Five Ways Technology Will Change Our Lives By 2022

Whether you plan for it or not, your life will change in five years due to information technology breakthroughs. “5 in 5” as it’s called, is an annual series of imaginative predictions revealed by IBM, that aim to change the lives of humans through the implementation of ground-breaking technology. These predictions transparently serve to foreshadow the advanced  innovations that we can expect see in the near future. If the theme is artificial intelligence, you may just find your professional career intersecting with these advanced technologies sooner rather than later; are you ready for change?

AI Mental Health Tools

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness in their lifetime, with combined treatment costs being in the trillions – an alarming statistic to say the least. IBM predicts that their breakthrough implementation of AI will change the world for many people living with mental illness, and it’s how they plan on accomplishing this that’s most intriguing.

With the goal of early detection for developmental disorders, mental illness and degenerative neurological diseases, IBM plans on using a mix of automated cognitive systems — “simulation of human thought — to analyze a person’s speech and writing.” We find this advancement to be incredibly exciting; we are talking about cognitive computers here… whoa. Big data is finally ready to make an impact in our daily lives, not just sales numbers.

The use of AI is only in its early stages . IBM plans on using data points in combination with modern wearable devices — watches, monitors, earbuds — and imaging equipment to create a more complete picture of a person’s health than ever before; without the need for an office or specialized tools. Signs that were once invisible will now be transparent and manageable to the patient through wearable devices — this greatly reduces the barriers that healthcare presents to many people. AI technology of this form will alter healthcare as we know it. How many professional fields can lay claim to a statement like that?

Hyper-imaging With AI

The next five years will also reveal a change in how we interact with the environment, but not in the way you might predict. The self-driving car has been a hot topic of late for the sheer fact that human hands no longer need to control the steering wheel — still weird to imagine. Even before most of us see one of these on the road, IBM is already developing cognitive computers that will further enhance their reliability and safety through hyper-imaging — seeing beyond the domain of visible light. The concept of millimeter-wave imaging paired with sensors is making much of the invisible world now visible. Black ice, fog, and distant objects will no longer be out-of-sight; they may remain out-of-mind for us humans but our vehicles will certainly be aware.

In five years this eye-opening technology won’t be limited to our cars, it will translate to our health. Imagine taking an image of your food to determine its exact nutritional value — or lack thereof. Or what about imaging your meds to ensure that you know exactly what you are ingesting. Better yet, what if your video game could pair with augmented reality to physically see through solid objects? Like our own body? Crazy, right?

AI technology through connected devices

Digitizing the Physical World

Data is all around us; every second that ticks away mass amounts of data are being recorded, we just can’t see it. The data that we speak of is commonly used to educate us on our ecosystem although it’s often outdated since it takes so long to organize after collection. Researchers have revealed that data scientists spend nearly 80 percent of their time scrubbing data before analyzing it. IBM is confident that this will change within five years. Real time is going to bring real meaning.

Our human lives are connected with our possessions: watches, phones, computers, appliances, thermostats… the list goes on for days. According to IBM, there are already more than 6 billion connected devices relaying data on a monthly basis — we are truly living in a matrix. Through this digitization of the physical world, macroscope technology will reveal insights on the fundamental issues that affect every single one of us living on earth.

In theory, algorithms and software will soon aggregate, organize, and analyze data on anything we choose, including soil, water, food and even space. And yes, this data will be searchable by all, likely from your phone — if those still exist in five years.

Medical Labs on a Chip

In five years, wearable technology will determine when a person should see a doctor. The guesswork of being human will slowly vanish as nanotechnology advances. With the use of hyper imaging, computer chips will see (read) bodily signs and fluids that are invisible to the naked eye. The way IBM puts it, “The goal is to shrink down, to a single silicon chip, all of the processes necessary to analyze a disease that would normally be carried out in a full-scale biochemistry lab.” Take a minute to visualize that — an entire lab fitting into a silicone chip.

In five years, you and I will have access to handheld devices that can read biomarkers — thousands of times smaller than a human hair — while sending it to a secure cloud without lifting a finger. In combination with other real-time data from devices such as a sleep monitor or fitness watch, AI software can quickly analyze an individual’s health for immediate detection of problems. But will this be fast enough to fill our insatious appetite for immediate satisfaction?

Think about this technology as a liquid biopsy. It’s goal, to revolutionize the traditional tissue biopsy, making it more comfortable, accessible and convenient. Large populations may soon have the ability to detect disease before it even forms. That is, if your healthcare is generous enough to cover it — did we just go there?

Speed of Light Pollution Detection

Most pollutants are invisible to the human eye; unfortunately their devastating effects are not. Methane — the primary component of natural gas — is said to be the second largest contributor to atmospheric warming — yes this is a real ‘thing’ outside of China. In the U.S. alone, emissions from the industrial oil and gas sector account for the largest source of methane output into the atmosphere. The EPA estimates that natural gas systems leaked more than nine million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere in 2014 alone — a number so large that it’s incomprehensible.

In five years affordable sensors will line natural gas pipelines, wells and storage facilities; monitoring for any signs of a leak. The detection process will soon take minutes rather than weeks, drastically decreasing the overall environmental impact. IBM predicts that this sensor technology will do more than detection, it will also reveal the path that harmful gas travels before entering the atmosphere.

