Customer Journey Maps: The Key To Competitive Differentiation

Ask an avid Starbucks-goer why they love Starbucks and the answer is sure to go beyond the coffee. They may talk about the ritual of grabbing a coffee in the morning and knowing they can rely on that consistent, familiar experience at any starbucks around the world. Or they may rejoice over the ease of ordering and managing the loyalty perks with the Starbucks mobile app. Or the excitement of waiting for seasonal drinks and custom designed cups around the holidays every year.  

What brands like Starbucks and other customer-centric giants like Virgin America and Amazon have mastered is the ability to differentiate themselves through the value of a memorable customer experience.

In order to get the customer experience strategy right, brands need to commit to not only understanding their customers, but being empathetic to their experiences and journey as well. Only through empathetic interactions and customer understanding can brands anticipate customers expectations and provide a customer journey map that adds value at the right time and in the right place.

In this article, I will walk you through the necessary steps to build an informative and actionable Customer Journey Map that will be an invaluable tool for your brand to understand customer needs and improve your business model.

So, what is a Customer Journey Map and why should I create one?

Customer Journey Mapping is the process of identifying and describing all the experiences customers have today as they interact with your brand.  It takes into account what happens to customers during their experiences, their responses to them, and how those experiences make them feel in every step. By building a customer journey map, an organization can identify and manage the customer experience at every point of the journey,  address the processes and tools that are creating friction and then create new and effortless intelligent customer experiences.

Combine that with customer data and you have a compelling picture that can help uncover any gaps between what customer expect and what they actually experience, allowing organizations to optimize a customer experience strategy that closes that gap and increases customer satisfaction.

Here are some examples of how you can visualize your Customer Journey Map.

customer journey map - Rail Europe

Source: http://uxmastery.com/ux-marks-the-spot-mapping-the-user-experience/

In addition to uncovering value for customers, breaking down the business model across stages of a particular customer journey has business benefits, too.

Brands that have a clear understanding of their customer experience strategy and tactical options from the customer journey map view, enjoy operational cost savings by eliminating unnecessary trustpoints, boosting conversion rates and increase customer loyalty and advocacy by creating effortless journeys, improving brand equity by enhancing value and improving customer awareness, and increasing employee satisfaction and engagement by improving their experience.

Next we’ll walk through a step by step guide on creating a strong customer journey map.

How to build an informative and actionable Customer Journey Map

customer journey map - the steps

1. Define the business goal.

Start by clarifying the business goal that your journey mapping initiative will support.

For instance, if you are a Home Improvement retailer, the business objective might be to retain your market position against a competitor like Amazon. 

2. Identify your most valuable customer.

Start with the needs and priorities of the most valued or most “growable” customer and think of a problematic journey for that customer.

If you don’t have personas defined, you should include the development of personas as part of the journey mapping initiative and overall customer experience management strategy.

Personas are rich narratives describing needs (both known needs that the customer can identify, and the latent needs that they can not), motivations, attitudes, goals, behaviors, preferences, and pain points. 

Personas development should always be backed by data and research. Both qualitative and quantitative research assist uncovering customers’ experiences and their emotional states throughout their journey. Collect internal insights by taking inventory of the customer knowledge the company has. Leverage front-line employees as they will typically have already amassed a lot of insight into the voice of customer,  (VOC). They will be able to help provide information about some of the trustpoints and which ones they feel have the most significant pain points associated with them.
By drilling into the voice of the employees (VOE), it is possible to see which trustpoints are the biggest drivers of satisfaction and loyalty.

Understand your personas expectations as they can help inform what value means to them and ensure your value proposition is framed correctly. It will also assist in your customer experience management by ensuring they have the best possible interaction with your brand.

Let’s continue with our example of the Home Improvement retailer.

One of their personas is “Melissa”. Melissa is a single mother of two living on  a single family income. She loves to entertain and showcase her home to friends and family, so maintaining and improving her space is important to her.

While Melissa loves the idea of remodeling and updating her space, she hates thinking about what it’s going to take to get there: finding a contractor she can trust, managing the communication with all the parties involved, keeping the project on-track, etc.

3. Define The Job To Be Done (JTBD).

The Job To Be Done is specific to customer types and occasions, and it is typically written as an actionable statement.  

Melissa’s JTBD is “Remodel my kitchen”.

It is also essential to understand the key drivers behind the JTBD part of the customer journey

In Melissa’s case, she’s looking to get her kitchen remodeled in preparation for a big anniversary celebration at her home.

4. Establish stages from the customer’s perspective.

It is paramount that your team understand the end-to-end journey before you begin getting into the details. You should build an intelligent customer experience with stages that represent your customer’s Job To Be Done, not your organization’s internal process steps. The stages of this customer journey map should represent a key purpose your customer is trying to achieve in their overall journey.

By clearly understanding your customer’s goals in each stage of their journey,  your team will be able to evaluate the customer experience management strategy the organization is currently delivering and how close or how far you are from meeting your customer’s goals.

Take a look at some possible stages for Melissa’s customer journey map below:

1. Inspiration: - How do I want my kitchen to look like?
2. Planning: - How much is this project going to cost and where will I be buying everything from?
4. Committing: - I'm ready to start.
5. Execution - What now?
6. Enjoyment - The party will be a success and my kitchen is going to be the topic of the night.

5. Identify the “Trustpoints”.

A Trustpoint is any point of interaction along the customer journey map between the brand and the customer, where a brand can make or break the customer’s trust. Achieving clear insights into the different Trustpoints across the customer experience strategy and the relative importance for each Trustpoint will bring visibility into customer's moments of truth.

In some cases, there may be too many Trustpoints to realistically map out while maintaining a 10,000 feet view of the customer journey. The key to an intelligent customer experience is always to keep a holistic view from the customer’s perspective.  

For our example, Melissa goes from the web to get inspired to the store to see materials, talks to an associate to get additional ideas, and goes back home and continues on her ipad with customers reviews on products. All valid trustpoints under the "Getting Inspired" stage.

6. Capture customers emotions.

To fully understand and manage the customer’s experience throughout their journey with your brand, you must capture the customer’s emotions. You can leverage the empathy map tool which it’s used to garner deep insights about how your customer think, feel, hear, and what they do.

customer journey map - customer experience

Source: https://boagworld.com/usability/adapting-empathy-maps-for-ux-design/

While Melissa may experience great excitement in the initial inspiration stages of her remodel, she can quickly become overwhelmed during planning, with too many design and product possibilities to potentially frustration is she is not able to buy the products she wants once she makes a decision.

Understanding your personas’ emotions at each stage of the journey allows your company to anticipate potential points of friction and proactively take steps to remove them and optimize your customer experience strategy.

7. Evaluate your customer's experience.

Now, you translate all the analysis into a simple visual representation including the assessment of their experience. The experience evaluation identifies the points in the customer journey map that are creating friction and those that are delighting your customers.

