Beyond the pixel: Measuring visual designers’ strategic value

I collaborate with clients about how to scope and staff project work, and they often have questions about when to bring a visual designer into the process. In the early part of my career, I wouldn’t have had a good answer; it likely would have been something like, “at the end.” But after 20 years of working in-house and as a consultant with product teams in various capacities — and having no background in visual design myself — I have a much different perspective on the value that visual design thinking has throughout the process of building a product.

Visual designers bring a unique perspective to product vision

First, visual designers are uniquely skilled at defining the overarching experience strategy, called attributes, for a product or service. These aren’t specific design principles, but rather descriptions of what the experience should feel like for users, customers, and anyone interacting with it.

One way to define experience attributes is to conduct an experience workshop, where you facilitate a brand and “look and feel” discussion with stakeholders. Framing the discussion by using visual artifacts (pictures of products, cars, buildings, interfaces, art, etc.) helps stakeholders to engage at a visceral level instead of relying on cliché’s or generalizations. Visual designers, on the other hand, are great at this, as they are skilled at talking about how the things we see translate into certain feelings and emotions, and how visual elements relate to brand perception.

experience workshop
Facilitating an experience workshop with images makes it easier for participants to articulate what visual approaches feel appropriate and inspiring. A visual designer is skilled at using this input to shape a visual strategy.

Even for companies with a well-defined brand and digital branding assets, it’s vital that the product team has a good understanding of what the brand means in the context of the product or service you are designing. This isn’t just about proper logo use and the corporate font. It’s about knowing how your company wants users to feel when they are using your brand, and about how your users want to feel while using them. Understand that intersection, and you have gold.

Look at things differently during field research

During design field research activities, a visual designer can focus on things like the visual look of the physical environment in which people use the product or service we are investigating. For example, in a medical setting, the visual designer may pay special attention to the signage and décor within a hospital. We wouldn’t mimic this in an interface, but getting a feel for the environment can give us clues as to what kind of visual styles may fit—or not fit—within that setting.

visual design research
Jayson, a visual designer at Cooper, gets to experience user research firsthand at a doctor’s office.

I recently worked with Jayson McCauliff, a visual designer, on a product for a large technology manufacturer. The product’s users were internal, so Jayson took photos of lobbies, wall art, the small in-house museum, and even the cafeteria. The effort was worth the funny looks he got, as the images later helped give him inspirations for some subtle background textures that made a direct appearance in the interface. (See more about how visual designers work at Cooper)

Early design thinking should include visual language explorations

While the interaction designers begin a design solution phase by exploring key interactions and high-level workflows, the visual designer can explore high-level visual style approaches. Because stakeholders may not be used to or comfortable talking about aesthetic and brand, having someone who understands visual design but can communicate about the effects that color, shape, white space, etc. have on users and brand are vital to making sure that everyone is aligned. It takes skill to talk about style concepts without having the conversation degrade into an argument about the specific shade of blue in a style study, so it’s important to have someone who is proficient in facilitating these discussions and in creating artifacts that solicit the right kind of feedback.

visual studies
Visual language studies keep initial visual strategy conversations focused.

Defining and building a winning product includes attention to the aesthetic and overall experience

Last, visual design isn’t just about producing beautiful visual assets for the development team. It’s also about creating a coherent product or service in the first place. A visual designer brings a unique perspective to problem solving that augments the other design team members. We find that having the visual designer involved early in design exploration activities makes our design concepts better and more well-rounded. When we are fleshing out the design framework, early and consistent involvement from the visual designer ensures that the interaction design isn’t getting too crowded, and that the overall experience is achieving the experience strategy we defined early in the project.

During detailed design activities and implementation, the visual designer needs to be able to react quickly and fluidly as the design and implementation iterate and get refined. If the visual designer has been involved with the project from day one, it’s easy for her to work in an agile way while still maintaining the original spirit and intent of the design, and she’ll be able to make good decisions and recommend improvements because of that greater understanding.

As you plan your next redesign effort, make sure that a strong visual designer is part of the team from day one. You’ll not only gain efficiencies when it’s crunch time during implementation, you’ll gain a valuable strategic partner and an overall better experience.

