Episode #019: Dan Laughlin, Senior Director of User Experience at IBM iX
As marketers, we’re always looking for ways to accelerate our ability to deliver digital experiences. Think of how many times you’ve answered the question of when you need something with “yesterday.” This is often what causes the back and forth challenge of balancing rapid delivery with having enough time to incorporate customer feedback into your user experience and user interface efforts. And oftentimes it can feel impossible to accomplish both, but that’s no longer the case. In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk to the Senior Director of User Experience at IBM iX, Dan Laughlin, about all things UX, UI, and customer experience as well as how you can find the time to incorporate design thinking while still accelerating your delivery process.
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Stephanie Cox: I'm Stephanie Cox and this is Mobile Matters. Today, I'm joined by Dan Laughlin. Dan is a Senior Director of User Experience at IBM iX, and has more than 20 years of UX experience, He’s a UX Master Certified by Nielsen Norman Group, and previously design and launched countless web apps, mobile apps, websites, and products for many well-known brands. In this episode, Dan and I talk a lot about how watching users interact with one of his apps for the first time fundamentally changed how he thought about the user experience, the value design thinking workshops can bring to your team, and why we need to stop celebrating the launch of an app, product, or website because it's really just the beginning. And make sure he's around to the end where I’ll give my recap and top takeaways so that you can not only think about mobile differently but implemented effectively. Welcome to the show, Dan.
You have a really impressive background in UX, so can you tell me a little bit about how you got started in your career?
Dan Laughlin: Yeah I mean, I found my way to UX through design and I've been in the design industry for 20+ years and started out as a graphic designer. I came to Indianapolis with the NCAA and was designing Final Four logos and really, just was enjoying design until you and I were both at Ingersoll Rand, and I think that that that job changed my viewpoint of design. Both because of the implications and consequences of bad design on someone that's using a home automation app, and then also the activities that you introduced with access to subscribers and events where we were watching subscribers use the things that we were creating and realizing the kinds of communication and confidence that they needed in the device. And that flipped the switch for me, not just designing for the beauty of design, but instead designing for both the most exceptional experience and also removing the negative consequences that can happen because of poor design.
Stephanie Cox: One of the things that I feel like is a big topic that people don't really seem to know the difference between is UI and UX. I feel like people use them interchangeably and they are completely different. So, can you tell me a little about how you define each one?
Dan Laughlin: Yeah, I think about UI, as you would imagine, you're looking at an overall customer experience through a lens and the tighter you focus through your lens, you would get down to the UI. And the UX would be the things that you're interacting with within a system or an app. And then, you take a step back and you then you're at the user experience level. Where you may be going across different apps and applications and systems that you interact with and then take another step back and you're in customer experience. And, when the overall experience is coordinated and done right, then each of those different pieces complement one another and it's seamless and it's a good experience throughout.
Stephanie Cox: One of the things that I've heard a little bit lately is people debating especially when they're kind of getting started in this area, like do I need both a UI person and a UX person and even maybe I like a customer experience leader? Can you sacrifice one or the other? Is it possible to find someone that can do all three? I mean, what's your opinion on that?
Dan Laughlin: Yes, so it really depends. I mean, there are so many different labels that are given and it differs within each company. I've heard UI has been specific to development–UI developers. And I've heard UX being specific to design, and then there are places where design is design and you have visual designers and UX designers really side by side sometimes doing either visual design or UX. So I think having someone that is focused on the front end development, having someone that is focused on the design of the experience, and then having people that are focused on research and strategy. Those are all really crucial elements and it is hard to have a single person doing each. And even myself, in the past a long time ago, I would would have called myself a UI developer but I think what happens is, if you're not really focused on the craft and you're trying to do too many things, then you limit your output. And the things that you're able to do because you're not as deep into it as someone else. So, if I tried to do UI development, my output would be severely limited compared to someone that if that's all they do. So, I think it's good to have people that are focused on each thing.
Stephanie Cox: That brings up a good topic for my next question, which is when you're starting a project for the first time, how do you think about getting started? What are the first things that you want to do?
Dan Laughlin: So, for me, the first thing I want to do is learn as much about the users of that product, and it really depends on the scope of the work. That may be the customers at a broad scale but most of the time the work that I've been a part of the last couple of years has been systems or apps. And so, I spend a lot of time with a research team doing user interviews, stakeholder interviews, ethnography, or spending time observing users. There are things that you will observe that people just won't tell you. And those are important things because of some of what I feel I can't really express very well consistently when I'm asked a direct question. So, when you're observing people using things you pick up on stuff. So, I think research early on and having a strategy early on for what is going to be accomplished with the design. I think those are really important. I mean I could really use it. One of the conflicts with agile and design sprints is this urgency at all times to rapidly produce. And that's a good thing to rapidly-produce, but it's not a good thing to rapidly-produce if you don't know enough about the people that are going to use what you're making. And understanding, if you're redoing something that exists, you need to find out all of the negative things that exist in that thing that you're going to recreate because if you don't then those negative experiences will live on. And in the same way, you want to figure out what are all the things people like and we want to make sure we keep those. So, even things like a benchmark usability study can be done very quickly and can be so essential and identifying and having confidence in the path forward.
