By Ryan Spencer
I started my journey with Y Media Labs on April 11th, 2011 meaning I have just reached, and passed, my eight year anniversary with the company.
YML has gone through many fundamental changes (even just referring to it as “YML”!), but I believe the most important factors to our success have been outcomes of our collective curiosity and openness to change.
We began our journey with a narrow focus in building apps for mobile devices, and realized over time that our true impact is not through just great work, but by also being advocates of a customer-first mindset.
What we really do:
In addition to creating digital experiences for clients, a lot of what we do for our partners is to try to help them reimagine their own process to better reflect the needs of their customer.
While there are many large companies who employ some type of design thinking throughout their organization, there still are many that do not and still do not understand the value. Our goal is to tap into the biggest opportunities and bring about change.
In this article, I would like to reflect on my experience here at the company and how we shifted our own perspective over time. This is how we turned a small design shop into an experience design company with lasting impact.
YML 1.0 (2011-2013)
I believe I joined Y Media Labs in version 1.0. At this time, creating mobile apps was our only priority.
Early on, our goal was to simply try to produce the best work possible. The output was key, and we wanted to keep the process simple by not convoluting it with complexity. The “we make iPhone apps” industry was a bit of the wild west, and for us, it was a process of learning, exploration, and opportunity. Somedays the lack of structure created turbulence, but over time we realized through it that we grew as a result — to be agile, adaptable, and fast.
The problem: business and stakeholders alone lead product decisions
In the early days, clients tended to lead or change the product direction on the fly because there was no north star or overall product vision.
We didn’t have the confidence to say “trust us, we are professionals” and we feel as though there is a greater opportunity in following our prescribed roadmap.
Truthfully though we were just so immersed in the process of learning, creating and problem-solving that we didn’t have a realization of the immense experience we grew over time.
And after all, clients are paying us to create their overall vision. So they should have absolute say, right? But as we began to hire more people to the team, we realized that this wasn’t going to work for everyone the way we anticipated.
- We need a vision. The success of the work is the most important factor. We were simply following marching orders, designing, building, designing building…and on and on. There wasn’t a shared understanding of a larger iteration cycle, of what an MVP could be. Instead, products were massive, often times convoluted as a result of a lack of focus, vision, and unfortunately user-validation. That often caused projects to fail, and clients to distrust our decision-making skills. We needed to build a product process that could support itself through validation and use a scientific approach in predicting success over time.
- Eliminate subjectivity at all costs. We’ve all been in the situation where a client might say “do it this way, because I’m the client and want you to do so” If our team is not shielded from this tactic then they can easily get demotivated with projects, and it’s not a win for anyone involved. We needed to have some objective fact as a guideline to our decisions, and this needs to be built in to the process as much as possible.
In this first version of YML, we we beginning to attract some of our first marquee clients from great work alone. Some of the most notable ones in this phase include Symantec, Bank of America, Sesame Street, Photobucket, Nom Nom Paleo, Intro to Letters, and Credit Karma.
By the end of 2013 we had worked on a huge body of work, both projects and pitches. This includes one of my absolute favorite projects I’ve worked on which was YMLs first award-winning product, NomNom Paleo (Now with two Webbys).
In many cases, we were seen as app design mercenaries who were there to help where needed, not meant to guide – but we aspired to be more and wanted to figure out how.
These learnings in YML 1.0 along with a bigger, brighter team brought us into the next phase.
YML 2.0 (2014-2017)
The business-driven “app shop” gained a customer-focus through design thinking methods.
This iteration of the company was when we began to hit our stride professionally and culturally. The work begun to become more visually appealing, but more importantly we had a better understanding of the value of a strategic approach could bring.
Creative Gets a Voice, Customers too
YML began as a technology-forward company, and in many ways it still is. Although design has always begun outnumbered in headcount, it had become a much greater force in the company. There had been a number of design leaders along the way that were key to helping us through both our projects and process.
In 2015 my colleague Alex Huang and I were given the charge to co-lead the Creative team, and with that came an opportunity to bring new ideas and process to the work. Alex and I had the fortune of working on some incredible pieces of work at this time. There were some high-profile brands, all with unique challenges of reaching massive audiences in a way that felt personal, engaging and intuitive.
