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Why IBM is investing heavily in UX Design, and you should, too.

October 2017

“For years, our teams had a very engineering-centric culture.
We wanted to shift that towards a focus on users' outcomes.”

- Charlie Hill, IBM CTO     

One UX designer for every 80 coders. That was IBM just five years ago.  

Today, IBM is aiming to have one UX designer for every 8 developers. For mobile projects, it’s one UX designer for every 3 developers.  

Why? IBM looked ahead and saw it needed to become a design-centered organization to stay competitive. It’s invested more than $100 million in doing so.

What does this emerging focus on user-centered UX design mean for your organization?

The Perils of Continuing to Design Like It’s 1999

“A focus on features let design fall to the wayside,” says Jared Spool, Founder of @UIE, about enterprise software. “You’re forced to stare at a screen straight out of 1995.”  

It’s like traveling back in time. But not in a fun way.  

For the enterprise, UX design has historically been an afterthought.1 But that’s changing.  

Why? User expectations are being dramatically raised by simple, intuitive, user-focused B2B apps like Slack, Mailchimp, Stripe and Trello. These extremely successful apps have been designed to delight, even hook, users on their product.  

So it’s no surprise Salesforce, Ford, IBM and others are jumping on the design bandwagon.  

The takeaway:  It’s a whole new ballgame. One in which a user-centered UX design will become a key competitive advantage.

Design to Save Time and Money and Win Market Share

It’s simple. User-centered UX design makes extremely good bottom-line business sense.

“When we started talking to our customers and saw how they used our service,
it was the defining moment of success that turned the company around.”
- Mike Gebbia, Airbnb    

Slash development time and costs

User-centered design focuses on solving users’ problems and creating a great experience right from the start. By doing so, it cuts development time and avoids costly redesigns.  

Case in point: American Airlines, which cut its development costs by 60-90%. How? They caught and corrected usability problems at the design stage. Brilliant!  

Case in point: MacAfee Software cut their support costs by 90% after they integrated usability testing into their process.2 What else produces massive results like this?

Stand out in a crowded marketplace.

User-centered software that’s simple, intuitive, solves users’ problems and gives them a delightful experience sets you apart from the competition.

Case in point: Airbnb went from the brink of failure to a $10 Billion valuation by focusing on user research.2 If user research can do this for Airbnb, imagine what it could do for your company.

The takeaway: Apple CEO Tim Cook says, “Most business models have focused on self interest instead of user experience.” Don’t make this mistake. Leverage the powerful tools of UX design to win market share and scale your success.

1. IBM'S Got a plan to bring design thinking to big business Wired Magazine.
2. Enterprise UX Industry Report 2017-2018, UXPin Inc.

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Instagram goes flat, and the internet goes crazy.

May 2016

Recently, Instagram replaced its realistic-looking (skeuomorphic) camera icon with a flat neon icon — and the internets responded with what The New York Times called “The Great Instagram Logo Freakout of 2016.”

Why all the angst? Instagram was one of the last flat icon design holdouts. Today, virtually every user interface is flat — with a minimalist design approach that emphasizes two-dimensional elements, bright color palettes and lots of white space.

Will flat design continue to reign for decades to come? Let’s revisit UX design history.

Flat design used to be the ONLY design choice

In the late 80s, the limits of technology meant icons and other user interface elements had to be flat. Having a low-res palette of 8 to 64 colors made it impossible for designers to use one of the most powerful principles of usability. This principle — affordance — allows an icon or interface to suggest its function, such as a door knob suggests turning, making it more intuitive and user friendly.

Then design got 3-D and realistic…

As resolution and color depth increased in the 90’s, designers eagerly threw off the chains of flat design. Skeuomorphism – the practice of making items resemble their real-world counterparts – became the standard. Buttons got drop shadows suggesting they could be pressed. Icons and interfaces got gorgeous detail, color and a richness in depth, texture and realism that mimicked the real world. User-friendly design flourished.

…Until that became stale and boring

Skeuomorphic icons and interfaces became so overused, it was inevitable that the pendulum would swing back the other way. Soon, UI designers inspired by Apple’s elegant minimalism were focusing on removing visual clutter, communicating function more subtly, forgoing heavy shadows and using large amounts of white space. Microsoft furthered the trend with their Metro UI. Today, this flat, minimalist approach dominates the web, mobile apps and operating systems.