The customer experience improvements could be evaluated based on:

  • Emotions.
  • Customer’s level of effort.
  • Customer’s time spent.
  • Importance of a trustpoint.
  • Satisfaction with a trustpoint.

Moments of truth are those make or break moments in the course of customer experience management when you have the chance to earn their true loyalty by removing friction. Identifying moments of truth allows you to focus on the customer’s experience (actual and desired) rather than the transactional relationship and highlights which of those trustpoints are the most important to optimize for your customer.

By walking through Melissa’s customer journey map, our retailer has uncovered a few potential points of friction.

From here, they can evaluate their current customer experience strategy and optimize as needed:

  • Option Fatigue: Were they able to personalize her experience and guide her with the right options to remove option fatigue?
  • Execution Resources: Did they have a network of vetted contractors for her to choose from to carry out her remodel?
  • Item Availability: Is there a communication system in place to let her know if a product was in back order and provide additional options for her big party?

8. Identify the Backstage elements.

Customer experience and digital transformation requires organizations to go a few levels deeper from the customer journey map, this is known as Service Blueprint.  

Service Blueprint is a perfect approach to omnichannel customer experience. By mapping the frontstage and backstage on one customer journey map, you can create visibility to the internal resources, technology, processes and regulations that are responsible for delivering an intelligent customer experience. They pinpoint dependencies between employee-facing and customer-facing processes in the same visualization and are pivotal in identifying pain points, simplifying interactions,  reducing costs for the organization, and improving the experience for its customers.

There are some key elements to be considered in Service Blueprinting:

  1. The line of interaction which shows the direct interactions between the customer and the organization.
  2. The line of visibility which separates all service activities that are visible (frontstage) to the customer from those that are not visible (Backstage).
  3. The line of internal interaction which separates contact employees from those who do not directly support interactions with customers.

Service Blueprinting forces organizations to represent what occurs internally throughout the totality of the customer journey map, giving organizations insight to redundancies and dependencies that departments alone could not see.

How can our retailer create a customer experience management strategy that had a single view of the customer to ensure we remove any effort and frustration from Melissa's journey? What are the systems behind supporting Melissa's journey? Which departments will have to work together to ensure a smooth journey?

If a product is on backorder, distribution center will create an update on the backend that will trigger a notification for the associate who has been working with Melissa on her Kitchen remodel. The associate will see how imperative is to meet the deadline and looks for similar products that can keep Melissa's project on track. The associate connects with Melissa and while Melissa is not happy about changing plans, appreciates that the associate has other good options for her to choose from. 

9. Prioritize areas for customer experience strategy improvements.

By now, the Moments of Truth have already provided a lens through which you can prioritize investment for the most critical trustpoints in the customer journey map. One way to help you prioritize is to create a top ten list of improvements projects.

To prioritize your customer experience management, you can use a simple Prioritization Matrix with importance to the customer, importance to the business,  and the technical feasibility. You can also consider using conjoint analysis, asset classes, or regression analysis.

Keep in mind the multidimensional nature of a customer journey and assign a weight to the impact of each step to the organization success.

Also, remember that customer experience improvement should:

  • Prioritize reliability over “wow” moments.
  • Reduce pain point across the trustpoints.
  • Fix inconsistent experiences.
  • Ensure issues are prevented from reappearing.

Once the opportunities for optimizing your customer experience strategy have been prioritized, list out the key opportunities on the map itself. Now, the customer journey map is a tool you can use for action planning where you can identify key opportunities for improvement, assess their impact, their ROI, and ultimately set investment priorities for your organization.

Making Sure Your Strategy Works

Always remember that customer journey maps can only provide value if:

  • The exercise is developed with an outside-in perspective (the customer is at the center of the stage).
  • The information is widely shared to get internal alignment across multiple teams in the organization. The customer journey maps highlight how and where the various components of your organization impact your customers, shaping their perceptions of your organization, your products, and your services. Tracking customer trustpoints through every department with a direct link to your customers brings the importance of an aligned customer-centric mindset to your customer experience strategy.
  • Once broken moments of truth have been identified, action is taken on the insight. The organization will need to prioritize and design new experience to increase customer loyalty, focus on reducing the effort customers make, head off the need for follow up calls, and address the emotional side of interactions.
  • Long-term owners are assigned to sustain the learning over time.

Conclusion

Like a road map, a Customer Journey Map bridges the gap between customer experience  strategy and the supporting tactics that will bring that new experience to live. A Customer Journey Map cuts through the clutter and provides a comprehensive view of your current customer interactions across departments, services/products, segments, and marketing efforts.

By breaking down the business model across stages of a particular customer journey, it is possible to model where cost can be reduced, and revenues can be generated in relation with where the value is created for the most valuable customer. Once you have the understanding of where you need to improve, you will be able to deliver innovative solutions with an optimized customer experience strategy that responds to your customers’ needs.

A branded customer experience that delivers consistently across all customers channels in a way that adds value to the core customer proposition will intentionally differentiate you from the competition.

The Mountain and the Cave

Perils of being too agile

Way back in the early 2000s, when I had just started my career in the software industry, the Agile Manifesto was making big waves. It promised a radically different, very efficient and very easy way to deal with software. It was based on a very simple set of ideas.

Since then the term “Agile” (note the capitalized “A”) has been reduced to a bunch of certifications, pointless ceremonies, charts and reports. The original problems that the manifesto tried to wrangle with are still by and large the same. Instead many teams seem to have taken this up as a religion and are going through the motions and somehow don’t stop to look and see how truly agile they are with respect to accommodating change.

Agile is not a recipe

One can’t just slap Scrum or XP on to their development process and expect everything to work fine. In my view, the worst kind of offenders are the ones that misinterpret Agile as an encouragement to achieve complete anarchy. I have numerous teams saying “Oh, we follow Agile so we don’t believe in wasting time defining requirements/ documenting/ designing/ building test frameworks.” In the noise of following ceremonies blindly these teams usually miss out on the most critical part of the Manifesto:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

Envisioning the product and the real value it brings to the customer is paramount. It is far more important than tools or processes or making the right noises. If your team is working on something without thinking much about the product vision, you are not being agile, you are just courting disaster.

Let us use this analogy of mountain climbing. It is not exactly a walk in the park to scale, say Mt. Everest. Even if you are not the first one to scale the mountain, it is a big challenge. Even if you have yourself scaled the mountain, it still offers unique challenges every time. But at least you know where you are going — you know how tall is the mountain, what are the typical weather conditions, what is the best time to climb, where to camp, how many meters can you climb in a day and so on. And you will know when you have reached the top. You can stick your flag at summit and take a few selfies to post on Instagram.

Now let us imagine you are spelunking in some unknown cave. You have no idea what are you dealing with. This is completely uncharted. Although you have all the spelunking gear with you, you will definitely fall short of something. There could be poisonous gases at the next bend, you may get caught in a flash flood from some underground river, there may be goblins or orcs — just about anything could happen. Moreover, you may never be sure if you have really reached the end or when you cross the point of no return.

