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User Feedback and Product Design

Occasionally people invite me to talk at their conferences, workshops, etc (you can invite me, too). After a recent talk at ATDC, one of the attendees sent this email asking about user feedback.

What are your thoughts on how much user feedback/input should be involved in product UX design and at what point should you seek the feedback? So for example, should the functionality and “polish” be 50% there or 95% there before putting it in front of users or somewhere in between? We want to start collecting user feedback in an alpha release soon, but also don’t want to ruin our first impressions from users until it’s more polished. It seems like a balancing act of timing.

This is a somewhat common question in conversations I have, so I figured it’s a good idea to answer it here.

How much user feedback should be involved in product design?

The easy answer is “as much as possible”, but that’s not the whole picture. You can go get feedback on your product from dozens of people tomorrow. Just walk out on the street and start asking people questions. You have to be careful, though, and not just because you might get pepper sprayed.

You have to ask the right people.

Before you ask anyone a question about the thing you’re building you have to make sure they are the target person your product is for. It’s an extreme example, but you wouldn’t ask a 23 year woman about a product for 67 year old men. She isn’t who the product is for, so why would she have any valuable feedback to give?!

If you don’t know who you’re designing for, you’re doomed to fail from the start. Start by defining your target market, then define personas within that market who define and fit the profile of your ideal customer. Once you’ve done that you can go find people in the real world who fit that description. There are a handful of ways to find them, most of which are pretty easy and low cost.

Now back to the question…

The sooner you get an initial round of user feedback the better. Just be careful not to ask people about too many things at once. Keep your research very focused. You can ask about the overall aesthetic of the product, OR ask about a specific workflow or feature, but don’t ask people too much or the answers will start to skew.

About First Impressions

While it’s true that you can’t ever get them back, you can’t allow yourself to think that one handful of people’s first impressions will set the reputation of your product for life. Literally every product you use today started as a crappy drawing on a napkin, paper prototype, or sketch on a whiteboard. Then someone took a photo and started iterating. Slowly the product evolved into the thing you’re using today. Having doubts? Have a look at how some popular websites looked at launch.

Ask Early. Ask Often. Vary Your Audience.

Bottom line, ask (the right) people about what you’re building as soon as you can. Then get them to come back in a few weeks once you’ve made some progress and ask them how it works. This is user-centered design and it’s proven to work well in a variety of environments.

Don’t ask the same people over and over and over! Get different groups of people together (make sure they represent your target market and defined personas) as you build. The more people you can show your product to as you build it, and make them a part of the design process, the more chance you’ll have at building a loyal audience for the product once it actually launches.

Happy user testing!

Blog

A Place to Call Home

Since moving back to Atlanta in 2008 I’ve seen the web / tech / creative community landscape change quite a bit. There are undoubtedly more groups, meetups, events, and activity now. We’re growing as a community, and with growth come growing pains.

Over that time I’ve personally organized or helped organize over 200 events (that’s 3 events per month on average). Some might say I’m more event organizer than web professional, but we’re not here to talk about which hat I’m wearing.

The Good-ole Days

For a long time the AWDG was fortunate enough to have access to a large room at the Portfolio Center. It was easy to get to, there was ample parking, seating for 200 people, projector, audio, a good vibe, and it was close to a good variety of places to have a post-event cocktail with friends. During this time the group grew rapidly and the community became tighter. Having a consistent place to meet gave stability to the group. It was a great arrangement. But all good things come to an end. Enrollment at the school increased and they needed the space for their core business; teaching students.

Bouncing Around

Since AWDG left the Portfolio Center we’ve been using a variety of spaces. MailChimpHypepotamus, Ogilvy & Mather, Strongbox West, Georgia Tech, and a few others have all been gracious hosts. While these companies and organizations are all great friends to the group and a tremendous asset to the community, they each have unique constraints which make it difficult to “call them home”. As an example, it would be awkward to have someone from Campaign Monitor speak at MailChimp, or to hold an event about running your own agency at Ogilvy & Mather. You get the idea.

