Poornima Vijayashanker

The Art vs. Science of User Experience Design


You might have used products that just get the job done. (Think Excel.) They compete with similar products on features, cost, and other mechanics. The problem is that these products become commodities and can lose their users to competition in a heartbeat.

Meanwhile, there are standout products that are heralded as works of art. They inspire people and change lives, and consumers stick with these brands for a long time thanks to a glue called love. Most of us want to make amazing products and are looking for that je ne sais quoi to take it to the next level.

Why do Apple and Nike stores continue to make money during retail recessions?

What do the Jony Ive’s and Tom Gruber’s of the world know that we don’t?

And when we hear that our products need to “delight” the user, what does “delight” really mean?

In the new episode of FemgineerTV, we’re going to talk about the balance of science and art that goes into amazing design and discuss the building process behind products that delight users every single time. To help us out, I’ve invited Pauly Ting, a user experience designer who has helped brands like Bloomingdale’s, Lexus, and American Express to reveal their purpose, express their personality, and deliver a complete and authentic user experience.

Whether you’re building a product for a startup or a larger corporation, you’ll want to watch this episode to learn:

  • why it’s hard to differentiate your product if you fixate on features and the science behind them;
  • why most companies fail to make a meaningful connection with users; and
  • a simple four-step framework that helps you clarify your design and speeds up development time.

After you’ve watched the video, let us know what your favorite part was in the blog comments below.

The next episode of FemgineerTV airs in September. I’ll be hosting StyleSeat’s CEO and Co-Founder, Melody McCloskey. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to know when it’s out!

The Art vs. Science of User Experience Design Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to the 7th episode of Femgineer TV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. Femgineer is an education company where we teach innovators how to build software products so they can find freedom in their careers, enrich other people’s lives, and make the tech world a lot more inclusive and flexible.

Today, you’ll find a real dichotomy in products that are created. On the one hand, you’ll have products that can feel really mechanical but they get the job done, like Excel. On the other, you’ll have products that almost mirror art and really change the way people live their lives, like Path, Uber, and Square.

Most of us want to create products like the latter but we often think it’s up to the Jony Ives and the Tom Grubers to create such products because it’s unclear how to get there. On a superficial level, we know that these products are simple, seamless, and delight the users. But what is it that gets users to feel that way? What are the steps that we need to take to build such products?

Well, today on Femgineer TV, we’re gonna do a deep dive into what it takes to actually create and design such products that delight the users every single time. To help us out, I’ve invited our special guest Pauly Ting, a user experience designer who has worked with brands such as Bloomingdale’s, American Express, and Lexus just to name a few. Through their work together, these brands have revealed their purpose, learned how to express their personality, and delivered an authentic user experience. Listen on to learn Pauly’s go-to framework for user experience design.

Hey Pauly, thanks for joining us today.

Pauly Ting: Thanks for having me.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. We’ve known each other for a while. We first met when you moved here to San Francisco about four years ago. Let’s start by just talking about what got you into user experience design and what inspired you to move to San Francisco.

Pauly Ting: Sure. I grew up in a design household. I was always challenged to think about why things were the way they were. I suppose if I were to single out when did I start taking a key interest in user experience and the context of technology, I was working for an Apple store in 2001. This was around the launch of the iPod, OSX, and the iMac. It was an amazing year because computers up to that point were all beige and all boring, something that businesses bought. For the first time, I really saw a feasible ecosystem where you would have these multiple things working together.

Every day people started buying these things. My grandma and I would be doing all kinds of stuff. I definitely saw at that point how this was going to really change the lives of many people. I decided that I wanted to be more heavily involved in the design of that. I think in OSX, comparing to what was on the market, it was just day and night in comparison to that user experience of things.

Fast forward a few years, I decided to go out and start my own company. I started an agency, which was just doing web design because they were the early days. Web design turned into content management, which turned to custom development, which turned into social, mobile, all that kind of stuff. Along the way, that sort of then also became digital content. User experience to me evolved into this thing of just being an interface into a complete experience including the language and the context and the timing and that kind of thing.

I was doing that for about four or five years. I was doing that in the Australian market and that was enjoyable. But the Australian market compared to the American market is a lot smaller. I decided to come on holiday. I’d heard a lot about Silicon Valley and everything else going in San Francisco. I decided to come over here on holiday and I just met some incredible people. We had some great conversations. There was so much energy that I knew that this was where I needed to be. I went home and I sold everything and I moved here.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. Welcome.

Pauly Ting: Thank you very much.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thanks for sticking around.

Pauly Ting: Yeah, it’s been good.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I think it’s great that you mentioned this need for a full experience. It’s not just about the look and the feel, but the copy and the way people interact with the product holistically. I think, as innovators, we get really bogged down by the logic and the mechanics behind a product, but those are all things that can be copied, right? You can copy the price, you can copy the features. That causes products to become commoditized. How do we avoid that?