In both the cases, you really have to aware of your surroundings and make quick decisions (be agile). In both cases, you need need to be an expert in navigation and survival skills. In both cases, you need to be prepared with the right gear. However, in case of the cave, you are at a significant disadvantage.

Unfortunately, most teams approach product development like they are spelunking. They don’t invest enough time in envisioning how the product would look like and what the customer needs are. They are just happy following the processes and ticking the boxes and do not worry enough on whether they are building and delivering an incremental product.

To use another (rather well-used) analogy, say a team is building a car for the customer. The general approach is to deliver a tyre, couple of seats, a part of an engine, another tyre, a steering wheel, etc. in each Sprint. Although these are essential components, what the team misses to see is that they are notbuilding an incremental product.

The customer need is not really the car, the more basic need is to get from point A to point B. The customer may change her opinion and ask for a bullet train instead of a car, but the need remains the same. Most teams miss out on understanding this basic ask. And although they deliver individual pieces, they don’t understand that the customer still doesn’t get to try and see if her basic need is being met. Teams should focus on building the equivalent of a kiddy tricycle, a bicycle, a motor bike, a compact hatchback, a sedan and finally a muscle car as increments. The customer gets to validate the incremental product and the team gets early feedback.

It is rather strange to see so many teams focusing entirely on things like Velocity, bug counts, stand-ups and other ceremonies without really stopping to question where what they are doing is really agile. There are often teams that genuinely believe that as long their Sprints are running well, all is good. This myopic view is not enough to build a great product.

It is even more disturbing when I hear teams blame the customer saying: “Oh they don’t know what they want, they keep changing the requirement”. Erm, yes it is possible, but that’s the whole point of being agile. Customers may not know for sure what they want, especially if they don’t speak the language of software. It is our job as software professionals to glean that information from them. And this becomes a lot easier when we focus on what the customer needs, instead of stopping at what they think they want. We can’t blame customers because they could not articulate their requirement, it is up to us to understand and define the requirement based on the customer’s need.

It is time we refocus on the product.

How we hire people

Building a world class design team at YML

I have hired over 100 people in my career.

One of the best was a cartographer, fresh out of college — a cartographer is a map maker, if you don’t know. He was a Frenchman, lovely guy, and I remember his interview well. He said there are not a lot of opportunities in the map making world, but it was his passion. He was a talented designer, his maps were beautiful, and he knew how to code. A project he showed me was an interactive map of Afghanistan and Pakistan, showing drone strikes and the estimated number of casualties at each location. He had sourced the live data from public records, and turned it into a human story. It was very moving. I was blown away. Very humbly he asked, “What could a map maker do here, at a digital agency?” I had to think for a minute, but my answer was “We make maps of the internet.” Sure, it was glib, but it sparked his imagination and the conversation turned to mapping the abstract realm of the worldwide web. He became one of the best UX and systems thinkers I have ever met. He could visualize the tangled mess of connections, user journeys, data points, etc. and redesign them with a simple precision that made me want to cry.

Over the years I have hired many folks with different strokes: architects, fashion designers, industrial designers, even one guy—an embedded programmer—who made parking meters. And they all taught me a valuable lesson: amazing talent can come from anywhere, all they need is a compelling portfolio and a chance to tell their story.

Cool right? Here’s how.

The portfolio

At YML, before we consider interviewing anyone, we look at their portfolio—comparing it to all the other candidates’. A portfolio is your calling card—it should not just show what you have done, but what you can do, what you want to do. We have all seen plenty of portfolios and have a pretty quick read on good vs. bad ones. A good portfolio shows work that’s ambitious and inspiring, and very well executed. Thoughtful, beautiful designs, process breakthroughs, clever ideas, and slick interactions, all jump out of the screen. As do glaring errors, typos, thoughtless designs, awkward process decisions, unworkable interactions, etc.—these will all get a candidate blacklisted, struck off the list of potential hires. Great work is important, but an exceptional portfolio site should be a good user experience too. Consider the audience: busy executives. Trust me, we don’t read much, so don’t write much. Let the work do the talking, focus your words on big, significant ideas, compelling points, quotes and callouts. Curate only your best work, because one bad project gets an instant rejection. If in doubt, don’t show it, or better still, dig deeper and make it great.

Additionally, we prefer real portfolio sites. Dribbble is okay, Behance too, but if you’re shooting for a senior position, you will need a bit more vision, process and/or storytelling to support your work. At best, Dribbble can be very good place to show your interaction and visual design—but at its worst, it’s superficial eye candy. For more on this, read this fantastic article, The Dribbblisation Of Design.

The interview

Okay. So that’s how to get a foot in the door. What’s next? The interview, of course. Here’s a mental checklist we apply to interviewees, when we meet them:

1. Energy: Do you bring it? Do you take it?
For me, this is the number one criteria. I can feel it when I meet someone. Are they inspired? Do they inspire? Is this a job or a lifestyle? We work in small teams, oftentimes in small rooms, with big clients. People who bring energy, who inspire others to do great work, they are the magic ingredient for this model.

2. Empathy: Do you have feeling? Can you connect?
We create products and experiences for people from all walks of life. We must understand them first, so we can design something they want. Empathy, listening, and responding is key to the design process. And it’s important in how we work together as well—we, of course, don’t tolerate jerks—even if they are talented.

3. Culture fit: Do you fit in, but add something as well?
We have a fantastic, inspiring, collaborative, nurturing culture of talented grownups, and we want to preserve it and enhance it. However, we aren’t seeking uniformity. Diverse backgrounds, approaches and opinions are welcome, and help make our work and our culture better.

4. Presentation: How well do you communicate your work?
We look for excellent communicators—both verbal, written and visual—ultimately entrusting them to present our work to clients and internal stakeholders. For entry and mid level positions, just going through some portfolio projects will do just fine — but for senior hires, a presentation is required. A good presentation is a clear articulation of the problem, and the path from strategy to design.

5. Experience: Do you know how to get things done?
This is definitely not a question of length of experience, which is irrelevant. Instead, it’s an assessment of the kind and quality of experience—a candidate’s understanding of the tools and processes, pitfalls and opportunities, common in the job. Inexperienced people won’t hit the ground running, or worse, they can misdirect the process, waste time and resources and negatively affect the quality of our work.

6. Attitude: Are you all in? Do you want it?
Skills can be taught. Attitude can’t. In an industry that’s always changing, someone with a good attitude looks for challenges and is constantly thinking of ways to improve and progress. We want people with positive attitudes that are upbeat, eager, and solutions focused. We find they thrive on feedback, embrace change, and they own it with a smile.

7. Impact: Will you make a difference?
Last, but certainly not least, we want people that we know will have an immediate, positive, lasting impact—on the work, on our clients, on YML. We’re building a world class design team, looking for complementary skillsets, backgrounds and approaches. We don’t want to hire the same kind of designer over and over again. We look for folks who will make our team greater than the sum of its parts.

