The 3am Writer

In follow up of the April 5th episode with Aileen McDonough (it’s an awesome episode, btw!), I wanted to share a few things. Aileen is the owner of 3amwriters.com where she consults on content strategy, creates website content, and more. But here is a book recommendation that she gave:

The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz – a simple strategy to grow a remarkable business in any field.

I also want to share a tip that Aileen shared in the podcast episode:

The Rule of 3 –  3 is the magic number in content. In any list of things, 3 things are the best number of things to have for power, rhythm, humor, emotion. Think about phrases you know that are 3 things (Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness). Also, any topic can yield 3 different angles. Drill down into your idea, blog post, or topic.

Stay tuned for more episodes

Sifting Thru The Information Age

The woeful art of data collection is tedious, time-consuming, and not necessarily fruitful. For every strategist out there, data really is the name of the game. It comes in all shapes and sizes, different formats and forms, analytics, reports, whitepapers, press releases, and on it goes till there’s too many to name. Compiling data is a hard pursuit for information analysts and data specialists, so what’s the average agency team member to do when they find themselves drowning in a sea of data? Paddle back to shore…as quickly as possible.

I’ve always felt like strategists are a rare breed. They have to think about their clients, their client’s’ users, the competition, the market trends, social trends, industry influencers, disruptors, shifts and more. Then, hopefully, get in front of it all and find that one tidbit of information that will lead to a successful client interaction. Hard, yes? YES!!

To find the insight that leads to an opportunity to capitalize on objectives before the next wave or trend hits is really hard to do. Then the cycle starts all over again.

Capturing the data landscape

From a strategy standpoint, there are 3 questions you’ll need to answer:

  1. What data will be useful to both the short and long-term objective?
  2. What data can actually be collected?
  3. What categorization will make the data more manageable?

Or you can look at it like this:

  1. Identify and establish
  2. Collect and aggregate
  3. Sift and categorize

The collection process has become a huge problem, hence the recent shift into machine learning, artificial intelligence, and algorithms to help categorize or cluster lumps of information. Businesses, organizations, and (specifically) strategists are suffocating beneath it all. And if you have the money to invest in AI – by all means – do! But many of us do not, and don’t even really know how it could help (don’t worry – I’ll write a post on that too!).

If you go even deeper into the data collection world, there are a multitude of techniques and tactics including exploratory data analysis, descriptive statistics, lambda architecture, data cleansing, data transforming, data modeling, and mining. WOAH!!! Hold up – here’s the reality: there’s a simpler way to identify, collect, and sift the data that won’t leave you submerged in a pool of data delirium.

Identify…

The first step in the data collection process is to identify what’s important. Obviously, this is going to be dependent on the problem you’re trying to solve, but there are usually some universal things that we need to know and I’ll list them out here.

The usual stuff…

  • Users – Who are they? What do they need? Where are they? How do they normally interact with your client? Why are they continuing to interact with your client? What’s the value your client provides them with?
  • Competition – What are they doing that’s different than your client? Who are their users? How have they positioned themselves? What can we learn from them?
  • Market – I always find this to be a tricky one. This is mostly about industry trends and what’s happening in the market. Is there something going on in the political landscape that may disrupt what we’re trying to do? Economically, how sound is the product/tool/resource your client is trying to offer? Are others offering it at a lower price? Is demand being driven up by an exclusive offer? You get the point.

These are the big three! Other information you may want to know about could be emerging technology or the best in business for that particular industry. Think about the problem before you go looking for the data. If you don’t, then you will, literally, be drowning in it.

Collect…

The next step is actually getting your hands on the data. But what is the easiest way to collect the data that we need? Great question….and I’ll just be honest – I don’t have any great answers for you! If you aren’t a developer and don’t know how to write algorithms or scripts that will easily aggregate or pull in data for you…then you’re at the mercy of the tools that are out there.