Pauly Ting: You know, I think that we’re pushing towards this idea of competing based purely on the mechanics of things. My product does the same thing, but it’s cheaper, it’s lighter, it’s faster, or whatever. We associate that as being metric or being better. Even when I moved here four years ago, there was a very different culture around heavily engineering focus to what is now much more of a design culture. I think somewhere along the line people have understood that it’s not one or the other. It’s not a binary thing, but it’s the two working together. The best way I can think about it was I’m actually going to quote some Tony Robbins here, which was the science of achievement versus the other fulfillment. I decided to do a bit of work into looking into this science versus art type thing. The way I looked at it is, the science, which is the mechanics of things, is very much needed. You have the logic of how something is built and how you can optimize that. If you look at computers to cars, the optimization and that progress has enabled us to have smaller devices that are more cost effective.

That does change things dramatically because everyone has access to that. You don’t have to pay a billion dollars anymore for one megabyte of RAM. It can just be standard in your car. But on the flip side of that, if you build a product entirely around just competing on that, you don’t really differentiate in any particular way. When you look at when, for a period there, when retailers were going broke and everyone was saying this is the end of retail, why were Apple stores and Nike stores making more money? Not to reference Apple as a tribal cliché but they really understood that yes, the device was very important. They’re very important. The supply chain and all the mechanics of delivering the product, it’s really important. What was most important were how people were introduced to that product. How people were supported with that product and the culture around that. You have this other side, which is the art. The art is, I suppose, it’s the languages, the feelings, the response. People are very emotional creatures.

People in the face of supreme logic will still make very irrational emotional decisions. I think when you compete purely on the mechanics and you don’t pay attention to the emotion or the art sort of thing, you miss making a meaningful connection. The way I look at it is, the best way to think about it is a magic trick. A magic trick is this combination of science and art. When you put the two together, you get this concept of wonder. If I were to make a card disappear right now, you know physically that the card is not disappeared from the face of the Earth. You know it’s somewhere or somehow it disappeared. So you know that there’s a mechanic behind it but then the art of it is the way I do it, the slight of hand, the act so to speak. Together, when you put those two things together, you have that wonder of magic. I think that’s what people ideally pursue in the end. I know that’s why you have all these computer companies that are doing the same thing and there really wasn’t a differentiator. And then suddenly one computer company comes along and has the full package and suddenly everyone wants that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I think that’s great. I think one of the challenges that we often have as, again, innovators, engineers, is that we’re told to delight our users. We don’t even know what the heck “delight” means. Do we need to start doing magic tricks? Do we need to be an illusionist? How can we actually draw our users in and make them feel like they’re delighted?

Pauly Ting: “Delight” is a buzzword. It’s a word that I think was actually coined by Jony Ive. Everybody talks about it as this magic panacea—just delight people then all your problems are solved.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right. But how?

Pauly Ting: Right. The best way I could look at if you were to define what is delight, to me, it’s about a meteor exceeding someone’s expectation. If you go to a bank or if you go to a hotel or if you go to a restaurant, yes there is these standard expectations that you meet that you wish that your food will be warm and the price will be reasonable and the restaurant will be clean. But then the delight comes from they overheard that it was your anniversary and they brought you out a complimentary dessert. And so delight is that place of really having to understand where someone’s at and what’s going on in their world and being able to exceed one of their expectations rather than just meeting it. I think the challenge with that is when you look at most companies, they don’t even know who they’re trying to help let alone even start beginning to try to begin exceeding any expectations. Meaning half of these companies don’t even meet expectations, let alone exceed them.

And so they think delight comes down to an interaction or an interface or a magic button and really, it’s about relationship. So whether it’s a personal relationship from dating to a friend or whatever, delight is not my Facebook algorithm telling me it’s your birthday and I write that on your wall; delight is me calling you, and saying, “Happy Birthday, Poornima,” you know. And I think that is, people are trying to shortcut that but the reality is, delight is hard work but it’s real work.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So that seems kind of surprising because a lot of people think they know who their customers are or they have user experience folks like yourself or they have customer support, so where is the disconnect happening, why don’t they know who their customers are to then exceed expectations?

Pauly Ting: You know, I think people are shitty listeners. You know—

Poornima Vijayashanker: What did you say?

Pauly Ting: They are shitty listeners. You know, you’ve really got to have a conversation with most people and you can already see, they are not listening, they made up their mind about something and they’re waiting for you to have a break so they can interject. And if that were a company, it’s like, well, I have just invested this money building this thing, so I need to find a way of somehow jam it into your life and create a perceive, like this is making you better, right.