Sign up for the visual design course

Learn more about the role of visual design, experience attributes, experience workshops, and effectively presenting visual design to stakeholders in Cooper’s Visual Interface Design course on February 6 – 7.

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The sCoop: 2011 year in review

Where have you gone 2011? We have fond memories and can’t wait to see what 2012 brings. For this year’s last sCoop, here’s highlights of a great year and our wishes for everyone to have the happiest of holiday seasons.

May you design the life you want to lead, and lead the life you design.
- Everyone at Cooper


We welcomed the new year and a new visual designer, Glen Davis, who began rocking our design world on day one.

We didn’t win Design Dodgeball, but we did have the coolest t-shirts on the block…designed by Glen.

We hosted a Lean UX workshop with Janice Fraser of LUXr.

Chris Noessel piloted our first international Cooper U Interaction Design session in Auckland, New Zealand, following it up with a presentation at Weta Digital.


Nick Myers shared his insights and experience about how The Visual Interface is Now Your Brand at Interactions 11.

We hosted Service Design Drinks at the Cooper studio, and enjoyed discussing service blueprinting and ecosystems in between cocktails.


Our Cooper family grow even more:

  • We welcomed Phil Paulick to give us the financial insight we need to run a healthy business.
  • Tamara Wayland joined us to lead us away from sales and towards true business development.
  • Andreas Braendhaugen strengthened our design team…and programming team…and videography team…and…
  • Kendra Shimmell arrived to take our training and education to the next level.

Chris and his co-author Nathan Shedroff were featured presenters at MacWorld for the upcoming book Make it So to be released in 2012.

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Cooper U Rio Style

Kendra Shimmell, Tamara Wayland and I recently enjoyed some Spring weather in beautiful Rio de Janeiro while sharing methods for interaction design, collaboration, and communication in an agile environment with forty employees of, the Internet branch for Latin America’s largest media conglomerate.

The team knew that Rio would be warm this time of year, but what really amazed us was the warmth and hospitality of the people we met. Andrë Braz,’s User Experience Design Manager and Art Director, and his team were engaged and inquisitive, and really hungry for ways to take their already successful site to the next level of efficiency and innovation.

During the course we talked about how to effectively integrate user experience design into an agile environment, and shared techniques for collaboration and communication that are lightweight to create but provide big impact. The Cooper team showed a blueprint for defining and designing digital products and services that centers on users, but within the context of business needs and implementation realities.

Here are a few snapshots from class:
Participants quickly grasped the value of focusing on goals and behavior patterns when developing personas.

A cross-functional team works together to storyboard the key contexts and moments in time that their primary persona will interact with the product they are designing.

A student sketches design concepts for the mobile experience.

The enthusiasm carried over into the final day of the week, during which we were joined by close to 80 Globo designers, developers, product managers, and executives. We can’t wait to go back (and I am still dreaming of the feijoada we had on Friday afternoon).

Thank you Globo, and thank you Rio!

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If you want a game-changer, you need to change the game

The World Series is barely over, which means most of my thoughts this time of year get colored by baseball. Events in game five got me thinking about design exploration, of all things. I’ll try not stretch the metaphor too much.

I work throughout the year with product managers, technologists, and executives at companies ranging from small startups to Fortune 100 megaliths. Many of these companies have a vision for creating a game-changing product within their industry, “the iPhone of the xyz market.” They mean it, too. But as conversations progress and a project plan begins to take shape, many of the project owners start piling on technology constraints before any design work has even begun.

“We need to use these off-the-shelf components.”

“Don’t explore any solutions that won’t let us use our current technology platform.”

“Actually, what we really need is just a facelift of the presentation layer.”

Not exactly the words I imagine Steve Jobs used to drive the creation of the iPod and iPhone.

Sometimes this slow degradation of vision is a result of poor or conflicting communication…which brings me back to last night’s baseball game. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, already a two-time World Series winner and owner of the most wins by an active manager, had a vision for which pitchers he wanted to be warmed up in the late innings of a tight ballgame. He called the bullpen coach (using a land-line telephone in the dugout), and, amazingly, not once but twice, the bullpen coach misheard LaRussa’s instructions and warmed up the wrong pitcher.