  • Google Analytics: This is a phenomenal tool. It really can get you a lot of the data you require, especially when it comes to the users of a particular website. It’ll give you insight into who your users are (or who your client’s users are), where they hangout online, etc. However, it won’t give you answers to questions like “what’s the value they get from your client?” You can take guesses at this, but you’ll never actually know unless you ask the user.
  • RSS Feed Readers: There are a number of Feed Readers out there that will aggregate blogs and other feeds for you all in one place. Just google “Best RSS feed readers” and you’ll find something. I pull in a lot of competitor and best in biz blogs so I can keep a pulse on what others in the same industry are doing.
  • Social Media: This one’s pretty obvious, no? I have several Twitter accounts because I’m following different verticals in each one and staying up-to-date on what’s going on in the social (and real) world. You’d be surprised at how many things hit social first before anything else.
  • Client Databases: This could be their CRM, Marketing Automation Platform, or Membership Portal, where they have information on their users already. Which could be helpful in understanding their audiences demographically as well as their behavior.
  • Watson Analytics: Now, I’ve just started to play around with this interface (see below) and it’s pretty intense. What I’ve sussed out so far is that this platform allows you to import pretty much any type of data (weather patterns, Twitter hashtags, CRM contacts, OneDrive, etc.) or information that’s readily available. It mixes in what Watson already knows (which, apparently is a lot) and lets you ask it questions. For example: Which content should we use to target a specific customer segment for the month of May? It spits you out an answer. I haven’t fully understood it yet, and make no mistake when I do, a blog post is coming!

Collecting data is kind of the easy part, there are systems in place for aggregating the data. The hard part is making sense of it all and we do that by categorizing it appropriately.

Sift…and sift….and sift some more…

Ok, you have all the information, but there’s just sooooo much of it! What’s the easiest way to sift through the information and categorize it to make it more manageable? Well…there are a few ways to do this. Before I get into it, I want to quickly talk about tools for categorization. I tend to gravitate towards using Trello Boards to separate certain information and link off to different platforms. You can use Google Docs, an Excel spreadsheet, whatever works for you!

  1. Categorize around your problem or initiative:
    • If you’re trying to get information and use it for a certain workshop, then look at your agenda for that workshop. What are talking points? If you want to talk about users, make sure you’ve categorized all the information you have on the users appropriately. I would start a Google doc and put in all relevant links to users in one place. That way you can link off in your workshop to check the data quickly. Maybe it’s to a certain Twitter account where you can review all recent tweets in an industry.
    • If you have information on the market, put all relevant links (or content/data/info) in the same doc so you can pull it up in your workshop. I find this way to be efficient, especially working with clients who have no idea what information they need or where to find it. You can also share Google docs to collaborate with them, or at least give them insight into what you’ve been compiling.
  2. Categorize around your client or account:
    • You can also categorize your information around a specific client. Let’s say you work with the GizmoSoftware company and they build software for design/development teams. What data would be useful to them (and you) so that they’re kept up-to-date with what’s going on in their industry, with their users, and their competitors?

I built a website called TheWebward where I pull in over 150 RSS feeds, 100 different social channels including Twitter feeds, FB feeds, and FB groups. And I also have an Article Library where I’ve categorized important posts, articles, and whitepapers so I can gain access to them at any point I need. The website is housed with information that’s important to me and helps me do my everyday job. I also push information to certain content types (“buyers”) that help me accommodate my clients in a much easier way. If you can do something like this, great! Read my post, it’s kind of like a how-to in using WordPress to help you manage the information you need.

Remember a few years ago when everyone was saying “content is king” – well, now data is king. And data is content, analytics, information on anything and everything. And there’s so much of it out there. So, identify what’s important to you (or the problem), collect the data that can be collected, and categorize it according to your initiative or client.

In the meantime, collect the data that’s important to you as a human being. Pull in things you find interesting and learn about them. You can never have enough data, but you can most certainly have too much of the wrong data.

The Millennial Designer

In preparation of our next episode (airing March 8th), our guest — Michelle Schulp — she’s given some book recommendations that we’d like to share:

  1. Steve Krug – Don’t Make Me Think
  2. Don Norman – The Design of Everyday Things
  3. David Holston – The Strategic Designer
  4. Chris Butler – The Strategic Web Designer 
  5. Douglass Davis – Creative Strategy and the Business of Design

Hope you enjoy these recommendations and stay tuned for episode 4 – coming soon!

