Book in Brief: Digital and Marketing Asset Management

Editors’ note: The second “Book in Brief” feature here on Boxes and Arrows is from Theresa Regli’s Digital and Marketing Asset Management: The Real Story About DAM Technology and Practice. Use the discount code ‘dmambanda’ to add this to your library; it’s good for 20% off.

We’ll publish an excerpt, up to 500 words, of your book. The catch is that we’ll only publicize one book a month; first come, first serve. Other rules will certainly occur to us over time. Hit us up at idea at boxesandarrows.com.


Since the turn of the millennium, digital media—photos, audio files, video clips, animations, games, interactive ads, streaming movies, and experiential marketing—have become an increasingly significant part of our everyday experience. The combination of inexpensive, highly functional digital still and video cameras (even as part of mobile devices); increased network bandwidth; decreased storage costs; low-cost, high-performance processors; high-capacity, solid-state memory; affordable cloud services; and the requisite digital media infrastructure has laid the foundation for today’s vibrant electronic ecosystem. Whether you’re browsing the Web, listening to a song on an iPhone, watching a video on a tablet, opening a rich media email on your mobile device, or recording a TV series on a digital video recorder, you’re experiencing digital media.

Continue reading Book in Brief: Digital and Marketing Asset Management

Five Strategies for Infusing VR Design with Empathy

The desert was frigid and the sun was just peeking over the mountains when we arrived at the Mojave Air & Space Port. A full-scale rocket prototype at the end of a long driveway marked the spaceport’s entrance. I was just a walk away from realizing a small part of a big dream: being part of space exploration.img-6566

Space travel and participation in the space economy are pretty much impossible for all but the most elite scientists, astronauts, and billionaires. XCOR, an aerospace company with unique methane-based rockets and a reusable space plane, enlisted my firm to design a completely immersive experience and bring the exhilaration of space travel alive for students, pilots, and investors.

The project required the transportive power of virtual reality and an entirely new approach to storytelling rooted in empathy. Our solution: a virtual mock-up of the rocket’s cabin, in a spherical projection of low Earth orbit, that could be experienced through a virtual reality headset. Guided by realistic physics, pilots could navigate the ship in any direction and, for a few moments, experience spaceflight.

Building a new reality

VR is a lens to places you can’t normally go, whether that be the front line of a war, the bottom of the ocean, or 70 miles above Earth’s surface. In the case of the latter, the headset becomes much more than a technology. It’s a door to the final frontier.

More than any other medium, VR can inspire empathy for the individuals whose experiences are recreated. Project Syria, for instance, transports users directly onto an Aleppo street besieged by bombs. Experiencing another’s reality firsthand is a powerful tool for change — one we’re just beginning to explore.

But designing VR in a way that realizes the medium’s full potential takes more than just technical skill. It takes empathy to fully recreate another person’s reality and bring the experience alive for users. Immersive VR design also requires an acute understanding of human behavior and an understanding of users’ desires and needs. To ensure you’re designing with empathy, follow these simple strategies:

1. Have a point of view.

VR as a tool for creating empathy requires a point of view. You’re taking your audience on a journey, and you as the designer are guiding the experience. In any way possible, immerse yourself in the subject matter you’re trying to recreate.

Observation and user diaries are two effective methods for capturing the firsthand point of view. The virtual experience we designed for XCOR, for instance, was translated from firsthand accounts from XCOR’s team. I worked with astronaut Brian Binnie to understand what spaceflight would look, feel, and sound like inside the company’s proposed rocket-powered spaceplane. I saw inside the cockpit and spoke directly to almost every person involved, from the operations team to the engineers. Forming a point of view requires an empathetic approach to the work at hand.

2. Understand the medium.

Most designers are accustomed to 2D interfaces, but VR isn’t linear. It’s spherical in every sense. Audio can be experienced from any angle, and environments can be explored in any direction.

Your audience can choose to walk through a door, turn a corner, or sit down. What happens when they do? Learn everything you can about the methods and tools for creating new kinds of experiences, and don’t assume what you’ve learned in the past will apply to 3D environments.