What about Atlanta Tech Village, you ask? They aren’t on this list for one simple reason. They’ve never hosted an AWDG event. It’s not that we haven’t tried, but ATV is startup focused. AWDG is not. Consequently their schedule is full of their own events and they don’t have space on the calendar for ours. I don’t fault them, they are focused on one constituency and serving them well. I appreciate the fortitude and rigor it takes to maintain that type of focus. ATV is for a different crowd and that’s cool with me. This brings me to our first obstacle…

Availability

Mostly, each organization has a mission which — while overlapping with — doesn’t perfectly align with that of the AWDG. Our use of their space will always be secondary to their needs for the space, and rightly so. It’s their space. They can use it however they like. No hard feelings. This can make scheduling difficult as we can’t predict when each space will be available.

But what about all the great ballrooms, event centers and similar spots around town? Glad you asked. That brings up my next point.

Cost

While many of the spaces mentioned above can be free, some are not. The economics of this are clear (or should be), so no need to dwell on that topic other than to say cost certainty is important to any organization, especially one which is run on razor thin margins. We can’t afford to spend thousands to rent an event space. Most of our events have between 60 and 150 attendees paying $10 each. We have to buy food and often pay for travel and hotel expenses for the speakers. Do the math.

“But there are free options”, you say. Yes. They also have their challenges.

Parking and Accessibility

We’ve looked at meeting rooms, empty office space, small theaters, etc. They all suffer from one of two things. Not enough parking or they’re way off the beaten path. Since the people who attend our events work all over the Atlanta area we need a location that is both central and easy to get to from the widest variety of places. Remember, these people have day jobs. Most our events start at 6:30, so people have to fight legendary Atlanta traffic to get there. Too much time spent on the road will keep people from attending.

Amenities

Even if a space is available, affordable, and easy to get to we have to consider if all the stuff we need will be there. Do they have enough seating? Is there a projector, podium, and audio in place? Is there a restaurant nearby that can provide catering? For that matter, are there tables, ice, coolers, and such available to hold the food when it arrives? What is the proximity to a post-event watering hole?

That’s a lot of unknowns to deal with for each and every event. Especially when you host as many as we do. When you look at cost, availability, location, and amenities it becomes very difficult to find a good space. I’m currently paying an assistant several hundred dollars a month to deal with finding venues and coordinating all the ancillary needs for events. It’s too much and it’s not sustainable.

What’s a guy to do?

Scratch your own itch, right? Instead of continuing to struggle with this problem we decided to try an solve it. The solution? Our own space. Not only would AWDG benefit, but all the other related meetups and groups would too. There are over 40 web, tech, and creative groups in Atlanta. I’ve talked to many of their leaders and organizers. We all suffer the from same issue. A new space all our groups could use would solve it. Not only that, we’d be able to hold a great number of events and help the community grow even larger and more robust.

We we’re looking at space in Midtown and West Midtown. There are a handful of interesting conversations taking place. It looks like this is going to happen, and soon.

We want to create a space that can seat 150 people with a small stage, big screen, clear sound, and fast wifi. Somewhere easy to get to, walking distance to coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and nightlife; and where parking will never be a problem.

If you’d like to participate in any way get on the email list. We’ll keep you posted as things develop.

 

Blog

8 Days

This will be quick. Please read it all.

I’ve been hosting and managing the Atlanta Web Design Group for nearly 5 years. A lot has happened in that time.

  1. It’s grown from 200 people to nearly 3000. Sadly, there’s no good way for you to connect with each other online.
  2. We’ve had a great number of events full of fantastic info. All of which exists only in our memories. There’s no online archive.
  3. Many of you have asked for and suggested features and other things the group could do to provide more value to members like you. There’s just no way to make those happen on Meetup.

I could go on and on, but I promised this would be quick.

Managing the group and the events we host is a lot of work. I love helping the community grow and prosper, but we’re at a breaking point.

You might not feel it, but we really need to have our own website to make it easier to participate in the group, get information about events, and all the other things you’d like us to do.

