The Creative Impact of Improvisation

Written by: Amy Marquez

Improvisation is a very old and time-tested form of theater. The earliest use of improvisation is found in records of a Roman farce performed in 391 BC. Given its long history, it’s surprising to me that in our modern world, comedy–and comedic improvisation–is considered a low-brow form of entertainment. It is generally eschewed by the erudite. But it shouldn’t be.

My own experience with improvisation spans 20+ years. And in the middle of that I took a hiatus from performing when my husband and I started a family. For four years, I did no improv. And my brain seemed to stutter to a screeching halt. I felt dull and less energetic. Creativity started taking more effort than it had previously. I felt like I was on autopilot. But I chalked that up to being a new, perpetually sleep-deprived parent. I’m sure that sleep deprivation didn’t help, but at the time I didn’t even realize what the real problem was.

Ramping up my brain

When I first came back to improv from that break, I felt like my brain was having to wade through mud to get ideas out. I looked at my fellow troupe members and marveled at how quickly they could craft a scene or throw out ideas. But after a couple of months with the troupe, my thoughts moved much more quickly. I could keep up with the rest of my team, and I suddenly felt so much more alive than I had in years.

I noticed something else. My creative process at work started to go into overdrive. I was able to generate, dismiss, or accept design ideas very quickly. It was much easier to do collaborative creative brainstorming and get dozens of ideas out because my thought processes had become accustomed to it. I felt like my mental Rolodex (here’s a link for the young whippersnappers who have no idea what a Rolodex is) was stuffed with ideas and was spinning impossibly fast; ideas were flying.

It was a wonderful feeling–like moving out of the fog into the sunlight.

The science behind creativity

I decided to do some research on this, and as it turns out, this isn’t just a fluke, it’s a proven scientific method of improving brain function.

Dr. Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist, has dedicated his research to the art of improvisation and how it increases creativity. He has a fascinating TED Talk on the topic. His studies focus on jazz piano improvisation, and he demonstrates that the same increase in creativity is seen when the subject is improvising while rapping.

A post by self-proclaimed “biohacker” Dave Asprey about Limb’s studies summed up what was found to occur in the brain while improvising:

“During improvisation, the self-monitoring part of the brain (lateral prefrontal for you brain hardware hackers out there) deactivated, while the self-expression part of the brain got activated (medial prefrontal). Literally, that means that to be creative, you have to stop picking on yourself while boosting your self-expression abilities.”

Turn off your filters

If there is one thing you get practice doing in improv, it’s in turning off your brain’s filters. In improv, there are no bad ideas, you don’t hesitate on an impulse–you must charge forward with the scene and be fearless about making mistakes.

Applying the same principles in creative work comes more naturally once your brain is trained to do it in an improvisational setting.

So how can you bring this into your own work when you don’t perform improv on a regular basis? Bring the improvisation to your team. There are simple exercises you can do in a team setting that will help break down the voice of doubt and hesitation.

You can begin very simply so that your team becomes accustomed to the idea of improvising. If the idea of finding extra time to do this is daunting, take advantage of weekly meetings (like staff meetings). Set aside one of those meetings a month to do improvisational exercises.

The pep talk

Make it clear to your team that this is an activity where mistakes are expected and even welcome. This is a safe environment for them to be silly…because when everyone looks silly, no one looks silly.

Tell them not to overthink reactions and to act spontaneously. That means listen to what the other players are saying without trying to formulate a response before they’re finished. This forces the players to practice some of the key elements of active listening.

You’ll also want to review some of the basic rules of improv with the team.

Warm up exercises

Keep in mind that in all of these games, there needs to be a coach. Someone directing the team members in what to do. The coach can participate in the warm up exercises, but there are some structures that require a “director” and the coach should fulfill that role.

  1. To get your team engaged, start with an alphabet challenge. There are many names this particular structure goes by, so I’ll leave it up to you to call it what you’d like.

    Instructions
    Have the team stand in a circle.
    Decide who goes first.
    The first person starts by saying a word that starts with the letter “A”, and points at another player.
    The second player must quickly say a word that starts with the letter “B”, and point at another player.
    Repeat this until the team has gone through the entire alphabet.

    This is a simple game, but it primes the brain and gets everyone on the same footing.

  2. A more complex warm up exercise is called “What are you doing?”

    Instructions
    Have the team stand in a line.
    The first player steps forward and begins miming a simple action. (Example: buttering bread.)
    The second player steps forward and observes the first, then asks “What are you doing?”
    The first player responds with something completely different than the action they are miming. (Example: “I’m climbing a mountain.”)
    The second player begins to mime the action the first player said–climbing a mountain in this case.
    The first player steps back to where they were in the line.
    The third player steps forward, looks at what the second player is miming and asks “What are you doing?”
    Repeat the steps above until all of the team members have had a chance to participate.