One more thing

We definitely do not look for an Ivy League education—or any education for that matter. We simply don’t care if you went to Harvard, or never went to school, never studied, come from an underprivileged background, were homeschooled, or are completely self taught. So long as you do great work, have the right attitude, and know how to get the job done, you’re in.

And that’s it. If this sounds like you, or someone you know, get in touch. Also, any interview goes two ways. If you have thoughts on what you look for in an interview, we’d love to hear them.

Good luck!

The Power of “Defensive Pessimism” in Building Great Software

Can software be beautiful? Certainly a great looking and intuitive interface which enables people using the app to accomplish their tasks with little effort and minimal friction could be called beautiful. Software developers are privy to another kind of beauty: The inherent beauty in well-constructed software that makes it easy for a software team to effortlessly integrate disparate pieces into a compound whole. Well-constructed software can be appreciated much the same way that a beautiful painting, a sculpture, a building or a piece of music can be appreciated.

But beautiful software is not necessarily great software. Ideally, great software is great because it empowers people. It can give them what could be described as superhero-like capabilities. We definitely want people to feel like superheroes when using our software, but we want them to identify more with Superman or Wonder Woman than with The Greatest American Hero. In other words, they should be able to achieve great things, but, unlike The Greatest American Hero’s Ralph Hinkley, they should not be rendered powerless without a sufficiently detailed instruction manual.

For software to empower people in this way, it must be designed from the ground up to be anticipatory. Great software often feels omniscient. It makes the difficult look easy, even though, ironically, making the difficult look easy is really quite hard. As Steve Jobs is said to have put it, “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

As software developers, we must also strive to anticipate the events and conditions our software may be forced to deal with if we wish to create great software. The wireframes or mockups we receive from designers tend to focus on the so-called “happy path”. These are the things that the people using our software will hopefully be doing most of the time, and they include such things as writing great novels, sending money to friends, depositing checks, or collaborating and communicating with colleagues. These concepts are the things people would mention when describing our software to others.

Other events require error handling and recovery. These are the things which result from software being used in the real world. They are expected, but, hopefully, infrequent. Network requests may fail. The device may run out of memory or storage capacity. Great software accounts for these scenarios and provides a fluid though perhaps degraded experience in spite of their presence.

Finally, there are exceptional events. These are failures from which we cannot recover programmatically, and include hardware failures or assumptions about external dependencies which have held true in the past but which have since changed and upon which we can no longer rely.

Software is best constructed by taking the existence of these types of scenarios into account from the beginning instead of “bolting them on” later. To me, great software must be robust by design.

The benefits of robust-by-design software

Software that is built from the ground up anticipating the various ways things can go wrong is more likely to be of the necessary quality and to deliver a rock-solid user experience. Robust-by-design software will also be less likely to crash or behave in an unexpected manner in the course of operation.

In addition, the resulting software will provide a better user experience. Things will be more fluid, and errors, when they undoubtedly occur, will be handled smoothly. The app won’t unexpectedly jump between screens or overlay elements from the anticipated “good state” with elements from the “error state”. They won’t show blank screens or display a spinner ad infinitum. Furthermore, it will be easier to avoid these unwanted situations.

The app will also be more secure as it will not crash as often or continue to operate in an unexpected state. The software will also safely clean up after itself in these situations (i.e., close open files or overwrite memory to remove sensitive information) thereby also increasing security.

The app will also be easier to maintain as the code will be better constructed. It will be less likely that other developers will cause software to regress as these scenarios will be more explicit in the code. The app will also be easier to test as it will be structured as a collection of components, thereby helping with separation of concerns.

Creating robust-by-design software requires us to think about as many of the various scenarios that we can to make sure we cover all the things which can go wrong. This is a skill that software developers must hone. Modern software is quite complicated, and there are often many things that can go wrong at any time. But, like any skill, one can get better at anticipating these scenarios. The more we practice this approach, the more scenarios will be known to us and the better we will become at thinking about new ones.

Why being a 'defensive pessimist' matters

I often tell my colleagues that I spend more than 90 percent of my time working to make sure the software I create handles those scenarios which occur less than 10 percent of the time. A lot of that time is spent trying to find those scenarios which are not on the happy path. Thinking of those scenarios can be hard, making sure the software is able to handle those scenarios well is easier (though not easy). Making sure the software operates well in the presence of those scenarios is made easier when the need to do so is taken into account from the beginning.

Obviously there’s no expectation or requirement that we think of every possible thing that can go wrong, but the more such scenarios we think of the better. It makes it more likely that the scenarios we had failed to think of may be covered by the scenarios of which we did think. Furthermore, any new scenarios will be easier to incorporate later as we already have support for alternate paths and do not need to bolt those on well into the development cycle.

Another way to say this is that, as software developers, we should think about our software through the lens of “defensive pessimism”. Defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy whose practitioners work through all the things which could go wrong and plan accordingly. According to a New York Magazine article on defensive pessimism, while it might seem better to expect things to go well and not worry about negative outcomes, it most certainly is not better. According to research conducted by Dr. Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and a leading researcher of the defensive pessimism concept, defensive pessimists actually benefit from all the worrying they do as they approach situations more fully prepared.

That’s exactly what we want to do when developing software. We could be optimists, and assume that everything will work out okay, but we will quickly find that that’s unrealistic in practice. We could be pessimists and assume everything will always go wrong, but then we’d never write any useful software.

Instead, we should strive to be defensive pessimists who create beautiful and useful software that is robust enough to remain beautiful and useful when the inevitable happens and things go wrong.

Software which anticipates our next action can feel magical. As software developers, we can create a more solid foundation for our software and make it more likely to achieve that vaunted status if we work on anticipating all of the various scenarios it may have to deal with and incorporate that support from the beginning.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail. In other words, the details are from where that beauty comes. Getting these details right will make it more likely that the software we create is in fact great software.

SEE ALSO: The power of permanence in a "Command Z" world>

Mediocre Retail Won’t Survive: How a New Generation of Shoppers is Changing Retail

Perhaps the saddest part of walking into a store filled with overstuffed racks and instantly feeling your anxiety levels peaking is that this horrendous experience isn't an anomaly. 

We've all witnessed the clothing racks in disarray. Instead of being organized by article type or size, a typical shopping experience is more like dealing with racks piled high with various pieces tossed there by the shoppers who didn't want them. As horrible as all of this sounds, this isn't even why I loathe in-store shopping so much. Whenever I do make the effort to visit a physical store, I can never find the particular item I saw online that lured me into the store in the first place. Even worse, I can never find an associate to help me locate it.

So, here's what ends up happening: after an hour or so of browsing, I end up lugging around pounds of clothes to the cramped fitting rooms. I'm then told that I can only have a certain number of items in the fitting room at a time, so half my clothes need to stay outside. And if something doesn't fit and I need another size, back out onto the battlegrounds I go.

Today's v. yesterday's consumers

In today’s consumer-centric world in which we’ve all become accustomed to personalization, convenience, and the instant gratification that technology provides, why would retailers expect their shoppers to be satisfied with yesterday’s shopping experience? Who has the patience, let alone the time, to spend hours on an experience like this when you can browse, order, and return from the comfort of your couch?