I don’t know if that’s happened before in a World Series game, but in the corporate world, we see the wrong product get sent into the game all the time. Executives have a vision for the future, but don’t clearly articulate it to the product owners (other than specifying a deadline which is often arbitrary and not tied to actual work milestones), so what gets built isn’t visionary at all but driven by the calendar…which means introducing lots of constraints from the beginning. The result may be an incrementally better product, but not a game changer.

We like the saying “reality bats last,” one of Alan Cooper’s original design principles. For us that means for any design we create to actually be a solution, it needs to be buildable by our client. It has to live within their unique technology, price, deadline, and resource constraints. However, we have been pushing more and more for the opportunity with our clients to do at least some unfettered, unconstrained design exploration on every project, even ones that have a narrow scope. We don’t completely ignore constraints (especially things like regulations which are out of our client’s control), and we won’t explore designs that rely on telekinesis or nuclear fission, of course. That said, we will definitely push the envelope on what’s possible—for a few days or even up to a week—so we can begin with the mindset of the absolute best experience for the user. Over the course of the project we’ll push to achieve as much of this game-changing vision as we can.

Design exploration
Allow some your design team to let their imaginations run wild before they get saddled with constraints. (photo by Peter Duyan)

Typically, the output of this design exploration is a collection of hand-drawn sketches that target key plot points in the most important scenarios, and signature interactions (parts of the system fundamental to the experience). The sketches often explore a range of ideas, some that can be implemented within all known constraints, but also others which may bend (or break) constraints. After that, it’s really a business decision our clients need to make about how to proceed. Sometimes it makes sense to restructure deadlines, add resource, buy a technology, or abandon a legacy infrastructure to get that “killer app.” Other times it doesn’t make sense…but as designers it’s our job to imagine the future and enable business decision makers to make the most informed decision they can.

Which brings me back to baseball. You are the manager of your company: what’s your strategy? Reality is a heavy hitter, but it shouldn’t bat in every slot in your lineup. Can you really afford to play it safe every game? Even if your competition is miles behind, spending time to imagine a better future for your product will position your company to more nimbly take your offering to the next level when constraints go away.

And while you are at it, I would recommend upgrading those bullpen phones. Read More

Giving design research a seat at the strategy table

Design research has been a key component of most of the projects I’ve been involved with at Cooper. Since it adds time and cost, sometimes we have to go to great lengths to convince clients to include research in a project. But design research isn’t just about giving the design and product team a leg up on understanding user goals and needs. It’s also about minimizing business risk and validating—or challenging—the current strategy. Typically, the insights we gain by talking with and observing users help our clients look at their business goals through a different lens. In addition to providing necessary input for designing successful products and services, this new perspective helps them make better decisions about the long-term trajectory of their product roadmap and approach. For some products and companies, it can be even more transformative, as the insights they gain help them re-imagine not only how to design and deliver better products, but also how to better structure their internal organization to do so.

Of course, companies can only make these kind of strategic pivots if they have the appropriate decision-makers engaged in the initiative, with time set aside in their decision-making process for integrating the input that may come out of user research. I’ve found that the business executives who treat design initiatives as a strategic endeavor and not just a tactical execution of product definition get much more value for their design dollar.

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Designing for the reluctant user

I remember studying the concept of the “reluctant hero” in college lit classes. This is the protagonist who is thrust into the role of being a savior or hero, often unequipped and unwilling to be The One. Think Bilbo Baggins, who just wanted to stay home in his hobbit hole rather than steal treasure from dragons, or Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or even Han Solo. The reluctant hero typically needs some kind of supernatural intervention or magical object to get them to act.

As an interaction designer, I’ve found sometimes I need to design for the “reluctant user.” This is someone who, given a choice, would rather not use the product I am designing-at all-no matter how cool the features, or how well-designed the experience. I’ve worked on products for disease management (“I can’t wait to sit down and focus on my health condition!”), health insurance (“Sorry I can’t go to the party, I’m too excited to check on my claim status!”), and—the mother of them all—filing taxes (“My dentist couldn’t fit me in for a root canal so I’m doing this instead“). In none of these cases do the users want to use the product and the related service. Yet there are consequences if they don’t, so it’s incumbent on the designers to make the experience as painless as possible.


