Crossing the digital divide

Taxiing home after my first Automattic Grand Meetup in Whistler, I was happy to get to know my driver Mohamed. He has been running his family business for over 20 years and also drives a taxi to help make ends meet. Like me, he has three kids and we spoke about them at length. We also spoke about work and got excited when he heard that I’m designer at WordPress.com. He pulled out his phone right away and told me that he downloaded the app with the intention of starting a new site but didn’t have the time to get to it.

We’re often encouraged to work with people that use our products because it helps us see our product through their eyes. This seemed like the perfect opportunity so I offered to build Mohamed his site on WordPress.com. He was really grateful and humbled me with his response. We exchanged contact info and agreed to meet after I recovered from my trip.

Going into this I thought I was just going to build a site but while prepping for our first meeting I realized it could be a lot more. I had been working on a new post-signup checklist to help new site owners get their site ready to launch. Most of the details were figured out except the checklist tasks which I was still in the process of finalizing. My epiphany led to me drafting up an agenda which basically included latest version of my checklist — what a great way to test it out I thought.

We met at Starbucks, my usual out-of-office meeting place, and he brought a friend along. Mohamed confessed he wasn’t very good with computers and needed someone to help him out with the “technical stuff”. His friend was also a small business owner and managed multiple businesses so he was very interested to learn more about WordPress. After some personal introductions, I asked Mohamed to tell me more about his business and what he was hoping his website would do for him. Within a couple of minutes, I had enough information to start working through my checklist.

Through multiple experiences of my own and hearing about others, I would have to say generating content is the hardest part of building a site. We can help you create a site in seconds and give it a professional look, but without the content, it isn’t very useful. I tried to be resourceful and started by asking if they had any existing social accounts or websites. My thinking was that I could maybe get a logo, a colour pallet, some images perhaps, and if I am really lucky some writing too — but no, they didn’t have any accounts. This reminded me of a poll we once ran where almost 60% of 4400 people signing up said they didn’t have an existing online presence. It was also something really important to keep in mind so we can think of other ways to help people generate content for their sites.

As I went down my list, I would explain why the task was important and how I was executing it. They couldn’t believe how quick it was coming together and they loved the design even though they didn’t pick one. In our time together, we built out the entire architecture for their site, personalized it, set up multiple ways for people to contact them, and added some copy to get them going. The site wasn’t 100% complete but Mohamed was ecstatic that his business was no longer limited to his geographical location. He could now do business with people all over the world. I left them with some homework for next time we meet where we hope to wrap things up.

I walked away from this experience feeling really energized and excited about what I had learned. For one, it was great to see the impact our work has on people’s lives. I also learned a lot about our product and the people using it. My biggest take away was witnessing someone that hadn’t fully crossed the digital divide and how that affects his business. I noticed what a big role Mohamed’s mobile devices has on his work and ability to provide for his family. It’s so clear to me why a mobile-first, or even mobile-only, policy is so important when I see people like Mohamed turning to their phones over desktop computers to connect with the world around them. I highly recommend that people working on products seek out opportunities like these.

This post also appeared in Automattic’s product design blog.

Recruiting participants for remote user tests

I share my experiences recruiting participants for a remote study in a new post on Automattic’s product design blog. Here’s a little snippet:

I recently attended my first remote design sprint at Automattic. It ran over a two week period and  was attended by fellow designers, developers, data scientists, happiness engineers, and marketers. Together we created two prototypes and tested them out with real customers. I found the experience to be both rewarding and inspiring. We came up with a lot of great ideas and validated them too. It was also really nice collaborating with a number of people across the company that I don’t usually get to work with.  

One of my major contributions to the sprint was recruiting real customers for the prototype test. The job was a whole lot easier thanks to an internal post written by my designer colleague Mike Shelton which was also taking part in the design sprint. He shared his experience recruiting customers from a previous test and also included the templates he created for people like myself to use. With that post, I had everything I needed once we determined exactly which type of customers we wanted to test.

Read the full post here.

How we build empathy for our customers at Automattic

This is an excerpt from a post I wrote for the Automattic Product Design blog:

Support Rotation 💬

It starts from our first day on the job. Everyone that joins Automattic spends three weeks doing what’s called a support rotation. We learn about our products by reading support documentation and running through exercises. Once we’ve completed our training, we get to business and start offering support to our customers with our Happiness team. We start by answering inquiries by email and then upgrade to doing live chat.

After we complete our rotation we are released into our new roles with a wealth of knowledge about our company and our customers. That’s not the end though, once a year we return back to the Happiness for a week to offer more customer support. It’s a great way for us to keep in touch with the challenges our customers are facing.

