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Athletes in every sport monitor and capture data to help them win. They use cameras, sensors, and wearables to optimize their caloric intake, training regimens, and athletic performance, using data and exploratory thinking to refine every advantage possible. It may not be an Olympic event (yet!), but A/B testing can be dominated the same way.
I talked to a website owner recently who loves the “always be testing” philosophy. He explained that he instructs his teams to always test something—the message, the design, the layout, the offer, the CTA.
I asked, “But how do they know what to pick?” He thought about it and responded, “They don’t.”
Relying on intuition, experienced as your team may be, will only get you so far. To “always test something” can be a great philosophy, but testing for the sake of testing is often a massive waste of resources—as is A/B testing without significant thought and preparation.
Where standard A/B testing can answer questions like “Which version converts better?” A/B testing combined with advanced analyses gives you something more important—a framework to answer questions like “Why did the winning version convert better?”Changing athletes, or a waste of resources?
Typical A/B testing is based on algorithms that are powered by data during the test, but we started trying a different model on our projects here at Clicktale, putting heavy emphasis on data before, during, and after the test. The results have been more interesting and strategic, not just tactical.
Let’s imagine that Wheaties.org wants to reduce bounce rate and increase Buy Now clicks. Time for an A/B test, right?
The site’s UX lead gets an idea to split test their current site, comparing versions with current athletes to versions featuring former Olympians.Wheaties page design.
But what if your team monitored in-page visitor behavior and saw that an overwhelming majority of site visitors do not scroll below the fold to even notice the athletes featured there?
Now the idea of testing the different athlete variants sounds like a waste of time and resources, right?
But something happens when you take a different vantage point. What if your team watched session replays and noticed that those who do visit the athlete profiles tend to stay on the site longer and increase the rate of “Buy Now” clicks exponentially? That may be a subset of site visitors, but it’s a subset that’s working how you want.
If the desired outcome is to leverage the great experiences built into the pages, perhaps it would be wise to bring the athlete profiles higher. Or to A/B test elements that should encourage users to scroll down.
In our experience, both with A/B testing our own web properties and in aggregating the data of the 100 billion in-screen behaviors we’ve tracked, we know this to be true: testing should be powerful, focused, and actionable. In making business decisions, it helps when you’re able to see visual and conclusive evidence.
Imagine a marathon runner who doesn’t pay attention to other competitors once the race begins. Now, think about one who paces herself, watches the other racers, and modifies her cadence accordingly.
By doing something similar, your team can be agile in making changes and fixing bugs. Each time your team makes an adjustment, you can start another A/B test ... which lets you improve the customer experience faster than if you had to wait days for the first A/B test to be completed.The race is on
Once an A/B test is underway, the machines use data-based algorithms to determine a winner. Based on traffic, conversion rate, number of variations, and the minimum improvement you want to detect, the finish line may be days or weeks away. What is an ambitious A/B tester to do?
Watch session replay of each variation immediately, once you’ve received a representative number of visitors. Use them to validate funnels and quickly be alert to any customer experience issues that may cause your funnels to leak.
Focus on the experience. Understanding which user behavior dominates each page is powerful, internalizing why users are behaving as they are enables you to take corrective actions mid-course and position yourself properly.The next test
In your post-test assessments, again use data to understand why the winning variation succeeded with its target audience. Understanding the reason can help you prioritize future elements to test.
For example, when testing a control with a promotional banner (that should increase conversions) against a variation without a promotion, a PM may conclude that the promotion is ineffective when that variation loses.
Studying a heatmap of the test can reveal new insights. In this example, conversions were reduced because the banner pushed the “buy now” CTA out of sight.Example of A/B testing on mobile devices.
In this case, as a next test, the PM may decide not to remove the banner, but rather to test it in a way that keeps the more important “buy now” CTA visible. There is a good chance such a combination will yield even better results.
There are plenty of other examples of this, too. For instance, the web insights manager at a credit card company told me that having the aggregate data, in the form of heatmaps, helps him continually make more informed decisions about this A/B testing. In their case, they were able to rely on data that indicated they could remove a content panel without hurting their KPIs.