Intermediate structures/scenes

Once everyone is comfortable with the warm-up exercises, you can move on to some more complex interactions. These involve a handful of participants and the rest of the team act as the audience.

  1. This first scene is called Oracle. It requires three players to act as one entity. It also requires a “handler.” The handler should introduce the all-knowing and powerful Oracle, who can answer any question.

    Instructions
    Have the three players sit one in front of the other at different levels–one on the floor, one on a chair, and one either standing or on a bar-height stool.
    The handler introduces the Oracle and asks if anyone has a question for the all-knowing Oracle. If there is hesitation to ask a question, the handler can suggest a topic.
    (Example: “Today the Oracle will answer all of your questions about bacon. What would you like to know about bacon?”)
    The players answer in order with only one word each. Each player has to build on the word that the player before them said.
    Once that question is answered, the handle asks the audience for another question.

    Example:
    Audience Member: Oracle, why is bacon so good?
    Player 1: Bacon
    Player 2: is
    Player 3: good
    Player 1: because
    Player 2: it
    Player 3: is
    Player 1: bad.

    The players may want to prearrange a signal that their answer is over. Something physical like waving their arms or snapping would work well.

  2. Freeze tag is a structure that requires players to create a scene based on a physical pose. It takes a little more setup than the other scenes and works best when you have no more than six players at a time. Make sure the coach has a whistle for this one.

    Instructions
    The players stand in a line.
    The first two players step forward.
    If there is an “audience,” ask someone to volunteer to position the two players for the initial scene.
    (Positioning rules: The position should be socially acceptable, the position should obey the laws of gravity, and the two players need to be touching. It can be a little touch–like a finger to a finger–or it can be a lot of touch.)
    If there is no audience, the coach should tell the first two players to assume a position they would if they were playing a sport. The coach should pick a specific sport, and the same positioning rules apply.
    When the players are in position, the coach blows the whistle to start the scene.
    The players must build their scene based on the initial position, but should start moving out of that position as soon as possible.
    After about a minute, the coach should blow the whistle when the players are in an interesting position.
    When the whistle is blown, the players freeze.
    The next player in line approaches the frozen players, taps one of them on the back letting them know they can get back in line, and assumes that player’s position.
    The two players then start a completely different and unrelated scene based on the new position.
    Repeat until all of the players have rotated in and out at least twice.

For more improvisational warm-ups, games, and exercises, you can look through the Improv Encyclopedia.

Remember “Yes, and…”

This handful of exercises will get your team started and help break down mental barriers to creativity. The more you do this, the less they will second guess themselves. And remember to emphasize the king of all improv rules, “Yes, and….”

There is no faster way to kill the energy in a scene than when one player says “no” to another. Forward progress is the objective. If a player tells you that you’re making a documentary on unicorns, don’t say “No, we’re not, because unicorns don’t exist.” The response should be an affirmation and a continuation.

The Benefits of Play

I’m grateful that I took a break from improv while I was a new mom. Putting the focus on my family was the right thing for me to do. And the mental impact of quitting improv taught me valuable lesson. Coming back to it has fundamentally changed the importance I place on collaboration, creative play, pretending, and imagination, both at home and at work.
The National Institute for Play cites multiple research efforts which found that pretend play “remains key to innovation and creativity.” They state that play mixed with science begets transformation.
Whether at work, at home, or on the stage, because of my continued experiences with improvisation, I bring that sense of play with me. Not only does it make life more fun, it has also helped foster an early, more mature sense of humor in my children (now elementary school age) where wordplay, puns, and imagination are a part of everyday conversation. It has also put me on a first-name basis with the principal…but in a good way.

Building the In-house Design Agency

Written by: Steve Turbek

The first article discussed the pros and cons of different UX team structures. For companies that depend on user experience for business success, a strong internal team is essential. But how do you get there from here? Having built one UX group from scratch and managed another 230+ person internal UX groups, I’ve learned a few tips, often the hard way, that can help.

Making the case

The hardest part of building an in-house design agency is answering the basic “Why?”

I’ve been asked “why” by senior executives, database admins, and the mailman. It took a long time to recognize this question in its many forms, each with its own answer. But fundamentally, they all ask why should UX be a part of the conversation and how can it help them.

In any large enterprise, user experience can still be a new concept. I’ve made the mistake many times of assuming too much–assuming that help was wanted, or even needed; assuming that people understood the terms I used, like ‘deliverable’; assuming that everyone bought into the value of design in general, or on this specific project.

Take the time to meet with people across the firm to explain the services you offer and how you can help them. It is just like starting a business. Discover their issues and the language they use to describe them. Don’t be a salesperson–only offer user experience if it solves a problem they actually have. Once I understood that a UX agency is there to help other people succeed, life got a lot easier.

