The Home Page – Making a Long Story Short

Today, Apple’s elevator pitch is a full page product takeover. Words are as few and punchy as the product shots. TBWA’s, home page elegantly box the glory of their work with Windows 8 style tiles. And Stephan is a 37 year old Art Director from Berlin, guiding us through a list of clients and projects using a smooth parallax scroll.

Irregardless of how stereotypical these home pages might sound like, they are all in pursuit of what we’ve been trying to do ever since Web 1.0; make a long story short.

We all have a story to tell and we need to make it short. This is what the Home Page always was and still is today: The synopsis to our stories; an abridgment or condensation of whats buried in the pages beyond the first click.

It remains dauntingly difficult to tell this story and make people stay longer, read more, and click through. And rightly so as well: consumers have become more infatuated with the topics on a content page than the people who authored them. And that’s why it’s so damn hard to engage people.

Bringing It Home

This website is about design & technology, and maybe that’s why you will follow me on  and Behance. But it’s more than that. It’s about me and my story. And as you start to explore my background, methodologies and experiences, each topic I write about and every User Interface I design will come to life and add more value to your’s.

This is true engagement; getting people to care more about your story than the topics you write about.

To make a long story short, that’s what the Home Page should do. Whether it be with product shots, client badges or beautifully crafted words, let’s make it the beginning of a great story worth following…


You don’t like my food, you leave my restaurant.

A colleague of mine once went to an authentic Italian restaurant. Out of habit, he asked for tomato sauce with his pasta. With hesitancy in her voice, the waiter responded that they don’t serve tomato sauce with any of their food. Annoyed by this seemingly lack of care, he asked to speak to the man in charge. A minute later and a chef, the main chef, made his way through to the requested table. With a weight and pride in his voice, the chef asked him to leave his restaurant: ‘You don’t like my food, you leave my restaurant.’

As owners, designers or decision makers, we need to be as proud about the products we serve to the world as this chef was about his food. We need to be relentlessly brave when it comes to extra feature requests. Especially if we know those features will ruin the product’s taste…

“Let people feel the weight of who you are and let them deal with it.” John Eldridge – Wild at Heart


The Unintended Consequences of Noise

In response to a fan’s rhetorical question to never release an album on iTunes that downloads automatically to people’s playlists again, Bono answered with a rather interesting statement:

Oops… I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea. Might have gotten carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion, and a deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess, we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.

There’s a lot of noise out there indeed. I do however think that noise is not really the bolded word here. Noise is around us all the time. Even right now as I’m writing this post from a coffee shop.

In the background I can hear Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song”, muffled under the sounds of a Barista preparing someone’s coffee, trolleys carrying vegetables in and out of a shop and a restroom door that swings open every so often.

The financial advisor at the opposite table looks uninterrupted while promoting his product to a prospective client. And so does the elderly couple two tables away. There’s just enough noise hanging in the air so that they, myself and everyone else, can carry on doing what we came here for.

An announcement over the intercom requesting Sam’s help at the teller, disturbed everyone enough to raise their voices a slight decimal higher, making the whole space a little bit noisier.

That’s how it’s online as well. Each of us is busy with our own conversations. I share my story to a handful of friends over twitter. Some acknowledge with a retweet or a favorite, creating just enough noise so that everyone else can carry on with what they came here for.

Sometimes we, like U2, fear that our stories will go unheard and, in this moment of desperateness, try to cut through the whirlwind of noise by shouting a bit louder, making it more difficult for everyone to hear each other.

The unintended consequences of noise are perhaps the biggest problem we have created for ourselves online. It’s hard one to crack, I know, but if there is one thing I’ve learned from the real world, it’s that trying to shout my story to someone who doesn’t care, ends up to be a disturbance to everyone in between.

Similarly, if there is one thing I have learned from U2, it’s that my story isn’t heard by shouting to the 1 million who don’t care about them but by telling a good enough story to the 30 who do…


Let’s Understand Our Users

In an expectantly fresh post, Eric Karjaluot paints the well argumented Invisible Design manifesto, with a trip to the bathroom.

If my bladder had a gauge, the needle would be at its highest point. There’s little time to waste. So, I locate a restroom, make my way inside, pee, wash and dry my hands, and I’m back outside – in less than two minutes.