Maybe the environment isn’t your first priority, but let’s talk about how sensors can enhance your personal life in five years. This real-time sensor detection process can work on your breath as well; diagnosing respiratory disease will likely become a quick and convenient process. The days of expensive and invasive respiratory testing will soon be behind us.

Does all of this technology have your head spinning? If IBM’s predictions are accurate — their track record being  pretty darn good — the next five years will reveal scientific tools that enhance the way humans live and interact. The invisible world will become clearly visible, opening the door to breakthroughs in health, medicine, and the environment. Maybe then the validity of so many accusations wouldn’t require years of discussion. In five short years these five innovations just might become ordinary.

We happen to have a few predictions of our own when it comes to Technology and human interaction; let us show you what we are working on here at Designing North Studios.

Digital Designers and Drug Dealers: We All Need The User

Nobody wants to be called a user. In grade school, that meant you only pretended to be friends with Tina because you really liked Amy. User. In high school, when your mom found Jack’s badly rolled joint in your jeans pocket on a pre-wash inspection, she freaked. Oh my gosh honey, are you a user!? But once you found yourself in the digital design world, the seemingly unsophisticated and often maligned moniker ‘user’ took on a more positive mantle. In fact, it opened the door to thought-provoking conversations about design, experience, and the joy that is felt as people interact with something that is well-designed. More recently, it’s being treated as an undesirable label again, attributed to a form of rather careless behavior on the part of the digital labeler: Oh no, we shan’t call them ‘users’.

Sigh. I think we’re going to have to toughen up. The practice of UX (User Experience) in its classical sense, demands a conceptual context with a blend of human factors and ergonomics that without a doubt, needs a user. Co-founder of the UK-based agency Clearleft, Andy Budd, recently participated in a lengthy and enlightening interview with Digital Arts that thoroughly covered his take on the biggest morphisms in UX; much of which relates back to the term ‘user’ and its unique meaning for the niche specialists who use it as a part of their profession. Andy illuminates the classic UX designer role while educating his audience on the murky waters surrounding title confusion within the field of digital design.

Watch the full interview here: Digital Arts UK | UX in 2016: An in-depth discussion of today’s big issues with Clearleft’s Andy Budd

We can’t all possibly be UX designers can we?

Over the past five or six years an interesting shift has taken place within the digital design market that has resulted in mass confusion among the greater industry. This includes clients of design firms, employees within these firms, as well as new professionals who are seeking to join the industry in their career search. As Andy points out in the interview, this shift in professional title and qualification is simply a result of supply and demand. As demand grew rapidly for classic UX designers, supply couldn’t keep up, leaving prime opportunities on the table for other designers who have similar skill sets. In theory, a niche group suddenly opened its door for others to join the cool kids.

Before we share any further insight from Andy Buddy, let’s quickly cover the core competencies that make a UX designer such a commodity in the first place:

  • Interaction Design
  • Design Research
  • Information Architecture
  • UX Strategy

Many industry professionals fail to recognize that UX design is more scientific theory with well over 20 years of practice behind its title. In fact, the UX community should be looked at as a body of knowledge in its own right that is approached with well tested theory and dedicated practice.

If we go back to Andy’s point on not seeing enough initial supply in order to fulfill the demand for classic UX designers, we can understand why it was fairly easy for other skilled designers from slightly different disciplines to fill the void. From a client’s perspective, it’s not easy to differentiate between all high level designers while identifying exactly what expertise they need for their project. This explains why a large number of predominately visual designers (or UI designers) have filled the gap in supply and demand with a quick transition into the UX field. They may be talented within their area of expertise, but that’s simply not an automatic qualifier for the UX title, and the same goes for all speciality design fields.

UI designers are often experts in:

  • Visual Design
  • Interaction Design
  • Experience Design

In addition they commonly follow the mindset of:

I designed an experience, I then designed a thing, so I must be a UX designer. Andy understands this reasoning but proves that it’s a bit misleading as he explains, “I believe you can’t design an experience. You can only try, and that it is much more of “a layered practice” with lots of practitioners adding to that experience.” We believe the same. You can’t design an experience, but you can design strategic paths for it to unfold. We can see first-hand that this idea of everyone being able to call themselves a UX designer is causing the strategic approach of design to be overlooked and possibly even archived for some unknowing clients. For a large pool of clients who understandably don’t know exactly what kind of ‘U’ or ‘X’ or ‘D’ they should be looking for, they may be finding talented individuals, but might not be finding the best tool for the task at hand.

The simple truth is that you need specialists when you are building complicated things. Andy Buddy said it best, “If everyone is responsible for everything, nobody is responsible for anything.” So lets keep it straight, UX design is not experience design (XD). A classic UX designer taps into the human factors discipline to understand interaction, can analyze your business problem, employs research-based design practices, knows how to structure content, and will strategize your customer journey before any visual designer should even hit the sketch pad. Experience design is broader. It’s what designers want users to feel when they interact with a brand across all its various touch points, beyond digital. It’s the layer of intuition and visualization atop a solid foundation that gets uncovered as the entire design team does its strategic thinking (or discovery). A design team will all be solving the same client problem, but will be doing so from different perspectives and much different lenses. Super key! You wouldn’t use a telephoto zoom lens for a portrait photo shoot unless of course you found out your client was selling the next great acne cream. Then, only your visual designer might insist on real proof and switch up the lens.