Flat design has its flaws

Everything is on the same plane and everything is in the foreground with flat design. That means that clickable controls look the same as interface elements that are not. The user has to figure out what is clickable by moving their mouse over the screen and waiting for the cursor to change its shape. That’s easier for millennials than it is for some boomers, who are more accustomed to 3-D realistic design.

What’s next?

Is flat design a viable usability approach that will stand the test of time? There’s no doubt it provides a cleaner look, removing unnecessary detail that detracts from a user interface. At the same time, its minimalism can force the user to work harder.

Here’s my prediction. I believe the pendulum will come to rest somewhere between flat and skeuomorphic design – combining the best of both worlds.


February 2016

Less is more. Simpler is better. Indeed, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” according to Leonardo da Vinci. These days, we all know that — UX designers and clients alike.

The problem is we forget it. Or, as is more often the case, our brains become so inundated with project specs, requirements, revisions and checklists, simplicity doesn’t just leave the auditorium, it flees the country.

Here, gleaned from the various stages of my design career, are 3 suggestions that will help you leverage the power of “Less = More.”

1. You don’t have to draw every feather on the bird

I had a note pasted to my desk lamp when I was a biomedical illustration student. It read: ‘“Don’t forget composition, light source and shadow, perspective, stroke, contrast, focal point and balance.” I was trying so hard to remember all the elements that went into good design as I sat at my drafting table creating illustrations that I exhausted myself.

I consulted one of my teachers about this. His advice was simple yet profound: “You don’t have to draw every feather on a bird to know it’s a bird.”

It’s true. The most effective design today just suggests what it’s supposed to represent and lets the viewer fill in the gaps. It eliminates everything nonessential. Case in point: famous film director Alfred Hitchcock’s powerful and iconic self portrait. It contains only 9 lines, yet instantly conveys the personality of the genius who brought us The Birds and Psycho.

2. Go small and think inside the box

In the middle of my career — when I created icons for America Online, Pacific Bell, Palm Pilot and others — I learned to love creative constraints.

There was no other way to go. Pixels were huge and colors extremely limited back then.

I started teaching other software designers how to create icons. In the first lesson, I gave them a postage stamp and a wide felt-tipped pen and told them to draw a picture on the back of the stamp. Once they mastered this lesson, they had the essence of icon design – that economy, creativity and simplicity are everything.

We always want to go big. Next time you’re stuck, try asking yourself “what would happen if I went small and stayed inside the box?” You might be happily surprised!

3. Stand outside the box and think outside the lines

In recent years, I’ve focused on user experience and UX design at the enterprise level for corporations like Wells Fargo, PG&E and Autodesk.

UX design at this scale requires a wide creative focus and a mastery of many different disciplines. It’s vitally important to look outside your industry and stay open to new perspectives and ideas from unexpected sources. This is the grist for creating great software interfaces.

Yet what is true for icons is also true for UX design at the enterprise level: economy of form and simplicity of use are key. You play with new perspectives and fresh ideas and see which stick. And then you begin paring down — seeing how much you can take away from the interface without degrading functionality. That’s how you create an elegantly simple app that users adore

Want to harness the power of Less is More? Stop drawing every feather. Go small. And stand outside the box.

The Internet of Things

What My 3-Year-Old Taught Me about the Internet of Things

December 2015

Tired and totally exhausted, we arrived in the middle of the night at our hotel in Costa Rica for a long-awaited family vacation. Standing in the doorway of our room, we felt along the walls for the light switch, but there wasn’t one. In the faint light of the moon, we could see a lamp on a bedside table.

My three-year-old daughter marched passed us, walked up to the lamp and touched it with both her hands. Presto! The touch-light turned on. ‘How did you know to do that?’ we asked her. She looked at us and shrugged her shoulders, replying ‘I don’t know’.

Curiosity can literally turn on the light

Three-year-olds learn about their world by touching everything. So a touch lamp is the perfect user interface for a three-year-old who doesn’t have full motor skills for small tiny lamp knobs, but is full of curiosity. And that is how the User Experience of things will help make the Internet of Things a success; by applying relevant usability principles with creativity and innovation to make an object usable.

UX design will unlock the vast power of the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is about interacting with the world in a whole new way — through objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity. Clothes that change color with the music. Lights, doors and appliances in your home you can control remotely. Sensors and apps that monitor your health and alert your doctor if something goes wrong. It’s an exciting time and a promising market.

Yet without UX design that’s as elegantly simple and intuitive as the table lamp my 3-year-old “magically” was able to turn on years ago, it could become the Internet of Frustration instead.

