How to Build An Amazing In-House Product Design Team

 Schoolwires Product Design Team

While conversing with some of my UX pro peers recently, I discovered that in-house design teams at software companies are extremely varied in make up. Some places have great team dynamics and others really don’t. At my company Schoolwires, we have a completely awesome Design & Innovation team with members that work incredibly well together, not only from a personality stance, but from a combined powerhouse of skills stance. So today, I’m going to focus on answering  the question:

What does it take to create a killer in-house Design and Innovation team?

1.      An Incredibly Innovative Vice President

At my company we have a VP of Product Design and Innovation who is one of the most contagiously creative, innovative people I have ever met. You go into what should be a mundane meeting with him, and come out feeling inspired every single time. He also has a vision of the future of technology that reaches out decades. He’s always thinking about the next next, with his finger on the pulse of the latest and greatest apps and software and technology trends.

2.      A UX Manager Who Thinks in Wireframes and Dreams Code

Our Manager of User Experience literally thinks in wireframes and dreams code. She hears a concept and immediately starts brainstorming the wireframes in her mind. She is incredibly talented, and has a background in code, so she not only pictures design in her mind, she knows how to MAKE the things she envisions. She’s also a mobile developing/designing genius. Cap that off with being a phenomenal, supportive manager and you’ve got Sara.

3.     Three Creative UX Architects Who Love to Design

We have three fantastic architects on our team who really enjoy designing. Our architects do the data layer/api/business layer work for all of our projects, but they also lead designs and create wireframes at times.They are able to tell us at a glance if what we hope can happen is actually feasible. If we had to wait until our designs were passed off to development to find that information out, we’d end up with hours and hours of additional rework time. Don, Heather and Craig are the key to keeping us agile.

4.     Two Extremely Talented UX Designers 

Our UX designers are fantastic.

Danelle makes our CMS interface and our mobile apps look like works of art, and can kick out gorgeous high res mockups on a dime! She is constantly looking for the latest and greatest design tricks and tips, and brings fresh ideas and concepts to our products on a regular basis to ensure positive user experiences.

Kelly is an epic interaction designer. She comes up with new innovative ways to make our products even more interesting and user friendly! She focuses on a user centered design approach to ensure that our latest features and product enhancements will positively impact the lives of our clients.

5.      A Content Strategist With A Background in Psychology

Our Content Strategist & UX Editor Jennifer loves conducting user research & usability testing regularly, writing user friendly microcopy to ensure consistent voice and tone,  reviewing and collaborating on designs to ensure usability, analyzing product statistics to identify trends, and discovering all the ways we can make our clients lives easier through design.

The 8 of us work together exceptionally well because we work in an environment that supports open sharing of ideas. We all have the utmost respect for one another, and our leadership team has made it clear that every member of the team is valued, as are their opinions.

It’s also accepted team wide that no one is perfect, nor are they expected to be. Sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re wrong but the safe environment for sharing both good and bad ideas leads to incredible collaboration and ultimately stronger, more innovative, user friendly products.

You don’t have to go freelance to love your job! Our department is living proof that in-house design team utopia does exist.

Google Analytics Free: Your Data Is Fake (But It’s OK)


I recently discovered that users of Google Analytics Free don’t always fully understand what they’re seeing when they log into their dashboards. They think they’re looking at their actual, honest to goodness data. So let’s clear some things up:

1. Your data is fake.
“What are you talking about! It’s not fake, there are graphs!” Your data is sampled. In some situations it’s still statistically significant. In fact, in most cases it is, so don’t panic yet.

2. Want access to your real unsampled data? Fork over $150,000.
For major corporations it’s pocket change. For the average person with a small site, your sampled data is still statistically significant, so it’s no big deal. If you’re a start up company who is still poor but is experiencing rapid growth, you’re out of luck. Break out your wallet.

3. If your company is expecting/experiencing rapid growth & has set up a bunch of custom events, of the four leading analytics companies, Google Analytics Premium is by FAR the cheapest.
If you hit 5 billion events per month, Google Analytics Premium bumps up to a flat rate of $220k. Adobe Analytics jumps up around $7.4 MILLION dollars per year. That is not a typo, it’s a legit quote. If you’re scaling crazy fast and need quality data, Google Analytics Premium is your friend from a financial perspective.

4. Unsampled, pure data is freaking expensive.
It just is. If you really need it, surrounded by a UI that isn’t terrible, be prepared to shell out some serious cash.

5. I previously mentioned that sampled data is statistically significant for most companies, so who cares about whether data is sampled or not?
CMS companies in particular need to care. Let’s say a company has global analytics tracking. They may have 4 huge clients (3 million events, 2.5, 2, and 1 million events per month) a handful of 100k – 250k events-per-month clients and so on into tiny client land.

