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.

What does it take to design experiences

As I scrawled the estimates for a routine design phase on a whiteboard, a colleague was intrigued by the way I broke down my estimates. It’s a frustrating aspect of agency life that many people think of designing experiences in terms of wireframing. I adopted a simple technique to help break through this production mentality and buy the team ‘time to think’ – a rare commodity at the best of times!

It’s simple…I estimate each component, screen or section against three attributes; Talk, Explore & Communicate. This additional granularity enables me to provide more accurate estimates. It also helps the wider team to better understand what the design process actually entails. I loosely define these attributes as follows:-

This is how much time I need to gather all the necessary information before I have the majority of information required to explore the design options. Depending on the complexity of what I’m designing, a water cooler moment might be enough, or I may need one or more workshops to make sense of the requirements.

Design is not a straight path and not every design challenge has a single solution. I need time to explore the different design options. This is the heart of the design process, where I think through the design problem, applying lo-fi methods to explore and refine ideas in a fast and iterative manner until one is reached and agreed on. Computers are not invited.

And finally, this is where I communicate the information architecture and interaction models in sufficient fidelity to be implemented. It’s important to pick the right comms tool for the job, be it final designs annotated with post-it notes, omnigraffle wireframes or interactive Axure prototypes.

This isn’t rocket science, but I find this simple technique results in more accurate estimates. A single number against a screen often gets squeezed as the wider team fail to understand some of the complexities and the design thinking involved to craft something that meets the business goals and make the customers happy. I got in to this game to craft customer experiences that make a difference and this technique is a small step in shifting the focus to where it needs to be.

Just Say NO to Wireframing

I’m not against the process of Wirefaming. Wireframes are a valuable communication tool in every Experience Designer’s toolkit. It’s the term itself, Wireframing, that we need to push back on! This word is commonly misused and the cause of considerable frustration for those of us that design experiences. Yup, we Design Experiences. The problem is that in many organizations Wireframing has become synonymous with Design.

The misuse of this word highlights a fundamental lack of understanding of what us so-called User Experience Designers do and distorts the perception of how we do what we do to people less familiar with our craft. Worst of all, it instills a production mentality, of a conveyer belt that churns out wireframe after wireframe after wireframe…

If you are asked to wireframe something, correct them and ask whether they want it Designed instead.  This is not semantics, but a critical re-education of what Experience Design entails. By calling it what it is, Design, we invite a conversation beyond a diagramming and communication tool, a conversation which focuses upstream where the ideas and thinking live.

Design is not a straight path. Exploration allows us to think through the design problem to get the right design out of the many possibilities.  And you cannot design an experience in a vacuum – it relies on cross-discipline collaboration. This doesn’t happen in a diagramming tool. This is why we use Design Techniques such as lo-fi sketching to explore design options, invite commentary and gain design consensus. This is the heart of the design process, and it’s where the magic happens.

Once we’ve explored the design options, the final step in the design process is to communicate the experience; the interactions, behaviours, layout and much more. Many factors influence our choice of communication tool, and it’s important to agree the most efficient way to communicate the designs so that more time can be spent truly designing the experience. Wireframes are one of many tools available to communicate the experience. Wireframing Is NOT Design but it may be part of your design process

It’s still early days for our industry and it’s important we take every opportunity to help people understand what we do.  If we fail to explain our craft today, then tomorrow could be a dark n’ miserable world for User Experience practitioners.

[Image of the Grange Hill 'Just Say No' Campaign borrowed from Pink Label Marketing]

QR Codes, Crochet and WiFi

I’m not the No.1 fan of QR Codes. This is in part fuelled by how these barcodes, made up of square dots on a white background, look ugly and awkward on printed designs. And also in part as a result of how rarely I am actually pleased to have scanned the code. The outcome is mostly disappointing at best! But I will concede that despite my hesitance to embrace QR Codes, they’re not going away any day soon. And thankfully, they are gradually being implemented in more creative, compelling and useful ways.

I’m also not a fan of repeatedly reciting my home WiFi details. For the bandwidth-hungry always-connected generation, 3 or 4G is not enough. Immediacy is the Holy Grail, and so requesting WiFi details on entry is becoming no less of a formality than ringing the doorbell.

So I was intrigued with the recent article, “Generate a QR code with your WiFi details that you can frame for easy access” by Alex Wilhelm. In his article, Alex suggests: “generate a big QR code, frame it, and have your friends scan at their leisure to snag your digital network’s information. “ This article got me thinking. Could I bring two of my frustrations together to create something beautiful? Hell yeah! Alex has inspired me to go create some QR Code artwork.

There are numerous QR Code generators, all creating barcodes that are pretty darn dull and soulless. But they needn’t be…QR Codes can be pimped.  Helped by a 30% tolerance in readability, there’s plenty you can do to pimp your barcode whilst still keeping it scannable by the average reader. So how do I pimp my QR Code?

Well, thanks to the street artist Olek, I have a newfound respect and appreciation for the craft of crochet. Olek crochets everything, from bicycles and furniture, to entire rooms.  The tenderness of the fabric provides the perfect backdrop to the harsh technical nature of the QR Code. The wonderful contrast between the technologically created code and the love put in to a hand-made item of crochet, makes for a perfect partnership.

Lucy Salter has already showed us that readable crocheted QR Codes can be created. [see pic]. I want to take this further to create a multicolored piece of crochet QR-Code artwork to hang up in my corridor. And even if no-one uses it, it’s still a powerful statement…”I’m a little nerdy, a tad artsy, and yes, you can use my WiFi.”

[Plead] All I now need is an expert at crochet. If that’s you, please get in touch and let’s make this happen?  [/Plead]

Favourite read of 2012: Make Space

I received “Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration” just weeks in to 2012, but nearly 12 months later it still remains my favourite read of this year.  We all recognise the importance of the space we work in and how it impacts how we work, but too often we don’t do anything about designing or manipulating our environment to nurture creativity and bring out the best in people.  Fortunately based on the work at the Stanford University and its Environments Collaborative Initiative, this book leaves you with no excuse for working in an uninspiring environment.  This isn’t theoretical mumbo jumbo but a practical get-off-your-arse-and-go-do-it book that tells you all you need to know to go build the perfect space to support creative collaboration. You don’t need big budgets or to be a skilled craftsman to create some of the furniture. I’ve applied several of the lessons to improve the space that I work in and yes, they’ve successfully fuelled creativity.  If I can do this with my limited and somewhat comedic DIY skills then so can anyone.

Make Space pays for itself immediately in the value it brings. And the book is beautifully presented too. The design and style of the book is inspiring and engaging, with a wonderful cover design of people spread out across an industrial concrete floor, laying out the letters for the title.  This book sat proudly on my desk for most of the year, until it disappeared.  This proves what I’ve always said > “Crap books stay and gather dust, great books always disappear.”

But why listen to me …  ”If you are determined to encourage creativity and provide a collaborative environment that will bring out the best in people, you will want this book by your side at all times.”—Bill Moggridge, Director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

So if you are in charge of arranging your office space, get this book and let your space make a difference to the way that you work.

If you want to purchase this book then why not buy from Alibris and don’t support the tax-dodgers.

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