Stephanie Cox: What happens when you're creating something that didn't exist before? So, let's say a new product as an example, and you're still trying to figure out who your target customer is. How do you balance doing the research on that but then also being able to move fast enough, to your point, where you can iterate but you're not moving too fast that you're just kind of making blind decisions?
Dan Laughlin: One of the things that has been super helpful has been design-thinking workshops when they're done with enough time for each of the activities. And I think that they're really helpful when you have a new idea because you're able to come out of a design thinking workshop with a clearly defined MVP [minimum viable product] or a set of MVP candidates that you can prioritize. And again, I mean, if it's a new idea or it's a redo of something existing, spending a few weeks understanding the people that will use it and understanding the things that are most important for both the users and the business and letting those define what the MVP or the product that comes out of it will be, I think that's the most important thing you can do.
Stephanie Cox: Can you explain a little bit about what a design thinking workshop is, in case some of my listeners haven't heard that term before?
Dan Laughlin: Yes, so design thinking workshops come in many forms and design thinking, in its essence, is getting time with users, getting time with stakeholders–and stakeholders are the people within the business that understand, they may interact with users, they may understand the business, they're also kind of subject matter experts–but spending time in a room with those people and also the people that are going to be working on the project and ideating. So, usually, design thinking starts out as research.
And then it goes through a phase of ideation, where all of the people that are on the project are in a room together and you're sketching ideas and you're doing affinity diagrams, where you're taking ideas and mapping them out on a wall on Post-It notes. And often design thinking workshops have voting mechanisms within them so that participants in the workshop will be able to use a vote so that the ideas that are the stickiest, that everyone seems to like and seem like they might be the best. They continue ahead as you go and so throughout the ideation, the purpose is identifying what are the pain points and the resolutions and great ideas and then voting on those so that as you move forward, collectively, my idea just by myself isn't as strong as my idea and someone else's idea combined to create an even better idea. So that's kind of the essence of design thinking. And then, it turns into a rapid prototype that gets tested with users and then out of that, you synthesize your findings, you prioritize how this thing is going to be made, and you end up with an MVP. So I mean, that's a really brief description but those are the activities that that happen within design thinking. And the duration of it, I think, it needs to do to exist over a few weeks. But I mean, there there are places where it happens within one week. But it's a lot of work to squeeze out in one week and you end up losing out on research time and you also lose out on prototype time. Those are two pieces that require more than a day or two, in my experience.
Stephanie Cox: We talked a little bit about how you start a project. But once you get a project, let's say out in the wild, how do you continue to get that user feedback? You know, initially, after it's launched, and then, thinking about how that evolves into the next iteration.
Dan Laughlin: Yeah so, you know, there are a lot of places that I've worked that celebrate a launch and while launching is great, I think it's wonderful to be able to track progress because the success of something that has been created isn't defined by it being released out into the wild. It's defined by whether or not it's doing the things it's supposed to do for the business and whether people that use it want to keep using it. So, analytics is a great way to measure based on KPIs [key performance indicators] that are defined early, as you know you're setting out to make this thing having measurements after it's launched, and being honest with those measurements, so not just reporting on measurements but reporting on measurements compared to the goals. So not, hey we had 300 visitors. It’s, hey, we had three hundred but our goal was two thousand, and here are the things we need to change to fix those. So that's one way is just being understanding, that things don't have to work perfectly when they're launched. It's an ongoing effort to make them as good as they can be and it's OK if it's not as good as you thought it would be. Be willing to change quickly. But the other is, as you're making something, design sprints are quick and you're rapidly producing, but that doesn't mean you can't rapidly evaluate with usability testing woven into the design spreads. Those usability testing can take twenty-four hours, you can have four or five users in a day. You can synthesize and you can have project teams listening in on the usability test and that really doesn't negatively affect a sprint and it doesn't negatively affect a budget. You just have to be willing to schedule those things out.
And then after launch, you know there are many ways you can even do more ethnography. Go spend time watching users use it if this is something that you've released that's out in the world. But I guess the other way is enhancements. And it makes me think about back in the home automation days, with that application we worked on that we had a community and that was a great idea because that community was a mechanism for us to receive ongoing feedback. And we also had app stores and an app store is a reality check. So those things combined are great ways to be able to understand whether what you put out there is working well. And then identifying ways to rapidly fix by scheduling and prioritizing future releases and patches, based on the feedback that you're getting.
