A Punch is A Punch: On Technique

It is irresponsible for people who don’t understand the nuances of the responsive vs. adaptive debate to write sweeping posts arguing for one technique over another.

-Karen McGrane “A/B Tests are Destroying your User Experience

 

Most of the posts people write today have the formula of:

“Bold Claim + Sweeping Attack + Popular Methodology.”

These are not worth anyone’s time and are taking up bandwidth.  They are easy to write – I’ve written plenty of them, and I’m taking them down, because they stink.

The truth is that while the absolute best work just nails the basics; the nuance, precision, and experience to make those design decisions is not easy and very very few people are actually that good.  And that’s ok – the way they got to be that good is by making a lot of ‘less-good’ decisions.

This isn’t an original concept either – that the ultimate in sophistication is simplicity.  Take it from Bruce Lee:

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation.

 

The Tortoise Always Wins: An Argument For Discipline

Discipline is probably the most overlooked ingredient in branding, design, and marketing strategy and execution.

My favorite definition of discipline is that you do the right thing at the right time in the right way every time.

The best customer service is disciplined – every single customer is treated the right way every time.

The best branding is disciplined – it sticks to the vision and mission of the organization.

The best design is disciplined in making the obvious tasks obvious, the easy tasks easy, and the possible tasks possible.

Discipline means cutting away things that aren’t necessary and avoiding things that aren’t core to the mission.  Chances are you are far better off consistently executing simple tactics every day than trying a new tactic every week or month to drive to goals.  Chances are you can (and should) use your name instead of some vague latinate word for a company identity.  Chances are that you really don’t need this feature or that for your site.

Discipline doesn’t mean Spartan, though.  It doesn’t mean that everything has to be the simplest version of what you do or that everything is simple in the first place.  It just means stop doing the stupid, avoid doing the misguided, and keep hammering the basics.

The only difference between top performers and mediocre ones in any given field are that the top performers are so much better at the basics.  They may or may not have special capabilities that allow them to do special things, but all top performers are simply better at the basics.  Most of them got that way through countless repetition until it was automatic.

If it feels difficult to do this and you want to find a shortcut, remember,  this is a good thing.  It’s supposed to be hard.  That makes it valuable.  Remember,  the tortoise always beats the hare.

Apples and Oranges: Sales Process

Design doesn’t sell itself.  But, having the wrong Sales Process for the wrong type of project doesn’t work either. Unfortunately, very few people in the design world talk about this, and the fact of the matter is that sales – whether externally or internally – is a core design skill.  Design that isn’t sold is as bad as design that isn’t done.

 

All sales process include four overarching processes: Qualification, Rapport, Education, and Closing.  The possible project’s size determines what, if any sub processes are needed to get to the close.  Generally,  the bigger the project,  the longer the sales cycle and the more sub processes you need to run in each step.

You can, a priori, decide that you don’t want to take certain projects.  That will make your sales process more efficient by choosing to ignore opportunities. Personally,  I like a wide variety of projects because I enjoy the challenge of figuring new things out, and I like a variety of different kinds of clients.  If all I did were one type of project, I would go insane.  So for me,  it’s vital that I understand immediately how in-depth the process ought to be for a prospective client.

When in doubt, I err on the side of over qualifying, building too much rapport, educating too much, rather than the opposite.  I love longer sales cycles because it allows me to make a stronger case for myself and build an actual relationship with my client, which is vital to the success of a project.

That doesn’t mean short sales cycles are a bad thing, though.  On small budgets you simply can’t afford to spend hundreds of hours convincing them to sign.  That constraint, however, doesn’t excuse you from going through a process,  in order, with out rushing.  It simply means that your qualification criteria need to be clear and your understanding of how this project may benefit you need to be checked against profitability.

Maybe the most difficult balancing act in the sales process is to maintain a sense of urgency without annoying a prospective client.   Yes, we want the sale, but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind.  This is also why we are continually marketing ourselves – so losing a big prospective client is not the end of the world.  If we are continually adding new prospects to the pool, we won’t fish ourselves out of work. By having other activities that you need to be doing, you won’t spend as much time obsessing over one particular client.

Investing in your sales process is a direct investment in your success as a designer, and ultimately your client’s projects will be better for it.

Thinking Mobile

Your people are mobile. The only question is: are you?
Mobile State of Nature

The only statistic that matters: 100% of your people are on the mobile web.  A billion more people will come online in the next five years and smart phones as a technology will get down to 10 dollars.

The mobile web is nasty, brutish, and slow, to paraphrase Hobbes.