Another one of our customers, GoDaddy, was able to increase conversions on its checkout page by four percent after running an A/B test. “With our volume, that was a huge, huge increase…. We also tripled our donations to Round Up for Charity,” said Ana Grace, GoDaddy’s director of ecommerce, global product management. But the optimization doesn’t stop once a test is complete; GoDaddy continues to monitor new pages after changes, and sometimes finds additional hypotheses that require testing.What it takes to go for the gold
I was not blessed with the natural athletic ability of an Olympian, but when it comes to A/B testing web assets and mobile apps, I have what I need to determine which version will be the winner. The powerful combination of behavioral analytics and big data gives athletes the knowledge they need to make the most of their assets, and it can do the same for you.
We were sitting in a market research room in the midst of a long day of customer interviews. Across from us, a young mother was telling us about her experience bringing her daughter into the ER during a severe asthma attack. We had been interviewing people about their healthcare journeys for a large hospital group, but we’d been running into a few problems.
First, the end-goal of the interviews was to develop a strategy for the hospital group’s website. But what we’d discovered, within the first morning of interviews aimed at creating a customer journey map, was that hospital websites were part of no one’s journey. This wasn’t wildly surprising to us—in fact it was part of the reason we’d recommended doing customer journey mapping in the first place. The hospital had a lot of disease content on their site, and we wanted to see whether people ever thought to access that content in the course of researching a condition. The answer had been a resounding no. Some people said things like, “Hmm, I’d never think to go to a hospital website. That’s an interesting idea.” Others didn’t even know that hospitals had websites. And even though we’d anticipated this response, the overwhelming consistency on this point was starting to freak out our client a little—in particular it started to freak out the person whose job it was to redesign the site.
The second issue was that our interviews were falling a little flat. People were answering our questions but there was no passion behind their responses, which made it difficult to determine where their interactions with the hospital fell short of expectations. Some of this was to be expected. Not every customer journey is a thrill ride, after all. Some people’s stories were about mundane conditions. I had this weird thing on my hand, and my wife was bugging me to get it checked out, so I did. The doctor gave me cream, and it went away, was one story. Another was from someone with strep throat. We didn’t expect much excitement from a story about strep throat, and we didn’t get it. But mixed in with the mundane experiences were people who had chronic conditions, or were caregivers for children, spouses, or parents with debilitating diseases, or people who had been diagnosed with cancer. And these people had been fairly flat as well.
We were struggling with two problems that we needed to solve simultaneously. First: what to do with the three remaining days of interviews we had lined up, when we’d already discovered on the morning of day one that no one went to hospital websites. And second: how to get information that our client could really use. We thought that if we could just dig a little deeper underneath people’s individual stories, we could produce something truly meaningful for not only our client, but the people sitting with us in the interview rooms.
We’d been following the standard protocol for journey mapping: prompting users to tell us about a specific healthcare experience they’d had recently, and then asking them at each step what they did, how they were feeling and what they were thinking. But the young mother telling us about her daughter’s chronic asthma made us change our approach.
“How were you feeling when you got to the ER?” we asked.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I thought my daughter was going to die.” And then, she began to cry. As user experience professionals we’re constantly reminding ourselves that we are not our users; but we are both parents and in that moment, we knew exactly what the woman in front of us meant. The entire chemistry of the room shifted. The interview subject in front of us was no longer an interview subject. She was a mother telling us about the worst day of her entire life. We all grabbed for the tissue box, and the three of us dabbed at our eyes together.
And from that point on, she didn’t just tell us her story as though we were three people sitting in front of a two-way mirror. She told us her story the way she might tell her best friend.
We realized, in that interview, that this was not just another project. We’ve both had long careers in user research and user experience, but we’d never worked on a project that involved the worst day of people’s lives. There might be emotion involved in using a frustrating tool at work or shopping for the perfect gift, but nothing compares to the day you find yourself rushing to the emergency room with your child.
So we decided to throw out the focus on the hospital website, concentrate on where emotion was taking us, and trust that we would be able to reconcile our findings with our client’s needs. We, as human beings, wanted to hear other human beings tell us about the difficulties of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s disease. We wanted to know what it felt like to receive a cancer diagnosis after a long journey to many doctors across a spectrum of specialties. We wanted to understand what we could do, in any small way, to help make these Worst Days minutely less horrible, less terrifying, and less out-of-control. We knew that the client was behind the two-way mirror, concerned about the website navigation, but we also knew that we were going to get to someplace much more important and meaningful by following wherever these stories took us.