It helps to understand what the people you are working with mean by success. I’ve had the pleasure to work with many entrepreneurial leaders at a number of firms. They can be fantastic partners who drive real change, but their needs are very different from a product team. Senior managers are typically more concerned with defining the overall vision before building the whole project. User research can validate the concept; concept designs can help communicate their vision. Hitting a fledgling project with the style guide is a great way to not help.

On the other hand, product managers and developers are more concerned with execution.  They have deadlines and launch windows. It’s helped me to remember that there is always a next release; a timely good design beats a wonderful design that never launches. Wireframes help the team agree on what they are building; usability testing often helps make difficult tradeoffs.

Once you have a shared vision, it is on to executing design. To become that trusted partner, there is no substitute for demonstrated competence. Until you earn the name as an expert, you are seen as just another person with an opinion. A sales pitch can open the door, but a UX group needs clear product successes.

Establishing a good reputation by helping other leaders succeed will lead to natural growth. The goal is not to increase the headcount of the UX department, but to serve the firm; growth is an effect of helping others solve their problems. Success will feed on itself, enabling you to manage user experience professionals across the organization.

Every UX leader has learned the hard way that one of the most critical skills is setting and managing client expectations. Be clear about what a UX professional will do, how long it will take, and what delays could happen mid-project. Assume that clients are not aware of the user centered design process. It helps to explain the standard procedures and deliverables, not unlike a menu. Show examples of previous work. Our team made a template for every deliverable with a few sentences explaining what, for example, a wireframe was. Back when I worked at an agency, we used to joke when a client looked at wireframes and asked why their website was all black. Now I know it was our responsibility to answer that question before it got asked.

The biggest barrier I’ve seen to using UX in a firm is often simple lack of knowledge of what UX can deliver.

Spread the word about user experience horizontally across the firm by offering free UX “favors.” Two hour heuristic review meetings or small design projects are cheap and demonstrate value. Clearly define how much time you or your team can devote to it, so no one expects a full project.

Clients may come with projects that are about to launch. Giving a little help now will encourage them to plan you into a future project. I was once literally asked if UX could “put lipstick on this pig.” No UX person wants to burn out trying to patch fundamentally broken products, but the relationship can be worth the investment. That product manager came back to our group earlier the next time, and we did it right.

Running the group

Running the in-house agency is like running a small design agency. You have to deliver value for your customers to succeed. Credibility is the most important quality of a successful designer. The team has to do good work, every time. There is often no requirement to use design (“Can’t a developer just do that?”), but a good designer makes people want to work with them, even if it costs more. External agencies can walk away from a client with little risk that anyone will hear about a failed project, but companies are very social. Good (and bad) work will be remembered and passed on.

Not every project is appropriate for the in-house agency, and a smart group should not overload themselves by taking on every project nor risk ruining their reputation by taking on projects poorly suited to their team, like trying to do marketing with a product design team. Big, temporary projects or isolated product areas in which the team has no experience are good cases for bringing in “the Hessians.” There are other ways to help, including sourcing and pre-qualifying external agencies and individual contractors.

Design contracts have details that are not understood by most procurement groups. It helps to know what is expected and standard in a design project, such as whether personas are required, or if the firm already has a set defined. An internal agency can assist with writing the contract, such as negotiating billing rates, or checking that the estimated hourly rate and the project length makes sense. Once contracted, the internal team can get the agency set up and be effective, faster.

Structuring the team as a consultancy can be a natural step as many UX professionals have agency experience; the difficult part is establishing the practice internally. Organizations that recognize the value of user experience typically have an easier time, but even if the company culture supports it, a team’s credibility needs to be built one project at a time.

A good balance is to establish an “agency of record” relationship, where you partner with (ideally two) good agencies. Agreeing on a defined level of resources each month for a year builds a relationship of trust, which gets the best talent and enables lower rates. Maintaining a 70:30 ratio of employees to contractors offers a good blend of lower costs and ability to vary staff in case of a downturn.

Some firms still worry that this whole UX thing will blow over, and they’ll be stuck with a bunch of latte-drinking oddballs on payroll. Being able to grow on demand and shrink if necessary calms this fear and shows organizational maturity in a way firms understand.

My biggest passion at work is helping each person achieve their goals and how this manifests in our team culture. This has helped guide my decisions from the large to the most mundane. You would be surprised at the impact getting a fancy coffee machine has over a plain corporate coffee pot. It is one small way to communicate respect. UX people are like many other craftspeople; they are 10 times more effective when inspired and engaged. Typically, UX groups work best physically sitting together while spending a lot of time with their clients, but the team should be organized to fit best with the business. Organizing UX people or teams to cover a business area in the firm enables them to develop expertise (relationships, processes, tools, and terminology) and carry it from project to project.

Managing multiple products avoids the tedium of working on solely one product, but enables the team to build a reputation and good working relationships, leading to greater influence. The longer-term engagement enables them to focus deeper on workflow and have a strategic point of view. It opens the potential to suggest that UX could deliver more value by doing more work on project X funded by project Y. Ideally, allocate “10% time,” where team members can work on fixing problems or developing new ideas.