We can do this.

The only way the group can grow and be better is to build our own website to connect all the things we do in one place. And the only way that’ll happen is if you back our Kickstarter project. You want a better AWDG. Why haven’t you backed it yet?

You have a choice.

Be a hero, back the project to help us grow and improve — or — live with the status quo and know we could have been more.

Every dollar counts. I’m counting on you.

Make it Happen – Back Our Website Project

Thanks for reading…

Blog

Freelancer or Agency?

Following a fantastic AWDG event Wednesday night, I had a conversation with panelist Marc Hershovitz (disclosure: Marc is also my attorney) about the difference between a freelancer and an agency. Based on the discussions at the event, he asked if we in the web industry have a skewed idea of the definitions of freelancers and agencies.

Wikipedia defines a freelancer as “a person who is self-employed and is not committed to a particular employer long-term”, and an agency as “a service based business dedicated to creating, planning, and handling advertising (and sometimes other forms of promotion) for its clients.”

This is fine for semantic purposes, but does it hold up in the real world? I’ve always subscribed to the idea that a freelancer is someone who works by themselves, for themselves. And to be clear, there’s certainly no shame in that. You only become an agency when you decide to build an organization around your business. You hire contractors and/or employees to work with you, therefore you have an agency.

Marc’s opinion was that outside of our industry, a Freelancer is seen as someone who exclusively works for agencies and similar organizations – but not directly for clients – while agencies (whether one person or 1000) do work directly for clients. This is an important observation.

Should You Care?

Imagine yourself at a cocktail party speaking to someone who isn’t in the web (or any related) industry. They ask what you do and you tell them you’re a freelance web designer, thinking they will understand what that is and may want to hire you to build a website. But it’s likely they have the same impression Marc does, that you only work for agencies. Instead, you should tell them you’re an independent design agency so they know you’re available for hire.

Or should you?

There’s a bit of ego attached to how you define yourself, your work, and your business. How you define your business to the people you work with could have an impact on the structure of your contracts and relationships. In this case, for conversational purposes  it’s probably best to consider the context of your discussion and define your business accordingly.

There are legal and financial considerations, too.

If you’re accepting work on a 1099 basis under your personal social security number (a terrible idea for many reasons which we can discuss another time) you’re more likely to fit squarely into the freelancer category. But for legal and financial purposes, you really should form an LLC and run your business as an agency. You can still tell people you’re a one-person show if you like. Hell, call yourself a freelancer if it makes you feel better. But at least have the good sense to run your business as a real business.

If that’s not your thing, just SUGTW and go get a job.

Edit: The “Freelance to Agency” podcast may also be of interest to you.

Blog

Design Corrosion

Is it me, or is most software getting worse as it tries to appeal to more people? As an application’s customer base grows, developers must consider an ever widening set of user feedback, eventually risking design by committee.

Cameron seems to agree, posting this:

This a slow corrosion. It sneaks up on you. Staying true to your core customer base becomes very difficult if you want to gain users. More people, more problems. With each new group of users you’re tempted to change your product to make them happy. Their requests a siren song promising loyalty and prosperity, but often leading to bloat and obscurity. Which is why it’s super important to understand who you’re designing for and why you’re doing it as early as possible. It helps keep the guideposts visible.

Make sure the problem you’re solving needs to be solved, you know who you’re solving it for, and that they like your solution. There’s nothing more powerful than a group of people who love your product enough to pay you for it.

Blog

On Speaking

There must be something in the air. Just recently I removed myself from a conference lineup because the organizers neglected to inform me they wouldn’t be paying for my travel and hotel expenses until after the schedule went live. A few friends removed themselves from the same event for the same reason. Then I wake up this morning to find Remy and Christian have both written good posts about the same topic. They say things happen in threes, so here are my thoughts.

