Columns / Insights

Reformulating UX Norms

Brian Burke
How did you get started in interactive/digital design? In 1998, I joined a startup called AtomFilms, one of the first companies to put film and animation online during a time when under ten million homes in the United States had broadband. In a sense, we were designing for an experience that accommodated bit rates of 56k to 100k—100k was considered broadband at that time. Everything loaded so slowly that we had to design for the lowest common denominator while providing a superrich experience across all the supporting online information and webpages. It was a defining moment in my career as I realized that half of the established media world was embracing technology and the on-demand experience, while the other half was staunchly defending their linear TV experiences. Remember, this was way before YouTube, and the digital video camera was nowhere near mainstream.

Even though disruption was attractive to me, I heard a lot of nos in those days. If we could challenge established norms in media experiences and back it up with an eye to design for the user and technological evolution, we could provide a whole new world of digital information. I remember a big cable executive telling me that people would never want to view movies on their computers, basically saying it was a fad. Yep, he didn’t get it.

UX design must always find that balance between art and science.


Smashing Ideas is part of Penguin Random House. Will in-house digital agencies become increasingly significant in publishing? We helped Penguin Random House with its digital transformation in many ways, but it lives in a world where content is the focus and the experience is in the words. Interactive plays a part, but it is more about giving traditional, large-scale companies access to utilize digital mediums, which then gives audiences varying entry points into the content. The publishing industry is already building digital skills internally across the board; this industry is already on the path to digital maturity.

Today, we also see more and more Fortune 500 companies that want to own design throughout all phases of the value chain. Product design often lives in disparate silos, and the handoff between consulting firms, design agencies, development firms and ad agencies is completely broken. The original idea’s value proposition, art and beauty are often lost in this shuffle, so firms want to harness that creative energy internally to carefully craft the idea to the final product’s introduction in the market. I totally get it. This trend is increasing, and you don’t have to look further than one of John Maeda’s presentations to see its significance. 

So the role of the independent agency is more important than ever. Agencies are catalysts for change. They help open up new thoughts and worlds, exposing diverse design and technology that, at times, may seem daunting to nondigital businesses. It is essential for businesses to integrate independent product design and development agencies from day one to provide diverse, divergent and experienced points of view to the process—rather than constant groupthink consensus. As external change agents, independent agencies can help internal disrupters break creative paralysis as close partners solving major design problems. It’s in this independence that agencies can bring in creative minds that have solved big problems from multiple industries, leveraging that wealth of knowledge to provide the best perspective for the UX challenge at hand.

Smashing Ideas’ portfolio is filled with interactive experiences, like David Wiesner’s Spot and Stephen Hawking’s Snapshots of the Universe. What is challenging about blending art and technology for younger audiences? It’s less challenging than one might think. Smashing Ideas has designed over 500 games and applications in our 20-year history, with more than 60 percent of those being for children. Designing for this young audience helps inform interactive design for all demographics. UX in its simplest form is primal and in digital. It begins with the most basic interactions. The beauty of this is that we can also lead with art, building a visceral relationship to the visual experience and using technology in a supporting role.

How is the rise of big data affecting the brands you work with? Big data has become an essential tool to understand individual and mass consumer behavior. If you can understand an individual’s motivations while finding correlation with a broader audience, you can design for both. It’s not a perfect science, but data has opened up new realms of possibility for becoming closer to consumer intent. Couple big data with behavioral psychology and you potentially have a powerful medium for understanding human behavior at scale. Data tells the truth where contextual inquiry may have loose ends. 

For example, we gathered essential insights through data for Philips Oral Healthcare’s Philips Sonicare for Kids connected smart toothbrush. Philips Sonicare For Kids aimed to help kids create healthy habits that last a lifetime. During the development pilot, we created a custom analytics platform that allowed us to gather real-time, individualized user data through the connected toothbrush so we could compare what users said their brushing habits were versus what they were actually doing. Prior to big data and analytics, insights were generally based on self-reporting, which has a high degree of inaccuracy. By utilizing smart data, we could see insights like drop-off rates and technical/connection issues that would ultimately inform the build of the final product by letting us know the precise moments we could add level-up and incentivized features to reengage the user.

In addition to this data collection, we also conducted numerous rounds of contextual interviews in participants’ homes, built early prototypes, completed concept tests and shadowed dentist visits, all to zero in on the precise motivations of the target audience. This led to a very powerful insight: It turns out that while most kids turn brushing into a battle, they actually don’t dislike it. In fact, the feeling of a clean mouth is extremely motivating to them. They simply don’t like to stop what they are doing or don’t want to do what follows brushing their teeth, such as going to bed, which turns tooth brushing into a stall tactic.

With this in mind, it was clear to us that this connected experience needed to be more than just a glorified toothbrush timer or a game. We needed kids to feel empowered to brush on their own, while still providing significant education around how and why to brush. Knowing how important this brushing experience is with dental professionals for Philips Sonicare, we went one step further and included educational aspects from dental professionals regarding not only how to brush, but also how healthy eating habits can impact oral health. Real-time data analytics were instrumental to the strategic direction of the product, setting the stage for our creative team to create an original character that would draw kids into a playful experience so engaging that they would pester their parents to brush.

What frustrates you about UX design right now? We all run the risk of missing out on the importance of art in the future of design. There’s no debate in my mind that research, data and behavioral science definitely help us build better, more useful products. However, there has been a lot of talk in the world about design thinking that unfolds in the “boardroom” to solve big business challenges.

I agree with the importance of this trend in order to connect the business with the user, but visual experience design should continue to challenge what potentially falls within formulaic principles for success in UX. We cannot divorce art from UX methodologies. UX design must always find that balance between art and science.

CEO of Smashing Ideas (SI) Brian Burke manages the daily operations of the agency and leads the overall direction, development and implementation of SI’s long-term growth and market strategy. Burke obtained his MA in European studies from KU Leuven in Belgium and his BA in communication studies from Seattle University. There was a time long, long ago when he worked outside of SI, helping build digital companies such as Atom Entertainment—which operated AtomFilms and Shockwave.com—as vice president of syndication and at Zango, as senior director of business development. Today, his partner and client list includes Mattel, Adobe, Sony Pictures Television, General Electric, British Airways, Nickelodeon, Panasonic Corporation and HBO. Burke’s expertise in the digital content ecosystem, media, platforms, mobile and devices, and design trends has positioned SI as a strategic partner and digital arm to several Fortune 500 companies. He has spoken at numerous conferences, from the Consumer Electronics Show to South by Southwest to the Game Developers Conference, on topics ranging from the future of mobile gaming to the impact that technology has on our collective experience as consumers.

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