We also realized that not all customer journeys are equal. We still wanted to understand what people’s journeys with strep throat and weird hand rashes looked like, because those were important too. Those journeys told us about the routine issues that we all experience whenever we come into contact with the medical establishment—the frustration of waiting endlessly at urgent care, the annoyance of finding someone who can see you at a time when you can take off from work, the importance of a doctor who listens. But we also wanted to get to the impassioned stories where the stakes and emotions were much higher, so we adjusted our questioning style accordingly. We stuck to our standard protocol for the routine medical stories. And for the high-stakes journeys, the ones that could leave us near tears or taking deep breaths at the end of the interview, we proceeded more slowly. We gave our interview subjects room to pause, sigh, and cry. We let there be silence in the room. We tried to make it not feel weird for people to share their most painful moments with two strangers.
When we completed our interviews at the end of the week, we had an incredibly rich number of stories to draw from—so many, in fact, that we were able to craft a digital strategy that went far beyond what the hospital website would do. (Website? We kept saying to ourselves. Who cares about the website?) We realized that in many ways, we were limiting ourselves by thinking about a website strategy, or even a digital strategy. By connecting with the emotional content of the conversations, we started to think about a customer strategy—one that would be medium-agnostic.
In Designing for Emotion, Aarron Walter encourages us to “think of our designs not as a façade for interaction, but as people with whom our audience can have an inspired conversation.” As we moved into making strategic recommendations, we thought a lot about how the hospital (like most hospitals) interacted with their patients as a bureaucratic, depersonalized entity. It was as though patients were spilling over with a hundred different needs, and the hospital group was simply silent. We also thought about what a helpful human would do at various stages of the journey, and found that there were multiple points where pushing information out to customers could make a world of difference.
We heard from people diagnosed with cancer who said, “After I heard the word ‘cancer’ I didn’t hear anything else, so then I went home and Googled it and completely panicked.” So we recommended that the day after someone gets a devastating diagnosis like that, there is a follow-up email with more information, reliable information resources, and videos of other people who experienced the same thing and what it was like for them.
We heard from people who spent the entire day waiting for their loved ones to get out of surgery, not knowing how much longer it would take, and worried that if they stepped out for a coffee, they would miss the crucial announcement over the loudspeaker. As a result, we proposed that relatives receive text message updates such as, “Your daughter is just starting her surgery. We expect that it will take about an hour and a half. We will text you again when she is moved to the recovery room.”
The stories were so strong that we believed they would help our client refocus their attention away from the website and toward the million other touchpoints and opportunities we saw to help make the worst day of people’s lives a little less horrible.
And for the most part, that is what happened. We picked a few journeys that we thought provided a window on the range of stories we’d been hearing. As we talked through some of the more heart-rending journeys there were audible gasps in the room: the story of a doctor who had refused to see a patient after she’d brought in her own research on her daughter’s condition; a woman with a worsening disease who had visited multiple doctors to try to get a diagnosis; a man who was caring for his mother-in-law, who was so debilitated by Alzheimer’s that she routinely tried to climb out the second floor bedroom window.
In Design for Real Life, Sarah Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer note that “the more users have opened up to you in the research phase” the more realistic your personas can be. More realistic personas, in turn, make it easier to imagine crisis points. And this was exactly what began to unfold as we shared our user journeys. As we told these stories, we felt a shift in the room. The clients started to share their own unforgettable healthcare experiences. One woman pulled out her phone and showed us pictures of her tiny premature infant, wearing her husband’s wedding ring around her wrist as she lay there in an incubator, surrounded by tubes and wires. When we took a break we overheard a number of people on the client side talking over the details of these stories and coming up with ideas for how they could help that went so beyond the hospital website it was hard to believe that had been our starting point. One person pointed out that a number of journeys started in Urgent Care and suggested that perhaps the company should look at expanding into urgent care facilities.
In the end, the research changed the company’s approach to the site.