No one tool will ever do everything that you need, and the more often companies chase this dream of the multi-acronym designer saving the day, the further down the rabbit hole they will fall. Moving into the future, Andy expresses that designers need to consider themselves as a toolbox. A toolbox full of skills clearly knows what it can do best, but also knows that it may need to collaborate and learn before embarking on complex digital projects.

Designing-North-UX-User-Example

It’s quite interesting to watch the digital design industry burst at the seams with professionals, cringe as the acronyms morph, and sigh as the term ‘user’ gets dropped from many UX conversations. We get it. The subject of UX is a confusing topic and it doesn’t show signs of simplifying anytime soon. Whether the term ‘user’ is considered impersonal, not representative of a project’s defined persona, or even feels a little drug-den-ish or mean, it’s still an integral front-end component to the Experience Designer title if that’s what one is really practicing. In some disciplines, redefining titles to better align with a more familiar subject is appropriate (like, vice-president of people vs. vice president of human resources) but that’s not the case in this design realm. In a way, removing the U from UX would be comparable to asking a chef to make your favorite meal without him inquiring as to the name of your dish, or at least some hints on a food group. Or better yet, it’s like Jack’s joint getting that whirl in the washing machine: Mom didn’t do her usual ‘research‘ and just wanted your jeans to ‘look and feel‘ pretty.

As the industry moves forward, it’s vital that rising design leaders receive broad exposure to all the various lenses and mindsets of UI, UX, XD, IxD, et al. In doing so, they will be better suited to bring the right mix of design minds to the table while trying to create a collaborative environment and strategic approach for client projects. With so many X’s in our world it’s not shocking that the classic discipline of UX has been misrepresented through title confusion and task semantics. Regardless, the interesting evidence in throwing around the UX term so liberally is somewhat indicative that more and more clients and designers are recognizing that digital projects are indeed complex and strategic exercises: touching all aspects of a client’s business ( marketing, sales, customer service, IT, HR, etc.) Digital agencies like us understand that no longer are we in the website design business. We are in the crafting customer journeys business. And like so many of us operating in our own dark den somewhere: we all need the user.


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Bright Digital Futures: DNS Interns

As September and school are just around the corner, we were reminded of last summer’s interns. In an effort to provide some meaningful digital experience to up-and-comers, we hired three bright young men to intern at Designing North Studio’s: Zach Furman, Max Peacock, and Matt Sorrentino.

All three had already dabbled in some form of project-based digital design and development for friends and/or for pay. Nigel (head of technology) and I created a practice project replete with a challenging client – I was that challenging client.

Their task was to develop a WordPress blog based on a purchased theme, which would utilize a number of plug-ins and widgets. Nigel introduced them to the Agile software management methodology, then aided them in establishing program timelines with scheduled sprints, as well as arranging for multiple weekly stand-ups, and weekly client meetings.

This week, as summer comes to a close, we checked back in with each of them to determine what they learned whilst at DNS, what they’re doing now, and where they see themselves in the next five years.

Zach Furman

  • What he’s doing now:

    • balloons-standford-zach-furmanZach will be a junior in high school this fall in the Bay Area. He’s already way ahead of the curve with experience in Python, Ruby, JavaScript, MySQL, HTML, CSS, MatLab, and jQuery. He’s been developing websites for an array of local clients for the last couple of years, and is an integral part of the Stanford Student Space Initiative (SSSI) – a student run collective that launches high-altitude balloons. Zach’s role on the team? He’s writing the algorithms for determining the balloon’s optimal altitude over the course of its flight. Imagine what he’ll do when he turns 18.
  • Top take-away from DNS internship:

    • “I already had some coding skills – I’m decent at that – but what I lacked were design skills. Lisa really helped me with making things look good – the way the client wants it.”
    • “I also learned how to deal with clients better. I learned a lot about communication, which has already come in handy in the last year.”
    • Zach said he put in about 70 hours on TreeHouse learning more about working with WordPress during the course of the internship, which he found beneficial as well.
  • Next five years:

    • Zach sees himself attending college after he graduates from high school and majoring in something in the sciences – maybe computer science or aeronautical engineering.

Max Peacock

  • What he’s  doing now:

    • Max will be starting his second year at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz in a couple of weeks. This summer he’s been working away at a local juice and smoothie shop, but he’s not just buzzing the blender. As a new small business, the shop hired a local high school kid to create its website and branding. After things got rolling, Max offered to dive-in and update the shop’s digital and physical image. He’s redesigned the menus, the window art, and now he’s about to embark on a website redesign.
  • Top take-away from DNS internship:

    • “I learned how to work with themes in WordPress, and how to install plug-ins, but the most challenging bit was learning how to work with clients. Lisa did a good job of being a tough client. We had to learn how to work with her without overstepping our boundaries.”
  • Next five years:

    • Max has one more year at Cabrillo, then he’ll transfer to a four-year college and major in graphic arts and communications. He prefers the creativity of the design side of the digital world to what he sees as the drier tech side. After obtaining his degree, he’d like to work for a big design firm to gain experience – and maybe one day open his own studio. Would he rather work for a big corporation within its design department? “No. I think that would be too limiting creatively and from an experience standpoint too. I think a large design firm would offer more variety in the way of different kinds and sizes of clients from different industries.”