So you know, to me, if you really want to truly delight someone, it’s the person who gets you, who knows that you like that thing and, “Oh, you remembered, I only said it once,” type of thing. And so you’d have to be an impeccable listener and that has to happen before you start turning to big data and before you start turning to split testing and optimizing because that is important work but that comes later. The work that starts out at the beginning is just listening. Go out there and be like, “Why would somebody say that they want this, why does it matter?”

And then when you start trying to connect those dots, then you can start to interpret: well maybe they would like this thing too or they mentioned this a few times, even though their actions are like this, maybe this is actually more important. So then you can ask better questions and you can start to actually learn. I think once you have that more comprehensive picture from listening, then you can start to worry about, “Well, you mentioned that you really love this, and here I have a couple of options about that, like what do you think about that?”

But most of the time, people start to make fundamental decisions with the big data. And I think the problem with that is you start to have this correlation implies causation, you start to create fictitious scenarios and like, “Oh, all people must want this” and it’s just not true.

Poornima Vijayashanker: We actually on the 4th episode had Indi Young on the show, talking about listening sessions and why you want to reserve your judgements, you want to let people speak freely and just have the time to tell you about themselves and their interest rather than jumping to conclusions. So who do you think is at fault? Is it management, I mean, we don’t want to place blame, but where do you think the disconnect happens and how can we help people get through that?

Pauly Ting: That’s a big question. Look, I think it’s a cultural thing. I think we live in times that it’s very go go go, you always gotta be right. You know, the cost of being wrong is so high, you know from whether it’s social shaming to whatever it might be. A lawsuit, you can do no wrong. And I think we have this, at times, unhealthy culture of always trying to optimize. So that’s like you and I being friends but us trying to understand what’s the best times that we’ve had and how we have more of those and less of the shitty times we’ve had and thinking that that’s a meaningful relationship.

And the reality of it is, I worked in customer service, businesses, and all kinds of things, the greatest time that build an advocate or a champion in your business is when you gotta fix something. It’s not when everything’s going really well. But in order to fix something, you need to be a great listener. I think culturally, that’s something that needs to change, people just need to develop skills which extend beyond just having empathy but actually more along the lines of compassion, around, “OK, well, what’s this person saying, why would they be saying this, how do I acknowledge that? I don’t have to change my position, how I feel about it in order for that position to exist. And how do I help them in this regard?” And not make it about themselves.

And I think that’s very difficult for a company when they are so heavily invested in their magic bullet being the one that they want to sell. And what you find a lot is people trying to fit things after the fact, you know, they already made the solution and now they’re trying to find the problem type thing. Well, if they invested the same time, energy, and resources into better listening at the beginning, they could have something really compelling for the same money in the same amount of time and then people would want it.

But that’s that catch 22 that people—what is it, hindsight is 20/20, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: I think some people would also argue with that your customers or other folks don’t really know what they want so what do we as innovators do, even if we do take the time to listen and they give us either too many things or it’s unclear?

Pauly Ting: Yeah, one of the things I’ve learned in my time is that people lie. People lie intentionally, people lie unintentionally. And the reason for that is multifaceted. But if I want to bring it back to one core concept is we operate on these series of rules. My company’s rules, my rules, your rules, you know, society’s rules, our culture’s rules. And these rules are these heavily embedded things from a very young age along the way that we then continue to validate and surround ourselves with people who validate these things.

And so, if you’re trying to truly understand where someone’s coming from, they may just tell you a rule. They themselves may not even believe in the rule and if something better came along they may completely change their rule, that’s why you have people who…they are religious one day, then they are not the next or whatever it might be. And I think a part of getting to that is how do you peel more layers of the onion to get to the root of something.

So for example if you’re running an experiment where you’re trying to work out how…you’re trying to find out how often you work out. Most people are programed to say, “Well, how often do you work out?” It’s a very judgmental question, it’s very…to the people it’s very direct, “Why can’t I just get a direct answer?” Well, guess what, people are like that.

So to get to the bottom of that, I would have to go in this convoluted narrative around what your life looks like and what do you do on Tuesdays, and have a dialogue around that and then somewhere along the lines say, “So when do you manage to find the time to work out?” But people are not patient for that and people don’t think that way.

Poornima Vijayashanker: The person who’s speaking or the persons asking the questions?

Pauly Ting: The persons asking the questions. And so people who are asking the questions, they don’t even lie on purpose. You know, this is why things like focus groups are really kind of distorted because people will look to what other people in the room are saying cause they don’t want to be the outlier, because they have this projected sense of self. This is why Facebook is so amazing and everybody’s life is so much better than yours, is because they want to project their best self and so as a result, if you ask these types of questions or you go out in a very simplistic manner to try and understand people, because you don’t ask good questions or you are not a good listener or you’re not able to read between lines, you’ll get responses back that may pollute your thinking. Another thing I see a lot is people who seek to validate their biases, so they ask very loaded, leading questions, designed to be like, “Oh, look, see, people want to do that,” but the context and the framing of the question was very, very loaded.

