How we helped Universal Music Group create the future of music

By Neil Stoeckle, Creative Director, YML

How do you design a product for rockstars? Pop singers? Metal heads? 

That was my, and my team at YML, challenge from none other than Universal Music Group just a few months ago.  First, you have to understand what a modern musician is. From there, what makes the artists at Universal Music Group so unique.

Universal Music Group is arguably the largest, most talent filled music label in the business, representing Grammy winning artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Taylor Swift — the list goes on. 

Artists join UMG not only for their reach and distribution, but also their innovation. Appropriately named one of Fast Company’s 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2019, UMG continues to prioritize projects that rattle industry norms and progress music forward.

They invest in an array of start-ups that constantly increase the capabilities of music hardware and software. They sponsor annual hack-athons where people in the music and tech industries combine forces to create new digital products. They own multiple music focused incubators and partner with product accelerators all over the globe, where the most promising digital ideas go on to be nurtured and polished, ultimately forming the foundations of new music-driven startups like Spreadmix — a streaming platform aimed at connecting people through live music, and Soundbops — a tool which encourages hands on music making for children early in their development. 

It’s obvious that music is changing. It has been since the first note was played and will continue even after humans are no longer the ones listening. From the way people consume it to the way artists create and deliver it. Imagine a time lapse of the evolution of recorded music: vinyl record players with big brass gramophones turn into cassette tape walkmans with cushy foam headphones, which morph into shiny iPods contrasted on dancing silhouettes. 

Now look at us.  We’re living in the streaming age where owning music is a dead idea. 

Electronic stores have become graveyards for hard copy albums, embalmed in plastic and buried beneath their headstone-like clearance bins. The nostalgic teenager in me is in mourning. 

And as UMG has recognized up close and personal, musicians are changing as well. 

The rising stars of this generations aren’t the hotel-trashing rockstar stereotypes of the past. These are young, informed entrepreneurs who understand that it takes more than just good music to be famous. They have to have a strong social media presence, they need big brand affiliations, they need to anticipate future trends and and they need to identify marketing opportunities based on location, demographics and untapped and rising markets. 

The music-loving product designer in me is nerding out hard.

Welcome to Universal Music Artists

UMG’s ongoing quest for innovation combined with the recognition of the changing musician inspired the label to partner with YML.  Together we introduced Universal Music Artists  —  a new digital platform which brings data to the music industry. It aggregates user data from Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, so artists have a holistic view of exactly who their fans are and how they can better engage them.

What does that even mean?

The musical data footprint today is growing at an unimaginable pace. Music lovers pamper themselves with streaming services defined by an “any song, anywhere” reality. Every time a Spotify or Apple Music account is created, a small amount of demographic information — including age, gender and location — is captured. 

This isn’t a bad thing.

 In fact, as someone who still crowd-surfs at the age of 30 and according to Spotify, listened to 93,876 minutes of music last year, it’s pretty damn amazing. 

While Facebook gathers and sells people’s personal information to the highest bidder, UMG uses only the most basic demographic data to provide a better experience to fans. It’s like a satisfaction survey you actually want to fill out. At the crux of the UMA offering is the simple truth that guides most, if not all, data-informed digital experiences: with more information, I can make more informed decisions. 

Now let’s translate that to Gaga or Kendrick: If an artist knows who is listening, where they’re listening and what they’re listening to, they can tailor the sound, the shows, the merch, even who their next collaboration will be with — everything to better entertain the constant change of the audience.

Data is better when it’s designed

UMG’s data team may be reading this so I won’t give away all my secrets, but the beginning of the project often had me sitting with my ears open and my mouth shut, desperately trying to keep up with the unfamiliar analytics jargon that effortlessly rolled off their tongues.

 Imagine yourself walking down the street and you come across people playing double dutch and they ask if you want to join. So you do. But you’ve only ever played with a single jump rope before and you’re trying to time your moves so you don’t interrupt their flow. Then, just when you start to get the hang of it, there are 5 more jump ropes added, and then a few juggling pins, and now you’re also riding a unicycle. 

Might sound like chaos, but I loved it.

As a creative director whose stakeholders are usually individuals driven by business KPIs and dollar signs, being able to work closely with a data and analytics team was a wonderful change of pace. Not only because I learned something new everyday and because they loved every design we showed them — whether it was a large format print out of the proposed information architecture or a pretty UI exploration quickly dropped into a photoshop mockup — but because they were passionate about what they did everyday: data. 

The team was brilliant and the back end they spent years developing had so much potential. But passion for analytics without intentional hierarchical inclusion would come with a price… at the expense of the experience.

Every data point was deemed essential. Every metric was just as important as every other metric and therefore was expected to be a part of the final product. Enter: Firehose. 

‘Firehose’ was the term we used when trying to convey what the experience would be like if we included everything, simply because we could. A firehose can save lives, but not if you aim it directly at the person climbing out of the top story window of a burning building. Another macabre analogy. Sorry. At least it was effective.

The above is the redesigned Information Architecture for Universal Music Artists.

The Who

With so many different roles in the modern music industry — label heads, artists, producers, managers, marketers, promoters, artist-aggregators, booking agents, promoters — we needed to redefine the target audience in order to whittle down the feature set.

Who would use this product the most? Who would find it most valuable? The answer turned out to be pretty obvious. Artists and artist managers. The ones that make the music and the ones that do everything else.

This was such a pleasant revelation because it meant stripping the product of any unnecessary clutter that wouldn’t be appreciated (understood) by musicians. It’s pretty uncommon for a musician to moonlight as a data scientist and we didn’t want them to have to start because of some new tool their record label gave them.