Matt Sorrentino

  • What he’s doing now:

    • Matt has spent the summer working at a country club in New Jersey, sometimes caddying, and sometimes working indoors. He’s also continued to help out a buddy of his who runs a shoe company. Matt designs a variety of graphics for him. In a few weeks, Matt will start his senior year at William Paterson University in New Jersey.
  • Top take-away from DNS internship:

    • “Being in an authentic business environment with a “real” client and dealing with that real client was a big deal for me. We were on a regimented schedule and were working in a team environment. As a matter of fact, I used the experience I gained at Designing North in some of my school presentations this past year.”
    • “Another cool thing was that even though I was in New Jersey, we had no problem communicating as a team or with the client. We were able to accomplish a lot using Google Hang-Outs and email.”
  • Next five years:

    • Matt is finishing his BSA at William Paterson this school year, and is particularly interested in the publishing world. Print or digital? “Either one. I really like both print and digital, and would love to work for either an online or print magazine. I like the creative aspects of having each issue be different from the last, and therefore unconstrained creatively.”

 

The DNS take-away:

We were privileged to work with these three talented, aspiring guys. Being technically savvy and creatively talented is only half the equation to the successful conclusion of digital product design and development. Our interns learned how to work in a team atmosphere, and how to communicate with, and effectively manage, a client who wasn’t quite sure what she wanted. We are confident that each of these young digital dynamos will accomplish whatever they set their minds to. #BrightFutures


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Digital Transformation: 25 Years Then and Now

I had an interesting discussion with a friend last week. In her late 40’s, she recently embarked in a new career in selling real estate. We talked about her digital strategy, and I was rather surprised at how much she already knew about the digital marketing landscape.

As this month marks the 25th birthday of the first public website, I realized what a unique position some of us are in. We have lived through the entire evolution of the modern World Wide Web as adults. We have the ability to understand how the world operated before the advent of the web, as well as be comfortable in the current (2D) web-based world.

The next quarter century promises to bring yet another revolution. Virtual Reality (VR) is here now, and the VR web is racing down the road to reality. Though as Casey Yee, co-creator of Mozilla’s WebVR standards team, states, we’re not there yet.

He reported to FastCoDesign.com, “We’re wondering, what is a link going to look like in VR—the blue underlined link in text works on a page. That’s the status quo. But what does that look like in VR?” Yee asks. “Is it a portal? Is it a bounding box around an object? Do you walk up to it? Do you touch it? There are all sorts of questions around what that looks like in VR.”

So back to current reality – back to my real estate friend. She’s realized that she can take advantage of her unique position in the digital evolution. She understands that older clients need marketing materials that may be vastly different than those of the millennials. She also realizes that those entrenched older real estate agents and brokers who have until now enjoyed first page search engine results, are about to lose their coveted status. They’re being lapped by savvy upstarts who are breathing life into content-rich, fully responsive websites, with a keen eye to search engine optimization (SEO).

What will the next 25 years look like? That’s anybody’s guess. Perhaps as suggested by FastCoDesign.com, it may not exist at all. Instead we’ll all be lured away from a democratic web by the Apples, Googles, and Facebooks of the world – each inventing its own metaverse.

At Designing North Studios, we can help your firm navigate the next quarter century of digital evolution. And we can do it in plain English without all the industry jargon. We get it. We can help you and your firm get it too.

Give us a jingle – we still accept calls from humans – for now.

888-850-NORTH


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5 Tips for Managing the Digital Product Design and Development Process

Everybody knows that the three most important words in real estate are location, location, location. But did you know that the three most important words in managing digital product design & development are communication, communication, communication?

No, this is not a new Geico ad. We recently interviewed Designing North Studios’ Managing Director and Executive Creative Director Lisa Peacock  and Head of Technology Nigel Peacock about how best to navigate the sometimes stormy seas of digital design and development. The interview was timely, as we just completed a retrospective on a major digital product design (yet to be unveiled to the public) – a process we undertake religiously after every big digital endeavor.

What tools or processes are most critical to the successful execution of a digital development project?

Nigel:

If the decision is solely ours, then we employ the Agile development methodology, which has consistently worked well for us. Depending on the Nigel_Peacock-colorclient’s preference, we can employ offshoots of Agile such as Scrum, Kanban or even Extreme programming.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t adapt to other more traditional processes, however, such as Waterfall or Critical Path Method (there’s one for the teenagers). That said, we often find ourselves working in a hybrid environment to accommodate a particular client’s internal processes. Whatever the preferred methodology, we do insist that a decision is made early on in the engagement usually during the discovery process which ensures that we get everyone on the same page thus completing stage one of “communication, communication, communication.”

Lisa:

Yes, and I think that the daily stand-ups are probably the most beneficial or critical element of that process. Every team member who is deployed on the project is part of the daily stand-up, and is expected to report on what they’re working on that day, what’s next on their task list, and any blockers or impediments that might cause them to not complete their task.