The reality is, the influence of smartphones and the ease of online shopping have completely changed consumer behavior and the way we interact with brands. Expectations for brands have changed not only in online shopping, but also when shoppers step inside a physical store.

Nike Brand president Trevor Edwards famously said “undifferentiated, mediocre retail won’t survive,” meaning retailers that only think about fashion and fail to connect with consumers and the digital brand experience they provide will eventually see sales suffer.

Just ask consumers. Time and time again, studies tell us that cost, choice, and convenience are always going to be relevant, but today's empowered consumers also care about the experience that accompanies a brand. And that's the biggest differentiator separating shoppers today to yesterday's: the need to connect to the actual experience, not just the brand name alone.

Retailers, like Reformation, are doing it right

Yael Afalo, former model and founder of Reformation, had just this in mind when she launched San Francisco’s tech-inspired location in 2017. Though sales were strong for the brand, which first came on the scene in 2009, Afalo noticed Reformation’s Yelp reviews left much to be desired when it comes to customers’ experiences in-store.

Inspired by Silicon Valley and Tesla’s unique approach to ordering cars, Afalo set out to see if integrating technology into the store in a thoughtful way could solve her customers’ frustrations. It did.

The first time I walked into Reformation in San Francisco, I knew this was going to be a different kind of retail experience. The storefront is clean, open, and inviting. Spaced out on a few racks around the showroom are best-sellers, and two plush white couches sit in the center of the room. Everything about the showroom was inviting and peaceful. I wanted to sit on those couches. I wanted to browse the best-sellers. I wanted to take a break from my day, forget about whatever it is that's worrying me, and just dive into this safe haven.

Here, I would find peace and the perfect outfit.

Along the walls, there are large touch screens that allow shoppers to browse all the items on the floor. By clicking on the item's image, you can instantly see if your size is available. Even more impressive: the days of hauling around hangers of dresses are over. At Reformation, shoppers can use the screens to choose merchandise that will be picked up by sales clerks and placed in the dressing room before you even set foot inside. No more searching the racks. No more walking around the store with 10 pounds of clothes on your arms. Those days are long gone.

And just in case you still aren’t convinced Reformation doesn’t know its audience, inside each fitting room is a charging station so shoppers can take as many selfies as their heart desires. They can use their phones to send photos to friends for feedback or to do further research on particular items or to sync to their music for a truly personalized experience--all without worrying that they’ll zap their battery life.

What’s most impressive about Reformation is how earnestly the company thinks about its customers. Not just the quality of the clothing, or how it fits, or the standard things yesterday’s shoppers used to care most about, but also how the brand experience is for each customer--the entire journey, from start to finish.

When thinking about how to utilize technology in retail, it’s not about splurging on a gimmicky activation that customers don’t really need; it’s about using technology in a meaningful way. It’s about utilizing data and insights to understand consumers pain points and using technology to solve those existing problems. Today’s shoppers are looking for seamless experiences, not the anxiety-inducing, messy, unorganized showrooms of the past.

SEE ALSO: 3 ways to slay (in a post-mobile age)>

The Power of Permanence in a Command Z World

Command-Z may save you during your day job, but that lower back tat is forever. What the digital age can learn from an industry where there is no “undo.”

Making that final decision and moving on is something we all struggle with, including myself - and for good reason. Many times, when we make mistakes, we grapple with the reality of those mistakes, and we want to go back and correct them. Seems fair. But with the new wave of convenience via tech, we have become lazy. Relying on “undo” as a crutch to our erratic and myopic actions. We no longer make true commitments, or really take the time to think before we act. Everything has become impulsive, in 140 characters or less. And for many, this behavior can get us into a varying scale of trouble. If being careless and impulsive as some of us are with social media somehow leaked into other areas of our life, it could have very lasting effects. For me, that dose of reality comes in the form of tattoos. And take it from me, impulse tattoos may be a great conversation starter, but there ain’t no command-z here:

digital experience - tattoo example

Yep, thats me. #Trampstamp #forever.

This is as much a thought piece as it is a personal introduction. Many know me as a designer, many know me as a tattooer, and my parents, of course, still don’t have a clue what I do. One thing most people know, is that I’m detail-oriented. I always pay attention to, and sometimes overly stress the small things. This is ultimately how I’ve been able to navigate and connect, making bridges between my seemingly opposite interests.

During the week, I work in a fancy office, in a big fancy building, in glamorous Midtown Manhattan. I was lucky enough to be sent here a few years back by the Silicon Valley tech company I work for in California. And to many here in New York, I’m that guy - a designer in the tech industry, or colloquially, just a “techy.” But there’s a less connected version of myself that only some know, and fall victim to outside of my daily grind.

digital experience - tattoo studio

My Brooklyn studio @saltandnail_tattoo photo cred @awoophoto

When the work week comes to an end, I’m in a Brooklyn basement using a piece of technology that has gone virtually unchanged since its invention in the late 1800s - my beloved tattoo machines. The ultimate permanent marker. And with what started off as a less-than-steady income job as a tattooer has quickly become one of the most valuable aspects of my growing career as a designer. While tattooing, you are forced to make clear decisions, and commit to them with confidence. Maybe obvious for some, but apply that simple concept to your day job, and you’ll have yourself a damn good day. It not only boosts your self confidence and attracts the attention of a room, but also manifests a critical way of thought, making each move and decision intentional.

digital experience - tatto artist

Process before the act. Photo by Ashley Woo @awoophoto

Unfortunately, I tend to notice more critical thought when taking on new tattoo clients than I do from most of the professionals flooding my inbox on the daily. And in our current social media frenzied society filled with trigger happy startups, I’ve further witnessed the sheer contrast between my two worlds in some interesting ways.

Most noticeably, how some choose to think deeply about each decision they make, carefully considering how it might impact their life, and how others will do or say pretty much anything without a second thought, knowing things can be edited later. This shot-in-the-dark agile mentality has become the norm for most new businesses in tech in the formulation of a digital experience strategy. Consider Facebook’s original mission statement, which underlined a “move fast and break things” kind of culture. And with many success stories, it has become a very intriguing and potentially game changing strategy for many. But this is Facebook we’re talking about. Imagine applying this type of thinking to more consequential aspects of your life. Or even more, to the wellbeing of a nation's people. Is a “bull in the china shop” approach always the right answer? Are we losing touch with thoughtful design and relying too much on the ability to undo/redo when things ultimately come crashing down?

This lack of commitment and permanence in our actions need to be made evident. With more than four hours a day spent on our devices on average, it’s clear that smartphones are the planet’s newest widespread addictions.