Read the full post

Winning hearts and minds: using customer interviews to learn about your customers

This is an excerpt from a post I wrote for the Automattic Product Design blog:

At Automattic we use customer research to help improve our offering. We employ a variety of different methods to study and learn from our customers so we can build better products for them. Some of the approaches we use include conducting customer interviews, running surveys and polls, doing user tests, and offering customer support.

In this post, I’m going to focus on one of my favorite methods: the ol’ customer interview. They have become a great source of inspiration and understanding since I started using them. Talking with our customers has given me a valuable perspective that helps me work on things that are good for them and our company.

Read the full post

Designing with words

Reading Storytelling for User Experience by Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks got me thinking about different ways of exploring ideas in my design process. It inspired me to try something new on a recent project. I found that both the end result and the journey were very rewarding.

Starting with words

For most projects I start with sketches, flow diagrams, or wireframes. The end result is always some sort of visual output. I have my graphic design background to thank for that. With this project, I changed things up a little and described my user journey in writing rather than illustrating it. The end result was like a story about our customer’s journey through our signup process.

I broke each step into a series of bullets that were short and concise. It was important for me to make them easy to read. My self imposed constraint forced me to keep things at a high level. This made it better for collecting feedback and moving onto the next stage of the project because people didn’t get caught up in small details.

Words are cheap

I don’t even need to think when I type because of how long I’ve been using a computer. It’s like I look at a screen and words appear right out my brain. Working on this project in this way made me realize that I can type quicker than I can sketch. I was able to cover lots of ground in less time and generated more ideas than I normally would.

I worked in waves by documenting my thoughts and then editing them. The ideas got better with each edit and sometimes they’d even spark new ones. I had to be diligent to capture them before they escaped. My keyboard skills came in hand as I copy and pasted new phrases, finished them off, and then got back to the original thought. After a while, the content began to mature. and I started to think about the implementation.

Structure brings Freedom

I remember my visual brain going wild while writing these flows. The descriptions painted such vivid pictures. I couldn’t wait to get to the visual part of the project. Once I did, I found it really easy to get going. Working within the constraints of the written text was very fun for me. With the high level details all figured out, I was able to focus on the details and get creative.

Conclusion

With this experience behind me, I can easily say I’d do it again. Heck, I’d like to see if there are other ways I can incorporate words into my design process. I’m going to continue exploring and writing about it here so check back soon. If you have any suggestions let me know, I’d love to hear about them.

Sales Safari: observing your customers in the wild

I’ve been trying a new ethnographic research technique called Sales Safari. It was developed by cross functional designers Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman. It unfortunately isn’t very well documented so I decided to write about it after reading how to do it in a book called  “Designing Products People Love” by Scott Hurff.

The goal of this approach is to create great products by studying what your customers are saying. Insights come from analyzing large quantities of data collected from online public spaces like forums and social networks. I thought it might work well to craft a great signup experience for our customers on the new project I’m working on.

How I ran my Sales Safari

I started by identifying the places where our customers hang out. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Reddit and the WP.com forums where a good places to start. Later, I also reviewed some of our customer’s sites, survey responses, and support requests. I closely read through the conversations while visiting each location. Phrases that stuck out to me were copied and pasted in a spreadsheet. I created a single keyword to summarize the phrase so I could categorize them later. Here’s how Hillman describes what you should be looking for:

“You start collecting jargon, some of their specific detailed language and words they use to describe the problem […] Elements and contributions to their worldview, their deep-seated beliefs that are unshakable. Then also the things that they talk about, they recommend. The things that they buy.”

As I progressed, I felt like this was a never ending process. There is so much content out there. Each conversation lead to another and sometimes even to a whole new “watering hole” — a term Amy uses to describe places where people go to share their views. I eventually decided I had enough data to take a peek. As I started grouping the phrases by keyword, the patterns started to become clear right away.

What I learned

After going through this process I definitely feel like I know more about our customers than when we started. This kind of research takes a lot of time and isn’t ever really over. I intend to continue doing it on a regular basis to stay in touch with what our customers are saying and feeling. This new understanding of our customers has both empowered and inspired me to explore different ways we can show people the value of our product early on so we they can stick around with us for longer.

Share your thoughts

Have you tried this approach before? Do you have other ways you like to learn from your customers? Reach out on Twitter and let me know.

Product and marketing: two sides of the same coin

Colin Bentley and Brian Donohue are product managers at Intercom — a product first company. They were interviewed on the company’s podcast about their experiences since they joined the company of 30. Today, there are 300 people working at Intercom and their product services over 100,000 active customers.

As a product first company it was normal for them to think if you built a great product, everything else would follow. People were cynical when Intercom started making their first marketing hires.

Over time, the product folks began to see they weren’t very different than the marketers. They realized they both focus on the needs of their customers. While the product managers build features, the marketers position them to their customer’s so they’re desirable and useful. As an example, Twitter’s tweet button could have been easily labeled submit. Instead, a lot of work went into positioning it as a Tweet button so that Tweeting could become a thing.