Nigel:

I would add  that it’s imperative that those meetings are kept to the brief three-point agenda that Lisa mentioned. In fact the meeting leader, the “Scrum master,” has a responsibility to keep the stand-ups organized to the point of being regimented and steer each contribution to a 5-10 minute slot at the same time every day.  Longer discussions can be saved for the “Meet After” or “Huddle.”  Working with a virtual team means that we don’t have the luxury of “water cooler” discussions, so tools like Slack and Basecamp are vital additions to our project arsenal, and allow us to continue conversations outside of the stand ups. Or we can just say “Hi’ to make sure we keep the team socialized and the energy levels up.

You’ve both managed countless digital projects over the course of your collective careers. What are the biggest potential pitfalls to be wary of – the perennial hang-ups?

Lisa:

designing-north-studios-lisa-peacock-pointingTwo Things: Business Requirements and Business Rules. Not keeping requirements top of mind throughout the project, and not documenting the product’s business rules effectively so that they are not lost in the hand-off between Design and Tech is critical. Establishing requirements up front, which is part of an Agile process or any project process for that matter, is the easy part. But it takes strong leadership to continuously circle back and hold both the requirements and subsequent business rules up against decisions points as the team progresses through a project.

Nigel:

Yes, and steady tracking of the requirements and designs makes it easier to eliminate disagreements as they arise. When you encounter a conflict between a proposed UX solution from the designers and a technical solution from the developers, we’ll grab the applicable business set to help inform a direction. I would also add that guiding the customer toward defining the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is paramount to any product launch success. It’s super easy to get excited as the product begins to take shape and keep adding more and more bells and whistles until you eventually have a difficult time reaching the finish line. Keeping a backlog of great ideas, with a quick prioritization indicator for add ons later is critical to keeping the creative thinking logged. It also helps to remind clients that you can eventually get everything you want, but not all at once. This is where Agile, used properly, can be a real asset.

Speaking of settling conflicts, how do you solve conflicts that aren’t necessarily settled by a review of the business rules?

Nigel:

branding-design-gallery01Even the most well documented, evolved business rules can still be open to interpretation when the development rubber meets the road. It’s really important to have members of the design, development, and analysis teams joined at the hip from the project inception to deployment.  Rather than constrain enthusiasm or creativity, we tend to let ideas flow freely, then before committing to them, we’ll have the Tech team make sure that designers aren’t writing checks that can’t be cashed.

Lisa:

Hey now, expertise comes at a cost my friend. Ha! No, this is true. Creativity can jeopardize scope. A good creative director will spot it when its happening. I would also add that the designers can often help to rein-in the tech team too when their solution is more elegant than might be needed for a particular requirement or business rule. Again, daily stand-ups can give tech a better understanding from the design and business teams as to what the customer not only wants but really needs. Then assumptions aren’t made along the way that can cost everybody extra time and money.

You touched on time and money and that translates to budget. What tools do you use for scheduling and for tracking budget?

Nigel:

Typically we use Microsoft Project for the project schedule and Google Docs to communicate high level planning.  Depending on the customer preference we will use a variety of development planning tools, but most often focus on Microsoft Team Foundation Server (TFS) or JIRA for sprint planning.

Lisa:

In terms of tracking project budget, we’re a Harvest shop. Everyone works to a detailed time sheet that’s approved every week. Harvest reports make it easy to see exactly where you are, and forecast burn rate which is especially helpful when talent is working on more than one project at a time. Specifically, for tracking design deliverables, we like Trello, and find it to be an effective way to assign tasks, see what’s coming up next, what’s in-review with the client, and finally fill-up the complete column once a deliverable has been handed-off to tech.

What happens when a designer or a developer just isn’t getting it?

Nigel:

You know, that’s honestly one of the best parts of our business model. We’re a blend of freelancers who have worked together on a variety of projects. When we select our team, it’s after Lisa and I have a good feel for the type of client we’re dealing with, the type of project we’re tackling, and the methodology that’s going to work best for the client. We handpick the team from there. We’re not saddled with having to use anyone “on the bench” just because they’re filling seats at an office.

Lisa:

And look, despite that flexibility, we still need to have the fortitude to acknowledge when we’ve got the wrong person for a particular task. We recently had a very talented designer who came out of the chute with the client’s favorite overall design for a digital product, but whose follow-up design comps kept missing the mark. Rather than beating our head against the wall, we just made the change; swapped out one talent for another talent more suited to the pace and ‘feel’ for the product brand direction. It worked out great, in no time, we were back on track. It was the right move.

Nigel:

Again, our business model gives us a lot of flexibility. We usually shoot for the Extreme Programming model in that we assemble a team dynamic which comprises a mix of business experience, technical talent, innovators, and leaders but most importantly a team that works together, understands each other, and just gets off on producing quality products.

Any final thoughts or advice?

Nigel:

No process is perfect. We see digital product design & development as an iterative process always. We’re continually improving and refining how we tackle new projects. But without question, effective communication between team members and between DN and the client, is paramount. And actually, a true strategy we believe in.

Lisa:

I agree with Nigel, and would add that having people who are generally happy, energetic, and who come to the table with the DN mindset we’re always looking for in our stars, is what I strive for. We put together teams filled with people who enjoy what they do. It makes life much easier during crunch time. You can have the best full stack developer on the planet, but if everyone hates working with him, it can make for a rough project. Respect for one another and collaboration are key.

