stressful, time-consuming clients can easily derail us, particularly if those clients also don't want to pay market rates for professional services. So if our materials are consistently attracting these types of people—both in terms of paying clients and in terms of new business inquiries—it's time to start looking at how to turn that around. 

In 2004, when I first started working for myself, I was mostly working in-house at agencies and corporate art departments with a couple of independent clients on the side. The pay worked well, but I felt constantly underutilized and pigeonholed as a production designer. When I finally launched the zen kitchen in late 2005, I made a point of working with other independent businesses on branding and web design projects, which I did happily for years, adjusting my market along the way. Each year, I'd look at the clients I'd taken on the previous year, and ask myself if this market was still viable for me. In most cases, things were great, but I needed to make minor adjustments: I'd ignored a red flag or two, or I needed to find clients who were more serious about their business (and thus willing to trust my expertise and pay me for it without trying to haggle). The minor adjustments I made helped me see through another year with clarity; by recognizing the things I was attracting that weren't positive, I was able to shift my messaging to make the value of my work more clear, and saw a significant decrease in inquiries from prospects who didn't value design.

Something similar happened in 2010, after I decided to shift my focus onto UX Strategy and Design. I had an idea of what I could offer, and knew who I wanted to attract, but was having a hard time finding those prospects. Most inquiries I was getting focused on my visual design and needing someone to "build [them] a website," and the inquiries I got from people interested in UX work weren't sure of my value, or how I could benefit their team. Eventually, after a year of struggling with my new career focus, I realized what was going on: my materials and presence were still geared towards business owners who needed a brand and website. There was little, aside from a few talks I'd given, to back up my talents as a UX designer. I shifted gears and focused the latest version of this website on showcasing my UX and writing projects, with visual design and site building as a secondary focus, and so far, it's been working to attract the kind of clients I'm looking for—Drupal teams working on complex projects who need a UX designer to help them understand the foundations of what their users need.  

While I probably could have uncovered this information through focusing on what clients I want, what I find is that it's too easy to answer that question with "a client who will pay me," and leave it at that. This too often results in generic marketing materials that too easily allow the tire-kickers and other unwanted prospects to show up and waste your time with sales calls that will never pan out. By asking myself "what could be better about my current situation?" I'm giving yourself permission to admit that things aren't perfect, and it's easier to make the adjustments that need to be made in order to incrementally attract clients who are a better fit for where my business and skills are right now.

5 Questions: Customer Experience and Strategic UX

 

Last night, I participated in a panel for IEEE's Boston Entrepreneur Network (ENET) on how UX impacts customer experience. Also on the panel were Josh Porter of Hubspot, and Eric Hansen of SiteSpect. We talked about a bunch of things surrounding UX for tech entrepreneurs, from what metrics to look at to what type of qualitative research to include in your project, to a discussion of the challenges integrating strategic UX into Agile/Lean teams (something I'm starting to become quite familiar with). Below are my answers to a couple of the questions I was given beforehand by the session moderator.

1. What does user experience mean to you? What's a good capsule definition? Is it just interface design or is it the whole experience of working with your company?

Well, there's user experience, and then there is UX design. There are many components to UX design that help craft a good user experience—for example, user research can inform many levels of user experience, from messaging and content hierarchy on the website to specific services you offer your customers, or the way that your stores are laid out. Additionally, there are specific components to UX design for the web—what I do professionally—that don't necessarily touch the rest of the customer experience.

But "user experience," as I define it, is similar to brand experience and customer experience—it's inherent in every action your customer has with your business. If you're a retail store, user experience is not only the experience people have shopping your site online, it's the employees your customer deals with in the store, how long it takes to get your products, and how easy it is to return orders. If you're a software company, the user experience isn't just about what it's like to use the software; it's whether a user can get the help they need when something goes wrong. It's how upgrades are handled, how pricing is dealt with, and how quickly the user can get their tasks done so they can move on to the next thing in their to-do list.

2. What are subtle signs your customers are happy or unhappy?

In one of my first jobs, a manager told me, "90% of unhappy customers won't rant and rave and yell at you; they'll just leave and never come back." On the web, you can look at bounce rates—where folks are leaving your site. Are they clicking around to a few pages and leaving? Just coming in to read a blog post and never looking further? Are they putting things in a cart, but leaving the site without finishing the purchase? These can give you some idea about where the sticking points are in your design. If you have the luxury of seeing customers face to face, take a look at their faces while they're working with your product; do they seem pensive, like they're looking around? Do they seem frustrated with something, or exasperated? If you're talking to them on the phone, how does their voice sound?

Doing usability tests where the user's face is actually recorded is a great way to experience this first hand. While the participant is doing something with your software or website, their emotions are recorded on their face—and it's not hard to tell whether they're frustrated, or finding something easy to deal with. 

3. What are the factors that matter most for customers in keeping them happy?

Honestly, the best way to find this information to ask for it. Talk to your customers—ACTUALLY TALK TO THEM. Not surveys, not "fill this out for a chance at a gift card." Pick a few representative customers and have a conversation with them about what works and what doesn't. If you're building a software application or a web app, get people using it and see where they trip up—and where they say, "ooh! That's [easy, neat, cool, insert positive adjective here]." If you're building something that is designed to help people accomplish a specific task, talk to people who have to accomplish that task about how they do it normally. The biggest problem I see happening in design/dev teams is a focus on quantitative metrics over qualitative understanding, and a focus on talking to users about a project only after something's been built, without doing any research up front to decide whether something's even worth building.

4. How does poor UX negatively impact customers?

Best case scenario, the user grunts and bears it for a while; however, they're unlikely to stick around once they realize there's a different option. This is especially true with apps; for example, I'm addicted to to-do list applications. I've tried at least a half-dozen of them, but it took me forever to find the right one. Despite this, for me, it wasn't a big deal. I'd download a new one I'd heard about, load some tasks into it, think "can I see myself doing this all the time?" And if the app made it too hard for me to easily add a bunch of tasks at once, or didn't let me easily sort them, or I couldn't sync the tasks to my calendar, I abandoned it and moved on to the next thing. For me, it wasn't a big deal; to the companies who made these applications, they lost a potential customer and a piece of their market share. The same thing happens with retail stores, restaurants and online shops. While we might be willing to handle a little bit of a wait for the right place, many of us have no problem taking off and heading someplace else if we feel like the person we deal with first doesn't want to bother with us—even if we have a bunch of stuff in our hands. 

We've reached a point, particularly in tech, where someone who does almost exactly what you do is right around the corner, and easily accessible if you aren't doing that thing in a way that meets a customer need. And customers are increasingly unwilling to put up with clunky interfaces, steep learning curves, or company representatives that write off poor customer treatment as "policy." All of these things are part of the user experience of your company, and all of them have the potential to cost you customers if they aren't handled thoughtfully.

5. Is good UX always a result of passion, forethought, or a combination of both?

Good UX, in all its forms, balances thoughtful research and empathy for your company's stakeholders (not only customers, but also internal business groups, shareholders, etc.) with an intuition of what will meet the various needs of these groups best. Passion plays a role, yes, but not in the way a visual designer or artist might think of the word. The best UX designers are not lone visionaries working away in isolation towards some magical ground-breaking product; that's a romantic notion at best, and the marketplace is littered with lone visionaries whose products failed because they wouldn't allow themselves to be wrong. UX designers expect to be wrong, and acknowledge what they don't know yet. The passion, then, comes from understanding why you're wrong, and moving towards the right solution. It also comes into play when trying to sell an iterative, continuous learning process to stakeholders who believe that everything needs to be exactly right out of the park, and doesn't want to put energy into multiple iterations.

 

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