In turn, we decided that Universal Music Artists needed to intuitively answer 3 key questions: How am I doing? Who is listening? How can I improve?

How am I doing?

In all the interviews we conducted, this was the question that was echoed most by artists and managers alike. How am I doing? Am I up or down? 
Basically, is there more green or red on the screen?

 From the home screen, artists are immediately presented with three hero metrics, as well as the direction in which they are trending for each:

  • Total Audience (the artists unique listeners on Spotify and Apple Music)
  • Streams Per Listener
  • Total Streams

Next in the hierarchy are the artist’s Spotlight Songs and Videos — their most recent releases. 

Releasing a track or dropping a music video is like conceiving a child. You spend months reading the right books, eating the right foods, staying away from alcohol in anticipation of bringing this piece of you into the world. And once it arrives, you’re constantly checking on them to make sure they’re safe and healthy. 

It’s tireless work, but it’s all worth it when your kid grows up and buys you a house. 

Same thing. This product solves the classic artist’s dilemma: it gives them a real-time, credible view of the health of their latest launch, every time a fan presses play.

Who is listening?

While skill is an objective quality, the idea of good music is based on bias, defined by personal preference and influenced by popular trends.

Ultimately, it’s the people who decide whether an artist will rise or fall.

Through data driven insights, Universal Music Artists identifies opportunities of growth across the globe. For example, an artist will be notified of any irregular spikes in listenership for a specific location or demographic. So if their primary fan base is in San Francisco, California, they will continue to prioritize resources accordingly, but if listeners in Sao Paulo, Brazil, are increasing each week by the thousands, managers will know to target the hell out of that location through marketing and touring. 
In addition to triggered insights, artists can see how their audience is responding to their music through the week by week flux of:

  • Total Streams / Views (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube)
  • Total Watch Time (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube)
  • Active vs. Passive Streams / Views (did someone directly search for a song or did it auto play from a playlist)
  • Top Countries
  • Top Cities
  • Streams by Age
  • Streams / Views by Gender

Can you imagine if the Beatles had this? 

How can I improve?

Whether an artist is flying high or falling off, they’re constantly looking for ways to be better.

Better than their previous release, better than their genre, better than the rest. Period.

To help them get there, this product will identify areas that are lacking so teams can counter accordingly. For example, if an artist is blowing up on Apple Music, but fairly stagnant on Spotify, managers can adjust their marketing strategy to focus on the artist’s Spotify presence.

One way to get there is through exposure. Duh.

While in a usability session with the team that manages Marshmello and Illenium (nbd), we uncovered some amazing insights on how an artist’s music gets shopped around in this golden age of streaming — playlists. 
For better or worse, modern day listeners often discover their new favorite track or band by pressing play on a popular curated playlist and passively consuming whatever comes out. If a manager can get their artist’s latest single onto one of these playlists, it’s guaranteed exposure.

Universal Music Artists is basically ammunition for this goal in the form of data, where they can compare the listenership of a playlist’s existing tracks with the recent rise of one of their own. If a song is outperforming another without any playlist help, it’s time to plug the hell out of it.

Hedonistic Usability

There is a philosophy, coined by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’, called Hedonist Sustainability —the idea that something shouldn’t be boring simply because its good for the planet. Composting isn’t fun and renewable energy isn’t terribly sexy, but Ingels challenges this tradition through his designs. 

It proved to be such an effective concept that we repurposed his thinking for product design, calling it Hedonistic Usability — just because something is utilitarian, doesn’t mean it can't be beautiful. Thanks Bjarke.

His most recent project, and the one that most obviously echoes this ideology, is the Copenhill Urban Mountain — a power plant that converts 400,000 tons of waste each year into low-carbon electricity for the people of Copenhagen.

Waste-to-energy wasn’t enough for Ingels, so he designed a ski slope to live on top of it. Breaking up the flat terrain, this artificial mountain gives people a place to test their snow skills from within the city while bringing Copenhagen one step closer to becoming the first carbon neutral capitol in the world.

Images by Alexander Vissing

The thought of “data” to anyone other than a data scientist probably sounds cold and boring — even to those who prioritize emotion and feeling in their craft. The product needed to house all of the invaluable insights that come with analytics, but it also needed to be attractive enough so music artists would be enticed to use it.

I’m pretty sure Universal Music Artists isn’t saving the planet, but I’m quite convinced it is saving music, which is why Hedonistic Usability — our recycled version of Ingels’ philosophy —was the basis for the entire interface.

The dark UI is designed to be viewed at all times of day and night — at the breakfast table, in the recording studio, in the club. It needed to be beautifully subtle, acting as a canvas for the analytics and album art alike.

The contrasting use of bright color against black puts emphasis on the most important content so that from any screen, artists will immediately know the direction in which they are trending. Green is good. Red is bad. Every platform is color coded so they know whether a piece of data is specific to Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube. We even added some subtle animation to the navigation bar because music inspires movement and…well… it’s easier to sell a design when it’s pretty.

And this is only the first launch. We have a healthy roadmap for the future of Universal Music Artists, aimed at building a stronger bond and tailoring the relationship between the fans and the music. Although this product will be used by artists and managers, it’s really for the people who are listening. 
Music is changing for the better. Sure, songs are written by teams instead of performers and roadies carry turntables instead of guitars, but now data is in the band — disrupting the music industry by bringing the audience closer to the artist.

I want to to give a huge thanks to all of the people involved in the creation of this product. All of those at YML—Jonathan Bongato, Mauricio Bucardo, Stephen Clements, Zain Jiwani, Jason Rzutkiewicz, Ramsundar Shandilya, Ryan Spencer, Shayna Stewart, Adam Talcott, Mayo Tobita, John Wilson and Bindushree. You are all incredible.

