Advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs…

What do you say to the finalist teams in this year’s Apps for Good Awards? Not much really. They have all crafted an idea for an app that showcases their abilities to use technology to solve real life problems.  And in doing so they’ve gone on an amazing journey that has seen them demonstrate their understanding of the target audience and mobile technology, through to communicating their value proposition and how to monetize their app. All pretty impressive stuff. Even more impressive given the brains behind these innovations are from primary and secondary schools. So all that was left for me to discuss with 5 of the finalists last week, was how to pack the most punch in to their elevator pitch by guiding them on how to tell a compelling story in just 60 seconds.   Hopefully they took away some useful pointers.

What follows are some of the tips I shared with them… (the examples below all reference the team’s ideas and apps that have been shortlisted for the finals).

Help your audience to visualise the story you are telling

You have literally seconds to paint a picture. Yes, a picture says a thousand words, but some carefully chosen words can paint a pretty powerful picture. You’re not painting a Monet, but just enough for the audience to quickly visualise the opening scene of the story you are telling. So as you introduce the main character (persona) and set the scene, try to imagine the picture you are painting for your audience. Consider how changing something as simple as “Laura is learning to play an instrument” to “Laura is learning to play the piano” helps the listener to visualise it.

Create the drama

You’ve set the scene. Now you need to get your hooks in and create a bit of drama. This is where you communicate the problem you are solving.  Imagine you are delivering an Eastenders style cliffhanger – it needs that level of impact.  For example, “Our app will help make a huge impact on Sandra’s children’s lifelong relationship with food by encouraging healthy eating habits.” You can almost hear the drum roll…

Drop some big numbers

You have set the scene and delivered the drama. At this point the audience is most probably nodding their heads, “yes, seems like a good idea.”  Now you need to land a jaw-dropper. Go for the kill by dropping a large number that puts in to perspective the potential your idea has to really make a difference.   For example, “Ten percent (10%) of the British population are dyslexic.” Boom! Of course, make sure the numbers are accurate!

How will your idea solve the issue

A good story has a resolution.  You have a character, a setting and plot, have built some tension (with your big numbers) … now you need the resolution. This is a one-liner of epic proportions.  This is not what your idea will do, but how your idea will do it.  The difference is in the detail.   For example, go from “our app will help children with dyslexia to plan their day…” to “the app will provide tools, that puts the user in control, allowing them to plan and manage all aspects of their daily routine.”

There will most likely already be apps competing in your space.  With so many apps being created daily, it’s difficult to find a problem that someone isn’t already trying to tackle, regardless of whether they’re doing it well or not.  But it’s not always about being the first.  It’s about having that x-factor, a certain something that gives you the nod over the others.  A good way to set out what sets your app apart from the others is to complete this sentence, “our app beats the socks off the rest by ….”

How are you going to drive app engagement?

About 22-25% of apps are downloaded and used only once. What is it that will make your app get a return visit? Make sure you communicate why your users will keep coming back to use your app.

For example, “Our users don’t want to miss out on the latest hair style trends. They’ll come back to stay on top of the latest trends, comment on latest styles, and get advice from their friends before their next visit to the hairdressers…”  This helps to communicate how your app has a real sense of stickiness.

Make your app easy to use

There is a growing culture of impatience.  The ‘Impatient Nation’ demand instant gratification.  Apps therefore need a high convenience quotient.  What does all this mean? Well, if your mobile app doesn’t allow your user to quickly and easily achieve their goal then you risk losing them.   But saying your app is simple and easy to use isn’t quite enough!  This goes back to the first point about helping the listener to visualise your idea.

For example, “All Daniel needs to do his select guitar, and pluck the bottom-E string. Within seconds Daniel receives advice to turn the tuning key for the bottom-E string…”   This is a powerful way to help your audience to understand not only how your app works, but how easy it is to use.

Talk the talk

You’ve designed a mobile app, so make sure you use language that helps the audience to further visualise your app being used. Drop in references to mobile gestures such as pinch, zoom and swipe or discuss what happens when you rotate your phone. And highlight any features of the smartphone that your app uses such as the camera or GPS. As well as helping the audience to be further immersed, this also demonstrates your understanding of the mobile environment.