But I don’t believe the problem is that we engage too much with technology. I think the problem is that we are starting to use it carelessly. If great responsibility comes with great power, then our world of convenience should come with a heightened sense of intentionality and thoughtfulness.

digital experience - tattoo artist in action

One thing that tattoos always remind me of with each process - whether receiving or giving them - is that each of us has to live with every decision we make, everyday. Whether doing body mods or posting that tweet. Yet we seem to have flipped the process. We’ve begun to act first, then scramble with a combination of select-delete and command-z to change direction when we do finally pause and think. Well, call me old-school, but I like the process that most use when getting tattooed - and that is to think before you act. Then act 100 percent.

I’ll end my rant here, and invite you to join this one little exercise - a challenge you could say. If you work as a designer, writer, photographer, or simply have to deal with outgoing emails constantly, I challenge you to spend just half a day, and consciously limit the act of “command-Z” (or select/delete). Make mindful decisions, as if they were permanent. Move every pixel with purpose. Type every sentence like it's handwritten in ink. Take every picture with the selectiveness and concentration that doing so with expensive film could only encourage. We need to remember that in life - real life - there is no “undo.” So be intentional, weather designing a digital experience, answering an email, or finally getting that skull and dagger tattoo across your chest. Hold yourself accountable, and take responsibility for what you do and how you do it. Make each decision with a sense of permanence. Without the cushion of command-Z.

*Postscript: I am in no way advocating against iteration, proofreading, or editing - that’s one of the marvelous and critical abilities we have with new tech. And to be honest, I lost track of how many times I used command-Z while writing this. It’s simply an insight and exercise in conscious thought and meaningful action. Now go do some cool shit, and tell me how full-of-it I am down there in the comments \m/

What Makes a Great Hire?

It was the summer of 2013 when I received a phone call out of the blue from the co-founder of a Silicon Valley digital agency who told me that I had made a memorable impression on him. He then probed into my motivations and philosophy to hiring and retaining talent. We immediately connected on the various creative ways you can spark a conversation with an engineer or a designer. Maybe someone who isn’t even looking for a job at the time, but that’s not the point. The point of this approach to a talent strategy is creating meaningful connections and interactions with some of the brightest minds in the Valley.

Connections and interactions that last.

Shortly after, our cofounder, Sumit and I decided to meet at a busy specialities coffee shop in Sunnyvale, which was the halfway point between us at the time. I instantly felt my compass align with the core values of YML. During the two hours that we sat and drank coffee,  we discussed going the extra mile, challenging the status quo in order to achieve excellence, and most importantly, always putting the users, employees, and prospective candidates first. These values resonated with me because first and foremost, I felt they were genuine and from the heart, but also just as important, I saw this as the way of doing business in the future.

hiring strategy - team pic

Fast forward five years and I’ve now been through three office moves and have personally established three offices in the U.S., scaling YML to more than 500 percent since I joined. I’ll never forget: our first office had a microwave on top of an overstuffed mini fridge and I took all of my calls from our server room.

Let’s just say, since then, some things have changed. Now in our current office, we have a smart fridge that plays my favorite Spotify playlist. When I make calls, I can choose from the 26 conference rooms available, and even book the room through the iPad app we developed during a Hackathon.

Because it took a lot of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice for us to get here (although definitely worth it!), I realized, along the way, a lot of important things when it comes to a talent strategy for hiring and cultural fit. For instance, all the blood, sweat, and tears required for the reality we enjoy today meant that we needed people who were right next to us, digging, grinding, and building. We needed people who were aligned with our compass and truly a self advocate on making a lasting impact.

Because the world is ever changing, we have to change directions more times than we can count sometimes. We have to be nimble and flexible, yet simultaneously, stay laser focused on our end destination. As a result, whoever can navigate that journey with us ends up being a great hire.

Throughout the years, I’ve noticed a pattern those great hires tend to possess:

1. They see the future. It’s a mindset, a feeling. An underlying curiosity to validate success and dig for the true reason why. A desire to research past failures, current successes, and future ideas in their respective discipline. You can only see the future if you truly understand the past--and this is even more true in technology.

2. They are long-term thinkers. They possess the unique ability to efficiently break down goals into a series of short term executions. We are an agency where top notch global brands come to us for our thought process, so we can’t have short-term thinkers or those moving from job to job. We need forward-thinking, entrepreneurial, creative, strategic thinkers who are driven by impact. Those who have a driven mindset, who know what direction they’re heading in, but are also fluid in their conversation and thought-process. They are game changers and prove by results. Someone who wants to be part of something bigger than themselves and genuinely want those around them to succeed, because they consider themselves part of a team, part of something living, breathing, and growing.

3. They are positive, honest, and have grit. Some call it the inner courage to be the best version of yourself and to believe that hard work, clarity, and determination will get you there. Grit is a desire to outlast and overcome perhaps the scariest competition: yourself. It is about being dedicated to what you set out to accomplish and never settling for less. It’s about taking ownership in order to make things happen. I have always believed that positive thinking leads to positive results and visa versa; because positivity is about believing in yourself and those around you. And that is powerful thinking!

4. They love to play, color, tinker…and most of all, learn. At YML, a successful hire constantly challenges and listens to themselves in order to push forward. Trying new things, constantly taking in new information because you have a yearning to learn and experiment in foreign areas is a must. Here, we color outside the lines a bit and tinker until we get to an “aha!” moment. We believe this is how you create and build greatness.

The bottom line is, talent strategy is about creating an everlasting message for prospective employees and show the world your brand’s vision. Set company values that will attract the right talent you seek and lead by example. Show the world you believe in your “product, people, and process,” as Marcus Lemonis says repeatedly on his CNBC show The Profit. Always be on the lookout for your next great hire and never, ever, turn down a coffee meeting as who knows what the future holds. And last but not least, always trust your inner compass.

SEE ALSO: What exactly does a creative director do?>

3 Ways to Slay (in a Post Mobile-Age)

Born in the heyday of the smartphone revolution, YML was made for mobile application design and development. And we rock at it. But, as we grow and position ourselves to best serve our clients, it’s clear apps are not the future. So what is?

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” ~ Wayne Gretzky

Eight years ago, mobile applications were the hot new technology—brands needed them, new businesses were born because of them. But today, not so much. In my experience, brands are trying to reduce their number of apps to just one (sometimes two—internal and external facing ones) and app strategies are about reduction, not addition. Added to this, consumers are downloading fewer apps—the majority of U.S. consumers still download zero apps per month...and 63 percent of users stop using apps within the first month.

Instead, brands are thinking up new engagement strategies; ways they can reach people via other platforms—apps, services, experiences—that already have engagement built in—like Siri, Alexa, Instagram, and Messenger. Or they are creating new experiences using web, AI/ML, TV, kiosks, or in-car interfaces, to name a few.

The mobile app industry is slowing down, and growth opportunities for digital product agencies specializing in apps are going to be much harder won. In short, brands are bringing their core products (apps) in-house, and off-app initiatives are becoming the strategic imperative.

So where does that leave digital product agencies like us? What’s next?