“We talked about the stories throughout the course of the project,” one of our client contacts told me. “There was so much raw humanity to them.” A year after the project wrapped up (even though due to organizational changes at the hospital group our strategy recommendations have yet to be implemented), our client quickly rattled off the names of a few of our customer types. It is worth noting, too, that while our recommendations went much farther than the original scope of the project, the client appreciated being able to make informed strategic decisions about the path forward. Their immediate need was a revamped website, but once they understood that this need paled in comparison to all of the other places they could have an impact on their customers’ lives, they began talking excitedly about how to make this vision a reality down the road.
For us, this project changed the way we conceptualize projects, and illustrated that the framework of a website strategy or even “digital” strategy isn’t always meaningful. Because as the digital world increasingly melds with the IRL world, as customers spend their days shifting between websites, apps, texting, and face-to-face interactions, it becomes increasingly important for designers and researchers to drop the distinctions we’ve drawn around where an interaction happens, or where emotion spikes.
Before jumping in however, it is important to prep the team about how, and most importantly, why your interview questions probe into how customers are feeling. When you get into the interview room, coaxing out these emotional stories requires establishing emotional rapport quickly, and making it a safe place for participants to express themselves.
Being able to establish this rapport has changed our approach to other projects as well—we’ve seen that emotion can play into customer journeys in the unlikeliest of places. On a recent project for a client who sells enterprise software, we interviewed a customer who had recently gone through a system upgrade experience which affected tens of thousands of users. It did not go well and he was shaken by the experience. “The pressure on our team was incredible. I am never doing that ever again,” he said. Even for this highly technical product, fear, frustration, anger, and trust were significant elements of the customer journey. This is a journey where a customer has ten thousand people angry at him if the product he bought does not perform well, and he could even be out of a job if it gets bad enough. So while the enterprise software industry doesn’t exactly scream “worst day of my life” in the same way that hospitals do, emotion can run high there as well.
We sometimes forget that customers are human beings and human beings are driven by emotion, especially during critical life events. Prior to walking into the interview room we’d thought we might unearth some hidden problems around parking at the ER, navigating the hospital, and, of course, issues with the website content. But those issues were so eclipsed by all of the emotions surrounding a hospital visit that they came to seem irrelevant. Not being able to find parking at the ER is annoying, but more important was not knowing what you were supposed to do next because you’d just been told you have cancer, or because you feared for your child’s life. By digging deeper into this core insight, we were able to provide recommendations that went beyond websites, and instead took the entire human experience into account.
For researchers and designers tasked with improving experiences, it is essential to have an understanding of the customer journey in its full, messy, emotional agglomeration. Regardless of the touchpoint your customer is interacting with, the emotional ride is often what ties it all together, particularly in high-stakes subject matter. Are your client’s customers likely to be frustrated, or are they likely to be having the worst day of their lives? In the latter types of situations, recognize that you will get much more impactful insights when you address the emotions head-on.
And when appropriate, don’t be afraid to cry.
A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Practice 4 of Dave Gray's new book, Liminal Thinking, available now from Two Waves Books. Use code ALA-LT for 20% off!A theory that explains everything, explains nothing Karl Popper
Here’s a story I heard from a friend of mine named Adrian Howard. His team was working on a software project, and they were working so hard that they were burning themselves out. They were working late nights, and they agreed as a team to slow down their pace. “We’re going to work 9 to 5, and we’re going to get as much done as we can, but we’re not going to stay late. We’re not going to work late at night. We’re going to pace ourselves. Slow and steady wins the race.”
Well, there was one guy on the team who just didn’t do that. He was staying late at night, and Adrian was getting quite frustrated by that. Adrian had a theory about what was going on. What seemed obvious to him was that this guy was being macho, trying to prove himself, trying to outdo all the other coders, and showing them that he was a tough guy. Everything that Adrian could observe about this guy confirmed that belief.
Late one night, Adrian was so frustrated that he went over and confronted the guy about the issue. He expected a confrontation, but to his surprise, the guy broke down in tears. Adrian discovered that this guy was not working late because he was trying to prove something, but because home wasn’t a safe place for him. They were able to achieve a breakthrough, but it was only possible because Adrian went up and talked to him. Without that conversation, there wouldn’t have been a breakthrough.
It’s easy to make up theories about why people do what they do, but those theories are often wrong, even when they can consistently and reliably predict what someone will do.