As a conference organizer and speaker (and a previous life in the entertainment business) I can clearly see both sides of this coin. I’ve said it before “from my years in rock-and-roll, I know that without talent, there is no show.” Rather than blather on before my first cup of coffee, I’ll just post an excerpt from something I’ve already written (but not released) about meetup, event, and conference planning:

Your attendees are coming to see great speakers talk about interesting or helpful things. They aren’t paying to see sponsor’s ads or pick up free swag. There are many less expensive ways to get a t-shirt. The content of your event is what people will remember. When was the last time you heard someone say they were going to a tech conference because they have great cupcakes? Your speakers are the most important thing about your event. Treat them that way.

In nearly every event we’ve run, speaker’s fees, travel, and accommodations have been the single largest budget item. Remember, without great speakers you just have a trade show. At the minimum you should pay for travel and hotel expense, ground transportation to the event, and WiFi in the room for every speaker. You have to remember you’re asking them to take time away from their work, family, and other obligations to speak at your event. This is a much larger investment than just the hour or so they spend on stage.

Some speakers will ask you to pay them a speaker fee. Most who do are worth the price. Pay it if your budget allows and they are a good fit for your event. If your budget doesn’t have room either go get more sponsorship dollars or tell them you can’t afford it. Don’t negotiate. Don’t barter. In some cases they may offer to waive the all or part of the fee if you do something of value for them, but it’s their choice. Never ask them to do trade or discount their fee.

Show Me the Money

All events have three main revenue streams: Speakers (knowledge revenue), Sponsors (dollar revenue), and Attendees (dollar revenue). The relationship is pretty obvious. Speakers are the show, attendees pay to see the speakers, and sponsors pay to be seen by attendees. Notice the order? Speakers, attendees, sponsors. That’s the priority you need to keep in mind.

This isn’t to say speakers have nothing to gain by speaking at your event. They do. But they’re already paying to be there with their knowledge, effort, and endorsement of the event. It’s flat rude to ask them to pay money, too. That’s what sponsors and attendees are for.

If you’re running or planning to run an event, and you find you don’t have the budget to treat your speakers properly then you shouldn’t have the event until you do. Period. Go get more money. There are lots of ways to make the math work regardless of the size of your event. It’s your job to figure that out.

I’ll post more about all this soon. Now it’s time to SUGTW.

Blog

Renegade

Just last week a friend and I were chatting about real estate, and the outdated agent/broker system. The MLS is horrible, and most agents are too busy chasing new deals to court the ones they have. It’s a sloppy, inefficient mess.

“Why hasn’t someone shaken this up? It seems ripe for disruption.”

He’s right. Real estate is ripe, if not overdue for a sea change. But transforming a huge industry is hard. Which led us to the question:

Where does change in a giant stagnant industry come from?

I’ve only seen change come from two types of people: Newcomers and Renegades.

Newcomers look at things with untrained eyes. They see problems in the status quo, and have ambition to fix them. They are energetic, full of passion, and looking to make their mark.

Renegades worked in an industry long enough to understand it well, but became frustrated and left to do something else. The new business exposes them to alternative ways of thinking. Their youthful vigor and passion reignited, they see the old business with altered eyes.

Both of these people have something the entrenched worker-bee doesn’t. Fresh perspective. It allows them to see how to improve the business in ways they could never see from the trench of daily work.

How can you get fresh perspective on your business, career, life?

Change. Break your habits and routines, then form new ones. Make new friends. Go to new places. Shake it up.

Think like a newcomer. Be a renegade.

Blog

40 in 240

Back in 2010, Todd Schnick approached me with an idea about writing a short e-book about what it takes to succeed in business-and in life. He called it “40 in 240, the intrepid mini-MBA project“. The premise was 40 people would share their advice to MBA students and aspiring young business people in 240 words or less. While some of the references are dated, the advice holds up well.

Here’s what I wrote.

As a child, you enthusiastically told anyone who would listen that you were going to be an astronaut, doctor, or rock star when you grew up. We all did. Yet, in 2010 the most popular careers in the US are: network analyst, physician’s assistant, medical assistant, health information technician, software engineer, physical therapist aide, fitness trainer, database administrator, veterinary technician, and dental hygienist. Seriously, who dreamt of being a database administrator? The shrewd reader also noticed that 60% of the careers listed above are subordinate roles. Shrewd reader, is it your passion to be an accessory to someone else’s dream? I think not.