Off-shoring

Inevitably, cost cutting concerns raise the question of off-shoring UX. Why pay North American wages when there are people willing to do the job for a third the cost? Many large outsourcing firms have a  design or user experience offering, why not use them when when the developers may already be off-shored?

I’ve been unable to hire at the same skill level with off shoring companies, but the real challenge is simple project management. Design resources are active during the formative phase of a project, when clear communication is most needed and requirements are in flux. Waiting 24-48 hours to learn if the request was understood is an order of magnitude slower (and thereby more expensive) than a head shake during a meeting.

When Diana Vreeland said “Pink is the navy blue of India,” she wasn’t thinking web design, but a user experience is often defined by shared cultural norms. Good design takes into account the intangible essentials. The best designers are plugged into the cultural currents and apply them to the job at hand. Amazon lets people tweet their product purchases. Is is appropriate for pharmacy orders? How much visual priority should news be given on a page? Many failed projects could have been fixed by asking basic questions such as “Do people really want that?”

Many firms understand that Agile development is difficult with a team in multiple physical locations, not to mention time zone and language or cultural challenges. Outsourcing works best in a waterfall process with tightly documented deliverables and less dependency on communication. Unfortunately, design operates in an agile mode at all times. In a knowledge worker field like design, it is not enough to have one senior “thinker” and 10 “doers.” The thinking IS the doing.

The best way to integrate off-shore talent is to supplement a team, with a local lead who can break design problems up across a team and coordinate efforts. A good example would be to extend a design idea across a defined workflow, or develop a set of icons. Most outsourcing firms recommend this structure for developers. There are many projects that are simply extensions of previous work. If you have tight standards and quality control, this model can work well.

Ultimately, though, the more important UX is to a new project, the less successful outsourcing is likely to be. One-third as expensive costs more if it takes three times as long.

Funding

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked, “We’d love to have UX, but how do you pay for it?” Funding an internal practice is inevitably the hardest problem, but it is how a UX manager earns their stripes.

There are two main ways to fund a design group–centrally, by some overarching part of the firm, or by the various projects that the team will support. Central funding has its benefits–you don’t have to worry about justifying the cost of design on a project or the headcount with many stakeholders. It is often easier to start a group with the support of senior executives who may be concerned about the customer experience across products.

I’ve come to prefer a hybrid model in order to build UX deeper into the company. Central funding creates a competition for the “free” resources and creates a perverse value on the service–that is, $0.00. This is important, because people value what they pay. Everyone knows development and QA are significant costs. If UX does not cost, there is no need to plan for it during yearly budgeting, which means no money for the team.

Additionally, it can be hard to justify hiring a person in the central group even if another group is willing to fund the person. Bureaucratic delays can make UX integration across the firm much harder. “Free” but unavailable is also hard to take seriously. Central funding is definitely needed for centralized tasks like creating style guides and exploring new design ideas that would not be supported by any one project.

The ideal is to have an understanding with finance that the group will be housed in one location but have the actual funding for the people distributed across projects around the firm. You are looking for something like insurance, not actual dollars, from the central funder. In time, they will see how in-demand UX people are. The 70:30 split we discussed earlier helps here as well.

Challenges

A good team who knows its company still faces the significant challenges. Team member burnout is a real problem. Working on the same problem area for years causes fatigue and sloppiness; one solution is to plan to rotate team members from area to area. Often, this needs to  happen before there is a glaring problem, like a project delayed or someone quits.

It is human nature to put off a team change when there is work to be done. Unfortunately, there is always work to be done. My experience has been that the key is that no client likes to replace a known resource with an unknown, even if they are stronger or more well suited. A solution is to plan ahead and let them get to know the replacement well in advance. Ideally, bring on the replacement to assist for a few months. My motto with clients is “No surprises.”

UX projects can have the reputation of being expensive, due to additional team members, and the additional thought put into them.  This can be a poor fit when the need is defining the basic problem and sketching a solution.  Offering an “innovation” UX , in contrast to regular projects can be a powerful tool to get UX in at the conception of an idea.

An “innovation” project starts off with a three to five week boot camp to develop the product vision from an elevator pitch to testable prototype or a presentation to request funding. These projects tend to be a lot of fun as well!

Keeping fresh and staying connected with UX, design, and technical developments outside the company can be a challenge. Many companies block access to social media tools and design websites. These rules have the (unpopular, but real) benefit of keeping people focused (it can be amusing to read mid-day tweets by consultants who are working “full time” on your project), but also blocks out many design-focused sites.