Nigel:

And I think that when team members have a common goal and a mutual respect for one another, it also eases the process. When everyone has a solid understanding of the scope of the project and has respect for each other’s abilities, it goes a long way. 

Top 5 tips for effectively managing a digital product design & development project:

_______________

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

Conduct daily stand-ups. Every team member knows what he or she is working on that day and that week. Blockers are addressed and mitigated.

_______________

2. Revisit requirements & business rules.

They’re established during discovery with the client and are revisited frequently – Scope creep kills the project, erodes motivation, and makes planning a pain in the ass.

_______________

3. Establish an MVP.

Make sure the project plan has a clear definition of the MVP and successfully execute that first. Refer to the “wouldn’t it be great” list later, and don’t let that distract anyone.

_______________

4. Assemble the right team.

And don’t be afraid to make changes when needed. One wrong apple makes the whole tree look like it needs water.

_______________

5. Iterate.

No process is perfect, so keep striving to refine your processes with each new project. Wisdom comes by learning something every single day.

_______________

Ready to get started on a new digital product or redesign?

GIVE US A HOLLER

_______________


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What We Do at Designing North Studios

Designing North Studios

At DNS, our goal is to always deliver a hover above. To deliver what was asked for, but with that little extra – something just “north” of good. This approach, this mindset traverses our people and our three main service offerings: Digital Design & Development, Brand Strategy, and something we like to call: Rent-a-Star.

Digital Design & Development

Web design has come a long way since ‘Al Gore invented the world wide web a couple decades ago’. Think of it, when was the last time you used the Yellow Pages? For some of you, the answer is never. Now, web design has evolved from “hanging a shingle” to “creating an experience.”   A digital experience that should develop, complement, and pave the way to brand loyalty and ultimately conversion. A website, web or mobile app has to compete for eyeballs. For attention. It must captivate, be experiential, and then convert. Convert from a user, to a participant, a subscriber, a buyer, a champion.

At Designing North Studios, we know this. Whether we are engaged in a pure branding gig, a website redesign, a new digital product idea, developing content, or engaging in strategic initiatives around your product or social media landscape, all roads lead to experience. That it be aligned with your brand promise and values, be purpose driven, memorable, and make it easy for your peeps to return. Again and again. Face it: when any experience is good – people like you. They want to hang out, come back, hear more – they trust you. And so they should. If what you’re selling, saying, pitching, or bitching about is true – it’s only a matter of time before your friends become influencers. So we help you get real about your digital product: what it is, who it’s for, and what will make it successful.

Brand Strategy

The most important part of getting to the heart of of being the brand that you are, and delivering on that promise, is spending time (and money) on the discovery phase. This is when, through listening, questioning, interviewing, brainstorming, (and even sometimes stick drawing), people like us come to understand your organization, and what that currently looks like to an end user, customer, or prospect. The best free advice we can give you: never skip this phase – no matter what firm you select to help you with your next project. Discover who you are currently, and see if that aligns with who you really want to be. And then reflect on all the ways that can get you there: change your product, pivot your service, re-evaulate your audience, re-position your message, or perhaps, stay the course.

We’re here, and would love to start listening.

Rent-a-Star

Sometimes you just need a hand (or at least think that’s all you need). We see this frequently after the start of the New Year. All of that marvelous planning for the upcoming calendar year includes projects that require staff skill sets that you ultimately realized: you don’t have. Oh, and there was nothing in the budget for additional headcount either.

If this sounds too familiar (too real) – we might be able to help. Designing North Studios is an amalgam of designers, developers, and project leaders who have worked either remotely or directly with one another over the years. Most of us, with exception of a few pay-rolled diehards, freelance for DN. But we’re still a family.

That said – our model can be very beneficial to organizations that operate on a human-asset-light basis. If your organization finds itself in need of a designer, developer, or project leader for stints of less than a year, we can likely supply you with a vetted professional. Are our people good? We think so. Every one that’s part of the team first works for DN directly before client work is even an option. We learn a newbie’s skill set and their mindset – and if it fits: they are deemed fit to move on to play with clients. Our reputation is on the line. But we also know that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. We’re not harsh – we just uncover the best in people and nurture it. So if they sit with you for a while, instead of us, they are ready. Our team aligns on work-ethic and soul – producing Designing North Stars – together making each other brighter.

Sunday on the Sofa – Good UX and Bad UX

Like any red-blooded, country-loving, digitally-engaged American couple, my husband and I spent last Sunday morning shopping online. He for some bike rack attachments for a road trip, and I for new sheets to replace our frayed sets.

This is a rather pathetic first-world problem, but we are selling our home, so I didn’t want to invest in a whole new design/style for our bedding – just in case our new digs have a different vibe.  After hearing an annoying satellite radio ad over and over again for Boll and Branch sheets, I thought I’d check them out.