For example, think about your horoscope. Horoscopes make predictions all the time:
- “Prepare yourself for a learning experience about leaping to conclusions.”
- “You may find the atmosphere today a bit oppressive.”
- “Today, what seems like an innocent conversation will hold an entirely different connotation for one of the other people involved.”
- “Stand up to the people who usually intimidate you. Today, they will be no match for you.”
These predictions are so vague that you can read anything you want into them. They are practically self-fulfilling prophecies: if you believe them, they are almost guaranteed to come true, because you will set your expectations and act in ways that make them come true. And in any case, they can never be disproven.
So what makes a good theory, anyway?
A scientist and philosopher named Karl Popper spent a lot of time thinking about this. Here’s the test he came up with, and I think it’s a good one: Does the theory make a prediction that might not come true? That is, can it be proven false?
What makes this a good test? Popper noted that it’s relatively easy to develop a theory that offers predictions—like a horoscope—that can never be disproven.
The test of a good theory, he said, is not that it can’t be disproven, but that it can be disproven.
For example, if I have a theory that you are now surrounded by invisible, undetectable, flying elephants, well, there’s no way you can prove me wrong. But if my theory can be subjected to some kind of test—if it is possible that it could be disproved, then the theory can be tested.
He called this trait falsifiability: the possibility that a theory could be proven false.
Many theories people have about other people are like horoscopes. They are not falsifiable theories, but self-fulfilling prophecies that can never be disproven.
Just because you can predict someone’s behavior does not validate your theories about them, any more than a horoscope prediction “coming true” means it was a valid prediction. If you want to understand what’s going on inside someone else’s head, sometimes you need to have a conversation with them.
Many years after the Vietnam War, former U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara met with Nguyen Co Thach, former Foreign Minister of Vietnam, who had fought for the Viet Cong in the war. McNamara had formed the hypothesis that the war could have been avoided, that Vietnam and the United States could have both achieved their objectives without the terrible loss of life. When he presented his thinking to Thach, Thach said, “You’re totally wrong. We were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us.”
“But what did you accomplish?” asked McNamara. “You didn’t get any more than we were willing to give you at the beginning of the war. You could have had the whole damn thing: independence, unification.”
“Mr. McNamara,” answered Thach. “You must have never read a history book. If you had, you’d know that we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for a thousand years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us.”
McNamara then realized that the entire war had been based on a complete misunderstanding. He said: “In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.”
Sometimes people come into conflict not because they disagree, but because they fundamentally misunderstand each other. This can happen when people are viewing a situation from completely different points of view.
Have you ever had someone that you worked with, where you thought, this person is insane; they make no sense; they are crazy; they’re just nuts?
Everyone knows someone like that, right?
Sometimes people really do have mental disorders, including problems that can create danger for themselves and others. If that’s the case, it might make sense to stay away from them, or to seek help from a mental health professional.
But far more often, saying another person is crazy is just a way to create internal coherence within your belief bubble. Your “obvious” is stopping you from seeing clearly. The “crazy person” may be acting based on beliefs that are inconceivable to you because they are outside your bubble.
If you think to yourself, this person is just nuts, and nothing can be done about it, it can’t be changed, then it’s possible that your theory about that person is constrained by a limiting belief.
Most people don’t test their theories about other people, because it’s a potential bubble-buster: if you give your self-sealing logic bubble a true test, then it just might collapse on you.
People do fake tests all the time, of course.
Here’s an easy way to do a fake test of your beliefs. Just search the Internet. No matter what your belief is, you’ll find plenty of articles that support and reinforce your bubble. The Internet is like a grocery store for facts. It’s easier than ever to find “facts” that support pretty much any belief.
Fake tests will help if your goal is to feel better about yourself and reinforce your bubble. But if you want to figure out what is really going on, a fake test will not help.
What will help is triangulation: the practice of developing multiple viewpoints and theories that you can compare, contrast, combine, and validate, to get a better understanding of what’s going on.
U.S. military strategist Roy Adams told me this story about an “aha” moment he had in Iraq.
He was having a beer with a friend who was in the Special Forces. Usually, they didn’t talk about work, but he happened to have a map with him. At the time, Adams and his team were designing their plans based on the political boundaries of the map, so on the map were districts, as well as the people who were in charge of the districts.