Design Sprint Cheat Sheet

The guys over at Google Ventures are pretty smart! They unveiled their process of design sprints in a book aptly named Sprint. The full title succinctly describes its benefits —  How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just 5 Days. I read this book over last summer, it’s an easy read and remarkably insightful. Design sprints actually do help you solve big problems and test new ideas.

It’s not enough to just have a process anymore. Everyone, every agency, every firm has a process that’s guaranteed to be better than all the others because it’s “integrated.” In order to rise above the competition and have your clients really connect with their users, you need to get insight from…who else…the users. But in order to do that in a really efficient way, you can’t build out the website or mobile app first. So… you prototype.

The Theory…

Here’s the theory: when working with any company or business, you can solve really big problems in one week by getting together in a room with the right people, the right tools, and the right challenge and performing exercises like design-thinking, rationality, empathy, creativity, prototyping, and testing.

Now, in the words of John Maeda, design-thinking is just another phrase for business execs to feel good about doing design stuff. LOL! But I think there is something to getting in a room with your clients and doing these different exercises to uncover the answers to some really hard questions when it comes to your digital properties.

I’m going to walk you through an abbreviated checklist (or cheat sheet). It’s changed a little to mimic a process that I’ve used in the past and I’ll go over pre-sprint activities, the sprint itself, and post-sprint wrap-up.

Remember: you need the right team, the right tools, and the right challenge

  1. The Team:
    • Agency Side – it’s usually two designers, a strategist, and a project or account manager.
    • Client Side – at least one decision-maker. Someone who has the authority to call the shots relating to your challenge.
  2. The Tools
    • Conference room, post-its (lots of them), colored circle stickers, whiteboards and/or canvas paper, markers.
  3. The Challenge
    • Usually something that’s super expensive, like your client wants to spend $500k on a mobile app that has no users yet (challenge: to see if it’s even viable in the market). Or maybe your internal team is stuck on a big project and needs to get some creativity flowing.

Let’s begin…

Pre-Sprint Activities

You’ll need to do some research and collection before you go in and do the sprint with your client. The first thing you’ll want to do is an intake sheet. An intake sheet is simply a “worksheet” that gathers information on your client.

Some things you’ll want to know are obvious, like, client overview. Company name, number of employees, etc. But then you’ll want to know major markets, regional hubs, who are their competitors, what are the long-term business objectives and/or vision. Something like this:

Client Intake Sheet

You’ll also need to do some research on your client’s competitors so you know what they’re doing. Look at their websites or mobile apps and make note of what’s cool, what’s not cool, certain functionality or features, etc.

And also look into your client’s users. Who are they, what do they do, where do they hang out online, etc. This pre-sprint phase is pretty intensive. There’s a decent amount of upfront work that needs to be done. But then we get into the fun part…sprint week!

Sprint Week

Every day working hours will be from 10am to 5pm with a one hour lunch at 1pm. So, 6 hours a day – that’s how much you’ll work with the client. But you’ll find that the internal team is working much longer especially on the day you prototype.

Day 1: Understand


Design Sprint - Day 1

  • Team Intros & Agenda
  • Client Talks (Vision, Functionality, Future State)
  • Innovation Talks / Expert Talks
  • “How Might We”

Day 2: Explore


Design Sprint - Day 2

  • Morning Review
  • Personas: Day in the Life
  • Raw Ideas / Big Ideas
  • Crazy Eights / Solution Sketches

Day 3: Focus


Design Sprint - Day 3

  • Museum Art / Dot Voting
  • Disucssion / Decision
  • Wireframes / Storyboards

Day 4: Prototype


Design Sprint - Day 4

  • “Just Enough” Mentality
  • Prototype Tools
  • Divide and Conquer
  • Prototype

Day 5: Present


Design Sprint Activities - Day 5

  • Finish the prototypes
  • Present to the client
  • Wrap up / Next steps

Once the sprint is finished, it’s time to test and survey your users, which brings us to Post Sprint Week

Post-Sprint Week

You’ll need to fill out a survey (I use Google forms, super easy) and set the stage for the users. The prototypes won’t be totally functional, so let the users know that! You will usually do some baseline questions to get a gauge of your users, and asking them about who they are demographically never hurts. Then you’ll want to ask the same questions about each prototype, but it’s really helpful to send half of your participants Prototype 1 then Prototype 2, in that order. Then the other half of the participants send Prototype 2 first, then Prototype 1. Many times users will latch on to the first prototype they see, so this technique helps mitigate that risk.