A team that shares links has a healthy culture that spreads good ideas and innovative design. Collecting these in an UX newsletter email makes it easier to share with design-interested colleagues, and keeps design in the conversation. Talk to the corporate security to get the top design sites unblocked. It can be surprisingly easy–often they are simply caught in a blanket block licensed from the firewall vendor. Little details like this can make a big impact to employee morale.

“Going native” is what happens when UX’ers understand and accept unchallenged why certain business rules are required and why new approaches are impossible. As representatives of the user, the team must refresh themselves. Good ways to do this are to listen in on customer service calls, visit company stores, and observe real customers. Bringing clients along can be a great team-building outing; many head office execs rarely get enough time with customers to talk about their products.

Development is an ongoing problem. UX’ers who aren’t growing feel like they are stagnating. The single best way is to support their development in ways that help others and build an ecosystem. Encourage white paper writing and presenting at conferences. Learning by teaching is a tried and true method. UX groups have the benefit of an audience with similar interests.

Go forth and conquer!

An integrated internal UX team is critical to organizational success, and the stakes are higher in larger enterprises. An internal practice that builds lasting relationships, provides thought leadership, and acts as trusted advisors provides long-lasting value to the firm. As the digital space becomes increasingly human-centric, and organizations evolve offerings around consumer need, the internal user experience agency plays a significant part in delivering both short term wins as well as long term success.

Soldiers & Hessians, Ronin & Ninja

Written by: Steve Turbek

When UX’ers talk, they tend to talk about process, but the ability to deliver an innovative user experience starts before kickoff and lasts after the launch. Repeatable success in UX depends on the right culture. This is particularly important in enterprise scale organizations, with long-lasting relationships.

Having worked as a consultant, at an agency and in-house, I’ve observed that the organizational location and economics of the user experience team can make or break them. When should you bring in an outside team, and when should you hire an individual employee? When might you want to grow an in-house agency?

As firms digitize their business, user experience has gone from marketing to a core business function. Financial service companies have come to embrace this (see “Your interface is your company”). When your products are invisible and complex, web and mobile interfaces define your customers’ opinion. This increased value means increased responsibility: Designers need deep business knowledge, not just wireframing skills. Full “domain knowledge” starts with knowing the basic terminology to business rules, previous project successes and failures, and regulations.

Intimate organizational insight is critical to UX. In the course of a project, UX professionals dig up data and identify solutions to problems beyond the immediate project. A UX future vision accelerates short-term delivery, but also drives the product roadmap. By understanding how the business works, strategic UX’ers can connect them to fundamental insights on how to deepen customer relationships and win.

How to figure out the right team for a new project?

Here are three things to think about for a project’s user experience team strategy.

Domain complexity. The more difficult a project is to learn by a new person the less happy enterprises are with “turnover.” New people can mean more training, delayed projects, and missed deadlines.

Lifespan of project/portfolio. Generally, single marketing campaigns don’t need as much investment into future-proofing. On the other hand, software can live for years; it’s worth investing to make it scalable, consistent, and avoid design entropy.

Scale. An organization’s scale determines the amount of impact a single UX practitioner can have. On small projects, a single designer can do it all, but in a large organization, a few scattered people will have difficulty influencing business strategy or maintaining a consistent UX strategy.

Because of these structural differences, agencies and in-house groups have different strengths and are suited to solve different problems.

UX_team_organization

The Ronin: Individual consultant

An individual consultant can be an effective solution for an experienced client, but too often a consultant’s input does not get the traction it deserves. The temporary nature of the engagement makes it difficult to know the business in depth or to earn relationships that can influence the project. There is a high risk of being relegated to “surface” design. This is the most difficult position to extend into wide ranging influence, as a consultant often lacks the standing to create standards, nor the scale to work on many projects.

One area an individual consultant can have influence is speaking. There are many talented UX people who are happy to adapt their UX conference speeches to a business audience.

There are many related subjects, from mobile trends to analytics to SEO that overlap with user experience. Showing the connection to the latest hot topic to the fundamental user centered design process helps show how UXD helps accomplish a goal that executives have.

With the right introduction, these external experts can demonstrate best practices that can gain a competitive advantage.

The Ninja: Individual employee

A strong employee can positively influence their area of business; however, they also often lack the influence to change business strategy. Ironically, if they are successful at promoting a user centered philosophy, they are unable to satisfy the resulting demand.

Many firms employ isolated UX professionals in various departments, which can make it difficult to define and enforce standards and best practices. Individual user experience practitioners can face limited career paths and pressure to compromise design principles.

Many firms have UX interest groups where people talk shop and share techniques. One approach is to convert this to an “action” group to influence overall strategy. Bring in external speakers, write an analysis of the firm’s user experience, create a user experience mailing group for interesting topics. Find like-minded executives who could champion user experience.