And it was topping on the cake to see the UMA work get recognized, both in the press (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Variety), as well as with a Webby recognition in the category of Apps, Mobile and Voice for the Best User Interface Award (out of the 13,000 entries from 50 states and over 70 countries.

About the Author: Neil Stoeckle

Neil is a multi-disciplined creative director who has been continuously pursuing design since he first learned how to photoshop his friends’ faces on the bodies of celebrities. Joining YML in its early days (2013), he helped structure and evolve the people-first practices that are still used today. Whether it’s a product experience for a client’s customers or an environment for his fellow employees within the walls of YML, Neil uses human-centric design to elevate the needs of people.

There is no industry Neil has not touched. He brought the artists of Universal Music Group closer to their fans through a seamless union of design and data. For State Farm, he created a simple and empathetic experience for the otherwise overwhelming maze of insurance. He’s created medical frameworks for Research Kit and fintech products for First Republic Bank.

By Poojan Jhaveri, Product Manager, YML

For most of 2020, uncertainty has been the status quo, but Apple's WWDC event and introduction of iOS14 was a cathartic and dynamic reprieve. Apple recognized the tangible changes to our daily lives in this still relatively new Covid-19 world, especially with regard to consumer behavior — how people access necessities on demand, behave socially, and perceive of the importance of health over anything else. 

Despite this ominous backdrop, WWDC 2020 — and iOS 14 in particular — did not disappoint.

The new iOS is impactful, packed with an array of special features, from the redesigned home screen, app library, threaded messages, picture-in-picture video to more meme-ojis and reduced friction for phone-call notifications. The common thread of these changes revolves around bringing context to the users in a more personal, easy, and private form.

And it will not be long before iOS 14 takes over this fall.

To meet the users where they are, here are the key features that product teams can leverage with iOS14:

  • Acquisition & Activation using App Clips
  • Retention using Widgets & Picture to Picture

1. Acquisition and activation using App Clips

Downloading an app is not seamless. It can be full of friction and additional overhead, often causing less frequent use.

According to TechCrunch, more than 51% of users download 0 apps per month. 

App Clips are Apple’s answer to solving this problem, allowing users to complete a specific task without downloading an app - similar to Google’s Instant apps. App Clips are light-weight, easy-to-use extensions of the app that can be invoked by users in the moments that they need them. For example, check out the menu below at a cafe.

Apple has given you a way to essentially taste an ice cream flavor before buying it. 

Why should you leverage this? Speed!

More streamlined experiences will enable users to get things done within seconds instead of minutes, thus allowing for lesser distractions and a more focused customer journey. By combining it with features like  ‘Sign In with Apple’ & ‘Apple Pay’, a five-step checkout process can easily be simplified down to two clicks. On the onboarding side, measuring time to first value will also improve drastically since the acquisition is tightly integrated with the user’s intent at the moment. 

If done correctly, overall app downloads might decrease, but the conversion and activations — which is the sweet spot every marketer values — will increase from those downloads. 

Next step for product marketers: Start with identifying and aligning the team on the core-action that the user must take to get value out of the app. 

2. Retention using widgets on the home screen

Let’s face it — just having the user download the app is not enough. Downloads are a long-forgotten vanity metric. In fact, 25% of apps downloaded around the world are only ever used once.

In iOS14, Apple has designed widgets to be part of the user’s Home screen, right along side apps. These widgets help the user by introducing both context and action, rather than forcing the user to look for it. These widgets can be customized for sizes as well, based on device intelligence available from Apple to surface the right content at the right time. 

Why should you leverage this? Exploration based on the content of these widgets will largely impact the retention & engagement of the apps that take advantage of these widgets. These widgets allow for a discovery component that might not have brought in traffic previously. 

Next step: Identify the most frequented actions that users take in the app for consumption and plan for a widget around it. 

Some ideas to get you started:

IndustryApp ClipsWidgets
RetailBrowse through available inventory, compare prices based on items and and drive salesN/A
RestaurantsGet quick access to a menu from an NFC chip on the table and be able to order & pay.N/A
Banking- View loans, CD & Mortgage rates at a retail bank. 
- Navigate the services available at a nearest bank location and schedule an appointment. 
- Use widget to jump to most frequented money movement sections of the app such as - Transfers, deposits etc. 
- Use widget to see the percentage change in one's investment portfolio. 
EcommerceShow catalog for any merchant and be able to directly add to cart.Browse the top deals of the week. 
HealthN/ASee my alerts/messages.
MediaSave an article for later. See the top trending articles.

3. Being transparent about data & privacy

Lastly,  be sure to provide your users with the transparency that they deserve around data asks. The last thing you would want is the user to churn out because of unfair data practices.

Apple has always been a strong proponent of user privacy and in iOS14 they have added a variety of features to bolster user safety and confidence, which are critical to including for mobile apps and products in the future.

  1. Consent - Apps will now require your consent before tracking users across apps and services. 
  2. Privacy information on the App Store - Apps will now be required to self-report information about their data handling on the App Store so that users can read through and make an informed decision of the permissions around app use. 
  3. Limited access - Apps need to allow users to allow access for approximate location rather than a precise location to avail location benefits. Similarly, starting iOS14, users can choose to provide limited access to selected photos to the app rather than giving access to the entire photo library. 
  4. Recording Indicator - iOS14 will now display a recording indicator whenever an app is using the Mic or the Camera.

Next Step: Connect with legal and data teams to plan an update around this. These will be mandatory and not providing these might create an obstacle for you from uploading an app for iOS14. 

Let’s bring this to life

When should you start planning? The answer is now.

iOS, iPadOS & WatchOS Developer Betas are available starting today with public release later in the fall (around September 2020).