Once the surveys are finished, you can start grouping themes (which is a whole other blog post – I’ll write soon!). And you’ve got real feedback from users and this helps your clients decide whehter or not to move forward with a project or mobile build before it drains all their resources for it.

Checklist for Project Scope Development

I want to share with everyone my checklist for scoping web projects. Starting in sales and moving into project scope development, it’s super useful to have a checklist you can run through.  This is just a high-level checklist for all of those who love to scope…or need help with it.

I separate this checklist into 4 areas: Strategy, UX/Design, Technology, Ongoing Services. Why? Because it’s important to note all areas of the project and separating things helps to categorize and narrow down.

View downloadable template here

Project Scope Development Checklist

STRATEGY:

  • The Business:
    • Understand the business model, value proposition, culture at a high-level
    • What is your prospect trying to accomplish?
    • Why do they want to accomplish it?
  • Engagement Objectives & Success Metrics
    • Overview of engagement requirements
      1. Browser & Device support (important to note!)
    • Define short and long-term business objectives
    • Define key success metrics — how will they be tracked and/or evaluated
  • Acquisition
    • How will visitors reach your prospect’s site? 
      1. Social, SEO, PPC? – Will you or your agency be responsible for helping with these things?
    • What is the primary goal for visitors while they are on the site?
    • Secondary goals?
  • Timeline & Budget
    • Preferred methodology (agile / waterfall)
    • Phased Approach
    • Initial timeline / budget
  • Risks
    • What areas might be problematic? 
  • Big Ideas / Innovation
    • Possibilities for this engagement
      1. Are there any choices we can make, not just solving issues?
      2. What is the advantage your prospect aims to achieve for their company?
    • Identify new, forward-thinking ideas for the future

UX & DESIGN:

  • Brand Standards / Guidelines (does your prospect have them, or will your agency need to help them with this?)
  • Logo design
  • Any internal design deliverables available?
    • Wireframes
    • Mockups
  • Competitor & Inspirational Websites
    • Discussion of likes / dislikes 
  • Target Audience Exploration
    • Do they have existing user personas or will your agency need to create them?
  • Content
    • Types / Materials
    • New content or existing content
      1. Who is responsible for the creation of content? On-page SEO?
  • Information Architecture
  • Any special requirements? Multilingual, Accessibility, User testing, etc.

TECHNOLOGY:

Current

  • Existing platforms
    • Current CMS, will their be an extensive migration process? Will you need to write automated scripts?
    • What are the existing 3rd party systems?
    • What functionality needs to remain intact?

New

  • Preferred System
    • WordPress, Drupal, ASP.NET, Sitecore, Ektron, etc.
  • Functionality
    • What are the core features of the project?
      1. Features: what is the purpose of each feature?
    • Use Case vs Edge Case
    • Email, Social, Search, Events/Calendar, Memberships, etc. – figure out all this, because each new feature will take time and cost more money.
  • Capabilities
    • For an end user
    • For an admin
      1. CMS workflow
      2. How many people will have access to the site?
      3. What types of permissions will be needed? User profiles? Authentication methods?
  • 3rd party systems
    • Required integrations
  • Hosting
    • Internal / External
  • Any security procedures?
    • Firewall, Scanning, Backups, etc.

ONGOING SERVICES:

  • Maintenance/Support
    • In-house or agency?
  • Enhancements
    • The best websites are the ones that are never finished!
  • On-going feature development / on-going strategy
  • Marketing? Will your prospect need help with setting up any social media campaigns or accounts? Any content marketing or blogging? Help with advertising? Help with video?

All of this stuff adds up. So the next time you’re talking with a new prospect, just ask questions, continue asking, and ask a little more! It can’t hurt, and it helps to be prepared! Your project teams will thank you!!