The Hessians: External agency

Agencies are an excellent option for a blue-sky rethinking of a product, for crossing lines of business, and providing a neutral third party. Not knowing the business requirements, laws, or what was tried before naturally encourages new thinking. Employees may be less optimistic, or perhaps too realistic, for radical change. Additionally, there is implicit perceived value in the neutrality of an outside opinion, especially from a brand name consultancy; internal stakeholders are more likely to accept mediation with an outsider. Additionally, agencies can deliver a large team quicker and easier than hiring consultants. Agencies can provide trend insights from scanning the field across clients to understand what is being emphasized.

However, the effectiveness of external agencies can be constrained by simple economics. An agency team costs significantly more per person. This limits the type of projects they can execute. Multi-year projects with multiple releases are often not cost effective. Small projects are similarly not possible due to the team approach of agencies: You can’t just hire one person from an agency. Sort of like Goldilocks, projects too long or too small are left without UX assistance.

The nature of working contract by contract requires agencies to focus on different aspects of a project, for example, making elaborate presentations to help the client feel they have gotten value for their money.

Fixed-price contracts force enterprises to work to a rigid schedule, which can be good and bad. Spending money on an external group can bring focus, but it is rare that all groups in a large organization operate on the same schedule. There are usually several large initiatives fighting for attention and core developer resources at any one time.

Doing a large overhaul ensures that some of the teams will not be ready to work during the time the agency is there. An agency is often long gone by the time a software application is launched, preventing usability testing for the next phase and eliminating the chance to fix the UX for challenges encountered during development.

Being external increases the difficulty of getting to know the client’s business. Information is shared less freely with outsiders and access to users is more tightly controlled. This can be as simple as getting a laptop on the local network or as difficult as being licensed or having security clearance. Each barrier reduces the efficiency of a temporary worker. They have to be twice as fast for each hour getting up to speed, travelling, and making presentations. Collaboration is sometimes hindered by an “us vs. them” attitude with agency people working in their office and the client in theirs.

Agencies may execute short-term projects effectively, but being temporarily engaged limits their effectiveness over the long term. Their recommendations may never be built if there is no one championing them in the company. The need for an impressive “big reveal” presentation at the end of the project can get in the way of a spirit of open, iterative design. They are well positioned to create a style guide but poorly positioned to see that it gets distributed, adopted, and maintained over time. An agency is great to make a slogan like “Quality is Job 1” but would struggle to make quality the top priority across a company.

The Soldiers: In-house agency

The in-house agency merges aspects of the external agency (scale, coordination, career path, best practices, and standards) with aspects of working in-house (stability, domain knowledge, personal relationships with partners) that can cause change over the long term. Investing in a UX department demonstrates the firm’s commitment to its customers, but it is often simply a practical decision.

In this model, user experience people are located in one group but are assigned to projects when needed. This enables the team to provide the core UX service to projects across an enterprise, without the higher costs of an entire agency team or tie up headcount on a project that does not need to hire a full time UX professional.

Workflow projects with complex business rules are best done inside the company. The business knowledge discovered during analysis is precious and expensive. Stakeholders rarely agree to be interviewed again because a person leaves mid project. Getting a UX professional up to speed is slow and expensive. Hiring an agency is a sure-fire way to lose this information when a team member is moved to another project.

Worse yet, given the higher turnover rates in agencies, the knowledge invested can be permanently lost. From remembering why decisions were made six months earlier to knowing the rules of the business, this is life force of a project. Documentation can help, but mid-project most of the information is held in the heads of the team.

The centralized group provides services that no other model can. It can maintain design standards to give the customer a consistent experience and reduce duplicate work. This reduces costs and improves quality. Members share in-progress work to the group, so a client benefits from the experience of the whole group.

To conclude

Each of these models has strengths and weaknesses. Assuming the same competency of the people, an in-house agency provides the best long term value to the enterprise from its ability to engage with complex problems and influence the organization widely. As firms recognize the competitive advantage of customer experience, the question becomes: how to make this vision a reality.

The next article will cover building and growing a UX practice that thrives in an enterprise and delivers business value.

Context matters

Written by: Maciej Płonka

What makes a marketing e-mail or newsletter efficient? One can judge, for instance, by the number of users that opened the message or clicked on a specified element representing primary action, such as a product link or button.

Those indicators measure user engagement precisely; however, they are limited to the last phase of interaction with e-mail or newsletter. The act of clicking certain element in a marketing e-mail is a result of a longer process of identifying, assimilating, and analyzing its content. It is in those three steps that the decision is made to take action or not, and it is those three steps that are not analyzed or included in standard efficiency measurement, such as CTR or open-rate.

Therefore, click-through-rate or open-rate measures only completed processes, not taking into account those interrupted. Moreover, those parameters do not inform us about “why” a certain user decided to click or abandon the message.

Methodology

One way to understand what is happening in users’ minds is to observe what they really see, which cannot be done using the traditional methods of e-mail research. Instead, we used eye tracking on a desktop computer to record the person’s gaze while looking at the e-mail message, checking which objects they looked at, for how long, and which elements, among the whole field of the vision, attracted their attention the most.