Connect with YML on how we can help you bring your ideas to life and get first-mover advantage before September.

And check out our case studies with State Farm, The Home Depot, Universal Music Group and more to see the impact we're making for brands across technology, design and strategy.

About the author: Poojan Jhaveri

Poojan is YML's product manager where he has been bringing digital experiences to life for brands across retail, fintech, grocery and a variety of other industries. As a motivated self-starter, he strongly believes in creating innovative products and services that help people express themselves through technology. His passion lies in the execution and optimization of user journeys across devices. Prior to YML, Poojan served as a digital product strategist at IDEO applying product and design thinking for projects ranging from finance, augmented reality, entertainment, kids apps to multi-device systems. His work has been featured by Apple, TechCrunch, Parents Choice Awards, FastCo, and other media outlets.

How adopting a start-up mentality can drive your strategy, especially in uncertain times.

by Ashish Toshniwal and Kelly Kwak

Uncertainty is the new status quo. The global community, individuals and companies alike, are wading through uncharted waters with very little historical context to rely on.  Thus far, we’ve seen the devastating impacts of grinding the economy to a halt — the stock market feels like a roller coaster ride, oil prices have been volatile, and companies across the spectrum are scrambling to stay afloat and evolve in the time of COVID.

Add to that a series of powerful worldwide protests against racism, police brutality and white supremacy, rightfully causing brands and individuals alike to reflect on their privilege, and how to build a better world.

Now, more than ever, companies are being challenged to test their abilities to pivot and action quickly.

There is a fundamental reason behind the startup culture shunning
corporate culture in favor of learn-fast thinking.

Startups need to pivot quickly to compete. They don’t have the luxury of spending time mired in “analysis paralysis.” Time is literally
the difference between growth and being open for business the next quarter.  

These scrappy players pick a direction, test, learn and iterate.  Agile,
experimentation-based methodology has proven effective many times, and many returns over. Think Netflix, Basecamp, Credit Karma (a former YML client), and Amazon, to name a few. 

The key questions are: does the learn-fast strategy always work? And does it change the face of strategy across industries and business scales?

Out with the old

We’ve all been there.  Your company unveils its new strategy that’s going to position the company for unbelievable success and growth.  It’s delivered with much fanfare in the form of a ‘vision statement’ or three strategic pillars or maybe even an inspirational video.  The strategy team pats themselves on the back for getting executive and board level approval after arduous months of research and work.  Everyone gears up for the subsequent months of cross functional planning to hammer out the perfect roadmap.  

Before you know it, you’ve just lost six months researching and planning for your three year strategy — now a 2.5 year strategy. Poof.

At this point it’s possible your strategy has gone stale, or the motivation to push forward is gone. Who has the stamina to align the rest of the organization to execute?  “The strategy-to-execution gap is an enduring problem with no easy solution” writes Nathan Wiita and Orla Leonard for Harvard Business Review.  

That’s not to say, scrap having a strategy altogether.  

As the Japanese proverb goes, ‘Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.’  Having a vision and strategic focus is invaluable.  But the process of finding that focus is evolving.

Gone are the days of strategists conducting months of studies to unveil an untested, unproven strategy that is hard to bring to life.  Case in point: GE Digital.  

GE started its digital transformation journey in 2011.  By 2015, it had invested billions, hired thousands and established GE Digital. However, the bloated strategy was pulled apart by too many competing agendas and execution subsequently suffered.  GE suffered punishing drops in stock price which led to the subsequent exit of CEO Jeff Immelt. GE announced, late 2018, that it would be selling parts of GE Digital to ServiceMax.

Here's why GE, Ford's digital transformation programs failed last year

In the new world of COVID, where entire industries — dining, travel, entertainment — have had to make massive business model pivots in order to survive - restaurants as an example - this pace of strategy development feels like a luxury and a relic of the past.  

As a strategist or leader, ask yourself if you feel your organization is stuck. Do you consistently hear the feedback, “we lack a strategy,” “I don’t understand our strategy,” “why isn’t our strategy working?”  

Has your organization poured millions in investment towards a [insert buzz word like “digital”] transformation and have yet to realize significant returns?  The good news is, you’re in good company - 70% of transformations fail.

The bad news is, you don’t want to be part of that 70%.  To succeed, strategy and strategists need to be fluid.  This is the new, potentially uncomfortable, world.  

A strategy is a direction and not a blueprint.

In the old world of strategy, your strategists are captains and strategies are the cruise ships. The ship is built to anticipate and plow through turbulent weather with the captain tracking weather patterns from miles away to make day-to-day decisions.

In the new world, strategists are sailors and strategies are sailboats. The sailor anticipates changing winds and reacts in the face of minute to minute sailing conditions to steer the ship on its intended course.   

The role of the strategist in making day-to-day, week-to-week, actionable decisions is a crucial ingredient to success. As strategists we need to move from being research-obsessed to results-focused; silo-ed to operationally imbedded; waterfall to agile.

Months of market and customer research cannot give you the same insights as in-market product testing.  The key is finding the right balance of research and in-market testing to ensure you’re consistently on the right course.  

Uber’s chief of product, Manik Gupta, wrote to employees, “We will focus on fewer projects with more direct business impact.”  Uber deliberately relies less on user research for tactical features and instead relies more on experimentation.

Experimentation is the backbone of strategy

Starting any project with validating a new concept is the bread and butter of traditional strategy and also how strategists earn the taunt of “analysis paralysis.” However, focusing on experimentation means recognizing specific considerations to strategy.