And so I think you have to…that’s an art, that people need to learn that practice and then once you start getting to the root of that then you can truly start to understand, “OK, so this person said this but they do this and what could the rule be that this person has around body image or self belief or confidence or judgment, what will other people think?” type thing.

And if I really want to impact that behavior, I want Poornima to do that, how do I get to the root of it? So the best way that I can think of is weight loss. You know, someone’s like, “Oh my God, Poornima, I’m really fat, I wish I wasn’t so fat as I’m eating another donut,” and to most people it’s so logical, well stop eating donuts, calories in, calories out. But the reality is that’s not why people are fat. That’s not why people are overweight, it’s not why people smoke, they have gambling addictions, whatever it might be.

There is often a deeper root, an emotional thing, a rule somewhere in their head that they’re not good enough and if you don’t get to…and understand that at a very real level—not just a, “Okay, cool, well, Poornima has no self confidence” type thing—if you truly can’t relate to and understand that, you’ll never move their needle. And you can constantly sell them diet plans but they won’t lose weight. And so at some point, I think, when you want to impact people, you really have to go to that level, you have to dig deeper.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So part of the delight then is to understand their own motivations or their own rules before you can actually design products around that.

Pauly Ting: You know, everyone in life just wants to be understood, everyone wants to be on the team, everyone wants to be picked. And I think people will do whatever they feel like they need to do in order to feel that way. And so if you want to delight people for the use of a better word, yes, you need to understand them. How would you and I be friends if I didn’t make any effort, if you didn’t make any effort to get to know each other? We wouldn’t, we would just be acquaintances, right. But we build a friendship because there is not only a shared interest but a commitment or a pursuit to want that.

And I think that’s when you see banks and they just screwed a whole bunch of people over and then next week on TV they’re talking about happy families and how much they love you and people like, “Yeah, right,” and it’s out of integrity, it doesn’t line up. And I think that’s what happens when you build a product that’s all about this this and this but then you deliver it a certain way and people go, “We need to delight people,” and so what you’re trying to say, you need to understand their needs and expectations and meet them, exceed them.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I’m sure this problem gets worse as we continue to focus on building and optimizing products.

Pauly Ting: It does. You know the example that I just mentioned about you and me, it’s very personal. And we have a lot of time and patience and energy and we can make mistakes and that sort of stuff and you’re not always afforded that in the business world. You may have multiple people involved, people who are in and out of jobs, you have different, more people to talk with and get feedback from. There is a need to structure that. When you’re trying to deliver something to delight many many people and not just one, there is a lot of nuance, I suppose, in trying to appeal to people.

So the best way to do that is most people then turn to go, “Well, who are our users?” And I’ll create up some marketing persona, and this is Pauly, I’ll take a photo and then I make a whole bunch of stereotypical assumptions about people in that demographic and decide that that’s who we want to target. And it doesn’t mean that to a certain degree there is an element of truth to that.

But if you really want to understand who you want to target and how you want to build this product and how you want to delight people on an ongoing basis, you really need to understand that psychology. So the recommendations that I would normally make to people is start with the psychographics of things and then worry about the demographics. You know, the demographics is targeting later on to optimize a language, your best way to sell it to someone. But in the beginning it’s saying, “We’re building this product, we’re building this company because we feel a certain way about something and we believe” type thing. You gotta have your “why” statement.

The next comment then is looking at, OK, well, who else believes in that and why do they believe in that and do they want to be part of that or do they feel strongly enough that they would support us in that kind of thing? And so the psychology of looking at people if you want to go, say, go save the world doing the following things, you need to go and understand their world view. You need to understand their language, understand their fear, all the things that might get in the way of them participating. So again, they might think it’s a great idea and, “Yes, I definitely want this,” but then why don’t they do it? If you don’t understand the intrinsic and deeper motivations and their language and the way that they describe it, maybe they are just a pessimistic person or maybe you’re targeting a demographic that’s very suspicious or they grow up in a generation where they don’t spend on credit, they only spend on cash—there may be different attitudes that they have that you really need to dig into and understand the root of and decide whether you want to support those or change those. And one is easier than the other—it’s always easier to convince someone to do more of what they already like; it’s a lot harder to convince someone to stop doing something, so you need to work out which is gonna be the best.

And sometimes, if you’re doing anti-drunk driving campaign, you’re gonna have to tell people some hard stuff that they don’t want to hear but if it’s something you should go on holiday more, OK.