To check what kind of impact some of the characteristics of e-mails have on users, some of the stimuli were transformed by our team. For instance, we modified location of logo and the calls-to-action, changed size of prices, or flopped photos change the direction the person in the photo is facing.

Each of the stimuli used in the study had two versions–an original and a modified one. Each version was seen by 27 participants. All of the heat maps in the report are derived from the averaging of 10 second long scan paths of 27 subjects.

Observations: Testing known principles and their variations

Our different observations confirm some of the generally known design principles, such as users’ deep-rooted dislike of homogenous blocks of text.

At the same time, some of our hypotheses were disproved. For instance, reducing the length of introductory text did not result in an increased number of users reading it. In fact, introductory text was so rarely read that a general recommendation from our research is to remove it all together in favor of items that really matter.

Text and reading

Learning how to read and gaining experience in this activity shapes our perception since early childhood. In our (Western) culture, we read from left to right and from top to bottom. This becomes a strong habit and this strategy of scanning a visual stimulus is executed automatically, even if the viewed stimulus does not contain text.1

What is more, readers on the web are very selective.2 They constantly search for valuable content, but when the required amount of effort increases, their motivation plummets. Below, we describe further and illustrate those phenomena with the examples from our study.

Blocks of text

It may sound like a truism, but it is always good to have in mind that a homogenous block of text is not a good way to communicate with the Internet users.2 One can often observe in eyetracking studies that users tend to skip this kind of content, without making even the slightest attempt to read it.

Fortunately, there are some tips and tricks which can make the text more attractive to the user’s eye. First, formatting which includes clearly distinguishable headlines and leads often results in a phenomenon called F-pattern.

Fig. 1: A heat map showing an F-pattern

 

Readers have a strong tendency to scan headlines briefly, and they usually start to read from the top of the page. Their motivation to focus their attention on a written content decreases gradually, so you may expect that the first few headlines (counting from the top) will be read, and that the lower the headline is located, the less attention it will get.

Introduction text in an e-mail message

Reading requires time and effort, and the recipients of a newsletter want to quickly get exactly the information they are interested in (which usually means the special offers). It did not surprise us that introductory text in a newsletter would be ignored most of the time.3

But what to include in the marketing message instead of introductory blah-blah text? The answer seems obvious–more valuable content, such as the products we want to present.

Our study confirmed that hypothesis: After cutting most of the introductory text out, the amount of attention focused on it did not change much. On the other hand, the products presented in the message benefited greatly in terms of attracting users’ gaze.

Fig. 2: Scan paths. Left, without introductory text. Right, with introductory text.
Fig. 2: Scan paths. Left, without introductory text. Right, with introductory text

Properties of numbers

The next thing we wanted to focus on was if numbers caught a human’s eye. Nielsen4 suggested that numbers written as numerals are eye-catching, whereas numbers written with letters are not, because they are indistinguishable from an ordinary piece of text.

Fig. 3: Heat maps. Left, the original version with large numbers. Right, the modified version, with downsized prices.
Fig. 3: Heat maps. Left, the original version with large numbers. Right, the modified version, with downsized prices

We studied how long the participants focused their gaze on numbers, depending on their size. The difference between small and large digits turned out to be statistically significant. The average difference between small and large number approximated 200 and 400 ms for both prices depicted in the stimulus. From the psychophysiological perspective, this is a long time. The longer we fixate on an object, the deeper the processing and understanding of the visual information.5

Communication through images

Pictures: What’s worth it, and what’s not

One of the widely known phenomena which can be observed in eyetracking and usability studies is so-called banner blindness. In short, web users tend to act as if they were blind to advertisements or other types of redundant information, which can only distract them from completing the task. This adaptive mechanism applies as well to stock photos and to pictures which do not present the real products or people. Pictures without informational value may even pull the viewers’ attention away from the valuable content because they may be easily classified as an advertisement, which is usually neither informative nor relevant.

Directing users’ attention by faces

Some types of pictorial stimuli are almost always classified as important. One of them is certainly a human face. We are social animals, so we are perfectly wired to automatically read the subtle social cues, for example those connected with decoding where the attention of another human being is directed at the moment.

Fig. 4: Scan path
Fig. 4: Scan path

And example of how this reflexive mechanism works can bee seen on the picture above. The participant automatically followed the gaze of the model right after noticing her face.

In the original version of this newsletter the model looked straight forward. We have created the modified version in which the model is looking at the logo. We tested both versions with our participants, and then we examined whether there is a significant difference in the amount of time the participants fixated on the logo. In the modified version, the average time of focused gaze on the logo was significantly longer.