  • You’re formulating your problem statement and hypotheses using past data, however, you’re validating your problem statement, hypotheses, customer need and demand through experimentation tactics such as qualitative and quantitative studies ranging from shop alongs, surveys and individual interviews to diaries (“Painted door” experiments).
  • View this phase as a way to ensure you’re clearly articulating objectives that make sense.  Use this as a gut check vs. hunt for empirical evidence.
  • If you already know your customer, shorten the cycle of customer research by focusing net new research activities on answering key unanswered questions.  Find the shortest path to do this with tactics like painted door experiments.
  • As a rule of thumb try to find ways to complete these activities in 4 - 6 weeks.  If you go over 4 - 6 weeks, ask yourself if you’re mired in analysis paralysis.
  • Lastly, but most importantly, try to get in front of your customer.  Do some field research with a prototype in hand to truly get useful feedback.

Optimizing existing experiences offer strategists an opportunity to marry strategy with execution.  If you’re not focused here, PIVOT. Here's how:

  • Strategy isn’t a once and done exercise.  It’s infused in execution and should live into maintenance and optimization.
  • Your strategy must be informed by further experimentation that helps you consistently grow and improve your experience.
  • Optimizing existing experiences is where strategists should focus: it’s the intersection, the place to marry strategy with execution.  
  • If you’re not there, PIVOT.
  • Get cozy with your analytics and business intelligence team, and build out your experimentation capabilities. Employing a robust optimization program that enables and actions upon A/B and multivariate testing insights is the key to consistent improvement.

Agile strategy in action

YML recently brought this strategy to life recently with TaxAct, America’s #2 online tax filing service. Our challenge was simple: steal market share from the leader. TaxAct needed to impact their conversion rate without affecting revenue; driving better conversion rates for an average of 300k visitors every single day during the 2019 tax season. 

The real challenge, though, was that tax season is only three months long. We needed to extract as much value as possible in that short timeframe. 

Our strategy incorporated improved brand design, but more importantly a range of experimentation and iteration. Lessons from product analytics were embedded into the new experience by setting up personalization to target audience segments based on characteristics, seasonality and device dimensions.

YML meticulously designed a roadmap for A/B testing across the tax season both from the client side, as well as server-side experiments ranging from UI (copy, the order of the modules), to price and tier changes.

Agile, experimentation-based strategy led to significant impact and growth for TaxAct.
See the work.

For context, most iterative experiments like this occur over many months or even years, reviewing performance and making the appropriate changes based on the data. But YML didn’t have that kind of time. Our strategy integrated fresh versions of the website to users every four hours, for three weeks straight. 

YML drove up conversions by 22% and achieved unprecedented levels of performance. This in comparison to the previous year was a 400% increase. 

Strategy informed by experimentation requires meticulousness, organization, and a constant eye on the objectives. Substantial growth potential can be unlocked by systematically learning and acting upon a strategy - meeting it head on and charting your course.

About the Authors

Kelly Kwak is the Director of Strategy at YML. Shehas over 10 years of experience building impactful strategies for clients ranging from mid-cap to Fortune 50 companies. Her experience ranges from pure business strategy to digital product strategy. Having had both consulting and agency experience, she is able to understand the real needs of her clients and develop solutions that matter. She has worked on consumer-facing products at startups like Kabbage and Fortune 50 companies like Lowe's.  

Ashish Toshniwal is the CEO and co-founder of YML. An expert in mobile strategy, product design, and technology. Ashish has been featured on CNBC, ABC News, Forbes, and Adweek as a leader in technology, and has his very own TED talk about finding purpose in your work. He has led YML to be recognized by The Wall Street Journal as “One of the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley.”

Who are you, and what do you do at YML?

Hello! I’m Sunil, Director of Engineering at YML, and I can't deny that I am a geek at heart.  My role demands that I drive the best engineering solutions for our customers and the best support for our top-notch engineering teams.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever built?

The entrepreneurial spirit in me is always active and I’m always tinkering and building things. From a novel pet-store to an IoT child tracker to building a mobile app that takes a picture of a car's damage, I’ve tried it all. I want to keep the programmer in me active. 

Before I got my hand on a computer, I also used to build model airplanes.

SE5A - The Vintage Model Company

Where are you from and where do you live now?

I was born and brought up in the Silicon Valley of India, Bengaluru. While a large part of my career was spent working (and lots of travel!) in the US, I now live in Bengaluru. There’s so much happening on the tech front here that it’s infectious. Bengaluru brings out that innate entrepreneurial and innovation spirit in anyone that lives here.

Apart from being the tech capital of India, it’s also is the brewery capital of India! Who wouldn’t want to live here?

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born a computer engineer! My first tryst with programming was with BASIC back when most of my peers hadn’t seen a computer. I was hooked on programming and it’s still the thing I do to clear out my mind. A large part of my early career was devoted to building solutions in the Biometrics space. I’ve also spent the recent years building products and solutions in the Fintech and InsureTech space.

Outside of work, I have a knack for finding great places to travel to and great places to stay. I’d say travel has played a large part in shaping my personality.

Why did you choose to come to YML?

I am excited to be part of YML for the sheer promise it holds of a great career for anyone who’s part of its journey. I am amazed at the incredible work we do and I’m super excited to be part of it. We don’t just talk design and technology here, we go ahead and build it!

What about this industry are you most passionate about?

I feel it’s the people and minds that are shaping our lives with technology and the privilege to be part of that. To be able to create something that alters and changes people’s lives is just unbelievable and I feel lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I’m a Sci-Fi geek and to be able to experience mind-bending stuff that are coming into our lives is just fascinating.

What are some other companies you admire?

Marvel Studios.. period! Black Panther is definitely my favorite.