No worries: I have identified three ways to slay:

1. Marketing

It’s a dirty word: marketing. I’m a cord cutter. Pre-roll irritates the hell out of me (never a good brand experience). And I don’t think I have ever clicked on a banner. Awareness marketing is not something I wish to do, and it’s not the future. It’s loud, annoying, and constantly interrupts people, vying for their attention. But conversion marketing, that’s different. For example, if someone chooses to visit a website, they have expressed interest. They want to know more. Website content—words and pictures—needs to be alluring, convincing, impeccably on-brand. Shoppable items should be beautifully rendered, and a path to purchase should be easy to navigate with clear signposting. For an agency, the benefits of marketing are that it’s more seasonal, predictable. It’s simple: a brand launches a shoe, then three months later they launch another shoe. I believe that magic happens when the worlds of marketing and digital products converge to generate an engagement strategy and create experiences that include the energy of a brand moment with the well designed means to buy, subscribe for, or tailor a product or service to your liking. The kind of brands that I think do a great job of conversion marketing and website design are Everlane, Soul Cycle, and Square. Each brand’s website has a compelling story, look and feel, and useful, simple web based tools that help seal the deal.

2. Customer Experience

It should come as no surprise that in today’s increasingly customer focused world, user experience, human centered design, and Design (with a big D) are essential for building brands. It has been said that every company is—or should be—a service company, and great brands design exceptional, holistic experiences for their customers, and their employees. For example, have you ever been to a WeWork? Their staff are so amped to be there. That’s because the staff experience has been carefully designed to be awesome and it’s infectious. As a result, it gets passed on to the customers that work there, and it creates a brand halo. Someone once told me (a student) that ”design is a process for solving problems.” I think this is quite cool. Customer experience design (CX) is a fantastic way to truly affect digital transformation, evolving companies to be the best version of themselves. It’s an emerging field focused on connecting touchpoints, optimizing ecosystems, and designing the best experience at every touchpoint. At YML, our growing customer engagement strategy service includes user research, data analysis, stakeholder interviews, business and technology strategy. The output of which includes customer journeys, ecosystems maps, service design blueprints, and a vision brief. And they generally get developed before we start wireframes, prototypes, visual design. Brands killing it in the CXd field are AirBnB, Lyft, and (as previously mentioned) WeWork—each has best-in-class customer and employee experiences that help uplift the brand.

3. The Next Wave

We grew up on mobile. We rode the app wave. This wave isn’t going away soon, but it is slowing down. So what’s the next wave? It is our belief that data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are the next big frontier for brands (although we are exploring other tracks, like blockchain, IoT, and drones, too). The promise of AI is twofold: Better service (AI is instant, you don’t have to queue for it, it’s free) and more scale (AI can serve thousands of customers instantaneously, with minimal overhead). I think of AI like a brand’s digital brain; a service layer that sits above all of its digital products and services. These “brains” are, of course, a brand’s smarts, but they are also its personality. There is going to be a generation of consultancies that design and develop a brand’s brain—how a brand thinks, and how it behaves (and not just how it looks and feels). A brand’s intelligence should feel human, empathic, it should know you, personalizing your experience across every touchpoint on every device. Agencies that help design brands’ AI brains will also start designing how its intelligence and personality manifests in an app, on a website, on Alexa, or as a call center agent. A good example of brands that do AI well are Spotify’s music recommendation engine, and ASOS' visual search.

And so…

At the risk of giving away our company strategy, we have built expertise in all of these areas. We have hired world class talent, developed practices, and authored services for our clients. Our vision is to become our clients’ most valued partner, and this is the happy path that gets us there.

But, of course, we have not lost sight of our core competencies—engagement strategy, design, AND technology. Our strength is turning vision into execution, creating products and experiences that have lasting impact. We are fast and agile, and it’s how we make a difference for our clients and the customers they serve, when others get bogged down in the theoretical. We are strategic makers. We get stuff done. We believe in putting products in the hands of millions of people.

And deckware is our foe.

Cheers.

SEE ALSO: Why storytelling has the power to shape company culture>

What Exactly Does A Creative Director Do?

It never fails. When I tell people I work as a creative director at a digital agency, the next question is typically some version of, "so, what is it that you do exactly?”

Many people think a Creative Director’s role involves sitting in an ivory tower spouting design direction to their underlings. Others seem to think the role is obsolete, a relic of traditional ad agencies. While it’s true that the Creative Director often holds the keys to the proverbial creative gates, the modern day Creative Director’s role is more integrated, subtle, agile, and collaborative.

On a typical day, it is equal parts creative facilitator, design advocate, team cheerleader, and idea defender.

Below, I've laid out what my typical day as a Creative Director looks like:

Good morning, Sunshine at 7 a.m.

I’m not a morning person by any means, but my dog Marshy seems to think otherwise. She wakes me up at 7 a.m. on the dot every morning so that I can stumble out of bed and feed her.  Not only does my dog dutifully act as my daily alarm clock, she also serves as a source of stress-relief and pet therapy whenever days are draining and chaotic. In fact, it is scientifically proven time and time again that pets help lower your blood pressure as well as cortisol levels, a natural hormone triggered by stress. After some light stretching and a brisk walk around the block with my furry friend, I continue on to my morning routine of showering, getting dressed, and eating a hearty breakfast, usually consisting of a bagel, eggs, and fruit, to prepare for my day.

digital agency - Creative Director dog

In the office by 9 a.m.

About two hours after stumbling out of bed, I roll into the office, grab a steaming cup of joe from our fancy espresso machine, check emails, and make a mental checklist of what I want to get done for the day. In the fast-paced environment of a digital agency such as YML, it’s important to always have a game plan for what I want to accomplish. Whether it’s brainstorming with team members or preparing a presentation, I want to be as efficient and intentional as possible with my time.

digital agency - office

Getting my hands dirty by 9:30 a.m.

Creative Directors do a lot of delegating when it comes to actual design work, which makes sense given the amount of projects and people one must oversee. However, while I do delegate the majority of the designing and crafting to my team, I jump at any opportunity to get my hands dirty. Whether its helping to define a product concept, prototyping a new experience, or animating a slick interaction, I stay involved in the creative process.

After all, being creative is why I got into design in the first place. I still remember staying up late into the wee hours of the morning designing and coding websites as a prepubescent teen, gleefully discovering the joys of creating something tangible out of clicks and keyboard strokes. I try to make sure I never forget the reasons “why” I do things — that’s what drives us, differentiates us, and yet simultaneously, also connects us.  Designing is my passion and I constantly remind myself that I’m blessed to be able to do it for a living.

Creative ideas are brought to life by 11 a.m.

The Creative Director’s role requires combining technology, strategy, and design in order to bring an idea to life. It’s often a push and pull, both internally with your team and externally with the client. It’s getting that delicate balance just right; the one where you can give your team autonomy, manage expectations, and encourage innovation.  All of this necessitates constant communication and collaboration, and I like to do it in the form of whiteboarding, internal reviews, and client working sessions. Here at YML, this creative process often takes the form of a Design Sprint, a week-long jam session of solving business problems through designing, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. This is the ultimate crucible of creativity where your design, critical thinking, and problem solving skills are put to the test. In a recent Design Sprint, a startup in the Cryptocurrency space called Nimiq came to us with a challenge. How might we create a product that helps to differentiate it from the plethora of cryptocurrencies in a unique and engaging way? We debated, we slogged, we struggled, but ultimately we came up with a viable solution that was worthy of testing.