Somewhere between the wide-eyed avidity of youth and adulthood’s discovery of the “real world”, something regrettable takes place. People let pragmatism guide decisions, and override zeal. They lose touch with their passion. Don’t let this happen to you.

I’m not advocating everyone pursue rock stardom or space exploration, but to listen to the voice of passion inside you. You hear it already, you need to listen. There are many articles on finding and following your passion. Read them, find it, and follow it relentlessly. There is no greater satisfaction than succeeding at something you truly enjoy doing.

If your quest is to become rich, your success will be empty. If your goal is to be famous, your fame will be lonely. But, if you follow your passions to greatness, your wealth and satisfaction will be endless.

This little e-book is packed with wisdom from smart people. And it’s free. Go read it.

Books

Unlabel

Marc Ecko‘s story is one of the lesser known (or at least discussed) amidst the business community. That’s a shame. It’s a great one.

I read his new book, Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out, over the holiday break and was pleasantly impressed. It’s full of real life insight from the bruising experience of creating Ecko Unltd. I recommend it for business owners of all ages.

Here are my favorite excerpts:

My “vision” didn’t start with billions, my vision started with a can of spray paint and what I could do with it in the next thirty minutes. Entrepreneurs lose sight of that. When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first motherboard, they didn’t envision the iPhone. Visions can start small. Visions should start small. They’re incremental, like building Legos.

This is dead on. While you might have ambitions of being an industry juggernaut, you must stay focused on short-term goals.

If you can’t express your idea convincingly in black and white and slap it together on a Xerox machine—I mean low-budget—then your idea is not believable. … It’s ideas, not dollars. Artfulness, not computer graphics. Not models. Not celebrities. Believable, defendable ideas.

Another gem. Keep the message of your brand simple and believable.

A brand does more than tweet, a brand does more than talk, a brand does more than just cultivate perception. Think about what your brand is without the crutch of social media and words, and make sure that it can stand on its own actions. Talk is cheap without action. … The great equalizer for WHAT YOU SAY is how you will EXECUTE.

Too many people focus on talking about what they do rather than doing it well and letting the story tell itself. He goes on to say this:

What else is branding other than a promise that needs to be delivered? … Great brands are nothing more than streams of connected promises that always deliver. It’s critical that these “promises” be truthful. Talk can be romantic, but talk alone is cheap. It’s easy to get wound up in the art of creating the slick veneer of “brandspeak,” but great brands aren’t built on snappy copy or slick graphic design. They’re established through the relentless repetition of promising something and then delivering on what they promised, often beyond expectations.

and later:

Ralph Lauren is one of the most authentic brands in America. Ralph Lauren–itis, however, is when other designers or creators, instead of creating their own authentic brands, are distracted by the pomp, trappings, and style of someone or something else. This causes emulation, inauthenticity, and can result in personal—and professional—failure.

Perhaps my favorite quote touches on something many people tend to overlook; exactly how hard it is to create something meaningful, something of value.

And in the full-contact sport of entrepreneurship, you will get dirty, bloody, angry, and depressed. It’s silly to pretend that’s not the case.

There are many more great passages, lots of plain-talk anecdotal stories, and other gems in these pages. Do yourself a favor. Give it a read.

Buy it on Amazon

Blog

Double Wrap

Earlier this week I posted this photo of how I wrap the cords for my MacBook Air’s power cable. The Internet subsequently exploded. Something like 20,000 people retweeted, reposted, or otherwise shared it, often prefaced with phrases like “genius tip!” or “why didn’t I think of this”.