The Passionate Politics of “Black Panther” | The New Yorker

I also admire any company that stretches the imagination and are disruptors. I admire anything from Apple to SpaceX to Reliance Jio, who are making tech accessible, as well as pushing the boundaries of what humans can do and achieve.

How do you spend your spare time?

While we're not working (or not binge watching on Netflix), my wife, Ranjitha, and I are mostly traveling. We love seeing new places.  If we’re not traveling, we’re likely pondering over our next destination. We always have a travel bag ready to go! I also love playing racket sports and running.

June 1, 2020

We stand with the black community and against the many faces of systemic racism.

For anyone that is terrorized by this abuse of power and gross injustice, we hear you and we are here for you. 

At its core, we are looking at our country’s most important design challenge.

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and countless others are incredibly painful signs of an unjust system. We feel the weight and responsibility of how much work we have to do to fight institutionalized racism to build a stronger, safer society for everyone.

And we won’t relent. We know we may not get it right the first time. But we know how to design, iterate, experiment, strategize, and ultimately how to introduce change that makes a lasting impact.

YML's mission for the last 11 years has been to build experiences that make a lasting impact for people everywhere. But 'to make a lasting impact' reads differently now — it makes us feel different than ever before. We must rethink how we make that impact going forward for our team, our clients, and for the communities we serve.

Here's how we're responding:

  • Donating to Black Girls Code and Color of Change’s campaigns for recent injustices
  • Supporting our team's education on racial justice. 
  • Ensuring that we continue to hire with diversity and inclusion in mind.
  • Establishing a set of guidelines to pursue client partnerships with active diversity, inclusion, social justice and environmental sustainability efforts.

We know our response is one of many and may not solve everything. But that is what design is about — using the tools we have to solve a problem. 

YML built Credit Karma's foundational digital product.

A start-up known for providing free credit scores, Credit Karma has officially been acquired by Intuit, the software and financial firm that also owns financial products like TurboTax, QuickBooks and Mint.

The deal is worth just over $7 billion, and highlights the value of the financial data of ordinary Americans. Credit Karma grew to be worth billions of dollars by selling credit card offers to its customers after building their credit profiles.

Over the last decade, Intuit has been building its brand around helping businesses and consumers manage their financial data, which is why this acquisition is in many ways a natural fit.

Check out the Credit Karma App, which has a 4.9 rating and 1.8M reviews.

"Credit Karma has been at the leading edge of a large group of start-ups in the financial technology sector over the last decade," according to The New York Times. "It says its customers include a third of all Americans who have a credit profile."

Credit Karma has over 1,100 employees and is based in San Francisco. The volatility of start-up I.P.O.'s — from the rocky I.P.O. of Uber to the failure of WeWork’s planned offering — created a tense environment for budding start-ups. The Credit Karma-Intuit successful acquisition comes on the heels of Plaid's acquisition, another successful fintech start-up, which sold itself to Visa for $5.3 billion rather than stage an I.P.O.

Sheel Mohnot, a venture capitalist who focuses on fintech start-ups, shared with The New York Times that after this recent acquisition, Intuit's portfolio is so robust that it could become a sort of Facebook for financial services.

“They would have all of this rich information, and they would basically be an ad network,” he said. “You’re almost forced to advertise with them.”

In the news

"Intuit confirms that it's buying Credit Karma for $7.1 billion in cash and stock"
Tech Crunch

"Intuit Is Expected to Buy Credit Karma in $7 Billion Deal"
The New York Times

"Why is Intuit's acquisition of Credit Karma a big deal?"
Fintech Magazine

"Here are the big winners of Intuit's $7 billion Credit Karma Acquisition"
Silicon Valley Business Journal

"Credit Karma-Intuit deal: What a $7.1B combination means for investors – and for you"
USA Today

Reach out to YML with any questions about the work or if you have a project in mind.

The awards were earned for mobile apps and websites across banking and fintech, health, insurance and music.

May 19, 2020

Out of the 13,000 entries from 50 states and over 70 countries in this year's Webbys, YML in partnership with our clients is proud to have won three Webbys, and earned one nomination and one honor.

The Webbys are the leading international awards honoring excellence on the Internet, and YML’s work with three different clients — State Farm, Universal Music Group, and dosist — was recognized for four nominations.

State Farm

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State Farm won three awards across the Apps, Mobile and Voice category (Financial Services/Banking, Service/Utility app). YML has a been a partner to State Farm for product design and strategy for the last four years and been recognized for previous Webbys in the past. You can see more work here.

Universal Music Group

Universal Music Group was nominated in the category of Apps, Mobile and Voice for the Best User Interface Award.  Universal partnered with YML to leverage the new data-rich landscape of streaming services to serve both fans and artists, in turn, giving Universal Music Group the continued edge over competitors.  Combining Universal’s depth of knowledge in the music industry and YML’s product design expertise allowed for a breakthrough solution that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. You can see more work here


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dosist was recognized as an Honoree in the category of Websites for Health. YML collaborated with dosist to redesign and develop the brand’s website in a market that is still mostly undefined, culturally taboo, and challenges inconsistent legalities. You can see more work here.

The YML team is ecstatic for our client partners, and grateful to be recognized among the array of phenomenal work this year. 

In the news

"Universal Music Artists — Welcome to the future of data-informed music is a Webby Nominee in Apps, Mobile and Voice Best User Interface."
Official Listing

"State Farm — Here to make life go right is a Webby Nominee in Apps, Mobile and Voice: Best Service/Utility."
Official Listing

"State Farm — Here to make life go right is a Webby Nominee in Apps, Mobile and Voice: Financial Services/Banking."
Official Listing

"dosist — Building a digital flagship for the hottest startup of 2019 is a Webby Honoree in Websites: Health."
Official Listing

Reach out to YML with any questions about the work or if you have a project in mind.