I found the whole user experience remarkably easy and intuitive. I was greeted with a $30 off-my-first-purchase-coupon-offer, which I quickly dismissed after determining that my satellite radio coupon code would give me a better deal. The website’s photos were big, bold, and beautiful, and visually answered nearly all my questions. Option selections such as size and color were in big print and simple to navigate – a bonus for my deteriorating middle-aged vision. The checkout process was a walk in the park. No hassles, no long processing waits while you’re wondering if you actually pressed a button or not, no repeat entries – clear bold calls-to-action (CTAs) so you know exactly what to do next.

Meanwhile, as I was delighted with my quick and facile purchase, my husband was grumbling loudly at the other end of the sofa.

“Jule, you gotta check this out,” he said.

I gathered my robe, and slid my coffee over to his end.

“I mean look at this! It is so irritating!” I knew where this was going.

“I know exactly what I want to look at, but they’re making me enter all this junk first. Okay, so now I’ve done that, and I have no idea if what I’m seeing matches what I need now. I want it for my truck, but they’re modeling the rack on a car.”

good-ui-not-equal-good-ux-designing-north-studiosHe was exasperated. The company was Yakima, one I hold near and dear to my heart due to a native allegiance to the Northwest. We have spent thousands of dollars on Yakima equipment – from Rocket Boxes to ski racks to bike racks for just about every motor vehicle imaginable. Suffice to say, we’re fans. I’d almost go so far as to say to we’re influencers in the parlance of Malcolm Gladwell. But here’s the deal, my husband was so frustrated with the user experience, that he abandoned the purchase. He figured out a way to make due with what we had. If you go to the website, it looks beautiful. The user interface or UI, is modern and appealing. It’s the user experience that was miserable.

So there we were. A once blissful couple wiling away our morning with our laptops, Meet the Press, and our credit cards burning in our hands – both intent on a purchase. And due to user experience (UX), the too frequently ignored brethren of UI, one purchase was gleefully made, and one purchase was angrily abandoned.

If you’re building a new digital product or updating an existing website, make sure the firm you’re working with knows the difference between UI and UX. Designing North Studios’ Managing Director Lisa Peacock likes to say, “UX should inform the UI. We’ve all been to art school – we know we can make it look good, but can we make it useable.” That’s the problem your firm needs to be able to solve.

Think of the money, time, and effort you expend on finally getting BUYERS to your website. Not just looky-loos, but BUYERS. Don’t blow it once you’ve got them there. UX is not optional. Our weekend foray resulted in one happy customer, (who will be a return customer), and one temporarily lost customer. Had we not already been avid fans of Yakima’s products, we wouldn’t consider trying again. Fortunately, the coffee was good, the PJs were cozy, and Meet the Press was entertaining. Not even crummy UX could spoil our Sunday on the sofa.

Yup. Mobile. Again.

We really don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but it continues to amaze us when we see successful companies which have still not addressed their unresponsive (read: not mobile-friendly) websites. This recent chart from the insightful folks at Statista underscores the trending well.

decline-of-global-pc-market

PC sales have done nothing but decline since 2011, and are forecasted to eventually stabilize per research from International Data Corporation (IDC). Tablets, phablets, detachable tablets, and phones have all impacted the market substantially. There are, of course, other factors such as the general economy (commodity prices and foreign currency headwinds for example) and perceptions regarding added value or lack thereof of new PCs that affect these trends.

But let’s face it, most of us are hard-pressed to think of a day in which we haven’t used either our mobile phone, tablet, or phablet to access a website.

And there are few things more irritating than landing on an unresponsive website. Your handy hand-held now requires two hands as you try to awkwardly use your fingers to blow-up the micro-text you’re trying to read. Then you have to slide around in an attempt to find a tab in the main navigation to get to your intended destination. A few expletives, and BAM, you’ve abandoned the site in search of greener pastures.

We’re pretty sure that most university marketing programs do not stress a make it hard for the customer to find your product or service philosophy. So why isn’t every company on the planet jumping into website redesigns? Good question.

We think there are four main reasons:

 

You can't WISH away mobile. [Photo credit: SuperFamous.com]

You can’t WISH away mobile. [Photo credit: SuperFamous.com]

  1. They don’t think there’s a big problem with having an unresponsive website.

We can always point to Google’s demoting of non-mobile friendly websites as the most actionable reason to believe it’s a big deal to have an unresponsive website. And now Google is preparing for what some are calling Mobilegeddon2. In May 2016, Google plans to,“…start rolling out an update to mobile search results that increases the effect of the ranking signal to help our users find even more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly.” As a design studio that’s deeply involved in creating fantastic and intuitive user interfaces and user experiences, we struggle to digest that a successful company doesn’t view unresponsiveness as a big problem.

2. There’s no money in the budget.

This one we understand. Depending on the size of an organization, the move to a responsive website and/or a mobile app can be a considerable undertaking. We get that. As with most new marketing initiatives, we recommend that you put together a compelling rationale plus ROI that your senior management cannot ignore. Here are few thoughts to bolster your argument.

3. It’s a big undertaking because they need to update the whole website anyway – it’s easier to just keep putting it off.

It’s like dieting. You’ve been adding a couple extra pounds every year, but instead of jumping on it, you’ve let it slide and now you need to do something serious. A few pounds has become an even 10. Your favorite jeans don’t fit. You don’t want to go out. It’s like that with your website, if you haven’t been consistently addressing its upkeep (let’s face it, it’s hard to fit everything in), that killer bod is now, well, rather unsightly.