After zooming in on this experience to explore the design details of a journey through a bathroom with automatic urinals, dispensers and hand driers, he backs out again and concludes this picture by relating it back to designing a website.

Because someone did their job well, I don’t need to think about, or know about bathrooms. I just use them and go on with my day. Just imagine if your website worked like that!

Someone did their job well. That’s the epicentre of this story.

Someone understood budgetary concerns, energy needs, waste water management, sustainability, and user safety. To build products that fits seamlessly into the lives of the people who use them, require us to understand these people. In product design, it might translate to conducting usability testing, drawing up personas, or analising Google Analytics. But most importantly it means getting out of the office.

Getting out of the office is hands-down the most crucial step towards understanding the people who use our products. Without this we cant do our job well and we cant create experiences where people don’t have to think.

It might mean using less affordances, adding an extra click or getting rid of the Facebook login button. Or perhaps even creating a bathroom that doesn’t  have automated urinals, dispensers and hand driers…

Let’s get out of the office and understand our users.


The Battle Between WhatsApp and WeChat in South Africa

Every successful business has a “secret sauce”. That thing “that allows you to deliver the benefits your customers value with much greater effectiveness than any other competitor”, as Bill Aulet, in his book Disciplined Entrepreneurship, explains. Without a secret sauce, any entrepreneur will inevitably fail in a mass of competition.

In one specific chapter, Bill mentions a particular secret sauce (or core) that resonated with something I’ve been pondering on for a very long time now: the Network Effect.

The Network Effect is where a company achieve so much critical mass in the marketplace that it does not makes sense for potential customers to use another product. The value of the network to any individual on that network is exponentially related to the number of users on the network. The company with the most users is the most valuable; hence it is logical for new users to choose that network.

And that’s one of the reasons why Facebook is so successful and has an almost unassailable position in the marketplace.

Whatsapp benefit from this core as well. They have amassed more than 500+ million users and, by understanding their target market, they were able to stay focused to create a simple, streamlined, ad-free product.

It allowed them to become extremely successful in markets such as the USA, Europe and South Africa.

Which brings me to the interesting part of this post.

Up until about a year ago, WhatsApp was the strongest contender in the texting space in SA. But then all of a sudden, WeChat started to pop up all over the country, on busses, TV, radio and magazines. More than 13 years after Naspers’ 46.5% acquisition in 2001 in China’s Tencent (the holding company for WeChat), they started to push it into the market quite aggressively.

Part of their acquisition strategy was to target brands and celebrities as well. This is not only a great strategy to get people to download the app (CliffCentral.com has gained more than 80 000 followers on WeChat since it’s launch), but it also helps later adopters to download an application where their friends already are.

But would that be enough to help WeChat gain a lead on WhatsApp?

I don’t know, but if we look at the network effect, Whatsapp has achieved so much critical mass in South Africa that it does not makes sense for potential customers to use another product such as WeChat.

“But WeChat has discounts, social pages, celebrities, exclusive offers, stickers and embedded apps”, you say…

True story, yes, but the value of Whatsapp does not lie in it’s features (or lack of it) but is exponentially related to the number of users on it. So, features cant be a value proposition. Especially not in a Western market. This works very well for Eastern countries like China where a product’s value comes from the amount of features it has (think Lingscars.com.)

This would make it nearly impossible for any competitor, including WeChat, to gain a lead on Whatsapp in South Africa.

I might be completely wrong about this, but I think the battle between WhatsApp and WeChat in South Africa will become even more fierce. Naspers will continue to market WeChat very aggressively in South Africa and maybe even establish a very appealing network for brands to communicate with their fans in fresh, new ways, but I doubt that WeChat will sail past WhatsApp as the preferred friend to friend chat application.

Time will tell and perhaps even make a great case study. Let’s see how it plays out…


Lessons Learned – Moving from Product to Agency

There are three significant things that happened last year:

Professionally, it didn’t really made sense to trade the luxury of a great paying product job, for the fast paced agency world. Especially since the only thing I’ve done up to then was product design.

I did however knew it was necessary for me and my fiancé to establish ourselves locally to have a solid support network around us for when we got married. So from a relational perspective, the move made a lot of sense.