The MacBook Cable Double-Wrap

Then it began to appear in articles on OS X Daily, Cult of MacThe Unofficial Apple Weblog, and ultimately on Lifehacker. Of course this just spread things even farther. I also posted how wrapping the cords this way enables you to plug it in without unwrapping the large cord.

photo 3

As my friend Fabio said:

Enter the Fray

Some people questioned how this would strain the cord where it connects to the charger block. If you’ve owned a MacBook or been around these charger cords for any significant period of time, you’ve probably seen the insulation at this critical junction where the smaller cord enters the charger block fray and become unraveled. It’s a legitimate concern, so I posted this photo showing how to leave some slack so there is no strain on this connection. To be fair, Apple did have a problem with this which resulted in this class action MagSafe Power Adapter Settlement, so I can understand people’s hesitation to do anything which might stress the cords.

photo 2

This seemed to appease most people, but not Roberto Baldwin who wrote this article in Wired telling people this would strain the internals of the cord. I can understand a layman’s skepticism about this. Mr. Baldwin quotes the fine fellows at Monoprice, who corroborate his opinion. While this is possible, it would require you twist the cord against its natural curl. Sure, many people don’t know there’s a right and wrong way to wrap cord. This video is for those people.

However, I’m not one of those people. As some of you may already know, I spent a decade as an audio engineer. We installed sound and lighting systems in churches, theaters, nightclubs, and the homes of people who could afford to spend $20,000 or more on a home theater system. We also toured with several rock-n-roll bands and worked with countless live acts. Cable fatigue is a very real thing. Poorly wrapped cables can (and will) fail faster than properly wrapped ones, costing an audio company a lot of money. I figured this out. I know how to wrap cord. Given the viral spread of the double wrap technique, let’s assume most of the people who want to try it don’t know how to properly wrap cords.

The Large Cord

This is very similar to a typical household extension cord. Three individually insulated 18 AWG stranded copper conductors grouped together in an outer insulating PVC jacket, something very similar to the Southwire SVT Cord. These cords are quite strong and can endure some substantial abuse before failing. I’ve dissected one of my extra ones so you could see how thick the insulation and jacket are at the connection in question.

Dissected MacBook power cord connection

If you’re still concerned about this part failing, just disconnect it before you wind the cable up. Considering they are less than $10 on Amazon, you could just order a spare or replacement if/when it does fail. A small price to pay for the added convenience if you ask me.

The Small Cord

This one isn’t easily replaceable, and the concern seems to be about the extra stress placed on the cord by having it hold the large cord in place. On the surface this seems legitimate, but if we think about it a little more it doesn’t really add up.

Compare the two photos below. You’ll see the traditional way winds the cord much tighter, resulting in more bends and more acute stress at each point along the cable where it is bent. Also, the cord closest to the power block is wound much tighter than the rest, sometimes with sharp 90° bends where it goes around the flaps on the power block. More bends equals more stress, especially when the person doing the wrapping isn’t aware of the proper way to wrap cables. You can see the Double Wrap method results in less curvature in the cord for the entire length.

Photo2

The Double Wrap

Photo1

The traditional wrap

About the stress of the small cord holding the big cord in place. The large cord is trying to escape. The small cord is holding it in place. That creates stress. However, we’re dividing that stress across 9-10 wraps of the cord, so each section of cord only sees a fraction of the pressure.

It’s about convenience, right?

Let’s boil this down. Assuming the average lifespan of these cords is three years. Also assuming you use this cord on a daily basis and have regular work-weeks (working 260 days a year). You’d be wrapping and unwrapping the cord 1560 times over its life. Now lets say the Double Wrap decreases this by 15% (which I disagree with, but hey, this is all hypothesis anyway) reducing the lifespan to 1326 wraps/unwraps. For me, it’s worth losing 234 uses to gain the efficiency and convenience of having my cords stay together. That saves me time and frustration. Incremental efficiency gains are very powerful in the aggregate.

I’m sticking to it.

You might disagree and that’s okay. I’m okay with that. I might be the guy spending $79 to replace his 15% faster than you. I’m okay with that, too, because I’ll be the guy cleverly wrapping my power cable and smiling because it’s not frustratingly tangled in my bag. You can be the other guy concerned about the cord. I have other stuff to think about.