So I think in doing that, if you understand the psychology of why people do what they do, how they feel that what they feel, then you start to have something to say. We’re targeting people who see the world this way, who believe in what we do and that’s why we when you look at their tradition, you know the early Apple campaign around the rebels and misfits, they were trying to build computers for people who identified with that.

Then once you’ve done that then you can worry about demographics of saying, “OK, well, we want to target people in this particular area that have more money or they are of this gender or this whatever, so we can tweak the message to appeal to that demographic.” But you wouldn’t want to start there.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, what happens if you start there?

Pauly Ting: Well, you just end up developing generic stuff.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That goes back to the—

Pauly Ting: Yeah, I mean you develop stuff that if…you can either alienate a group of people or what you see a lot of is the product doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work and then people summarize that the product was never gonna work but the demographic is stupid or they don’t want it or there are some sort of optimization issue, it’s a price, it’s a something issue when it’s just not. They were having the conversation with the wrong people.

And that would be trying to convince someone who is not a baseball fan to spend a thousand dollars on the corporate box. People like baseball, someone will pay for it, you’re just not talking to the right people, but to say, “all males or all females like baseball” is just stupid.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, this is all great if you’re starting from scratch but a lot of times there is momentum behind a product and I’m sure companies come to you and they say, “Oh, we’ve identified the problem, the problem is user growth and we just need to fix the signup page, so can you make us a pretty signup page?”

Pauly Ting: Yes, they are always fun projects to have. I worked with 500—I worked with startups and I worked with Fortune 500 companies as well, and yes, they are very different beasts, but I would say that it still comes back to a common thing which is: how well do you understand the problem you’re trying to solve? There’s just a difference in resources and legacy systems and you sort of cross those bridges when you get to them.

The way I would look at it is, when faced with a comment like,”We need to fix the signup page,” I like to dig a little deeper, pull some more layers of the onion and really get to the essence of what it is about the signup page in particular. Generally, you can find within a few questions that people really have no idea and they just sort of think that, well, because we’re not getting signups it must be something related to that. It’s sort of the symptom, not the cause type thing.

So there’s four major steps that I would assess—whether it was a startup, whether it was a 500 company—and I would try to determine whether they actually knew the answers to those, and if they didn’t then that would be a place where I would start.

So the four major pillars that I look at is the first one is, how well do they know themselves. There’s a great talk by Simon Sinek who wrote a book Start with Why, which looks at why does a company do what it does, what do they believe in, and why should anyone give a shit. If they don’t really know that and to them it’s just like, “Oh, cause we sell these things to these people,” to me that’s not good enough. I really need to get to the essence of why something matters.

The second thing is then how well do they know the ecosystem in which they’re operating. So who are the people involved and how do they with their idea or their product, do they see themselves impacting that ecosystem in a meaningful or positive way. If they haven’t really thought that then that’s irresponsible; if they have thought about it, then what’s the answer to that? Are they trying to, rather than just make people’s lives better but how well do they actually do that, OK? If I dig a hole over here, that has consequences, but the benefits outweigh the consequences type thing.

The third thing is, who are the people in that ecosystem specifically and how well do they know those people, their psychology, why would somebody want this? The way I always sort of try to do a bit of a sanity check on these kind of things is if somebody could get the same emotional feeling or the outcome from something else, commit what you’re doing, they could possibly well and truly do that. So are you building some app right now to get around town, the best way to do it is Uber but next week suddenly they’ve discovered some new technology that if you dig a hole in your backyard and you stick your head in it then you’ll be transported to wherever you need to get to. People probably do that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s probably the HyperLoop.

Pauly Ting: Right, it’ll be the HyperLoop. So as a result, people are more committed to, I suppose, to achieving that feeling or that outcome more so maybe then they are using your product. So if you don’t really deeply understand that psychology of those people then you wonder why, “Oh, what’s this new hole in the ground thing?” and you become one of the incumbents that are now complaining about uber.

The last thing is knowing the context and this is a big thing. To me context is focus. So you can sit there and say, “Well, we understand why we do what we do and it’s over important work and we understand the ecosystem in which we operate and we even have a deep understanding of the people work we’re doing, we’re trying to help,” but if you don’t understand the context in which you’re trying to help, you still stand to lose there as well. And the context is in what circumstance particularly will someone need this and why would they choose this over anything else. And maybe it’s a time thing or maybe it’s a coolness thing, you know what I mean?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Preference.

Pauly Ting: Preference. So if you don’t understand those kinds of things very very clearly and you cannot define that, you end up creating problem statements such as, “We need more signups.” So we work with the startup and I’ve done the signup problem for quite a few companies, but everything from big DirectTV-type brands to emerging startups and the common thing is that lack of understanding of who you’re trying to target and the context in which they’re trying to operate is very very important to creating a meaningful user experience.