Make your app enjoyable to use

An app that is useful isn’t enough. It also needs to be usable. And still that’s not enough. We’re emotional people that like to be engaged.  Apps need to be delightful to use too, so help the audience to understand how your app delivers an emotional punch.  You can achieve this by providing engaging content and functionality, focusing on aesthetics, or incorporating elements of game design. So don’t focus purely on your apps functionality, but just as importantly communicate how users will be ‘engaged’ by your app.

Games are inherently more engaging, and reward mechanisms are a powerful gaming mechanism. If you are using such reward mechanisms to encourage users to eat their greens, or provide badges or other indictor of progress for say tuning your guitar in your fastest time, then get these powerful mechanics across when you present your idea.

Make sure your story flows

Everything you have covered until now needs to flow.  Good flow is one of the most important elements of good storytelling. Good flow minimises the cognitive effort to breakdown the information, by just adding layer upon layer to the original picture you helped to visualise.  If the flow stalls or stutters then the visual image starts to fade. You need to keep the flow and keep the listener engaged throughout…

There’s my pennies worth.  Now that’s all left for me to do is congratulate the finalists and wish them all the best for next week’s judging session.…

Step away from your feckin’ computer!

…and pick up your ProMarkers, Sharpies or any pen of choice.  Sketching is an essential part of the design process.  Fact. Technology plays a significant role in our daily activities but you need to pick up a pen and draw before diving in to the pixels. A great experience draws from a rich & diverse set of disciplines, and sketching is the best way to achieve great designs in a rapid, multi-discipline and collaborative way. Nothing frustrates me more than UX Practitioners that don’t sketch and UX Practitioners that say they can’t sketch.


As Ella Fitzgerald (and later Terry Hall) sang, It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It). It’s the process of sketching wherein lies the power.  The proliferation of tools for UX folk has drawn some people away from the more effective hands-on approaches.  These new tools will enable you to craft your experience, but the journey that you take to get there is the difference between delivering a good and a great experience.

As for those who hide behind the excuse that they can’t sketch.  That’s baloney! Providing you can draw a few lines, boxes and even circles then you can visualize your idea as well as the next person. You don’t need to have advanced sketching skills.

Everyone can and must sketch.  If not, then you’re in the wrong profession. No other tools IMHO achieves all of the following:-

It’s inclusive. A sketch is democratic, in its creation and in its understanding. Anyone can do it. Sketching breaks down barriers by making everyone equal. A diagramming tool requires expertise.

It’s collaborative. Sketching is a good way of bringing people together and getting a faster feedback loop.

It’s disposable. If it doesn’t feel disposable then people will be reluctant to provide feedback and accept change.

Encourages feedback.  A straight line implies order and therefore, something considered or perhaps final where the wobbly hand drawn line is open, flexible, to be aesthetically ignored.  Because it looks rough, people are less afraid to criticize or offer suggestions. Low fidelity is more appropriate when higher level of feedback is required. Polished concepts cam put up barriers to feedback.

It’s Rapid. Sketching is a quick way to develop ideas and to explore different ones.  Even the fastest Omnigraffler can’t beat pen & paper!

It’s an effective communication tool. A doodle is worth a thousand words.

Shows the Design evolution.  It’s good to be able to look back at the original sketches that the final designs evolved from.

Engages the project team & client. A sketch frames an experience without getting caught in the detail.  It engages the client in the broader meaning of a solution and not the detail/minutiae. The project team and client needs to be engaged right from the offset as this helps forge a close respect and relationship which in turn produces better results.

Puts you in to a creative mindset.  Simply picking up your sharpie can put you in to the creative mindset.

It’s transparent. It’s all about nudity. Showing a sketch is naked idea presentation, which can show confidence in your process and concept; there’s nowhere to hide. The feeling of unfinishedness puts the focus more on the idea and the essence rather than inaccuracies or omissions.

Sketching is an essential tool in every UX Practitioners toolkit, and should be used at early concepting stages, when feedback and collaboration is most critical.  Formal deliverables can come later once the design options have been explored with pen & paper.