Last week, it was a year since I made the plunge into the agency world. This coming week will also be my last week at Mabua before I embark on a new journey…

So before I head out into the wild again, I would like to end this chapter of my life with some reminiscing thoughts on this bewildering transition I made from product to agency

The agency world is fast
I’ve never had so little time to think about how to solve problems than the past year. I hated it but I learned to think faster and be content with solutions that were sub-standard. Besides, we’ll fix it in Phase 2… Right?

Phase 2
Phase 2 was indeed a myth. Or at least for 85% of the projects I worked on. There is nothing inherently wrong with Phase 2. We work in phases in the product world as well. We just call it the next iteration. However, there are two reasons why I think Phase 2 will remain a myth in the agency world:

In Mabua’s case, the first point was more of an issue than the second one. Mabua distinguish themselves from other agencies by not over-costing clients. So after the initial build, there would always be ample budget left for another iteration. But we rarely executed on it. Probably because we struggled to successfully educate the client about this process.

If agencies would charge less for the initial build and successfully educate the client on how another iteration could help with better customer feedback and end results, Phase 2 might get a more reputable name.

“Oatmeal” clients
Oatmeal clients, is the term we’ve come to use for clients who would try and design the website/campaign themselves because they thought they could do it better in Word (I kid you not. We had 2 clients who send us Word designs!)

Incidentally, they were also a good representation of the two types of clients that does this kind of thing:

Client 1: The client that tries to tell you something
This client has a problem but don’t know how to communicate it, so he does it with a tool he feels most comfortable with: Word. It’s not a slap in the face but an opportunity to listen.

Whenever this happens, I always ask, “What is the real problem here?”

This specific client wanted to put a solid color block behind a heading. Contextually it would’ve looked horrible, but because the client didn’t know better, it was his attempt to say, “Hey, isn’t there something wrong with this heading?” We made the copy bigger and the problem was solved.

Client 2: The client that needs to be fired
This client doesn’t really trust you and only hires you because he has to spend his budget each year otherwise it get’s cut the following year. There’s no easy way to say it, but irregardless of how much money this client brings you in, they need to be fired. They will drain the last energy out of your team and cost you more in maintenance when things go wrong…

I’ve experienced this first handedly!

Getting tired
Luckily we never used the Word designs, but it took a lot of fighting. Sometimes I not only had to fight the clients, but also some of my colleagues who were willing to use these designs.

UX Design Thing
Most clients & colleagues I worked with has heard of this UX thing but few knew what it stood for, let alone what it really meant. It was a nice term to slap onto something that was broken.

One of my biggest challenges at Mabua was to break the believe that UX means pretty pictures. It was difficult. Together with this, I was on a rocket mission to show the value and ROI of being user centered. This included doing proper client/user research and the necessary usability testing.

It was naive of me to think that a year would be enough to establish this concept into the culture of a company and client-base that was taught differently for decades.

Success!
It would be a miserable post if there weren’t some success. One of our biggest clients recently bought into a UCD approach to build their new website. This will not only help us build a better website that solves real user needs but also serve as gun powder when we present the solutions to a board that has been doing the same thing for the past 75 years!

The next chapter
Working in a digital agency was hard but it showed me how much I love people and how passionate I am about solving problems through product design.

The culture at Mabua is priceless! I have never experienced such a close, family orientated team such as at Mabua. Working with the team has been an unforgettable experience. Thanks Mabua!

But this is where a new chapter begins for me. I don’t know all the details yet, but like any good journey, the details unfold as you venture into it…

 


Old golfers don’t win

From Paul Arden, author of “Whatever you think, think the opposite“, comes a concise thought on the relationship between victory and age.

Old golfers don’t win (it’s not an absolute, it’s a general rule).

Why?

The older golfer can hit the ball as far as the young one.
He chips and putts equally well.
And will probably have a better knowledge of the course.

So why does he take the extra stroke that denies him victory?

Experience.
He knows the downside, what happens if it goes wrong, which makes him more cautious.

The young player is either ignorant or wreckless to caution.
That is the edge.

It is the same with all of us. Knowledge makes us play safe.

The secret is to stay childish.


Building Personalised Products

I love running. My wife on the other hand, not so much… I’d love her to run with me more often, but sometimes, despite my best and most sincere attempts to persuade her, she just doesn’t want to…

But I’m not alone in this pursuit. The reality is, we all do it; that is, trying to change people’s behaviour. We shove the book in his hand. We buy her running shoes. We hint more. We do all kinds of things so that people can change their behaviour. Whether it is out of selfish ambition or because we really care about them.