So what I mean by that is, there is this belief that less is more. Less steps makes things better. You know, if you went to Ikea and you bought a cabinet and there’s like—there’s like 50 billion steps on how to assemble a drawer but they decide, you know what, less is more, we’re just gonna share the finished drawer, isn’t that amazing, isn’t that beautiful. It wouldn’t be helpful, wouldn’t be useful to you because you actually need all the steps and so part of with one of the startups we worked at is they were trying to push towards this direction of less steps, and going with mobile best practices, you know they looked up design blogs and all kinds of stuff. But the reality is they were just designing to copy what everyone else is doing because that’s what everyone else is doing. You know, it’s a real herd mentality.

When we actually took the time to understand, OK, they’re trying to target parents who are trying to help their children with certain situations, these parents are going to be very invested, it’s the same kind of parent who spend their whole lifetime raising their child and being patient and you know, they fill in lengthy college applications and that kind of stuff, stands to reason that they may be OK with an extra form filled on the signup form if it really means, and they believe that this will make a difference to their child’s life.

So without understanding that very important detail, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, we don’t need that, we don’t need that, we don’t need that.” So when you sort of decide to understand that context then you can start to create a very tailored experience that you may find is unique and you may design a new experience that no one’s ever designed before and you become the new gold standard, but you never get there unless you really go through those four steps.

So when I work with these brands, more often than not, they will have some of those or maybe to not enough depth, so I sort of implore them to go deeper but most of the time they don’t really have the context down pat and that’s the crux, because if I was a coffee shop and I’m trying to sell you coffee at midnight, you’ll be like, “Call me at seven in the morning, but I don’t drink coffee at midnight,” and that context really matters.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. So I’m a firm believer in teaching by example and I think the example you gave of the startup that you worked with where they were focused on parents and children is great. Why don’t we dig in a little bit deeper to understand what the problem statement was and hopefully our viewers can learn a little bit from that.

Pauly Ting: Yeah, absolutely. So like I said the original brief was we need to make our signup form betterer type thing and when we started looking at the user research—so the context was, this is a company that was developing social media monitoring software so that parents could link their children’s social media accounts and monitor, not spy, on their children’s’ activity in case anything…so if anything came up that was particularly worrying, the parent would be notified, otherwise—it didn’t really…they weren’t reading all the messages type thing.

So when we started dig into this, we asked this typical question: “OK, why are you doing this?” The first response was because we want to help parents feel peace of mind with their children, along the lines of that. Which to me was a very mechanical response, right. It’s like saying, “I sell coffee cups because people drink coffee.” So we sort of dug a little bit deeper there and we tried to look at it, “OK, why does that even matter?” So the thing was interesting about the startup, all the founders were parents and so we got into some interesting debates and it got into some heavy conversations where it was like, “Don’t tell me how to parent my children” type thing. It was great, it was a great energy because what it came back down to: Why do you even care about this? And they’re like, “Because I want to make sure that my child develops the skills to navigate life as a great adult”

And so I felt that was very important because even by focusing on that very particular point, they weren’t trying to focus on parents who were trying to manage their children or to save their children. They’re trying to focus on parents who were trying to raise young adults, which is very important, it’s a very important differentiator. When we then looked at the ecosystem of who was involved, we understand that there were the parents and then there were the kids and then there were potentially teachers and other kids and that sort of stuff. And so we started looking at saying, “Well, OK, what does a conversation look like,” because right now, the way that the signup form is designed, the parent signs up and does this stuff and then they need to go and get the kids’ credentials.

How do we include the children in that conversation? Because for this ecosystem to work, for the child to want to do it, they need to have buy-in. And so in order to do that, we decided, well, how do we design our signup flow that incorporates the children’s part of that as part of the conversation and it’s organic as opposed to this, “you hit a roadblock; now I don’t know how ever you’re gonna get the child’s details is up to you but when you do, come back to us and then you’ll be able to enjoy this.”

The third thing was understanding the psychology of these people and so that’s where we extended, OK, why would a child not want to do this, why would a parent be afraid of doing this, and then when we understood that, the parent may feel they don’t know how to have a conversation with the child but that’s maybe cause the parent is not tech savvy, maybe because they have a challenging relationship with their child, something like that, we thought, “Well, is there an opportunity that we can maybe be a little proactive?” So rather than just sit back and go, “Well, we’re waiting for your child’s login details. Hey we noticed that it’s been a couple of days since you signed up, how are things going, you know here are some great tips that other parents have used to have this kind of conversation, this very difficult conversation with their children.”

And then last of all was this sort of context. And the context then really focused the lens around what is the best scenario for this to happen—so why would somebody choose to do this? And we broke up into this idea of, OK, well maybe there is three different types of parents. There is parents that have great relationships with their children, parents who have challenging relationships with their children but normal, healthy, and then parents who have very poor relationships with their children, maybe they don’t even live together. It’s very easy to say, “Well, we want to target parents who have great relationships,” but realistically, parents who have great relationships may not need this software because what makes a great relationship? You know that means that they are knowledgeable and have an open communication style and they have that sort of trust or whatever.

