The Interactive Agency – a Creature of the Past?

Twenty years ago, the media landscape was vibrating with the buzz generated by a brand new type of communications service provider: the interactive agency. In the wake of the dotcom crash, however, things quickly changed and it would now seem that the integrated marketing- and IT services once offered by the interactive agency have been assimilated by and split up between the ad agency and the IT-consultancy. So, is the interactive agency thereby out for the count, or is it still a viable business? Is there still a need for it?

1. The Interactive Agency: a Conduit Between Marketing and IT

As a digital creative, I much too often start working with a new client, meeting with either the marketing side or the IT side of a corporation (depending on the nature of the assignment), and eventually inevitably stumble upon the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the board room that no-one wants to talk about. There is a rift that goes straight down the middle of the organization: Marketing and IT just won’t talk to each other! They often see each other as completely unrelated even though they often serve as opposite sides of the same coin. Sometimes they even outright sabotage each other’s work, in what amounts to a petty turf war over budgets, or the ears of the board of directors.

This is in itself not a mystery – IT and marketing people come from completely different worlds and don’t speak the same language. IT people deal in logic and talk about usability, functionality and the distribution of information. Marketing people, on the other hand, are purveyors of emotion and talk about impact, communication and the purpose of persuasion.

I submit that the interactive agency is the cure for this communicative ailment, simply because interactive agencies straddle the divide between IT and marketing.

On one hand, interactive agencies are savvy to how networked computers form the nervous system of a modern corporation. They realize what information technology can bring in terms of opening up communication channels, both within and and outside a company. They understand how procurement-, inventory-, logistics- and sales processes relate to business system platforms. They know how to make data work for you and how to make data in any form a shared and moldable commodity across the organization, ensuring that it can be properly capitalized upon.

On the other hand, interactive agencies also understand user experience and how to make it adhere to strategic brand directives. They can translate core values into interactive principles and help maximize both the impact and retained emotional and intellectual substance of a marketing campaign. They can integrate a multitude of media types and help marketing transcend the limitations of one single channel. They know how to make marketing more precise, talking one-to-one instead of blindly broadcasting to an unknown, unspecified mass audience. And, most importantly, they know how to let interactivity take your marketing from mere communication to actual transaction, involving IT on the commerce end, producing measurable results that go straight into the books.

In fact, one-on-one customer interaction should really be considered critical for all types of businesses, in order to create new opportunities and capitalize on them. Appropriately, where traditional marketing usually takes the form of a monologue, web-based interactivity creates a dialogue between sender and recipient. This closes the gap between communication and actual transaction, creating clear return on marketing investments. Interactivity also paves the way for increased brand awareness and customer loyalty and lays a foundation for strong, sustainable long-term customer relations. This way, interactivity can help marketing achieve concrete sales effects that are clearly visible on the bottom line.

And this is where marketing and IT need some help. On their own, their budgets are often spent one-dimensionally on somewhat lopsided, more or less self-serving efforts, where true ROI is but a distant goal.

Next: Part 2. “Marketing: the Lure of the Pitch”

Working With Creatives

Understanding what matters most to Creatives will make it easier for you to work with them successfully. But what matters most to a Creative is not always what matters most to other professionals, so let me try to explain this from my perspective, as a Creative, but also draw on my experience working with other Creatives.

I have more than 30 years of professional experience as a designer, illustrator, animator, writer and creative entrepreneur. While I enjoy making money just as much as the next guy, and certainly appreciate recognition, I don’t typically focus very much on my paycheck or my title, and I don’t see my career as just a meal ticket. That is not to paint a picture of myself as some sort of altruist hippie, but simply to say that my work gives me enough satisfaction to make that my biggest reward, and I know the same goes for many other Creatives.

What matters most to me and to other Creatives is, hands down, having the luxury of being allowed to care for the quality of our work. Most people interpret this as signs of prima donna behavior, of artistic ego, and that is true to some degree, but on the other hand, if a Creative cares about producing top notch quality for you, how can that be a bad thing? It would be unfair to equate these signs of professional pride with an inflated sense of self-importance.

On the flip side of quality is timeliness and deadlines. While most Creatives take pride in being efficient and fast, they usually resent the notion that their work can be expedited, and cranked out without care. This would be equivalent of asking a trained chef to produce the goods like a hot dog street vendor. A client’s convenience is typically not a particularly rewarding consideration for a Creative, especially if that convenience comes at the cost of compromised quality. You may well perceive quick, expedited results from a Creative as being adequate, but your opinion of what is adequate may not matter much to a Creative, who would know precisely how much better they could have made something, if given more time. So, the best way to get Creatives to accept compromises in this context is to a) acknowledge that they actually could do better if given more time, and b) to occasionally let them do just that.

Consistency and professionalism are tricky subjects with Creatives. Any Creative would want to suggest that they always produce their best possible work, regardless of who the client is. This is unfortunately not quite true – who the client is, what the assignment is about, and what the Creative is being asked to do actually matters for the end result. While a true professional Creative should have a rather high standard, any Creative would confess, if pressed for an answer, that they sometimes elevate their standards further, and go above and beyond. This is because there is an emotional investment required in any creative endeavor, in which inspiration plays a part. There may not always be much you as a client can do about this, aside from encouraging your Creative to find that inspiration, but there is a lot you can avoid doing, so as to not sabotage the results. Being rude and disrespectful will never work in your favor – it is akin to insulting the waiter or the chef at a restaurant when sending your food back. You may not want to know what goes on back in the kitchen after such a display of rudeness.