Which takes me to my next point: the role of a Creative Director is hardly glamorous nor is it often visible. It is usually messy, with dozens of ideas scrapped before landing on “the one.”  If you’re doing a good job at it, your role can seem invisible, elevating your team and making the whole creative process look easy and seamless.
digital agency - computer

Taking the time to eat a proper lunch at noon

My days are usually pretty jam-packed but I try to make sure I set aside time to eat a proper lunch. I try to keep it light with a salad or a small sandwich in order to avoid the afternoon food coma slow down. Lunch is also the best time for me to connect 1:1 with coworkers or have team bonding with folks that I don’t interact with on a daily basis.

digital agency - lunch

An inspirational walk at 2 p.m.

I make an effort to step away from my desk at least once a day to go outside on a short walk. I’m lucky to have an office located right next to a beautiful lagoon that was once the home of Marine World. Not only do these walks help clear my head, it also sparks ideas whenever I’m feeling a creative block.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that taking a walk among trees and nature—as opposed to an urban environment—can improve your short-term memory by 20 percent.  In another study by Jerome Singer, intentionally allowing your mind to wander allows it to access memories and meaningful connections, helping to lead us to those coveted “lightbulb” or "aha!" moments when we least expect them

digital agency - go for a walk

Always searching for new talent

Recruiting is a big part of my job at our digital agency, so I’m constantly talking to potential hires. I typically try to do this later in the afternoon, around 3 or 4 p.m. after I've completed the bulk of the day's work. Aside from their portfolio, the most important thing to me is whether they’re a good cultural fit. Maintaining the culture and health of the team is always top of mind for me.

I’ve been lucky to be able to see the team grow over the past four years from a handful of designers to a team of 17 across two offices. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a Creative Director: building a team of wonderful, creative folks who you’re able to watch grow to spectacular heights.

Spread the word: 4:30 p.m. is playtime

We often have random activities in the office to break up the work day.  It might be an ice cream social one week, cocktails and karaoke another, and a few rounds of Mario Kart in-between.  It’s important to carve out some time for play and to give the brain an opportunity to replenish its creative juices.

digital agency - party time!

Closing time is 5:30 p.m.

I usually try to wrap up whatever I’m doing by this time and make notes of what I need to do the next day. I try not to make a habit of working too late as I believe it’s important to maintain a balanced life. I’m a big believer in the mantra “work smarter, not harder.” Dedicating a good chunk of time hanging out with family, exercising, or just vegging out on the couch is super important in order for me to feel recharged and motivated to do my best work the next day.

Phasing Out the ‘Human’: Can Technology Cure Modern Loneliness

Think about some of the relationships in your life: your mom, your dad, your pet, your partner…Whether its a tinder fling or someone you are deeply in love with and want to share your life, relationships meet a psychological need for everyone.

Of course, humans have certain physiological needs too, like food, water and shelter as well as the existentials in life that keep us fulfilled and engaged. Without the former, our bodies would die, and without the latter, our souls would become stunted, failing to grow, ultimately killing us… inside. At the end of the day, removing relationships, means removing sanity. It means getting rid of love. It means no more sex—which we know is a pretty important factor in the continuance of humanity.

I like you…

We know that relationships are essential to our survival, but what have we done to keep these relationships alive? What have we done to make sure humans have healthier, richer relationships so humanity isn’t at risk of extinction?

We did what humans do best. We moved forward. We advanced. Every 100 years, our technology increases by 1000 percent, leading to improved communication with those we have relationships with and a higher chance of connection with those we’ve never met. Think about the life changing breakthroughs in communication technology.

Let’s start with fire.

Fire may not be the first thing you think of when talking about technology or communication, but imagine yourself as a primitive human in the untouched wilderness for a moment. It’s dark. You’re in survival mode. Your belly is empty and all of a sudden, a fellow Neanderthal conjures up this warm, glowing, beautiful source of light and shares it with the rest of your tribe.

You’re witnessing a social innovation bringing people together for entertainment, comfort and survival. It’s a source for resting, cooking, dancing, laughing and story-telling—all of which help to improve relationships.

In the glow of the fire, Neanderthals go from acquaintance to friend. As such, fire can easily be argued as the first technological innovation that fosters a better relationship.

Since the first fire, we’ve come up with ways to bring people closer at a more rapid pace. From the printing press, the telegram, the telephone, cars, planes, the World Wide Web, and most recently, the influx of social media platforms. Facebook has roughly two billion monthly active users all sitting around their modern camp fires” telling stories, sharing moments, maintaining and growing relationships. We’re all still cave women and men trying to survive and entertain, we now just congregate around a slightly more complex source of warmth.

Do you like me?

In addition to relationship maintenance, we’re also seeing humans use tech to create relationships with non-humans. Sure, people need interaction, but not necessarily human interaction. This isn’t a brand new concept, this is happening. This is the fictitious character you fall in love with or vomit hate for in a television series or movie or even a podcast. This is the video game character you attach yourself to, making intricate relationships that were all designed by other humans. We’re inserting ourselves into these lives made possible because of technology.

Even when you are having an interaction with another human, is tech obfuscating the relationship? When you text someone you’re not really having a human interaction. At least not in the traditional sense because for better or worse, talking to someone without hearing their voice or reading the signals on their face or even seeing the imperfections in their handwriting has become the new norm.

And if these non-human, tech induced interactions have already become the new normal, then maybe technology can be used to create genuine relationships for humans. That is, a relationship that comforts and inspires and grows alongside its partner.

Consider the strides in artificial intelligence. It might be some time before we get to the days of machines being indistinguishable from humans, but that doesn't mean we can’t create a relationship through tech.

I don’t mean one of those life-like” dolls that inevitably emits an eerie emotional response from unfamiliar onlookers. Because when a robot is realistic, but still distinguishable that it’s artificial, our empathy for it drops dramatically into the distinctive dip called the Uncanny Valley.

Of course, science fiction movies like Her and 2001: A Space Odyssey have explored the relationship between humans and technology, and the possible, negative, dystopian outcomes, but Skynet isn’t taking over and John Connor isn’t the last hope of the human race. Technology is still about progress. It’s about improving the world we live in.

The idea of falling in love with something that was created by another person, something that’s not a physiological creation, not human birthed, will certainly seem offensive to most, but if you couldn’t tell the difference, would it matter? If this relationship could provide empathetic companionship for the aging widow who lost her partner, or save the sanity of the astronaut drifting alone in outer space, we’ve ultimately used technology to cure loneliness.

SEE ALSO: What YML is doing to help reshape early education learning in a screen-obsessed world>

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