So we really want to focus on the challenging relationship side of things. So when we looked at the challenging side of things then we had to understand, well, OK, what makes a challenging relationship and how would one navigate that knowing that context of, “You want to have this conversation and maybe some tension.” And so when we understood all of that side of things, we actually created a signup flow that…it wasn’t shorter, it was actually I think one screen longer, it was completely remodeled around the order of events but we included support information for parents after a certain period of time, when children are actually able to sign themselves into it but they had their own landing page, it was in their language and sort of sold the product from a child’s perspective. And we sort of really just tried not focus on less is more or even, I mean obviously we did argue about the UI at some point but the idea was how do you build an experience that supports what the founders were trying to create and why, which was we want to help parents raise responsible young adults in the ecosystem of where we understand that there are parents who have challenging relationships with their children in the context of…I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was on the lines that when they’re faced with some difficult decision, faced with some difficult scenario in their life, they have a platform or a dialogue to have a conversation with their parents.

So the problems then went from this very simple “fix a signup form” into like a paragraph but the reason why that’s so important is—you know, I like my metaphors, it’s like if I said to you, “Poornima, we need to paint this room,” right. What happens is, if you’re an engineer and I’m a designer and someone else is a business person and a marketer and whatever: people default to what they know best, right. You only gotta ask somebody about what you should do about your relationship or your life or whatever and whatever that person’s done in their life, that’s the advice you’re getting, right. And so that creates a very, I suppose, a broken—

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s biased.

Pauly Ting: It’s a very difficult environment because everybody wants to solve the problem how they think the problem should be solved. If you are able to say, “OK, look, we’re all in this together, we need to design this room and you’re a lot more focused than Poornima, so this room is gonna be used for this situation for these kinds of people in this kind of day in this kind of context. So we’re gonna be doing some filming in here on a Tuesday morning blah blah blah.” Suddenly now when you’re able to focus people’s perspective, you’re able now to say, “So how would we do that technically, how do we design that, how would that workflow look like, how would we communicate that with words?”

And suddenly everybody is sort of sharing a common goal and so it’s so important to have that detailed problem statement and allow people to solve the problems, that’s why you employ them. To solve the problems, not to just like go to dribble and look up signup forms and best practices and copy/paste.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So the context overall and having people understand that context will do away with those biases and their way of solving the problem.

Pauly Ting: Absolutely, I think that, if I look at design versus art as a concept, you know, art is very “that’s my opinion, that’s my song, that’s my piece of work, you don’t like it, not my problem.” Design is much more serviced to others and to me—

Poornima Vijayashanker: There is a context yeah.

Pauly Ting: To me, design is the auto-translation and then nothing more. It is simply, “I have something in which you’re trying to understated where this instruction is for your Ikea cabinet to signing up for this app, and however I need to meet your needs so you can feel confident doing that.” And I think when people take the focus off themselves as in “what I think as a designer” or “what you think as an engineer,” and it’s more about how do we help that person who is in that situation, suddenly now we are able to contribute in a more meaningful way, in a more collaborative way rather than just fighting for territory.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So now that you’ve nailed the problem statement, what comes next?

Pauly Ting: So what you do is you would start the design process of maybe expanding some thoughts around a user journey, a workflow of how things are done, then you start to wireframe prototype, that kind of thing. So what we did for this particular company was once we understood the—I suppose, we looked at everything, behavioral psychology of children and parents and read all kinds of weird and interesting articles about it. And basically what we’re trying to get down to is, OK, here is the current workflow in the way that somebody sort of, or a parent or child gets through this experience and this is the workflow that we think would be better. And so along the way in there we looked at OK, what would be the metric points. So some of the things we broke them down as well, so rather than just say, “Well, a signup is somebody who gets through the whole process,” a signup may be somebody who actually clicks—they enter their name and then they get to screen two and the screen two when they’re asking for the child’s credentials, like we consider that as a successful signup because that next metric now is connecting an account. You’re having a much more granular funnel.

So when we understood these were the metric points, we then basically designed out that workflow and then in that workflow you design that, okay, what would all the potential screens be for that particular scenario?

So we knew that everything from error handles to what happens here, what happens there, and it’s that typical sort of wireframing, whiteboard why framing design process at which point then you would prototype that up and you would start to socialize that and see how people feel. The way we did it is typically, we had an engineer, designer, like you’re a designer and me doing UX, work together, so there wasn’t this sort of waterfall style. We were all immersed in the problem, we created the problem statement together, we wireframed together, we did the UI together, and people…there was always someone in the room who was more…that was their strong suit so they would maybe lead the charge on that kind of thing but then the others didn’t go off and do other things, they would basically give feedback and test things and help optimize and that kind of stuff.