We were always looking for ways to do things differently, and dreaming of ways to solve problems differently with tools, methods, or process.
While working on The Home Depot mobile app, we conducted a small experiment.
We thought it would be useful to show up at the local Home Depot at 6 in the morning with donuts, prepared with paper-prototypes and a list of questions for contractors and customers willing to speak to us.
Surprisingly they were willing to talk to us and give us valuable directional feedback that saved us a lot of hours down the line. Customers convinced us, helping us to convince our stakeholders.
We learned that failing early was far more preferable, and the closer we got to customers, the more empathy that we were able to build for people we were designing for. Design teams working off a rich set of customer insights rather than subjective opinions was a huge breakthrough for us and our clients.
Divergent and Convergent Thinking
Around this time we also were increasingly convinced in conducting workshops as a way to understand the challenges more clearly. We went through a number of different iterations of a design studio workshop as a method to begin the process of divergent and convergent thinking.
We quickly transitioned from the “silo” design model of working on designs at our office and sending them back over, to a much more collaborative working partner, which I believe led to a better quality product that was produced in less time.
Looking back at the outcomes, this was a really promising era for YML and it was the first time that I felt truly proud of our work. It felt more guided, in tune with the audiences, and the outcomes improved dramatically.
Marquee clients: Apple, Staples, The Home Depot, State Farm
YML 3.0 (2017+)
Mobile app design to full ecosystem design.
New Office & Brand
This phase was kicked off with a move to a new space in Redwood Shores.
We were able to work with an architecture firm in thinking about the way we wanted our space to look, feel, and function. We took some of our early lessons forward about the necessity of collaboration, and made sure our space reflected that need. Whiteboards everywhere for spontaneous ideation, and an open environment where music and energy were able to flow through.
Redesigning our office caused us to rethink the way we presented ourselves from a brand-standpoint. Through our internal discussions, we began to feel as though our brand of Y Media Labs needed to be somewhat neutral aesthetically. Our work and our people are our focus, and therefore our brand should take a step back. We felt as though our space and our site should both resemble an art gallery — a passive place that great work can be displayed.
At the same time, our identity is shaped by the individuals on our team, so we wanted to create some emphasis on displaying the work and a focus on the people that shaped our work. This fresh start made us reflect deeper into our brand, ourselves, and the work we wanted to do.
The most recent turning point came with the addition of Chief Creative Officer Stephen Clements, who joined from 15 years at AKQA. He immediately challenged the way that we thought, how we approached the work, and the way we speak of our successes.
He has a great vision for YML and the way in which we bring impact for our clients, and we have since been more vision-focused than ever with our work. He has pushed the quality of our work forward on multiple fronts and has been a fantastic mentor to all of us on the team.
He’s been a huge contributing factor to my personal growth as well as the positive trajectory of the company.
With these changes, we had a moment of realization.
While mobile apps are a central part of a user’s experience with a brand, it is just a single touchpoint in the customer' overall journey Thinking more broadly, there are many other touch-points that need to work in harmony in order to bring value to an entire ecosystem, and we wanted to figure out what those opportunities are.
Customer’s lives are complicated. Digital channels aren’t used in a linear way. They might be browsing a site on their desktop with the intent of going into the store later on to see a product. Or being helped in store by an employee who’s using an iPad to better facilitate customer service.
We aim to build threads between these experiences, to connect the dots between mobile experience, websites, communication tactics, in-store experiences and beyond. It all begins with research and understanding, and a great team to facilitate the process.
This third version of our company is still at its peak.
Every day we speak with our clients and their customers, allowing them both to dream big with us, and help them shape their perspective on digital experience.
As an experience designer, I consider myself first and foremost a user-advocate: with the intention of reducing steps and complexity while also reducing barriers of communication with customers.
This era’s marquee clients: First Republic Bank, Molekule, Sequoia, State Farm.
In 2011 I would dream of a future of this company where I would be working alongside talented, passionate, caring people on projects that would challenge and inspire me. Through many iterations of exploration, challenges and insights, I’m thankful to see us get to that place.
P.S. Thanks Alex, Neil, Phil and Caroline, for being awesome YMLers. We’ve all been together through many of these iterations and we couldn’t have made it without your support and friendship.