You have to face the facts. It’s only going to get worse. Mobile is not going away, nor are all those updates and subtle improvements that your website needs. The sooner you get it into a more manageable configuration, the better you are going to feel. Just contacting a design studio to start the conversation will help. So hop on the treadmill and cut the carbs. You’ll feel better once you get started. We promise.

4. Aliens have invaded their bodies with no concept of Earthly digital interactions.

We’re closet nerds. It could happen, right? Plus, it would explain a lot.

What are you thoughts? Are we missing something?

If you’re ready to dive in – or perhaps put a toe in the water, GIVE US A JINGLE.

 

 

Words Matter

Understand your target audience before you dive into a website redesign

 

“Grab my stock! Hey, that’s my stock!” “He dropped his stock!”

When I finally figured out what they were saying through my helmeted ears and their thick Australian accents, I was still confused.

“What were you saying?” I asked the three skiers with whom I was sharing the chair lift.

“My stock. I dropped my stock,” one said as he raised his remaining ski pole and shook it.

“Oh! We call those ski poles here in the states. Just wait after you get off the lift at the top. They’ll send it up with one of the chairs behind us. But…make sure you listen for them to yell ski pole, not stock. Never heard that before,” I said.

We then had a great conversation about the ski odyssey they were on in Utah and the void of skiing opportunities in Australia.

My friends and family had all returned to the cabin, and I was on my last run. As I skied down, I reflected on how important words are. Even though we speak the same language, none of us Americans had a clue what the Australians were hollering.

At Designing North Studios,

we perform a variety of services for our customers. Among other things, we develop websites or website redesigns, we conduct rebranding or new branding initiatives, and we provide content. Our favorite approach is of course to do all three. Why? Because it allows us to take a holistic approach to both design and content. Regardless of how we’re engaged though, we always insist on developing a clear understanding of our end-user before we get started. It’s called discovery.

word-stock-designing-north-studiosWithout discovery, if we were building a website for a multi-national sporting goods company with a strong presence in Australia, we might drone on and on about the merits of a set of featured ski poles. This would tell the end customer that A) the company doesn’t care enough to speak to them using their own local language – their colloquialisms; and B) they may not know what the heck we’re talking about and subsequently abandon the website.

Getting messaging right is a big deal.

Skiing makes for a good example. I’m an intermediate skier with four knee surgeries under my belt I’m basically just happy I can still ski. I don’t want to be on crowded slopes with crazy teen-age snow-boarders, and they probably don’t want to be on the slopes with me either. So I tend to patronize ski resorts that don’t allow snowboarding, that groom the slopes daily, and that limit the number of tickets sold.

The messaging of my target resort is going to be very different from one that is catering to snowboarders and hard-core alpine skiers. They might use words like the “ultimate powder shredding experience”, when I want to hear “peaceful well-groomed slopes.” Yet both are ski resorts.

If you’re about to dive into a new website development initiative or a website redesign or branding update, make sure your project plans allow for thoughtful discovery. Yes, it adds both cost and time to the project. But it saves cost and time on the backend in the way of fewer iterations and revisions. Ensuring that your designers have a clear understanding of your target audience is paramount to your project’s success. Sometimes the slightest nuances make all the difference.

Just imagine how surprised the Aussies would have been if the next skier getting off the lift had produced a paper stock certificate for a share of Deer Valley Resort to them.

 

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Walking the talk – Design comps – A hover above

Small triumphs

Our industry is no different than any other. Some weeks are more of a grind, littered with meetings and deadlines. Others are punctuated with small or large triumphs that energize the team, the project, the day, the week.

This last week proved to be the latter. Our tagline at Designing North Studios is, “It’s not a location. It’s a mindset.” We aim to consistently deliver north of expectations – a hover above what’s expected. This week, after working around the clock, quite literally around the world, we presented design comps on a very large project (still cloaked in secrecy).

Exceeding expectations

Instead of delivering the minimum number of contractually obligated design comps, our design team provided twice that. They were on a roll, and let their creative juices and our discovery findings be their guide. Because we are responsible for providing content, we were also able to include key messaging that led to a more authentic initial experience for the client. Hence, the client was able to grasp true manifestations of the end product in a variety of styles and formats.

The client had provided good direction in the form of inspirational websites, but in the end, the winning design took the benchmark websites to another level. The client was able to see what they had initially imagined, and then, although they liked those concepts, they were able to confidently eliminate them as a design direction. They weren’t wondering, “What if?”

A good  kind of unusual

The selected design direction featured key elements of the inspirational websites, but cleverly incorporated the client’s branding guideline components in an unexpected way. Or as the client said, “…in an unusual way – the good kind of unusual.” Our designer had provided three variations on his particular theme, so the client was able to pick and choose the favored blocks for moving forward. We concluded the design comp review (all done on GoToMeeting from coast-to-coast) with great enthusiasm and excitement for the next stages of the project.

The seminal lesson here was that the extra effort was not at all wasted. By seeing several concepts of what they thought they wanted side-by-side with a more innovative approach, the decision process was unambiguous. Thus, the overall project can proceed with greater confidence, and likely with less iteration.

More soon!

 

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