3. Understand the technology.

VR isn’t everywhere yet, so our exposure to it as designers remains limited. Apps such as The New York Times VR app, Google’s Cardboard, and Roundme are powerful platforms for experiencing the technology. Headsets are powerful but also bulky and far less common, so explore the capabilities and limitations of mobile before assuming headsets and powerful computing platforms are necessary. For most design projects, broad exposure will trump performance because brand impact is strongest when access to an experience is widespread.

4. Prototype everything.

No matter the technology you’re designing for, prototype everything so you can experience how it will perform and explore unintended consequences in a cost-effective manner. In my firm, we’ve created cardboard iPhones and paper strips that represent interactive screens. We project interfaces to simulate gestural touch screens. VR environments can be simulated easily to explore nonlinear content creation. You’re living in the reference shot, so use the world around you to set up your environments and plan your experiences.

5. Consider the entire user experience.

VR is an isolating technology. Be aware of the barrier you’re putting between your audience and the physical world, and design stories and experiences that the audience can jump in and out of quickly.

Because VR can be disorienting and physically demanding, take posture, position, and motion into account. Turning around and looking behind you isn’t as easy as it seems when you’re sitting in a chair with limited sensory input, with your eyes and ears occupied by headphones and close-proximity screens.

Designing a fully immersive experience is difficult, but the payoff is immense — if you design with empathy. Strive to fully understand the way your users think and work. Understand how they might be different and how they’ll feel moving about in the world you’ve created.

Panda’s Guide to User Experience

I blacked out when he said he wanted to underline text so that the site looked more interactive. I couldn’t hear him anymore because of the internal dialogue reinforcing my superiority. “He doesn’t think of the user. He only cares about sales. What kind of stupid idea is that? A really, really stupid one. What happens when someone tries to click the underlined text? Nothing? Awesome plan.”

I was stuck in the room for another 15 minutes, so I decided to play a game called “in what universe is this a good idea?”

I started to think about why he thought this was a suggestion he should even share.

I thought about how you can’t just pretend to be interactive, and then I realized something.

He’s getting feedback from clients. And the feedback is that we’re not interactive. He identified the problem, but dropped the ball on the solution.

As I got over myself, I remembered what I had learned during my MBA program at the Kung Fu Panda School of Business. Kung Fu Panda 2, in particular was the entirety of my education.

<spoiler> At the end of the movie, an adversary puts the panda to the test. He’s outmatched and suddenly finds himself as the target in an attack by cannonballs. When that first cannonball is fired, the panda is fast on his feet and quickly dodges it, but this is not a sustainable way to deal with cannonballs.

Luckily, the panda digs deep into his kung fu training and decides to take on this situation. When the next cannonball is fired, he’s ready. And in fact, he catches it, spins around (and around and around—cannonballs are powerful) and throws the cannonball out into the water. And then, it’s on. Every cannonball that comes at him he catches and throws right back out there. </spoiler>

This was the way I needed to deal with work. Instead of dodging the bad ideas, I need to embrace them. Use the energy from them to do the good work I wanted to do.

When I remembered what the Kung Fu Panda taught me, work got a lot easier. No more would I be fuming in conference rooms, mad at a stakeholder who didn’t “get it.”

Instead, I heard those bizarre requests and tried to harness the energy of them. Once I got to the heart of any issue, I could use my information architecture training to spin it around and toss it back. But instead of throwing back the same cannonball I started with, I’d be throwing back an idea that worked for the user, the product manager, and me.

Just as the panda had to embrace his attack and use his specialty to deal with it, I learned to embrace the solutions product managers wanted me to implement so I could identify the actual problem and come up with a sustainable solution.

Benchmark Your UX at All Costs

In the user experience (UX) industry, benchmarking is a practice that measures the usability of a website. Benchmarking helps the UX researcher understand the current state of the site so the team can attack problem areas and improve them.

It is very difficult to fix or improve something when you don’t know what is wrong. Imagine taking your poorly-performing car to the mechanic and they ‘fix it’ without running any diagnostics or tests. They may change the spark plugs, rotate the tires, and add a few decals but will most likely miss identifying and addressing the root problem. This is similar to approaching a site redesign without first identifying its problems with real site users.