Stephanie Cox: Once you figure out how you're going to design the UX of a project and what that's going to look like, and you've done your usability testing, and you kind of have your MVP, how do you work with development to actually get that created?
Dan Laughlin: Actually working with development is becoming a lot easier because of things like pattern libraries and design systems. And just to give you just a brief definition of a design system– when artifacts are being created, designs are being created, a lot of design systems are broken up based on the atomic design of atoms and molecules and templates. And each of those build up into a design system and that design system gives you the foundational components of the overall system. And so, e-commerce is a really good example because you have lots of form entry fields. You have a shelf of products. You have a shopping cart. Those are all reusable and repeatable, and every time you do an e-commerce site, if you've done that well, those things can be reused. So, when it comes to working with development, one of the things that's been a huge help is partnering with development, so that the design that's created becomes a living, breathing design system so that every time that we create something similar, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Instead of starting on the ground floor, we're starting on way up higher on that. (I've got my hands here. I'm showing you I'm reaching for you down here.) If you start down here that's what our design system and then go up a little bit waist-high. That I have a design system you're halfway there.
But the other great thing about design systems is they can quickly become a starting point for other applications and they become a model for what we've done. And there are lots of design systems out there that are that companies have provided for free that are great resources. Design systems have sped up development and they've improved consistency, they've improved predictability, they do provide a true north.
Stephanie Cox: It also allows you to have the ability to iterate faster as well, don't you think?
Dan Laughlin: Yeah it really does, and, design sprints are an absolute headache if you don't have a good starting point. And to the listeners that have been trying to work UX into agile, nothing is worse than not having a backlog to consume. And I would say even worse than that is having a design team that's a bottleneck because they haven't started early enough so having things like design systems allow you to get ahead faster and you worry less about the same thing over and over again and instead you have this design system that defines most of the things that you use most of the time. And because of that, you can think about new ideas, instead of, “how are we gonna redo that again”.
Stephanie Cox: Where do things like wearables come in? And have you started thinking about designing for the Apple Watch I'm wearing today? And what are the screen sizes on that and the considerations you have to take into effect?
Dan Laughlin: Actually the last exploration I did for wearables was for home automation. I use it all the time and I have things even like their apps for starting my vehicle with my watch, which is crazy to me. It makes you focus on what's most important for the user, and you take that even a step further when you go to wearable and I think it's a really good activity. And even if you're not, at this time, creating something for wearables, I still think it's a really good activity to figure out: What is the most important feature set and how can we put that on this small surface area in a way that people can still use it? And then you don't lose. One of the things that's amazing to me with wearables is...have you heard of the rule of thumb for mobile?
Stephanie Cox: Yes!
Dan Laughlin: So the one-centimeter rule, basically about the size of your thumb, that you should have one centimeter for each of your touchpoints on your mobile device and they should be separated by approximately one centimeter. So that you don't accidentally touch something that you don't want to. So, you know, wearables on your Apple Watch that completely blows that theory away because now it's my index finger and they've figured out a way to still make it usable. Now, there are moments when I feel like I have to reteach myself because I'll slide the wrong way. But it's pretty cool. And I think with things like the Apple Watch, I think it's more difficult to get into the app that you want to use than it is to actually use the app because the way that these the cluster of little app icons, finding the right app is a hassle.
Dan Laughlin: Once you're in there then you have this square space and you can actually design pretty well for that. It's the cluster and getting to your app that's a pain in the rear!
Stephanie Cox: I completely agree! I feel like I'm always like, oh I'm trying to hit this one, and then it's like tap and pray that that's actually the one that opens up.
We talked a little bit earlier about using analytics and determining whether or not customers are built to accomplish what they want with the design. Is that how you really define success from a design and UX perspective or is there more to that?
Dan Laughlin: So that's one of the measures, I mean there are lots of measures that can happen. It depends on what are the things that we've defined as goals and what are the things that we're going to define as being successful. And that's different with each customer. The thing that analytics tells you is it gives you symptoms of a pattern toward success or pattern away from success. So, I think that that's where it's valuable. Now, if you're an Instagram person and you are making money based on followers, well then, you have a direct link between your analytics and your success. But with products, it gets a little bit more fuzzy because especially with storefronts that exist in real life, and in storefronts that exist on the web, then those complement each other. And analytics will tell you a story about your overall funnel and how people are tracking towards the conversions you're looking for. But, analytics, they'll lead you in the right direction on whether you're your leading people to your storefront. That's also on your goals. But I don't know that they'll tell the whole story. So, they're helpful but they're just part of the inputs and the information that need to be gathered and paid attention to overtime to identify, whether or not, you're heading toward success.
