Considered as UX strategy’s first lady, Jaime Levy wrote one of the most influential books in the sector, entitled ‘UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products that People Want’. The book has been translated into six languages since its 2015 publication and led to a 24 month round of touring for Jaime as she spread the word on strategy and user experience.
She will be winding down 2017 with a San Francisco workshop, ‘Hand-On UX Strategy and Prototyping‘, alongside Justinmind prototyping tool on November 16th. Workshop attendees will get product strategy advice from Jaime and will do some fun rapid prototyping activities to put their hypotheses to the test.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Jaime before the event to find out more about her book, her UX philosophy and how her Hollywood roots still influence her UX strategy practice.
1. Can you tell us what to expect in the workshop you will be giving on 16th November, Hands-On UX Strategy & Prototyping? How will it be ‘hands-on’?
Workshop attendees will be learning how to create provisional personas and validate them with customer interviews. They will also learn a storyboarding technique that works well as a precursor to rapid prototyping.
People should come out for this if they want to learn product strategy techniques. They will learn a lot and have a lot of fun.
2. You said storyboarding is a precursor to rapid prototyping. Can you explain how that works?
Storyboarding has been around since the 1930s. It has been used not just for doing animation, but also to express concepts for advertising and theatre. I have used storyboards in the UX context for many years. When I started doing product strategy, I saw that they were a great intermediary step before going on to rapid prototyping.
A lot of people who practise UX strategy will start out doing ideation around ideas and features; then they will sometimes spend months creating a customer journey map. These maps can include touchpoints and use cases across an entire product ecosystem of a customer experience. But sometimes they express nothing at all and stakeholders or team members look at them, and they do not even know what they are looking at. We need more efficient ways to express a value proposition if we are trying to get a product out quickly. We do not have months to spend brainstorming around a circuitous diagram.
One of my tenets is value innovation, which means focusing on the primary utility of the product. How do you get people to figure out what makes a thing unique? Typically, you do it through simplicity.
My storyboards are 5 or 6 panels built around a narrative. The first panel presents the problem – for example, “Jessie is getting married, but all the venues are expensive. She dreams of a wedding on the beach.” And the last panel is the happy ending – Jessie’s awesome beach wedding.
This activity makes people focus on what are the 3 or 4 crucial screens that express the value proposition. So when it’s time to prototype something in a tool like Justinmind you have not wasted weeks creating 15 – 20 wireframes or a crazy journey map; you have got an actual roadmap to follow.
You are basically setting up your story of the product focused on the primary task so you can then knock out a rapid prototype, rapidly.
3. Your book opens with a story – the one with the software engineer who needed more info about drug rehab. Is storytelling more important than we might think in UX strategy and product design?
Absolutely. It is foundational, and people do not often realise it. When I teach my courses, every student must present their assignments by expressing the big picture concept, communicating a goal and why it matters. The funny thing is that students – or even experienced UX designers – get stuck here. They are so busy jumping straight into features and knocking out wires that they forget to ask, “what is the goal of this darn product?”
Every product or service is a story, and the story is ‘how are we going to help our customer or user make progress in their life?’ That is what the Jobs-to-be-Done theory is based on. Think about the UX design as a story because when you do it that way, it brings more humanity to the product.
4. Where do you think your passion for designing products came from?
I was born in Hollywood and both my parents worked in the film industry. So, of course, I wanted to be a filmmaker. Before there was such thing as interactive media, I went to film school. Two film schools, in fact, one in San Francisco and then for graduate school at NYU. At NYU the film department was on the 11th floor, but I discovered that on the 4th floor there was the Interactive Telecommunications Program. It is prestigious now, but back then it was not cool at all. I decided that was where I wanted to get my master’s degree because I wanted to experiment with non-linear storytelling.
I was inspired the moment I saw this laserdisc in a museum created by the interactive cinema pioneer Grahame Weinbren. It featured an abstract narrative that could be controlled by clicking at different points in the story. It was so innovative! It was that laserdisc that made me think, “This is exactly what I want to do with my life, non-linear storytelling’. So with my degree, I went on to create electronic magazines and an electronic book. When Flash came out years later, I did the first streaming cartoon that was full screen called “CyberSlacker”. Eventually, I raised funding to turn 16 short episodes of it into a feature-length film that was submitted to Sundance. Not accepted, but it was for sure the first Flash cartoon entered!
Of course, non-linear storytelling also means interactive advertising, games or even creating user experiences for people that are fun, gamified and addictive. I’d say this is foundational for me.
5. You make it all sound really glamourous – Hollywood and Sundance! But when people then think of UX strategy that is probably not so glitz. Do people have the wrong impression? Is strategy creative and inspiring and, if so, why do people often fail to see that side?