Comic showing two men talking to each other over a car's open engine compartment. The customer has his pants down. The mechanic says "No, I mean YOU need a new belt."
From http://www.thecomicstrips.com/subject/The-Auto+Mechanic-Comic-Strips.php/3

Too often, benchmarking is skipped due to constraints of time and budget—a big mistake. There are ways to still gain these valuable insights while working within a limited project scope and with a small budget. Guerrilla testing is a term used to describe efficient alternatives to testing, some of which are workarounds or shortcuts.

Let’s look at some of our favorite guerrilla testing methods that can be used to gather crucial insights into the user’s mind and the site’s performance, all without breaking the bank or the project plan.

Remove the middleman

Finding participants can be expensive, because you have to pay both recruiters and participants. Remove the middleman and find participants on your own. We have had great success using co-workers, family, and friends. Depending on the commitment, participants can be compensated with anything from gift cards to a larger monetary amount; in our experience, people are happy to help. Who doesn’t love giving their opinion?

One of the most successful methods for collecting data can be a Google form. Free to use and painless to set up, these forms are flexible and the results produce an easy-to-read data visualization for quick analysis. Pair a Google form with the family and friend participants and sit back and wait for the information to come pouring in.

Photo collage showing a basket full of treats on the left and two researchers holding the basket on the right.
Trading nutrition for research, what a deal! From http://alistapart.com/article/never-show-a-design-you-havent-tested-on-users

Other researchers have even taken their testing to the streets with bags of candy or fruit. If you live in a city, it won’t take long to find someone with a spare 10 minutes who would be willing to give you insights for a tasty treat.

Leverage current software

Your company may have the budget for video communication software but not testing software. Have no fear: There are alternatives to some of the expensive industry-leading user testing tools. It is very easy to take advantage of tools such as Join.Me, Blue Jeans, Silverback, and User Zoom to moderate and record your own tests. The direct cost savings is huge, because the tool itself could potentially be zero extra dollars. There is, however, an extra level of effort involved, since your team will be doing all of the logistics and preparation. Plan for those hours accordingly.

The paleo version of this would be to simply conduct your research in-person and audio record or (gasp) take notes for the team’s reference.

Go thrifting

Bookmark a list of tools that are neither brand new nor top of the line but get the job done in a pinch. One such tool that has worked well in this capacity is Zurb’s Verify. It can be used combine up to seven-plus different test types to gauge user feedback; types like the 5-second test, preference test, and click test are tried and true usability staples. With a monthly price starting at $19/month, it is a bargain and has proven its value time and time again.

Screen grab of test options offered by Verify.

Screen grab of results from a Verify test.

Involve the community

There are also community-driven web-based tools that can be used for free; one such example is usabilityhub.com. On this site, you have the option to create a few different types of default tests, ranging from five second tests to click tests. These are then opened up to a panel of their users to participate in; the majority of the users are in the industry (people like you and me). Although these insights are not the best of the best, we have found them helpful in a pinch.

Go on trial

Many robust applications also allow you to use their software in a trial or lite fashion. Optimal Workshop’s Tree Testing tool allows 10 users to perform three tasks on your site structure; look for other diet versions of your favorite software to take advantage of when budget is restricted.

Treemap result from TreeJack.

In conclusion

Removing the middleman, leveraging current software, going thrifting, involving the community, and going on trial are all sneaky ways to guerrilla test—but these techniques don’t answer what to test. The most influential tests we have run that produce actionable insights to our projects are task-based and are done when we narrow our participants’ focus to one of two areas:

  • The site structure and flow
  • The site features and content

The results of these types of tests can be quantitative (numbers that tell a story: the what) or qualitative (emotions, opinions, reasons, motivations: the why). It is imperative to balance your research with both.

If benchmarking does not play a significant role at the beginning of your user experience projects, you are not designing for the user; you are designing based on your own assumptions and biases—and the latter will very likely produce undesirable results.

Please share additional ways you benchmark with guerrilla testing methods. Add them in the comments below, and we may feature them in a future article.