Companies do that as well. It’s just not as humane as our attempts.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and hundreds of other companies has build massive social graphs that enable them to change people’s behaviours and they allow anyone else who is interested to do the same.

Whether we love or hate the well-timed ads or perfectly curated stories in our feeds, it’s not going to change. Companies will continue to use brilliant algorithms and personal information to try and change our behaviour. They will continue to create what, Soleio Cuervo, calls personalised products.

In this article by First Round Review, the author makes some bold and slightly controversial statements:

“The takeaway for startups is that you should actively manage people’s identities in ways that encourage the behaviour you want.”

“All of these systems of structured relationships act as graphs that can be used to deliver tailored experience to individuals.”

“The new wave of innovation will be all about presenting the right information at the right time in the context of relationships, location and device.”

It borders on the edge of ethics and privacy and makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. Especially the statement about “manag[ing] people’s identities in ways that encourage the behaviour you want.” Isn’t a product supposed to solve the needs of a user? No. It’s supposed to do both. Products should be built to align with both business and user goals.

All businesses exist to make money and for as long as this is going to be the case, companies will try and make users buy more of their products. They will use more of your info and build more personal products so that you can do more of what they want you to do.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using information to change user behaviour. The problem, however, is how information harvested out of social graphs, is used to invoke unnecessary behaviour; in particular persuading people to do/buy/consume things they don’t need.

The true innovators would be companies that know and persuade people to do the things they really need to do more. Maybe it is to buy the running shoes. But only because I need ones. And the pair that fit’s my budget best. Maybe I need to buy healthier food. Read more. Go out less. Chill at home. Hike. Spend time with the family. Sleep. Or go to church.

I believe that the most successful and innovative personalised products, would be the ones that solve real human needs based on what they know about people.

But even better, the ones that know how to persuade my wife to run with me more often. Or when to let her to decide for herself…


Book Review – Making it right: Product management for a startup world

I recently read Rian van der Merwe’s new book, “Making it right: Product management for a startup world“. It’s a great book! And the reviews on Amazon agrees…

“Like a product management mentor.”

“Solid, practical, advice on Product Management.”

“Done right – a clear and readable guide to product management.”

“Great must read for Product Managers, and, more importantly, anyone who works with Product Management.”

This last review is quite significant for me in a very specific way and that is who this book is written for.

In the introduction, Rian draws the attention of two specific groups of people “anyone considering a career in product management” and “those who have been in the field for a while and are looking for a more formal framework for the work they do.” But as the last reviewer stated correctly, this book is also for those who work with PM’s. That includes marketers, developers, designers, and more.

I’m a designer. I’ve never been a product manager and I don’t have a particular desire to become one soon either.

But I found that this book is relevant for me for 2 reasons (there’s probably more…):

Reason 1: You’ll get to appreciate them more…

PM’s are the firefighters when the product is about to burn down, the security guards to fend off feature creep and the bouncers who keeps his club (team) safe. This realisation hasn’t only shown me who they are but has also created an immense amount of respect for them.

Reason 2: You’ll become better at what you do…

PM’s are more than firefighters, security guards and bouncers. If you allow them, they might also proof themselves to be a mentor. Sometimes they need to reprimand us. Sometimes push us to go the extra pixel. And sometimes ask the tough questions. All, so that we can perfect our craft.

So, in closing…

Well done to my friend Rian! You’ve accomplished a mammoth task – one you most probably didn’t even intend to accomplish. This book will enable me (and others working with PM’s) to be better at what we do. And perhaps also to be better Product Managers one day…

Thanks!


How the iPad helped to shape the birth of the iPhone

Apple’s first iteration of the iPhone, was to modify the iPod in such a way that the track wheel could be used to scroll through the various phone options, but trying to enter new numbers using this technique soon proved itself to be very problematic. It just wasn’t a natural fit.

But while the iPhone team was trying to convince themselves that people would mainly call people who were already in their address book, another team was secretly working on a tablet computer – a device that would have a multi-touch screen. Steve was so amazed by it, that the two stories eventually intersected, and the ideas for the tablet flowed into the planning for the iPhone.

So actually the idea of the iPad came before, and helped shape the birth of the iPhone…