Google samples the daylights out of your data. The higher the number of monthly events, the worse your sampling rate becomes.

From a global tracking perspective looking at high level metrics, sampling is no big deal. However, if a 100k events-per-month client calls and requests a report about mobile device traffic to their primary domain, you’re statistically SOL. You can pull the report, but the drill down data will be garbage due to the crazy sampling rate.

The worst sampling rate I’ve come across in Google Analytics Free was .02%, but you get what you pay for.

The moral of this story:
For small sites and small businesses Google Analytics Free is a viable option. Your data is “fake”, but still statistically significant.

If you’re a rapidly growing business with a pile of domains being tracked under one account, eat the cost and upgrade to Google Analytics Premium. From a scalability perspective it’s the cheapest option, and you can pull unsampled reports to obtain accurate data all day long if you want to.

Stop Asking Your Users To Explain Themselves! (User Research Magic)


“Jennifer Marie Aldrich, what were you thinking?! Explain yourself!”

This is the line I hear in my head in my mother’s ANGRY voice (she is the sweetest person ever, so usually whatever I did deserved the angry tone) every single time I see an open ended comment box on a survey with the heading “Explain.”  I’m immediately shot into a zone of feeling defensive, like I’ve done something wrong and need to defend my honor. The feeling is not warm and fuzzy, it makes me feel borderline offended. “Here I am trying to give you feedback and you’re asking me to EXPLAIN myself? Forget this.” Then I close the browser.

On the other hand, when a company does a good job rewording the “Explain” question type, I have a completely different reaction. The question, “What kind of change would you make?” makes me feel like they genuinely care about my feedback, and like they’re really listening,  which makes me more likely to give detailed in depth feedback.

Weird right? At first I thought it was just me, then I tried a little experiment. When conducting our latest Pareto Principle based remote user research study, we asked the question, “What kind of change would you make to the product area you identified?” rather than just going with “Explain.” What we were looking for was for the users to give us more detailed information so that we could uncover the specific problems they were facing with the current solution.

Any guesses on the completion rate for feedback when when I worded it the warm fuzzy way?  No? 100 freaking percent! How crazy is that!? Every SINGLE respondent gave us a big old paragraph of feedback, and several of them thanked us for asking, and for being so in tune with our users needs! I mean, I have the best users in the world, but I almost fell down when I saw the difference in completion rate!

So the moral of this story is, don’t ask your users to “explain themselves” when you’re conducting user research. Ask them how they would change things to uncover the underlying, deeper issues they’re encountering. It’s kind of magical, you’ll end up with amazing data, and happier users who feel well taken care of!



User Research & Usability Testing Should Be At the Core Of Your Design Process, Not Something You Add At The End


I didn’t realize how fortunate I am to work at a company whose core focus is on UX, until I went to an awesome conference (ConvergeSE) and ran into a few UX pros who expressed frustration about a problem they were running into that completely blew my mind. In their organizations they were having issues getting their teams to allow them to do usability testing and user research at the beginning of, and during the design and development stages.

I was kind of shocked. They said their organizations were basically forcing them to do their testing at the end of the process, when the entire release was “complete.” When they uncovered major usability issues, they were told those would be integrated into the next release.

What the heck is going on?! The whole point of usability testing and user research is to ensure that your product will be usable and improve your users’ experiences! Why release a garbage version, when you could release a great one to start with if you just integrated UX research into the core of your design process?

Rather than wasting weeks or months of work on a garbage release, just do the usability testing and user research up front, and do it right the first time! Spending all of your dev hours fixing a jacked up version, rather than spending that time working on innovative NEW ideas, seems completely counter intuitive.

If you’re in one of these organizations, and you’re given push back in the form of, “But we can’t afford to do usability  testing and user research,” there are some mega cheap remote testing tools available these days. (I’m looking at you SolidifyApp!) A $19 buck a month subscription and a couple hours per week of dedicated testing time could save your company massive cash in wasted dev hours. Dollar signs talk! Just saying, 😉

Mobile UX: User Expectations Have Shifted


The New Smartphone User

Welcome to the world of the “New Smartphone User”.

“Give me a break,” you say. “There’s no such thing as a “Smartphone” anymore. Practically all phones are smart. My 10 year old has an iPhone, and so does my great aunt.”

You’re right. Everyone is jumping in on mobile. It’s disruptive technology that didn’t exist in “lots of people can afford it” form 5 years ago.

Mobile Back in the Day

I remember my first “smartphone”. I got it back in the day when the only “smartphones” were Palm Pilots and BlackBerrys. I worked at Verizon Wireless right out of college, and got to watch the users who came in with their “SmartPhone” devices. Most of them were middle age business women and men. They rolled up in their Mercedes’, walked in in suits, and asked us for help reconfiguring their email settings. They exchanged their BlackBerry pins at meetings and had inappropriate conversations while looking extremely hard at work. The “Smartphone” wasn’t cool, it wasn’t helpful for the average user, it was a business tool.