Stephanie Cox: What is your favorite UX experience that's available to consumers today?
Dan Laughlin: I think because of my current work scenario, Waze is my favorite.
Stephanie Cox: So, why do you love Waze?
Dan Laughlin: Just because of being in Columbus, working both in Columbus, Ohio and also in Indianapolis. When I'm using Waze compared to Google Maps, Waze allows drivers to help other drivers know when there are things that would make their drive not so good. Things like potholes, highway troopers, I mean all kinds of stuff. So as you're driving along, you get alerts that tell you things that you need to pay attention to. And then you can say thank you to Waze, and it validates that, yeah that's actually there, or you can decline it. And so the thing that I think is cool is that it's supposed to be used primarily by passengers, so that little disclaimer there for you. That passenger should be voting as they're driving along, there's a pothole, oh there's a car on the side of the road, oh man, there's a highway trooper. And then everybody behind is getting updates as they're driving that in .2 miles there's a giant pothole. And if you've driven in Indiana or Ohio, in the last two months is there a lot of potholes. It's terrible. I mean there is no period of time in the three-hour drive that I'm relaxed. I feel like I'm in a minefield and it's just a constant zigzag. I could really say that my tires are in great shape because of Waze.
Stephanie Cox: I’ve known Dan for over a decade and it all started back when we worked in the home automation space together and that happened to be both of our first experiences with developing native mobile apps. And I'm talking people back in the day when the concept of native mobile apps was only a couple years old and things like Blackberry apps were still a thing. I've always found Dan really going above and beyond when he's working on a native mobile app, web app, website, or a new product. While the focus of his career might be user experience, he always considers the overall customer experience and everything that he does which is something that we all really need to strive to do. Now, let's get to my favorite part of the show where we take the education and apply it to your business. There's so many great insights to my conversation with Dan that can really help transform how you think about mobile marketing. Let's dive into my top three takeaways.
First, many companies struggle with the desire to move fast while balancing the time required to utilize something like design thinking. Oftentimes we feel that a lot of these concepts are at opposite ends of the spectrum and they're not compatible, but that's not the case anymore. In fact, Dan said something that was really insightful. You can move rapidly with design thinking. For instance, he suggested that it was possible to do design thinking workshops in a week. Now I get it, we’d all love to have more time, but you can do it faster. Plus if you think about today's world of constant iteration, we need to make sure we're not over-engineering something the first time because no matter how good the UI and the UX are, we’re always going to learn something once it's released out in the wild and that's really where we need to think about the real work beginning.
Next, it might sound counterintuitive at first, to rely so heavily on a design system, especially because a lot of us are used to in the past of creating everything from scratch with each project. But design systems really are becoming what we should think of other true north today, they are your starting point. And it allows you to rapidly accelerate your design work and free up your time to really focus on other aspects of the experience which is going to enable all of us to provide higher quality work in the same time period as before and ensure consistency among our designs, which I know we all care about from brand perspective without actually having to think about it.
Finally, don't underestimate the importance of setting goals for your project before you even get started. Having targets are going to help you keep a real-time pulse on the success once you launch and it's an enable you to pinpoint areas for improvement. Now this means you're likely to have a list of metrics that you’re going to want to track, so set this up ahead of time, find a way to track them and make sure you constantly look at them. But also don't forget the most obvious considerations and that's something like is your digital property doing what it's supposed to be doing for the business? Are people actually using it? And if they are using it do they want to keep using it? If you can’t answer yes to all three of these questions then you have some fundamental issues with what you launched and you need to take a serious step back to reevaluate.
Now, here’s my mobile marketing challenge for the week. Chances are you have an active digital project happening right now. I think that's something all marketers have going on is some type of digital project. It might be a native mobile app, a website, a Progressive Web App, or something else, but it's probably safe to say that you've got one existing that you're working on enhancing or you're in the process of launching a new one. As part of that process, I want to challenge you to find the time to conduct actual user testing before you release any enhancements or something new for the first time, which means you need to get your digital property in front of your actual users for testing and get feedback before you release it. And I know that sometimes seems time-consuming and difficult like it's going to slow down the process. But to Dan’s point, you just need 24 hours. Let's move quick. Let's find out their feedback and then we're going to be able to make changes before we go to market and I bet you'll find that feedback is completely invaluable.
I'm Stephanie Cox and you've been listening to Mobile Matters. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then be sure to visit Lumavate.com and subscribe to get more access to thought leaders, best practices, and all things mobile.