His friend said, “You know, this is really interesting.” And he picked up a pen and said, “Let me draw the tribal boundaries on this map for you.” The boundaries were completely different but overlapping. Suddenly, Adams had two different versions of reality on his map.
The political map was primarily a Shia map, and the tribal map had both Sunni and Shia. Only by overlaying the two maps did Adams start to understand the situation. Neither map would have made sense by itself.
By laying these maps over each other, suddenly things started to click. Now he understood why they were having success in some places and meeting resistance in others. Everything started to make more sense.
The insights in this case came not from one map or another, but through overlaying them. This is the practice of triangulation. Each map represented one theory of the world, one version of reality. It was only by viewing the situation through multiple perspectives—multiple theories—that he was able to gain insight and see the situation differently. (Fig. 1)Fig 1: Look for alternatives.
My friend Adrian Howard told me about a similar experience he had when working at a large Telecom company that had grown by acquiring other companies over many years. His team found itself running up against resistance and pushback that seemed odd and inexplicable. Then someone on the team took some markers and color-coded the boxes on the org chart based on which companies the people in each box had originally come from—many of whom used to be fierce competitors—and suddenly the reasons for the resistance became clear and understandable.
For any one observation there may be a vast number of possible explanations. Many of them may be based on beliefs that are outside of your current belief bubble, in which case, they may seem strange, absurd, crazy, or just plain wrong.
Most of the time we are all walking around with our heads so full of “obvious” that we can’t see what’s really going on. If you think something is obvious, that’s an idea that bears closer examination. Why do you think it’s obvious? What personal experiences have you had that led to that belief? Can you imagine a different set of experiences that might lead to a different belief?
Cultivate as many theories as you can—including some that seem odd, counter-intuitive, or even mutually contradictory—and hold onto them loosely. Don’t get too attached to any one of them. (Fig. 2)Fig 2: Hold your theories loosely.
Then you can start asking questions and seeking valid information to help you understand what’s really going on. The way to seek understanding is to empty your cup, step up and give people your full attention, suspend your beliefs and judgments, and listen carefully.
The thing to remember is that people act in ways that make sense to them. If something doesn’t make sense to you, then you’re missing something.
What are you missing? If someone says something that seems odd or unbelievable, ask yourself, “What would I need to believe for that to be true?”
In many cases, the only way you’re ever going to understand what’s inside someone else’s head is by talking to them. Sometimes that idea might seem scary. It may be that you will hear something that threatens your bubble of belief. But if you can get over your fear, go and talk to the dragon, or take the ogre out for coffee. You just may learn something that will change your life.
Triangulate and validate. Look at situations from as many points of view as possible. Consider the possibility that seemingly different or contradictory beliefs may be valid. If something doesn’t make sense to you, then you’re missing something.Exercise #1
Think about a co-worker or family member, someone you care about, or can’t walk away from for whatever reason, that you have trouble getting along with. Consider their beliefs and behavior, and come up with as many theories as you can to explain why they act the way they do. Then see if you can have a conversation with that person to explore what’s really going on.Exercise #2
Think of a situation at home or work that you find problematic. Try to come up with as many perspectives as you can that might give you a different way to look at the situation. What is your current theory? What is its opposite? How many perspectives or points of view can you think of that might help you see that situation through different eyes?Want to read more?
Get 20% off your copy of Liminal Thinking and other titles from Two Waves Books—an imprint of Rosenfeld Media—with code ALA-LT.
A curious complaint seems to ripple across the internet every so often: people state that “design” is stale. The criticism is that no original ideas are being generated; anything new is quickly co-opted and copied en-masse, leading to even more sterility, conceptually. And that leads to lots of articles lamenting the state of the communities they work in.
What people see is an endless recycling within their group, with very little bleed-over into other disciplines or networks. Too often, we speak about our design communities and networks as resources to be used, not as groups of people.
Anthony McCann describes the two main ways we view creative networks and the digital commons:We have these two ways of speaking: commons as a pool of resources to be managed, and commons as an alternative to treating the world as made up of resources.