Today, Colin and Brian explain how important it is for their team to collaborate. It’s essential for them to fuse both the marketing and product perspectives. This allows them not only to build the most important things for their customers but also gives their product a unique place in the market.

Listen to the full podcast on Intercom’s site.

7 tools to help you get started on your next design project for your product

Getting started on a new project can be intimidating. Thankfully as designers we have these tools to help us get the ol’ juices flowing.

User flows

Experience your product as the people using it would. Take screenshots, write notes, and press every single button you find. Document your journey in steps as you go and take notes.

Stakeholder interviews

Learn from your peers and customers. Find anyone that’s worked on your project before you, speak with your peers, and interview the decision makers on the project. Most importantly, get in touch with the people using your final product.

Competitor analysis

See how your product measures up and find some inspiration along the way. Start by identifying your direct competitors. Then expand search to similar products. Finally look for companies in completely different fields. Make a list of the defining features of your product. As you review each competitor: document the features they have, take notes, and add new features to your list that you find interesting.

Sales safari

Gain a unique perspective about your customer. Find people using your product without influencing them in any way. The best way to do this is to look up things they’ve said in the past by checking your forums, customer support requests, old surveys, and social media accounts. Look out for how they speak, what they think about your product, and what challenges they’re running into.

Inspiration boards

Capture your favourite pieces to inspire you throughout your project. Visit your favourite inspiration sites or use screenshots from your competitor analysis. Save images and arrange them in a way that makes sense to you. Make it really visual and physical. Print it out if you have to and stick it somewhere where you can see it from time to time.

Data analysis

Find out how your product is performing. Get familiar with tools like Google Analytics, mySQL data bases, and what ever reporting software your company uses. Understand your business performance metrics so you can figure out how you can make a real difference both for your customers and your business.

Communication

Keep everyone up to date with your progress. Share your findings as frequently as you can to spur discussion and gather ideas. It easier to get buy in when people are involved in the process. Get people excited by posting your diagrams, notes, and sketches for everyone to see.

Conclusion

What does your design process look like? Is there anything on my list that’s missing? Want to learn more about one of these in more depth. Reach out on Twitter and let me know.

The first mile: the key to long term success for your product

I just listened to Scott Bellsky explain the importance of a product’s first mile on Intercom’s podcast. The first mile comes right after someone signs up for your product. It is often referred to as an onboarding experience. This is where you orient your users within your product and give them a sense of what they’re going to do next. Careful attention is paid to the type of copy you write, how your tour looks, and what defaults you set for your users.

According to Scott, the key is to have someone do a few key things that shows them the value of your product over the long term.

Here are some of the notes I took from the podcast:

  • The first mile is usually the last mile a team focuses on. Teams often spend lots of time building their products and only think about the onboarding experience as an after thought or when they see their users aren’t sticking around.
  • Scott believes that in the first 15-30 seconds of every new customers experience, they are lazy, vein, and selfish. Lazy because they don’t want to read or do any work. Vein because they want to know how the product will make them better. Selfish because they want the product to make them look good. These are important characteristics to keep in mind when crafting this experience.
  • He suggests that maybe we shouldn’t tell them or show them, but rather we should just do it for them with the defaults completed.
  • It’s important to remember we can’t believe people will have a relationship with us if they can’t get through those first interactions. They can’t buy into our vision or to recommend us to other people. It just needs to serve them now!
  • The first mile is successful when users reach the “zone”. When they experience that sense of accomplishment and see how the product will serve them in the future.
  • Messaging apps like Telegram and Slack have really smooth onboarding. They even think about the small things like the magic link to log you in because when users come back the second time, they don’t usually remember their passwords.
  • The first mile isn’t something that can be done once and forgotten about. It’s important to continually optimize the first mile by understanding your users and being empathetic to their needs and circumstances.

You can listen to the full podcast on Intercom’s blog or your can learn more about the first mile by reading Scott’s blog post on Medium.

Learning 3D: Getting started

As a designer I constantly challenge myself to grow. Wanting to sharpen my visual design skills, I’ve decided to get into 3D graphics. The idea of creating 3D models is appealing to me because of my artistic background. The ability of fluently creating 3D graphics would take any designer’s visual design skills to the next level.

I learned to animate and code by animating and coding. The best way for me to learn a new skill is by doing it. But before getting started, it always helped me to understand some basic concepts before diving in. These are the questions I’ll be asking myself as I start to learn 3D:

  • How do you make 3D graphics?
  • What software do you use to create 3D graphics?
  • What are 3D models?
  • What are  3D textures?
  • What is 3D rendering?
  • What is 3D animation?
  • What types of projects should I start with?
  • Where should I find inspiration?
  • Where can I learn 3D?

Join me in my next post as I explore how 3D graphics are made.