This makes designing for the web very simple: it either works on low powered devices with small screens on bad connections or it doesn’t.  If we take that as an operative given, the implications are that:

  • Content priority matters more than ever
  • It better be damn enjoyable to read that content
  • Part of that enjoyment is that the perceived experience of the site is fast.

Simply put. If you focus on getting the right content done the right way for your audience, and present that in the right context for them reliably fast, you win.

And if you don’t you’re losing trust and money.

 

Happiness

My wife have been married one year today. I’ve never been happier and I know that our lives will only get to be better.

To my wife; I adore you. You’re my person. Your love and support are seemingly unending, as is the joy in our life together.

To anyone reading this; here’s three things I’ve learned from a year married to the right person for me.

Embrace the Nonsense

When I got married, my wife and I received a ton of advice.  Far and away the best advice we got was from my friend Josh and his wife Shannon.  Their advice on a happy marriage was simple:  Embrace the nonsense.

Our first year of marriage has been truly blessed.  Even the hard things for us weren’t really that hard in the grand scheme of things.  But what made it great and enjoyable was embracing the nonsense of a mad world.  More than that, we embraced each other’s nonsense.  Life is a lot happier when you laugh with someone else.

Flowers are cheap

I read this in Ben Horowitz‘ awesome book,  The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which I suggest you read too (and buy, because all proceeds go to improving women’s lives around the world).

In his twenties, Ben worked for a hot mess of a start-up.  They were so broke they couldn’t afford air conditioning.  One day, his father came over to watch their kids and asked Ben:

“Do you know what’s cheap?”

Ben had no idea what he was talking about, so of course he said, “No, what’s cheap?”

“Flowers. They are really, really cheap.” Ben’s dad went on.  “Do you know what’s expensive?”

Again, Ben had no idea what his dad was getting at.  “No, what’s expensive?”

“Divorce.”

The point is, in a marriage, the most corrosive thing you can do is put your desires over the needs of the marriage.  Having the right kind of ambition – to have a wonderful marriage – means considering your spouse first.  Making decisions through that prism is not easy – you literally have no practice at it before you have an obligation like marriage.  But simply thinking about how to be the spouse your spouse deserves (and then acting on that) goes a long long way.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

Being on the same page is not easy or simple to do.  But getting on the same page of what we want together has made our marriage delightful so far.  Because we have the same vision, it makes decisions and actions easier to take.  Because we’re on the same page it’s easier to trust and talk about difficult things.  We get to do things together and it’s a lot less scary.  It’s great because I know I have someone with a different perspective and skills that I can rely on, and getting to be that for someone is really special too.

Happiness, like love,  seems to be more of the acts we take than the attitudes we hold.  I wish you the kind of happiness I’ve been able to find.

 

WordCamp Round Up

Notes and shout outs from an awesome WordCamp STL 2015

WordCamp STL is one of dozens of WordCamps around the world and the local version of the global WordCamp. I had the pleasure of presenting this year but it’s a conference I try not to miss if I can.  For only 25 bucks,  you get a t-shirt, great swag, and an unparalleled learning environment where you can find anyone who is interested in what you can bring to the WordPress community.  In other words, it’s Web Geek Christmas.

This year’s event was 2 days of programming starting with a keynote recording of Cain and Obenland in the Morning.  Then, 4 blocks of 4 presentations each of 30 minutes.  From Lucas Lima I learned a ton more about project management, which is always valuable. From Heather Acton, I got valuable insight into financial planning for my company.

Then I spoke.  My partner Justin Chick, my mother, and my wife came for my talk, which helped calm me down.  I still had a ton to cover and probably talked too fast for a good chunk of it, but at least I started off at a reasonable pace.  The feedback I got was overwhelmingly positive,  which is great!  If anyone didn’t like it, they didn’t let me know.

We broke for lunch and then the break neck pace continued.  In the afternoon I learned about the amazing work Cam Barnett is doing moving school systems over to WordPress, saving taxpayers boat loads of money, providing a better solution to their real problems,  and ultimately,  making schools better at their core job – teaching and cultivating kids into great adults.

Then I learned about how to fundamentally alter how to use WordPress with a great talk on the REST api, which is hopefully coming to WP core soon.  I wasn’t able to make the after party at the City Museum or much of the Community Day, which held a kids workshop and helped build a site for HandsUp United, but I learned a ton and met so many wonderful people.

I’m more sad about the great presentations I couldn’t make, like Sara Cannon’s UX Talk, Drew Bell’s talk on the rat hole of CSS Specificity, Christoph Trappe’s on authentic storytelling, Joe McGill’s on Atomic Design principles in WordPress, and Megan Harris’ on content marketing.