Fig. 5: Heat maps. Left, the original version. Right, the modified version, with gaze direction diverted
Fig. 5: Heat maps. Left, the original version. Right, the modified version, with gaze direction diverted

Conclusion

Our observations and recommendations are rooted in a number of studies focused on what recipients do really see while looking at advertisements in email campaigns. Some of the effects repeated in our 2011 and 2013 studies; some of them were also confirmed in studies on the perception of the e-mails and newsletters carried out by other teams.

But we should not forget that those are general laws, which, however, in particular creation may be not fulfilled due to various mitigating factors, such as the content of the e-mail, its size, and the level of the audience engagement.

References

1Ziming Liu, (2005) “Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 61 Iss: 6, pp.700 – 712

2 Nielsen, J., (1997), How Users Read on the Web, Retrieved 15 June, 2013, from http://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/

3 Nielsen, J., (2007), Blah-Blah Text: Keep, Cut or Kill? Retrieved 15 June, 2013,rom http://www.nngroup.com/articles/blah-blah-text-keep-cut-or-kill/ Ros Hodgekiss, (2011),

Email usability: The science of keeping it short and sweet, Retrieved 15 June, 2013, from http://www.campaignmonitor.com/blog/post/3383/email-usability-keeping-your-email-newsletters-short-and­-sweet/ ]

4 Nielsen, J., (2007), Show Numbers as Numerals When Writing for Online Readers, Retrieved 15 June, 2013, from http://www.nngroup.com/articles/web-writing-show-numbers-as-numerals/

5 Poole, A., and Ball, L. J. Eye tracking in human-computer interaction and usability research., Encyclopedia of human computer interaction. Idea Group, Pennsylvania, 2005, 211-219.

UX One-liners

Written by: Nathan Gao

A little background to start: I’ve had the honor of working as a designer-in-residence for General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive Pilot Program (UXDI) from June through July. Our team built, launched, and taught a UX course 5-days a week, 8-hours a day, for 8-weeks straight.  It was quite the challenging, yet rewarding experience.

However, learning from our approach, I found something about the way we bring people into the fold that we can stand to improve.

We instructors spent much of our early days teaching techniques by going through truckloads of slides. We sent students home to read more chapters and articles loaded with paragraphs after paragraphs of definitions and use cases.

Yet, when students have trouble with a particular technique or concept during their free practice time, we’ve always had to re-explain to them the crux of these ideas with piercing simplicity.

Why don’t these simple core ideas exist in a simple, more easily referenceable form?

Looking up any UX terminology in Google results in many results: incomplete lists long abandoned, or gigantic lists of terms with accompanying paragraphs–and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to avoid the full blown articles. At a time when Dieter Rams’ As Little Design as Possible is common advocacy, we can present the fundamental impressions of UX’s core capabilities as something much more succinct than a wall of text. I’d argue that we would want the same considerations for our own products and content.

I have a modest proposal. Introduce the essence of your techniques and concepts in a single sentence. Do it in a one-liner. If it goes beyond one sentence, make it shorter.

Understand that these one-liners are NOT meant to explain UX techniques or concepts as well as articles or lengthy discussions can. Likewise, the real substance behind any of these techniques and ideas will expand and change over time, context, usage, and the like.

However, my contention is that there should be a much simpler and more concise way for people to see to the fundamental core of a technique or idea. For any confusion and disagreements that exists within the UX community, one of our common goals is to better communicate our ideas and intents to our teams and colleagues so that we can better create.

Why not then reconsider how we communicate the most basic fundamentals of what and how we work?

UX has always had a rich tradition steeped in academia, which is often somewhat verbose. It’s only relatively recently that its relevance to the consumer world has been realized on a massive scale. As UX adapts to a rapidly shortening cycles of technological–and by proxy, behavioral–change, we need to consider simplicity and conciseness in introducing the rest of our world to not only the products we design, but also the universe in which we create.

There will be another session of UXDI session beginning in September. I’ll be preparing a list for the students to use. Would you do it for a class you taught?

Here’s to an improved UX of UX.

Here are some one-liners I think adequately communicate the focus of their associated techniques and methodologies. This is a start. Add your own in the comments.

Card Sorting Activity in which users organize a set of data in ways that they think makes sense.
Contextual Inquiry Ethnographic Interviewing technique where the user is observed using products in their natural usage setting.
Ethnographic Interviews Interviewing techniques combining one-on-one interviewing and extensive observation.
Facets Preset categories used to filter information/content into more digestible chunks.
Heuristics Quick rules of thumb used to streamline design decisions.
Metadata Data used to categorize other data.
Personas Description of fictional yet realistic persons that represents a target user group/market.
Scenarios A story describing a user’s problem situation and how she might use a product to achieve a solution.
Site Maps Modular diagram conveying your site’s page inventory and, to a lesser extent, categories.
Usability Testing A test conducted with end users to see how usable they find a product.
User Flow A path map highlighting what a user has to do within your product to accomplish his goals.