So generally, in that example, the reason I like that particular story is we had five days. And we had five days to completely redesign the onboarding signup flow.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow, that’s a short amount of time.

Pauly Ting: Yeah, and most of the time, people like…it’s like a hackathon, like go go go, just do anything, anything that sticks. By day three, we were still talking about users and psychology and whatever and the startup was getting a little antsy, they wanted to see some screens, they need to see something and we implored them to be patient and we’re glad that they took our advice. By the time we got to Wednesday afternoon, we’d sort of worked at that workflow with the metrics and everyone was like, “Yeah, OK that’s cool.” We actually punched out the wireframes, UI for iPad and iPhone with a developer guy and a startup guy in two days.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow.

Pauly Ting: And the best way I can look at that is, when you sort of follow that process, it’s like you’re making dinner and you know what you’re cooking and you’d been measuring out the quantities and you got it all ready to go and now you just gotta cook it. And you know the order of events and suddenly dinner is done in 20 minutes. But typically the other way, sometimes when people get a little hasty, then it’s like, “Quick, whatever, we’ve gotta cook dinner, there is no time to waste, just throw things in the saucepan, just make it happen,” and they keep adding salt and how does that taste.

The problem with that is, you end up making a poop sandwich. So for us, at the end of that we had four prototyped and all the screens and they implemented it and it’s working well.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So you frontloaded a lot of the work by having the conversations, establishing the context, and really digging into who the user was and then that made the design process, the mechanics of actually doing the wireframes, the error handling, the actual workflows.

Pauly Ting: And the copyright. I mean, we did everything. We did even the copyrighting, on every particular screen, like what the screen was gonna say. But what’s important, what we needed to deliver wasn’t just a design project, a solution of like, “here that’s the thing.” We needed to provide that but we also wanted to provide them some thinking so that when they wanted to solve future problems for themselves and they wanted to change the profile page and the newsfeed and whatever, they didn’t have to keep going, “Now, what do we do, now what do we do?” Because they had that thinking. They knew why they were doing and what context and for whom and what the ecosystem looked like and they knew their story and then…so every problem that they would go and then dissolve, they would follow our process and they could solve their own problems, they wouldn’t always need to ring me. Probably is something…it takes a little time to practice but generally, I want to empower people to think for themselves and to be powerful about doing that and build their own great products.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that’s great. As opposed to just designing their signup flow and they come back to you and say, “Oh, now we have retention problem”

Pauly Ting: Right, I mean I definitely think…I mean it’s probably good in the short term for me but long term I’m more committed to helping people create great things and I think that if you—they will teach a man to fish type thing, I think it’s a better outcome for everyone.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thanks for walking us through this entire process. I know our viewers out there are gonna find this really valuable and can hopefully replicate it. But let’s boil this down to one takeaway for our viewers that they can use tomorrow and beyond.

Pauly Ting: Absolutely. I would say, study people. Whether that’s behavioral psychology, learning to listen, getting out of the office, go and immerse yourself in your user’s world. Maybe that’s a skate park, maybe that’s a hospital ward, wherever it might be, really go and understand their world rather than sort of try to observe from the sideline. What I found so many times, even everything that I read and I studied online, you just spend five minutes on a hospital ward and suddenly there are things that you’re like, “I didn’t even think of that,” and so what I suppose I would distill it down to is, sometimes the work that needs doing isn’t the work that you think.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So if our viewers out there want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way?

Pauly Ting: Best way would be my website, paulyting.com, or my portfolio whoispaulyting.com.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thank you. Just to quickly recap this episode. We covered two major points to help you build products that will delight your users. The first thing we talked about is to go beyond the mechanics of a product, you know, how is it built, what are the online profiles and their interactions and to really dig in and understand your user’s world and to do that, you’ve gotta step into it. You’d have conversations with them, you need to have listening sessions.

The second is, once you’ve established that context, then creating a problem statement. Collaborating with your team and while that might take some days, it’s important work to do. Once you do that work, then you can go through the design process of creating workflows and prototypes and iterating.

So thanks again to our special guest Pauly Ting for joining us today.

Pauly Ting: Thank you for having me.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, thank you. And of course, to all of you out there, our viewers, for tuning in today and our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for helping and producing this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Femgineer TV, then please share it with your friends, your coworkers, and your boss. And let us know in the blog comments below what your favorite part of this episode was. Subscribe to Femgineer’s youtube channel to receive the next episode of Femgineer TV, where I’ll be hosting founder and CEO of StyleSeat, Melody McCloskey.

Thanks for tuning in today and I’m looking forward to reading your blog comments.

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