Never take yourself too seriously, build awesome products and enjoy the moment. 

by Pablo Arce, former Senior Director of Project and Program Management, YML

Periods of change are certainly interesting.  They provide an opportunity to reflect on the past as one inevitably builds a mental image of what the impending future may look like.  A very significant change is about to happen in my life: after more than six years with YML, I'm moving on join my new team at Google (Google Cloud AI & Industry Solutions).

I'm saddened to leave the place that has been a home for so long.  Six years in the very fast-moving field of technology (a field I feel lucky to be a part of) feels like a very long time. I am certainly proud of what I have been able to help YML achieve during my tenure here and, as I announced my move to my coworkers, reports, and management, it felt good to have a consistent feedback of appreciation for my contributions.

I have deeply cared about YML, and will continue to do so for a very long time – even if not from within the building that now proudly displays the company name on its exterior. The combination of the impending change, the conversations with my soon-to-be ex-colleagues, and the many feelings surrounding this moment in life drove me to put some thought into what it is that I appreciated so much about my time at YML, and what lessons and new tools I will bring with me into my new position.  Let me try to summarize some of the conclusions running through my COVID-haired head.  

Focus on the user, but tune your brain to IMPACT

User-centric design has almost become a table-stakes approach to designing applications and user interfaces. However, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do – particularly when the team needs to implement, maintain, and update said application for years.

The idea of placing the user at the center of all work while keeping the future of the application in mind has become something every team member at YML keeps at the forefront in everything we do. An even more defining characteristic of our approach is balancing this user-centricity with the business impact that any decision related to the application should address. If I walk away with anything from YML, it's that features and applications should be created to solve a business problem, a need that matters to the user and to the company (our client). YML has learned to maximize impact to both the end user and client.

Further proof of our conviction is the fact that we often “put our money where our mouth is” – by offering our clients an impact-based compensation option so that when our work proves successful — we all win. Of course, this requires understanding the tracking and measurement post-release – which is another important skill that I was able to hone at YML. I firmly believe that this combination of looking at impacting both the user and the business will be present in my approach to any future project. 

Diversity of Work

Through strong work, YML forged a strong name, which in turn attracted more and bigger clients, from diverse backgrounds and verticals. In any given week I could be working on designing a user interface for a multi-screen robotic surgery platform (mind-boggling technology and opportunity coming in 2021!), developing a banking application that needed top-notch security measures, thinking about how to minimize friction for professionals buying the tools of their trade online while minimizing disruption to their operation, or how to introduce the quickest possible way to order a pizza for dinner.

Over my tenure at YML, I have been involved with over 55 different projects, and each one of them has been unique and different.  This diversity, and the frequently compressed timeframe of the projects, has allowed me to strengthen my “adaptation” brain muscle – allowing me to very quickly build a deep understanding of our clients’ businesses, come up to speed with the problem they are trying to address, and think about how to solve it. This skill and training will undoubtedly continue to be an invaluable asset in my professional life. I love learning, and YML has provided me with continuous learning through project diversity. 

Cross-discipline Collaboration

During my time at YML, we matured in our approach to creating solutions from a “design then build” linear pattern, to a research/design/develop cycle — with iteration built in throughout. That fostered efficient collaboration and communication between Product, Design, Engineering, and Strategy – all driven by Project Management, which I feel strongly is the critical pillar of all YML work.

Collaboration through effective and timely communication is, I believe, the key to project success. At YML we’ve been able to build effective interdisciplinary bridges that help ensure that real collaboration happens – and more importantly I have understood how to help ensure this works in a repeatable way through different projects with different clients – even when we’ve had to adapt slightly to satisfy the client’s specific needs.

Furthermore, this collaboration has often spanned the world, sometimes leveraging a team located in three or four of our global locations – thousands of miles away, with up to 13 hour time-differences, and with significant cultural contrasts. None of these factors have been an impediment to great output and full dedication from the teams. Solving problems by leveraging a global workforce is exactly where I think YML shines – and the way 21st century business will be increasingly required to operate. This ability to collaborate remotely was put to the test as the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic hit and we were required to put it to practice to the extreme – with every single team member working remotely.  YML didn’t miss a beat, because the systems and processes were already in place. 

Team Leadership

I entered YML as a Sr. Project Manager, and I am leaving as Sr. Director of Project & Program Management (say that title 5 times fast!). During that time, my leadership skills were developed much further than they previously had, and I was happy to meet every challenge I encountered, which lead to my continuous growth and learning.

My experience also allowed me to influence and grow the Project Management department, developing a hiring process that has resulted in a great team of committed professionals: hungry for growth and learning, providing results and ensuring the work moves ahead efficiently, and a team that gets along fantastically well, helping one-another and providing support when needed. I looked forward to 1 on 1s with my reports each week because I sincerely enjoy conversations with them: whether we are trying to solve a problem together, or talking about life outside the office walls, there is always a lens of learning and mutual respect that I sincerely appreciate.

Being able to provide leadership to this team has honestly been an honor and a learning experience that I will always cherish and continue to build on.  

Understanding the Management POV

Over the last 3+ years, I’ve had the privilege to be part of the YML leadership and management team. This opportunity has given me a new lens through which to look at how a company operates and the frequently tough choices management needs to make.  I have huge trust in the rest of the YML leadership team and firmly believe that they have the best intentions and abilities to continue to make YML grow and thrive.

I expect management to look very different at a very large company like Google, however, having this additional experience of how a company operates from the top will definitely help me better understand how certain decisions are reached and how the pieces fit together.