Note: Some of the above has been reproduced from one of my posts several years back.  I’m currently having a spring clean and closing down all my previous blogs, and therefore ‘borrowing’ a few bits here and there before they get lost forever.

To freelance or not to freelance, that is the question

As 2012 draws to a close, I must admit that I am somewhat befuddled. Everything seemed so straightforward in August. I want to work on strategic head-hurting customer-led challenges that facilitate true business transformation. The way I saw it back then, is that having the freedom and control to select what I work on would be the way to achieve this. So I decided that after over 15 years of permanent employment, 2013 would be the year I go freelance. Sounds simple, eh!

There is no shortage of agencies with ambitions to transform businesses, but in reality most are simply designing what their clients ask for. Freelancing therefore felt like the obvious career choice, putting me in control to work on those projects, both strategic and tactical, that drive real business value.

And then the confusion began.  As I shared coffee, beer and lemsip, with friends, and friends of friends, in senior roles across the industry, they reliably informed me that this work exists in regular supply for permanent employees. The challenge is in knowing which agencies have built strategic relationships with their clients and are having grown-up customer-led conversations. As these encouraging and tantalizing conversations continued, I started to question, to freelance or not to freelance? 

I have simple needs, to deliver great experiences that make a real difference. To freelance or not to freelance may be a red herring. Both offer the kind of work that really fires me up. The clear advantage of going freelance appears to be having more control over what I work on, and therefore increased likelihood that I’ll work on those things I love doing.  Maybe I am suffering the career equivalent of a midlife crisis, as I consider trading in a secure and enjoyable career for a sexier but riskier model.

To be continued…

Are you serious about your personas?

There are hundreds, if not thousands of articles on the persona creation process, debating the merits (or lack) of personas, contrasting the different research methods applied, through to beauty parades of how a persona is documented.

Often what gets overlooked is the art of adoption. How do you ensure that any in-depth research you invested in creating the personas gets integrated in to your design work and you don’t simply end up with a document that sits gathering dust? My cynical self has witnessed persona creation as a checkbox in a so-called customer-led design process, with no real appetite to ensure they play a pivotal role in the design of something useful.

We need to talk more about how we ensure that our personas are adopted. I don’t just mean noise in the twittersphere or rambling posts such as this, but as a step in each project’s experience design process. Ouch!

Defining your Persona adoption plan & tactics should be a key step right from the outset of your persona creation process. Do not be afraid to include it in your plan – it’s essential. This won’t take long or bust the budget, but it’s important to put this topic high up on the project’s agenda to drive the value that personas will deliver if embraced and adopted by all the stakeholders.

There are three parts to this:
• Format and style of the deliverables
• Key success criteria for the chosen format
• Rollout plan for communicating the personas to your stakeholders

First up you need to agree on the format for communicating the persona. Anyone that stands by his or her persona document template regardless is doomed to fail. We need to understand the needs and behaviours of the stakeholders too, to document the persona in a way that is compelling, memorable, and most importantly – one that they will use.

With a format chosen, be it poster, document or video – you need to identify what criteria to evaluate this deliverable by. All that Infographic trickery that is creeping in to personas doesn’t necessarily create an engaging and compelling story. How you ensure you achieve a realistic quality by using say, a first voice narrative, is essential. You also need to have these conversations upfront to ensure you organize the appropriate resources. For example, which storyteller supremo will be adding a sprinkling of fairy dust to make your persona narrative more compelling? I’ll pen a separate post on this to discuss some interesting work I’ve been doing to improve Persona Recollection.

When the documents have been carefully crafted to represent the personas, typically they get emailed around the team and/ or dumped on the project portal. Maybe they also get stuck on the walls. That’s not good enough. You need to work hard to ensure they are effectively communicated to all stakeholders. I recently heard of one company hosting a Mr. & Mrs. type quiz over a boozy after-hours meal to communicate their personas. The next day as the team shrugged off their hangovers they could recollect the personas in intimate detail! Be creative in what you do to ensure the entire team really take them to heart, not just you! This doesn’t happen by chance, you need to plan for this.

It’s simple. Before you jump straight in to the persona creation process, stop and plan what needs to be done to ensure they are effectively communicated and adopted by the team.

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