One view is that communities are essentially pools of user-generated content. That freely available content is there to be mined—the best ideas extracted and repackaged for profit or future projects. This is idea as commodity, and it very conveniently strips out the people doing the creating, instead looking at their conceptual and design work as a resource.
Another way is to view creative networks as interdependent networks of people. By nature, they cannot be resources, and any work put into the community is to sustain and nourish those human connections, not create assets. The focus is on contributing.A wider view
By looking at your design communities as resources to be mined, you limit yourself to preset, habitual methods of sharing and usage. The more that network content is packaged for sale and distribution, the less “fresh” it will be. In Dougland Hine’s essay Friendship is a Commons, he says when we talk enthusiastically about the digital commons these days, we too often use the language of resource management, not the language of social relations.
Perhaps we should take a wider, more global view.
There are numerous digital design communities across the world; they are fluid and fresh, and operate according to distinct and complex social rules and mores. These designers are actively addressing problems in their own communities in original ways, and the result is unique, culturally relevant work. By joining and interacting with them—by accessing these networks—we can rethink what the design community is today.Exploring larger communities
There are a number of creative communities I’ve become a part of, to varying degrees of attention. I’ve been a member of Behance for almost 10 years (Fig. 1), back when it was something very different (“We are pleased to invite you to join the Behance Network, in partnership with MTV”).Fig. 1: Screenshot of the Behance creative community website in 2009. Source: belladonna
While I lived in Japan, Behance was a way for me to learn new digital design techniques and participate in a Western-focused, largely English speaking design network. As time has gone on, it’s strange that I now use it almost exclusively to see what is happening outside the West.
Instagram, Twitter, and Ello are three mobile platforms with a number of features that are great for collecting visual ideas without the necessity of always participating. The algorithms are focused on showing more of what I have seen—the more often I view work from Asian and African designers and illustrators, the more often I discover new work from those communities. While interesting for me, it does create filter bubbles, and I need to be careful of falling into the trap of seeing more of the same.
There is, of course, a counter-reaction to the public, extractive nature of these platforms—the rise of “Slack as community.” The joke about belonging to 5-10 different Slack groups is getting old, but illustrates a trend in the industry during the past year or so. I see this especially with designers of color, where the firehoses of racist/sexist abuse on open digital networks means that creativity is shelved in favor of simple preservation. Instead, we move, quietly and deliberately, to Slack, a platform that is explicit in its embrace of a diverse usership, where the access is much more tightly controlled, and where the empathy in design/dev networks is more readily shared and nurtured.
Right now, these are the creative platforms where I contribute my visual thinking, work, and conversations toward addressing messy visual questions—interactive ideas that assume a radically different way of viewing the world. There are, of course, others.Exploring visual design alternatives
In Volume II of Mawahib (a series of books that showcase Arab illustrators, photographers, and graphic designers), we see one of these design communities compiled and printed, an offline record of a thriving visual network (Fig. 2).Fig. 2: Page spreads from the Mawahib book, showcasing Arab illustration and design work
And perhaps it is in the banding together that real creative change can happen. I was fascinated to read this article about an illustration collective in Singapore. At 7 years old, it’s reportedly the longest running drawing event in Singapore. Michael Ng says, “Many people don’t know illustrators like us exist in Singapore and they’re amazed. Companies have also come up to hire us for work because of the event. We also network amongst ourselves, passing on opportunities and collaborations.” Comments like this show that there are thriving visual design scenes worldwide, ones that collaborate internally, and work for exposure and monetary gain externally.Fig. 3: Poster from the Organisation of Illustrators Council in Singapore, advertising one of their collaborative sketching nights UX research that builds community
Earlier in this article, we started by looking at the different ways people view existing creative communities. But what about people who create new ones? Here, once again, we have designers and strategists who use careful cultural research to create and develop sustainable digital networks, not simply resource libraries.
First, let’s look at the pilot of My Voice, an open source medical tool developed at Reboot. The residents of Wamba, a rural area in Nasarawa State, Nigeria, struggled to find a way to communicate with their healthcare providers. Reboot saw an opportunity to develop an empowering, responsive platform for the community, a way for people to share feedback with clinics and doctors in the area.