Case in point

We are helping a client assess one of their tax-related products. Measuring the effectiveness of these kinds of products is difficult. Where normally you are looking for high customer satisfaction rates, in this case, it’s really about minimizing pain, not making it a great experience they want to repeat anytime soon. Nobody wants to spend time preparing their taxes, they just want to it to be over so they can avoid penalties (and hopefully pay the least amount of tax possible). So if a user had a neutral experience, that’s actually a very positive result since we’re really starting from a baseline of ”I don’t want to do this.”

As with any project, key to success is identifying the users’ most important goals, but it’s critical to keep those in the context of how much time they are willing to spend. After working with our tax software client and talking with teams who’ve worked on projects with reluctant users, we’ve gathered some things to keep in mind when designing for the reluctant user:

  • If a user’s goal is to get it done as quickly as possible, make it so. Don’t get cute with whizbang interactions that prolong the experience.
  • Automate when possible (or at least provide options for automating). Users will likely be willing to trade some control for simplification.
  • Use language that engages the user, and be careful to avoid jargon; users won’t be motivated to look up terms (for example, a user dealing with a health insurance claim dispute will want to see procedure names, not just billing and procedure codes).
  • Set expectations about how long the process will take, and show (and celebrate) progress with feedback about completed tasks.
  • Fill up “dead time” (such as waiting for steps in an installation process) with either useful information (such as tips or demonstrations…NOT advertisements), or provide a time estimate so the user can go do something else.
  • Focus on and highlight any positive benefits that come out of having to endure the experience (such as that tax refund).

Quicken does a nice job with this last point, communicating how using TurboTax can help people get a bigger refund (free money is always a good angle to play). Another example is from home healthcare products that take every opportunity to reward the input of information and celebrate improvements in the numbers used to track health.

We’ve recently been hoping for a shot to redesign the DMV service experience, but are still in line waiting for our number to be called. While we are waiting, have any of you worked on products that target the reluctant user? What did you do?
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You’re only a first-time user once

We’ve all got our own personal benchmarks for what makes a good user experience. My personal list includes a few: Does it delight me? Will I recommend it to my friends and colleagues? Would I have used the same approach if I had designed the product? I’ve found among some product executives one particular pattern for this subjective evaluation criteria that is both humorous and troublesome: “Would my mother/grandmother/Luddite Uncle Bill be able to use this product on the first try?”

While there is a sort of noble aspirational quality to this kind of thinking—let’s make everything so dead simple that any person can use every product—it also sets the bar for the experience rather low. I imagine a sea of step-by-step wizard dialogs that target the lowest common denominator and force everyone else to step through the same predefined (and very explicit) experience. If I’m designing a product for people who have specialized knowledge, I want to leverage that knowledge in the product. Why force people to walk when they can run? I’ll want to provide these people with clear, appropriate pathways through the product, but I also want these specialized users to be able to forge a variety of their own pathways through the interface, dependent on the specifics of their situation or how they want to do things.

I once worked with a client to design an intravenous medication delivery device called an infusion pump. This is a machine that nurses in hospitals use to administer drugs to patients by attaching a bag of medication to the device and specifying delivery parameters such as how long and how fast to dispense the medicine. This is critical stuff; the consequences of a mistake could be catastrophic. Read More

Critic to creator: recognizing good design

Someone always asks the question, and I am never ready for it.

"So, what products out there are well-designed?"

As an interaction designer, I learn about users and design a product that helps them meet their goals—one that is tailored to the way they work. Yet this question can still stump me. I am not alone: all too often, people in our field focus so much on pointing out the egregious interaction design mistakes that make it to market, we forget to pay attention to the good design that exists. Not only does it make our profession look bad if we are always complaining, but it also makes us less effective. How can we create good products if we can only articulate what “bad” is?

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Design research: why you need it

Ever notice how often a product that makes a huge splash at tradeshows fizzles in the marketplace? The story goes like this: Product is introduced at show to much fanfare. News media gives Product lots of press, and consumers everywhere express interest in Product’s features and capabilities. Product hits store shelves…and stays there. Some early adopters purchase Product, but it never penetrates into mass consumer markets.

What went wrong? Market research clearly identified potential dollars in target markets just waiting to spend money on the new product. So why did it fail?

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