I think there are three types of people – left-brain people, right-brain people and those that use both sides. I am ambidextrous because I was born left-handed but often forced to use my right hand. For people who are engineers and are all about critical thinking, the strategy might be something they enjoy because they love solving puzzles. On the other end, you have people who are highly creative and can also solve puzzles by thinking outside-of-the-box.
I try to teach people that if we do not think with both sides of the brain – analytically and creatively – then we will not be as successful in seeing opportunities in the market. We need to think like hacktivists where we get what we want by any means necessary.
People who do UX strategy well are those that are ok with failure, ok with going down a path and seeing a dead end, and ok with living with uncertainty. Product strategy is not unlike military strategy. Only an insane person would say “let us just attack this country.” Strategy for me is an accumulation of tactics gleaned from experimenting and pivoting along the way so we can ultimately win the war. And for product makers, the war is creating a product that people love so we can monetise it.
6. What is the most common UX strategy error you see rookies make?
There are too many people who call themselves UX Strategists who do not do anything but manage UX departments (and think they are strategic when they are just tactical with respect to their UX workflow). To be a strategist, you should be a product manager, developer or designer for at least 10,000 hours otherwise you do not know what you are talking about when it comes to software design. There are way too many people in the field who are full of it, including some outdated UX gurus with big mouths (not me, haha).
7. You talk about the empirical practice of UX strategy. Can you explain or give us an example?
Actually, there is an example in the first chapter of my book, which you can read for free on my website.
8. You said something in an interview that will resonate with all creatives of any sort: “I quickly learned that it’s one thing to make something, but that’s only half the game … The second half is you have to market the sh** out of it to get it in people’s hands.” Does your UX strategy cover marketing?
It is very tied to marketing. Ultimately we cannot afford to spend ad budgets on things like Facebook ads which are very expensive and rarely work, at least in my experience. As UX strategists we are trying to start building a direct channel to our hypothetical customers and understand how we can figure out not only what they need, but also how we are going to reach them.
Traditionally, UX people would hate the marketing person: “Oh, you are making me put ad banners all over my wireframe, you guys are idiots!” No, we need to work together! Advertising is just one of the possible revenue streams. Look at successful products like Uber or Airbnb: they do in-product marketing where the more engaged you get, the more they offer you in promos to get you to spread the word.
Word of mouth is the most reliable way to get people to use a product because people get scared if you make them change their behaviour or their mental model for understanding something. That is why I teach how to do landing page campaigns and Facebook campaigns for testing value propositions. If UX designers and strategists do not understand how important marketing is, then they are oblivious to the facts. Ultimately, if no one uses our product because they did not even know about it, we fail as product leaders. And how does that make us feel? To me, if feels like I wasted my life.
9. Do you need to be a business strategy expert, or at least business savvy, to make the most of your workshops or book?
I think you can come in without a business acumen. I spent a year writing chapter 2 of my book and then the next year writing chapters 3-11. The difference was that 2 is a foundational chapter on ‘what is business strategy?’ It was tough to write a high-level overview in a chapter that people could digest.
I have read hundreds of business and innovation books, I have had two startups of my own, so I have learned from the school of hard knocks. Designers really need to start thinking, “what are the business goals of my company and how can I help them get there?” Product directors may think about business goals, but UX people are often more on the design side. I am really pushing for them to look at the competition, to understand business models and to connect the dots to the user experience.
We are ultimately trying to get as much knowledge as possible so we can avoid spending millions of dollars and all our time building something that is just a knock-off of something already out there.
10. You have said one of the things you love is to “inspire newbies to the field to understand the magical powers we possess as product makers”. How do you manage to inspire them, and how do you stay inspired to keep making innovative products?
I push my students and masterclass/workshop participants to devise product concepts that are at least two years out. If they make something for now, it is boring… everything has been done. The world does not need more dating or social media apps. The world needs fewer apps and ideally for people to throw their phones in the ocean and get a life.
11. What does the future hold for UX design strategy?
A world without designing for screens. A world where voice activation works better. A day when our grandkids will laugh at us for tapping on glass to send little useless messages.
12. Tell us one thing that people will learn in the workshop that they could not learn anywhere else.
How to focus on creating something innovative and what it takes to derisk it. Innovation is scary because you don’t know what you don’t know. So understanding how to separate the hypotheses that can be turned into facts from the things that we cannot validate is crucial to know how risky an idea actually is.
You can see Jaime Levy in action at Hand-On Strategy & Prototyping, San Francisco 16th November 2017. Sign up here!
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