After a nine-week trial of the platform and software, the residents of Wamba saw the clinics begin making small changes to how they communicated—things like better payment info and hours of operation. The health department officials in the area also saw a chance to better monitor their clinics and appear more responsive to their constituents. What began as a way to report on clinic status and quality became a way for the community and local government to improve together.Fig. 4: Interviews with community residents for the MyVoice medical app
In another project, a group of researchers worked with a community in South Africa’s Eastern Cape to design and test mobile digital storytelling. Their experience creating a storytelling platform that did not follow European narrative tradition is enlightening, and hits on a key framing in line with how the people in Ndungunyeni view creative networks (Fig. 4).
Contrary to their initial ideas, the UX researchers found that storytelling ”...as an individual activity is discordant with villagers’ proximity, shared use of phones and communication norms. They devote significant time exchanging views in meetings and these protocols of speaking and listening contribute to cohesion, shared identity and security.”Fig 5: Mobile digital storytelling prototype (left) and story recording UI (right)
In both of these examples, we see new creative networks relying on linked social systems and cues in order to thrive. Most importantly, they rely on reciprocation—the trade of ideas, whether there is immediate personal benefit or not. Each of the participants—the community members, the UX designers, the clinics, and the local government— was able to collaborate on a common goal. Simply-crafted technology and UX made this possible, even in rural areas with little cellular connectivity. They all contributed, not looking to extract value, but to add it; they used these networking tools to deepen their interactions with others.Building alternatives to current networks
Almost every project we work on as designers would certainly benefit from alternative viewpoints. That can be hard to set up, however, and collaborating with designers and developers outside your immediate circle may seem scary at first. Keep in mind that the goal is to add value to others’ networks and build interpersonal connections. This is the only way that we keep the creative ideas fresh.Starting with freelance and project work
Sometimes the simplest way to access different creative circles is simply to pay for project work. A great example is Karabo Moletsane’s project for Quartz Africa. An accomplished illustrator from South Africa, Moletsane recently did a set of 32 wonderful portraits for the Quartz Africa Innovators 2016 Series (Fig. 6). When I asked Moletsane about how she got the illustration job, she said it came via her work on AfricanDigitalArt.com. Moletsane also said she regularly posts work on her Instagram and Behance, making Quartz’s choice to work with this talented South African for a global series on African innovators a no-brainer.Fig. 6: Karabo Moletsane’s full series of 32 African Innovators, for Quartz Magazine Hiring and team-building from different networks
Sometimes, shorter freelance projects won’t give you long-term quality access to new design communities and ideas. Sometimes you need to bring people onto your team, full-time. Again, I point out what Dougland Hine says regarding the ways digital communities can work:...people have had powerful experiences of what it means to come together, work and build communities [but] the new forms of collaboration easily turn into new forms of exploitation…
Instead of looking for short-term access, hiring and developing team members from other networks can be a powerful alternative. Tyler Kessler, the CEO of Lumogram in St. Louis, recently wrote about hiring a new head of development based in Nigeria, and what it has meant to his company. He used Andela, a startup that is training and hiring out a new generation of developers from Nigeria.Collaboration around specific Ideas
Your contributions to networks also need not be permanent or rigid. There are numerous opportunities to join collectives, or working groups, that build more ephemeral networks around specific issues. One such project, by the DESIS Cluster Collective (pdf), was set up “to investigate which new services, tools, and solutions we can design together with the elderly, when thinking about our future society.” The breadth of ideas is astounding, from systems for healthier eating, to mini-parks within urban areas for seniors to hang out in. Each team involved contributed deep user research, information design, and cultural cues to propose new ways for our elderly to coexist (Fig. 7).Fig. 7: Cultural interface research with the elderly, conducted by the Royal College of Art, England in 2013
The form and utility of design communities in the 21st century is fluid, and goes from groups of like-minded designers and illustrators to communities working digitally to solve specific problems. Even short-term collectives are addressing social issues.
All are intricate groups of creative humans. They shouldn’t be viewed, in any way, as “resources” for extraction and inspiration. Too often in the Western design world, we hear that ideas have largely plateaued and become homogenous, but that ignores the amazing work flourishing in other nations and pockets of the internet. How you build connections among other creative people makes you part of the network. See them, however ephemeral and globally distributed, as a powerful way to expand your design horizons and be part of something different.