January 2014
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Month January 2014

The Hidden World of Experience Design

UK blogger and UX designer Peter Smart’s excellent post proposing an industry-wide rethink of the humble boarding pass is a perfect example of what is increasingly referred to as ‘experience design’.

There is no shortage of real-life examples of products and services we encounter every day that suck. Where product teams (which include designers) bring value to the companies we work for is in evaluating our products based on the experience of using them (see eat your own dog food) and working to improve the suck factors.

Experience design goes beyond typical product design by taking a broader view of how using the product makes you feel – sounds a little airy-fairy I know – but think about the last time you purchased something from an Apple store. Do you remember how it felt to walk out of a packed store with your purchase without wasting any time lining up at the cash register? By rethinking the retail experience by providing floor staff with handheld checkout terminals, Apple substantively changed how customers feel about the Apple store experience.

This is not the first time airline boarding passes have been called out for a redesign, but Peter Smart puts the key focus on usability and experience, not about simply cleaning up the design. Smart’s proposal also works within some very practical constraints: the boarding pass is still the same standard size and information is still printed in black ink. The little design touches – adding the destination weather at arrival time and leveraging the existing perforation so the boarding pass fits perfectly in a passport with just the Flight number and departure gate showing – those are the clever bits that make all the difference.


Jack Dorsey understands experience design. The co-founder of Twitter and CEO of payment startup Square recently spoke in detail about the mission of Square: not just to make payments easier, but to reinvent the experience of digital payments.

The biggest challenge with experience design is that we need to uncover parts of the customer experience that are often hidden – because we take them for granted. Status quo is the enabler of poor experience design. Boarding passes haven’t changed much in decades, and they function reasonably well. But if you fly often enough, you might re-imagine how a better boarding pass could make the experience better. Dorsey talks about coming at the experience design of Square from the perspective of a consumer, not a merchant, despite merchants being Square’s direct customers. Putting a lot of thought into what many would treat as an afterthought – the payment receipt – shows a commitment  to evaluate every customer touchpoint and make improvements that contribute to the overall experience.

As a digital product team we arguably have complete control over customer experience on the digital side of the business. At the Globe and Mail, where I work, we have roughly a million unique visitors each day navigating our web site on any number of devices, using one of our native apps, or signing up for a subscription service online. Every screen, menu and click is part of the overall Globe experience. Every detail is the result of the decisions we make, and collectively that defines the experience.

So sweat the small stuff. Details matter. Constantly evaluate every customer  interaction point, and rank improvements on a PICK chart. Talk to you customers regularly to understand their hassle maps. Incorporate grey label customer feedback tools like UserVoice or GetSatisfaction right into your digital products – believe me they will be a hundred times better, faster and cheaper than anything you could build yourself. I’m also a fan of Net Promoter as a simple, trackable metric of customer satisfaction – it will tell you if you are moving the needle in the right direction and give you verbatim customer feedback you might otherwise miss.

Experience design isn’t an entirely new concept – in some ways it’s no more than a new coat of paint on the old adage about the customer always being right. But with better tools to understand the customer experience and the ability to quickly deliver iterative improvement a on digital products, our ability to respond has never been better.

Attracting and retaining talent

Interesting interview with Valve CEO Gabe Newell on how the innovative videogame maker strives to create a workplace that employees never want to leave.

In a nutshell, employees at Valve are granted an significant amount of freedom, respect and trust – and their parents get to tag along on company getaways. The company has made substantial efforts to accommodate each individuals life events – having a baby, caring for an ailing parent, attending an Ultimate Frisbee tournament – and in turn reaps the reward of company loyalty this engenders. While not a one-size solution, it’s a great example of adapting to a competitive labour market in a knowledge economy.

related – read how footwear retailer Zappos plans to get rid of management structures in favour of a system called ‘Holacracy’.

update Jan 29/2014: Here’s a segment on CBC’s The Current on Holacracy

(link expires May 2014)

How Spotify Develops Products

Here’s something well worth downloading. Henrick Kniberg, an ‘Agile Coach’ at Spotify put together an extensive overview of the product development process the company uses (h/t @gmacgregor).

Spotify’s core product dev principals:

We create innovative products while managing risk by prototyping early and cheaply.

We don’t launch on date, we launch on quality.

We ensure that our products go from being great at launch to becoming amazing, by relentlessly tweaking after launch.

And 4 stages of product development:

Think It = figure out what type of product we are building and why.
Build It = create a minimum viable product that is ready for real users.
Ship It = gradually roll out to 100% of all users, while measuring and improving.
Tweak It = Continuously improve the product. This is really an end state; the product stays in Tweak It until it is shut down or reimagined (= back to Think It)

Regardless of how you or your company does product development, there is lots of worthwhile reading here.

Probably one of the biggest shifts in thinking is in getting away from working towards a launch date, and instead shipping when the product is ready. As detailed in the Ship It stage, this doesn’t mean endless development cycles trying to perfect every last detail (done dangerously, in the absence of actual users to validate your assumptions). The short goal is to produce an MVP 1 good enough to ship to a small percentage of users to observe and gather data to determine what refinements need to be made. The actual ‘Launch’ is the day you promote your product on the home page and the press releases go out, even though many of your users were aware of what you’ve been working on for some time. Isn’t putting out the right product (that works) far more important to the company than hitting a self-imposed internal launch date that none of your customers know about?

The second thing I think is traditionally overlooked is the commitment to the ‘Tweak It’ phase, which is particularly challenging if your organization is very project/budget focused. Managing commitment to ongoing improvements to active products is a tough nut to crack – certainly it’s much better if your organization has resources organized around products, not projects (as I’ve written previously).

Henrick has produces lots of great stuff on product development process and scaling Agile – here’s a YT vid on the role of the product Owner (hey – that’s me!) within an Agile team:

…and here’s a post on how to scale Agile within a large organization posted at Henrick’s own consultancy blog.


  1. Minimum Viable Product

Developing Products in the Real World

Via @isaach a short but great post about how P&G invented the Swiffer. Some good lessons for anyone developing products for a target market: observe people in the real world and how they deal with the problem you are trying to solve.