Texting Takes Over the World
Then a shift started to happen. Folks began to text like crazy on their flip phones. Parents were coming in to our store waving their cell phone bills around screaming bloody murder at us because they had $1200.00 in charges from their teenagers going WAY over the 250 text limit. (Once a dad even ripped a phone off the wall and thew it at us. People get REALLY fired up when it comes to their cellular devices and bills.)

The phone manufacturers realized that it would be easier to text on a qwerty than it was on a regular flip cell, so out came phones like the LG EnV. It was a huge seller. Still a “Flip” but a long skinny one, that flipped open to reveal a full keyboard in all of it’s teenage text loving glory. And the Moto Sidekick. You could slide the screen up to reveal a keyboard. It was new, it was exciting, it was incredibly disruptive to the mobile industry. Kids would come into our store, and it was like a ray of light was shining down from heaven on those devices. The gateway to general population smartphone usage was beginning to open.

iPhone Changed Everything

Then entered the very first iPhone. And nothing in the mobile tech industry was ever the same. They targeted the young hipster market. Early adopters of tech, not business users. Young adults who were searching for the perfect way to promote their status. They had something to prove and they weren’t afraid to drop some serious cash to do it. iPhones 1 & 2 were pretty magical. Only a select group of users got on board that early, the Mac addicts were in heaven.

Then came the iPhone 3G, and everything changed again. I jumped into the iPhone scene at the 3G mark. No more CrackBerry addition for me. I became an Apple fan. I wondered how I had ever lived without this little device. I started out using it mainly for email and games, then Facebook stepped up their native game and I was hooked.

At this point other manufacturers started to scramble and really try to get in the game. There were LG touch screen phones, but they were kind of messy from a UI stance, Motorola gave them a shot too, but battery life was insanely short, you basically had to have them plugged in all day. No one came close to iPhone, until Android exploded on to the scene.

The Android platform had a slow start, then caught like wild fire. Non Apple smartphone manufacturers grabbed hold of it like it was a lifeboat in the sea of mobile they were drowning in. Some went vanilla, others started customizing, and here we are today: with a ton load of Android devices all running fragmented versions of the OS. It’s all over the place, but it’s customizable, and the users who love it, REALLY love it. The freedom to customize your OS was a huge selling point for the tech savvy folks who had been jailbreaking their iPhones for years.

Businesses starting buying employees smartphones, parents starting buying smartphones, they started buying their kids smartphones, the years passed and now even my great aunts and uncles are iPhone and Android-ing it up when they go in to upgrade.

So why all the fuss about changes to mobile app navigation right now? “Folks have been using smartphones for years and years, what’s the big deal?” you may ask.

The New Demographic Expects More

The big deal, is that up until very recently, Smartphones were not full blown main stream. They were still a couple hundred bucks, and not everyone could afford them. You can now walk into BestBuy and pick up an iPhone 5C for $1.00 with a 2 year contract. The demographic has shifted from the tech savvy hipsters who have used iPhones and Androids for years, to the grandparents who have been using a flip TracPhone up until now. They’re also being used by parents who don’t want to deal with a wifi contract so they let their kids use their smartphones to do research for school, and by elementary kids in the classrooms. A local school just started a BYOD program, and they’re including smartphones in the program. We’re dealing with a brand new demographic of mobile users here folks, many of whom have no idea what a series of stacked lines in a square mean (hamburger icon to you). And they expect more.

Disruptive Tech: A History

I think of it this way. Back in the 80’s, DOS was where it was at. Prior, if you wanted to program, you ran around punching holes in things and feeding your masterpiece into a machine. Usability was not the key focus, getting the thing to work was the key focus. Function > than Form, UX & Usability at that point.

Then came the internet. If you had a website, you were a magical sorcerer. I created my first one in the 90’s. It was an HTML 1, Geocities back when Geocities was just a big white box to type your code in, Javascript ticker infested hot mess, but it was right in line with industry standards. It had photos, links, the ticker (the shame still runs deep on that one) and that was it.

Did it work? Yep. Was it beautiful? Not so much. Was it usable? Barely. Websites and programs didn’t have to be user friendly back then, they just had to exist. Folks piled their homepages full of crazy amounts of info. We were on dial up so images had to be tiny or you’d be sitting there for 10 minutes waiting for a page to load. 26.6k modems. Shudder.

