Saturday saw our first ever Firestarters event in Austin, held in the Google Fiber space during SXSWi. We'd themed the event around the intersection of user experience design and strategy which, judging from the audience feedback and debate on the night is rich territory for discussion right now. Perhaps unsurprising given the growth in importance of UX within both clients and agencies, and more generally how tech-savvy design resourcing, expertise and practice is in ever increasing demand (as encapsulated nicely by John Maeda's Design in Tech Report that was launched at SXSW).
Our first speaker was the brilliant Oonie Chase, Director of Experience at Wieden & Kennedy, who talked about how UX was influencing briefs in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways at W & K, but also how the two disciplines will likely start start from a different place – planning from the lens of the brand, UX from the customer perspective, and what they can teach each other. She used a quote by Dave Terry at W & K ("It's entirely wrong, but it's golden in its wrongness.") about UX:
User Experience practice challenges the idea that you need scale immediately – you might start small to acquire learnings, whilst advertising has a ‘need for glory’. UX is something that is co-created over time so not necessarily perfect. It doesn't worship creative and 'doneness' in the same way as planners do. But whilst UX can be overly focused on getting from A to B, planning can teach UX about not losing sight of the ‘soul’ and emotion of what you do. Rather than aiming for a Minimum Viable Product, perhaps it's more about achieving a 'Minimum Lovable Product'.
Chloe Gottlieb, SVP Exec Creative Director, R/GA, complimented that nicely by focusing on where planning and UX (or rather Experience Design, which is the term they prefer at R/GA) overlap. Great planners, said Chloe, are inherently creative and great Experience Designers are inherently strategic, but it's how they work together (as opposed to working in parallel) inside the agency that is becoming increasingly important. Both planners and experience designers are pattern seekers, consumed by consumers, and obsessed with culture and behaviour, but:
"While UX folk might veer more toward architecture, engineering and design – closely observing customer needs and how to add value to them over time – planners are more like poets, anthropologists, psychicians – finding tensions in culture and bringing them to light."
UX insights might lead to products, services and platforms (systems), planning insights lead to brand stories, content, comms. R/GA's own progression has amplified the overlap, growing into making more branded interactions and systems for campaigns, becoming more strategic (e.g. thinking about functionally integrated services that tied products and services together), just as planning comes from brand and storytelling towards having to create strategies that could lead to products, services or communications, and is evolving to find ways to stay involved as work is made, tested, evolved over time.
So it is far from binary, there is plenty of overlap, and planning and UX need each other more than ever. The intersection is where the magic happens, particularly now that most brands are primarily experienced through interfaces (in fact 'Brand is Interface'), product and message are integrated more than ever, and experiences are not separated into silos. Strategy becomes 'truth over time', requiring more system thinking, experimentation, tweaking, QA than ever before. At R/GA, getting to insights involves multidisciplinary teams working together on the problem, looking for patterns and collisions, and briefs are the crystallisation after the ideas are baked. The way they know they have a great insight is when it enables creatives to take giant leaps.
Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, added a third unique perspective. Moving to a tech company from an agency background, said Ian, meant coming to a place where big ideas are not as important as big releases, where impact is more important than inspiration, and from an environment run on creative disciplines, to one dominated by engineering. His tool set and collaborators have also changed (he counts algorithms amongst his new set of collaborators). Planners dig for insights, and uncover or manufacture a truth, and creatives make fictions (through stories and designs). So the flow of the process is that from an insight you get a big idea, and from that big idea you tell or make a story, and in software especially you create an experience for the customer. But in software the distance between creating a story and creating an experience can be a long and winding road. But increasingly both marketing and product now focus on the essentials of the experience they are trying to create at the end. This may be in a story like form, but stories illustrate a promise, and all promises are lies until we keep them. So 'planners tell awesome lies', lies we can believe in.
And whilst software companies understand their customer’s behaviour, they rarely understand their customer.
Russell Davies (Creative Director, UK Government Digital Service) built on his Firestarters UK talk by focusing in on how usability increasingly trumps persuasion. In a pleasingly controversial talk, he talked about how the product is the service is the marketing, and why this meant that experience design was the future. A brilliant product will always be better than a parity product with marketing. It was once hard to produce brilliant products, but as everything becomes increasingly digitised it's easier than ever. So companies that are still set up around persuasion need to design around the needs of the user, and be set up to deliver the best experience possible. This means no new ideas until everything works ('fix the basics'). And that user experience is killing marketing since if the product is good enough there is no need to over sell it. And about how everyone should be concerned about making user experience better.
The questions and debate afterwards picked up on just how topical a subject this is right now for strategists and agencies, and we had no lack of interesting (and sometimes controversial) opinion on the night. You can see a Storify of some of the feedback and conversation here.
My thanks as always to Ben Malbon and Google for hosting, to our amazing speakers who made our first Google Firestarters in Austin such a success.