A lot goes into making an object usable

One aspect of usability — for devices that have a screen interface or are operated by direct manipulation — is affordance. Affordance is how an object suggests its operation. You can tell how it works just by looking at it. A door knob suggests turning, a drawer handle suggests pulling. Another aspect of usability is efficiency. Does your product help solve a problem for the user? Does it make it easier, faster, cheaper or more fun to reach the users’ goal?

Bottom line: if your internet “thing” doesn’t solve a problem, it won’t be used as a solution. These are just a few of the usability methods that affect your success in the Internet of Things.

Empathy has an ROI

Empathy has an ROI. Just ask any successful UX Designer.

November 2015

Does it sometimes feel that your job is like throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks?

End users, after all, don’t usually know what they want or need until they see it. So we get busy meeting deadlines and racing towards a final solution – doing iterative mockups, prototypes, sketches and interactive wireframes — and in the process sometimes our most important contribution, our humanity, gets lost.

“Empathy is hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
Daniel Pink, Author of Drive

UX design requires us to be fully human

Our job, as UX Designers, isn’t to create something we like, or even something our clients like. We are charged with designing an experience that solves people’s problems and makes their lives better.

It’s basic and that profound.

Regardless of the project, empathy is an essential component of great UX design. It requires us to immerse ourselves in the end user’s day and world. Listen deeply to their needs, frustrations and desires. And, from that research, create a simple, elegant solution that results in the best experience possible for them.

A recent UX project brought the power of our vocation — and the necessity of doing it well — home to me in spades.

UX design can literally save lives

Too sick for regular dialysis, late-stage kidney patients undergo peritoneal dialysis at home in order to stay alive. It’s a very uncomfortable procedure that pumps saline solution into their abdomen to draw out the toxins their kidneys can no longer process. While this is going on, the patient can’t roll over or turn in their sleep. Hours later the fluid is removed and disposed of.

Every week, patients visit their doctor, bringing a USB drive with detailed data on their in-home dialysis sessions. My task was to design how those results would be displayed for the doctor.

“Empathy is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”
Oprah Winfrey

Empathy for the end user

Having thoroughly done my research, I understood the pain, discomfort and, sometimes, desperation these patients and their families endured. I also realized how truly precarious their health was.

How could any of us not put our all into a project like this?

I was committed to creating the best possible app – so that any potential problems would leap out at the doctor. I wanted to make it quick and easy for her to do her work as accurately as possible. That way, the patient would be well taken care of, yet only have to spend a short time in the clinic.

My solution combined three different applications into one, using data visualization so the doctor could see any problems at a glance. This dramatically reduced the chance that something critical might slip by – potentially saving lives.

Most of the projects we work on don’t have life or death consequences like this one.

But it reminds me why we have to bring our curiosity and empathy with us to work every day. That’s why I wanted to share this with you as well.

Great UX design not only helps people, it also makes excellent business sense. Apps and interfaces designed with empathy (backed up by good research) can be easier, faster and less expensive to create… and make the work and the lives of others better.

With empathy in the picture, it’s a win-win for everybody.

The smart way to save 90% on software development

October 2015

We’ve all been there. Your department is charged with creating new enterprise software, and it has to get to market as soon as possible. The boss is breathing down your neck. And a huge deadline is looming.

Who needs UX Design? You find yourself asking. We can do without it. Or do it later.

Having been on the frontlines of many software projects for large corporations, I can tell you that if you don’t take the time to do UX research up front, it will come back to bite you in the rear. Big time.

The truth is – and many research studies confirm this – fixing a UX problem in software already in development can cost 10 times more than fixing it in the design stage. That’s often why we’re called in: to fix problems at this stage.

UX Design makes development easier and cheaper

That’s why I love it when clients bring us in at the beginning. I know how smoothly and cost-effectively projects can go when UX Design is part of the analysis and design phase.

UX Design will help you help you solve issues before they become problems -- by employing several user-centered design processes:

  1. Defining the problem that your app is helping to solve
  2. Identifying your target audience
  3. Mapping out the app by creating wireframes and task flows
  4. Testing these wireframes and task flow with target users

The good news: UX Design takes way less time than you think

It can take as little as 40 hours for a small app or up to a month for enterprise projects. Testing with target users can be accomplished fairly quickly, sometimes taking less than a week.

And it doesn’t have to be super complicated. You’ll find that as little as 5 target users will give you 80% of the information you need to tell if you’re on the right track.

Worried about how you’ll justify the cost of UX Design? Regardless of the size of the project, we can promise you that your ROI will result in development cost savings and increased usability which means higher profits.