Then the industry began to grow and change. HTML grew up, JavaScript grew up, CSS burst onto the scene and things began to improve. Folks started to expect more than for your site to just load. They expected to be able to FIND things on your site, and navigate around with ease. And slowly over time, we moved away from the Function>Form, Usability and UX mentality into the mindset where we are now, where if your page isn’t user friendly, folks leave and go find another one that is. Form, Usability & great UX are now the focus, functionality is a given. Now user friendly interfaces and a good looking website are the user expectation. The industry has grown up.

How Does This Apply to Mobile?

So now, here we are. Mobile app designers and developers are scrambling around trying to figure out what’s going on with mobile navigation and this shifty hamburger icon. Mobile apps have been around for years now, the hipsters are well versed in the iconography and the expected navigational structures, “It’s always been done this way,” is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But the way it’s always been done, isn’t going to be enough anymore. We’re moving out of the land of mobile being disruptive and new and people being amazed if your app actually loads, and into the land of people expecting your stuff to load in seconds, look fabulous and be usable. Is mobile moving at breakneck speed? You know it. You thought the internet transformation progressed quickly? Mobile is stomping that record right into the ground.

Mobile Usability and Fabulous UX Are Now Expected. Test All of the Things!

We need to start testing all of the mobile things. Designs can’t just be based on, “I’m the designer and I like this so I’m doing it,” like the internet was back in the early days, we’ve moved past that point in the mobile space.

People now expect your mobile designs to be sexy AND usable. How do you make sure your designs are usable? Mobile usability testing. And I don’t mean showing your app to your brother who has been using a smartphone for 5 years and him giving it a thumbs up. I’m talking about testing your app design with your specific customer demographic.

Mobile Usability Testing Tools to Get You Started

Mobile Usability Testing tools have come a LONNGGG way in the last few years. There are some killer tools like UXRecorder for mobile web and responsive testing on iOS, SolidifyApp and inVisionApp for testing mobile prototypes on iOS and Android, and and TestFlight for testing native app designs. Get yourself set up with the right tools in your toolbox, and get out there and test your mobile designs with your demographic. Otherwise, your future will be bleak and your apps will wind up chilling next to the old forsaken javascript tickers in that big design graveyard in the sky.



Mobile App Navigation Options: A Hamburger Icon Alternative


Last night I discovered that TIME Magazine had added an intro tour screen for the sole purpose of explaining how to use their hamburger icon.


It took me back to a presentation I attended at ConvergeSE a few weeks ago, during which Mark Boulton said something like, “If your faucet design requires an instruction guide, you’ve done something wrong.”

Their faucet was a hamburger icon navigation menu and their users just weren’t getting it.

I doodled the sketch above and posted it on Twitter, and wound up having a great subsequent conversation around it with another designer.

He asked, “Do you have any suggestions for hamburger icon alternatives?”

I surely do! I’m a fan of the screen base icon bar. Toss in 3-4 icons and a “more” option, and you’ve got a clean easy to understand navigation structure.

You do need to make sure that your icons are either very clear to your users in meaning, or labeled for this method to work well.

The native iPhone Quora, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook apps are all rocking this style at the moment.









As you can see, Facebook even managed to cleanly pulled off a modified hamburger, by converting their hamburger icon to a “more” option.

The next time you’re tempted to pop a hamburger icon in your app and call it a day, consider making a healthier more user friendly choice!


UX Pros: Always On The Job


I used to think it was just me, but it turns out tons of UX pros suffer from the same affliction: we can’t help mentally redesigning everything around us. And you know what? It’s not really an affliction, it’s a gift. It’s what makes us awesome at our jobs. We see the world in a completely different way. We view the world with the mentality that everything around us can be improved, and we are able to visualize those phantom improvements. We want to fix all of the things. It’s actually pretty awesome when you think about it. We see what no one else can see: the potential for a better world.

I was on vacation with my daughter when I walked into the hotel bathroom and exclaimed, “This shower head design is horrible!” My daughter called from the other room without missing a beat, “Mom, we’re on vacation, stop analyzing the usability of the bathroom fixtures so we can go to the pool.”

Seriously though, worst shower head design ever. I took pictures to prove it. haha


So the next time you’re sitting in a restaurant explaining to your significant other why the font choices for the menu are terrible, or staring in disgust at the kerning in your child’s holiday play flyer, or you’re explaining to a miscellaneous stranger at the bus stop why the bench should be turned at a 45 degree angle so that passersby won’t bang their kneecaps on it; know that you’re not alone. There are many others who, like you, can’t help wanting to make the world around them a better place, one experience at a time.

Usability Testing: The Money Saving Ego Killer


Ever had a feature idea, tested it and had clients hate on the idea so hard during usability testing that it completely crushed your ego?

It happens. But the thing to remember when it happens is that if you hadn’t tested it, you’d have spent a ton of cash in wasted man hours developing something no one wants!

Better to have just your ego crushed early, rather than your ego AND your wallet crushed later!