Far and away, the people in the WordPress community are what make it so easy for me to do what I do and make better sites for my clients.  Thank you so much to everyone who attended, volunteered, presented, sponsored or otherwise make things like WordCamp possible!

I’m looking forward to next year already, but my experience at WordCampSTL has encouraged me to begin submitting my presentation to more WordCamps.  I’m a little leery of it – the best part of WordCamps are that most of the presenters are local – but I feel like the reaction I got means that I have something to share.

 

Things Design Can Not Fix

I say that Design is a service industry all of the time.  Unfortunately, most people hear that and think I said “subservient.”  Which could not be further from the truth.

As a designer, my job is not unlike a CPA or an attorney, in that I have a responsibility to show you what is in your best interest, and, more importantly, in what’s in the best interest of the people who will loan you their attention at your site or app.  As anyone who’s ever dealt with clients knows, most of the time, their best interests and what they want aren’t always the same thing, and it’s rare to find a client who comes in thinking about the best way for the project to go for the people that will use the site.

All of that is fine.  A designer who can not make a persuasive argument deserves to be skinny and broke.  But what’s more difficult is understanding when having a designer is not appropriate.  Here’s five things design can not fix:

1) If there’s a wide gulf of disagreement over what the project should do, designers can’t really help. We make a chain of decisions predicated on solving a problem.  Different problems require different and exclusive solutions. That should be obvious, but again, it’s something worth taking time to talk through.  It’s important because the more focused on what the purpose of a thing is, the better the design is likely to turn out.  Here’s a real life example of this — the A-10 and the F-35.  The A-10 is 40 years old, ugly, slow, huge on radar and has one role.  The F-35 is new, stealthy, fast, can (in theory) do lots of things.  The military wants to discontinue the A-10 and invest more heavily in the F-35. The problems of course are: the A-10 is the best at what it does, the cheapest plane to fly and fix, and beloved by troops. The F-35 by contrast is outrageously expensive all around, and no one is sure what if anything it does well because it’s design is compromised by conflicting missions.

TL:DR; Don’t buy design like the Pentagon.

2) If it is a business venture, and you don’t have a sound way to make money, then we can’t help you.  No amount of prettiness or coolness creates a viable business, especially online.  My first set of questions is about a potential client’s businesses viability – who are your customers, why do you care about serving them, how are you serving them, how do you make money off of it, and I want to hear from you how you think a site or an app will help your customers, help you serve them better, or help make you more money.  People with real businesses get obsessive about these questions, so it’s incredibly easy to tell who’s doing the work and who is just a wanna-be.

3) Speaking of Start-ups: Joys and curses abound.  Fortunately, especially here in St. Louis, more and more designers are starting their own companies, and get how to use design partners effectively.  However, that’s not always the case.  I know your idea is your baby. But your baby will bankrupt you and drive us crazy if we don’t properly test the thing.  We can’t just make it the way you want.  There are people who are straight production factories – you hand them a .psd and they turn around a web page or site or whatever – but I’m not that.   If you’re right, and we test it, you now have validated cases to pitch people with.  If you’re wrong, we just saved you embarrassment and money.  Sometimes the best design advice is “don’t do that.” I won’t know until I test it.

4) I’ve said it a bunch – design is not about making things pretty. It’s a nice thing design does, but it’s not the thing your people use your site or app for.  They use it because it serves them A) information they want or B) a simpler way to complete a task.  So, if your writing is bad,  or inconsistent, or spammy, you need to focus on what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. You can hire us for that too – I know a lot of amazing writers who can help.

5) You want to do something abusive, mean, spammy, or BS.  Here’s a short list of bad things:

*pop-ups

*purposefully obscure information on your site – bury it somewhere or not provide breadcrumbs, etc.

*use one URL to unwittingly direct people to a different URL

*links that open in the same tab but are a different site

*auto play video (bonus bad points if auto-loop and auto sound)

*not including accessibility notation where needed, or considering different needs

*Misleading or not disclosing if you collect data from visitors and how you use the data.

*Needlessly complicated use flows

I could go on and on and on about this – but if you’re looking for my help with your design and you suggest any of these things to me, we are going to have a conversation about you.

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re not ready for a designer to disagree with what you want, or not ready to listen to their advice, you’re not ready for a designer.

PS I’ve used examples from my own life, but if you want the Authoritative Guide to all things Client-Designer relationship, please buy Mike Monteiro’s You’re My Favorite Client.  You can find it here.