The People

I am definitely someone who cares and appreciates personal relationships. Maybe it’s my Spanish Mediterranean blood and upbringing, maybe it’s being the youngest of four siblings and growing up looking at so many people around me, understanding how things worked from each of their angles, trying to outwit my older brothers…

Whatever the cause, the consequence is I care about people – and YML definitely has a strong cast of characters. A talented and diverse team that deeply cares about what they do, and continuously wants to push for better. The people were definitely my #1 reason to stay at YML all these years.

I will confess that I am very excited to join Google.  It has been the company at the top of my list for over 15 years, and I am really happy they consider me a good match.  But I also know that a big part of why they do think I will be valuable to their team comes from everything I have learned at YML, for which I will forever be thankful for.  

It’s been a sincerely great experience to be part of this company.  Leaving it is like moving away from your hometown, leaving friends and familiar places behind. You physically change locations, but a significant part of what is past will always be a part of you, and in this case, YML will always have a place in my heart.  

Thank you YML.  I can’t wait to see where you go from here.

Nominations earned for mobile apps and websites across finance, health, insurance and music.

April 29, 2020

The Webbys are the leading international awards honoring excellence on the Internet, and today YML’s work with three different clients — State Farm, Universal Music Group, and dosist — was recognized for four nominations.  In this year’s competition there were 13,000 entries from 50 states and over 70 countries. 

State Farm’s mobile app has been nominated in the category of Apps, Mobile and Voice for two awards: Financial Services/Banking, and as a Service/Utility app. YML has a been a partner to State Farm for product design and strategy for the last four years and been recognized for previous Webbys in the past. You can see more work here.

Universal Music Group has been nominated in the category of Apps, Mobile and Voice for the Best User Interface Award.  Universal partnered with YML to leverage the new data-rich landscape of streaming services to serve both fans and artists, in turn, giving Universal Music Group the continued edge over competitors.  Combining Universal’s depth of knowledge in the music industry and YML’s product design expertise allowed for a breakthrough solution that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. You can see more work here

dosist was recognized as an Honoree in the category of Websites for Health. YML collaborated with dosist to redesign and develop the brand’s website in a market that is still mostly undefined, culturally taboo, and challenges inconsistent legalities. You can see more work here.

The YML team is ecstatic for our client partners, and grateful to be recognized among the array of phenomenal work this year. 

In the news

"Universal Music Artists — Welcome to the future of data-informed music is a Webby Nominee in Apps, Mobile and Voice Best User Interface."
Official Listing

"State Farm — Here to make life go right is a Webby Nominee in Apps, Mobile and Voice: Best Service/Utility."
Official Listing

"State Farm — Here to make life go right is a Webby Nominee in Apps, Mobile and Voice: Financial Services/Banking."
Official Listing

"dosist — Building a digital flagship for the hottest startup of 2019 is a Webby Honoree in Websites: Health."
Official Listing

Reach out to YML with any questions about the work or if you have a project in mind.

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am a Program Manager with a passion for delivery excellence.  

Day to day I work to ensure our clients experience the same amount of surprise and delight in their account management as they do in our work. Outside of looking at overall strategic portfolio opportunities, you’ll find me in the trenches with the project teams making sure that they not only feel supported, but that they feel I continue to give my all to set them up for success. 

Since joining YML, I ran the State Farm portfolio for most of 2018-19, launched dosist in fall '19, and since then have been devoted to working alongside a major healthcare provider. 

See the dosist work here.

Outside of work I am a wife, dog mom, travel enthusiast, painter, lover of all things related to water, and an avid concert goer.

Where are you from?

Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, I spent my childhood at our family lakehouse. (We take fishing very seriously!) 

While I spent my younger days traveling the US national parks with my father, and my 20’s backpacking the world and living with a family in Ecuador, this January I made the leap with my husband and packed up for our big move to Silicon Valley to be here at YML HQ.   

Tell us a little about your background.

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion to help businesses grow to the next level. I worked a series of service based jobs to get through college, but couldn’t wait for more. 

In my early 20’s I spent time in the education industry while I worked on websites on the side. After college I joined a consulting firm which continued to grow my skills in the technology space. 

I left consulting to focus on driving forward technical portfolios & strategic projects for product based companies which was fun and exciting. Each time feeling rewarded seeing the success of new features and products being launched. When I decided to return to client work, I knew I’d be able to bring that knowledge with me. 

Why did you choose to come to YML?

I loved the passion that came from the leadership team and knew this was an agency where the motto “Make a lasting impact” truly resonated with what I wanted to bring to the table. 

What about this industry are you most passionate about?

I am passionate about artificial intelligence. I love exploring the endless possibilities of its application and believe that it will shape the future of how we interact in almost every capacity of our lives. 

What are some other companies you admire?

As a hometown girl, I’ve always been impressed by the customer experience at Delta. They not only make it a point to give back to the community, but are known worldwide for their amazing experience. Naturally, American Express comes to mind as well. 

However, I am most impressed with many of today's startups because in a world where it “seems like all of the new business ideas are exhausted”, many are still bringing groundbreaking ideas to the table through technology. Robinhood and Truebill are a few examples I love. 

What are you favorite spots to eat in San Francisco?

Kitchen Story Tells a Familiar Yet Refreshing Tale | East Bay Express
Kitchen Story's 'Millionaire's Bacon' is no joke!'

I’ve just moved here so I still have a list of places to try, but I cannot stop myself from visiting “Kitchen Story.” It’s an amazing brunch spot with mouthwatering “Millionaire’s Bacon.” 

How do you spend your spare time?

When I’m not fiddling with side projects in technology, you can find me on the water in a kayak or boat, watching live music (I’ve seen some bands an embarrassingly high number of times) or packing my backpack to explore a new country. 


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