Furthermore, on that same note, no Creative wants to be treated as a soul-less production machine. It would behoove anyone seeking the help of a Creative to recognize that if they themselves had been able to produce what they’re asking for, they would not need to talk to a Creative in the first place. We do not typically instruct a surgeon on how to perform surgery, and we don’t tell an architect how to plan a building. Similarly, my advice to any client would be to leave room for contribution from your Creative. When it comes to creative work, it s very easy for anyone and everyone to have opinions, but there are likely things that you’re not aware of, things your Creative can help you consider or avoid, which might improve on the desired end result. Micro-managing your Creative is likely not the best course of action, and it may even turn your Creative against you, which obviously doesn’t help.

Reviewing work is a particular point of concern for me and for Creatives in general. That is not always to say that Creatives can’t handle criticism, but it is a sensitive issue, and dismissive or unfair criticism especially so. Most Creatives, myself included, get very involved and put a lot of thought into their work. It may not always be the right thoughts, or the most relevant thoughts, and it’s true that Creatives sometimes believe they have a monopoly on the creative truth. But it is also true that many clients, managers and co-workers are not aware of the thought process and intellectual investment to begin with, and therefore tend to dismiss them too lightly and perhaps unwittingly. Therefore, the best way to work with a Creative is always to start by assuming they do have a purpose behind their work, and ask what that purpose is. You can then proceed to discuss it, and ask if and how the solution can be improved, if inadequate in any way. Asking how something good can be made even better is a challenge most Creatives would embrace quite willingly.

It is important to recognize that creative work – especially in design, where components interact in often complex visual systems – is always intended as a very specific (custom) solution to often very specific (unique) challenges. Therefore, framing those needs and challenges accurately at the outset of a project is of paramount importance. Also, connecting the problem and its original specifications to the solution when reviewing it is equally important. Very often, a reviewer (be it a client, a manager or a co-worker) changes and evolves the definition of a problem as a project progresses, and to me, this means that my solution is based on faulty assumptions, and work therefore has to start over, to ensure that my results are addressing the actual problem. Instead, reviewers often go about reviewing creative as if it is a set of checkboxes that can be unchecked independently of each other. This notion is often insulting to Creatives, who tend to see their solutions as too complex and specific for that – a set of dominoes laid out in a path, rather than a set of freely exchangeable lego pieces. Remove a piece in the laid-out path, and the chain is broken.

A reviewer may feel they are helping mould and sculpt the solution, whereas for a Creative, the solution is being bastardized and Frankensteined into something unrecognizable and less purposeful. The best way to proceed is actually therefore, somewhat counterintuitively, to go back to the beginning and start over. Personally, I always prefer that to being forced to mutilate something I have taken great care crafting.

Finally, it is exceedingly common for clients to think that creative egos require flattery, and to mistake that flattery for an expression of respect. And it is true that any Creative appreciates being recognized for their talent, but flattery really doesn’t work very well and is very often seen as insincere or manipulative, at least it appears that way to me. Creatives tend to only respect the opinions of other Creatives, and flattery – especially if directed at work the Creative is not happy with – will only serve to further undermine the respect felt for others. You don’t need to worry about your Creative feeling unappreciated; that will only happen if you actually tell or show them you don’t care for what they’re doing. If the work is good, a Creative will know it. And if there is a difference in opinion in regards to the quality of the work, you expressing a liking for something will not change a Creative’s mind – even if they may be willing to compromise.


Image Optimization 101

Introduction to Image Optimization here >

  • Photographic images (pixel based): should ALWAYS be progressive, optimized JPGs. Note: if the pixel proportions of the image are very large (in excess of 500px), consider ways of cropping the image and fading it to a solid background color. ALWAYS select to save JPGs as progressive – it means they load incrementally, as opposed to in one full download.
  • Flat color graphics: should ALWAYS be SVGs (vector based) where possible, and where this is not the case (if we don’t have access to vector assets, or if alpha transparency is required), use optimized (pixel based) PNGs. NEVER create a PNG from a previously compressed JPG, as the JPG compression will have caused dithering that will cause increased file size with PNGs (LZW compression).
  • Single color elements or gradients: should NEVER be image assets but defined in CSS. May POSSIBLY be done as SVGs if necessary.
  • Transparent/masked images: use very SPARINGLY, especially if photographic, since these have to be saved as PNGs with an alpha channel, which adds to the file size. If the proportions are very large, consider fading the image to transparent, or to a solid background color.
  • Optimization:
    • ALWAYS crop the image to the smallest size possible. If you know that parts of the image are going to fall outside the browser, or be masked by the size constraints of a div, crop the image first. 
    • If using a JPG, ALWAYS make sure to compress the image as much as you can, without suffering noticeable compression artifacts. Be especially wary of JPG compression with red images. If parts of the image can be blurred somewhat, this will help bring the file size down, since the lossy compression will “take” better. IDEALLY, do not compress an already compressed JPG, as the quality will suffer.
    • If using a PNG, ALWAYS use an adaptive palette with reduced color depth – NEVER full 24- or 32-bit color, since the file size will be prohibitively large. Also, NEVER apply dithering unless absolutely necessary, or where it can be used to subtly rasterize a gradient with fewer colors.
    • ALWAYS run image assets through an optimizer, like, or for instance, just to make sure compression is as efficient as possible, and all metadata has been stripped out.
  • Scaling: NEVER scale images up, and consider not scaling down either, but optimizing the files to the true size on the page. EXCEPTIONS: if the image is vector based, or if the same image is being used in multiple places. Then use the highest common denominator, and scale down where applicable. Don’t use the same higher-res images for retina resolution screens and for regular screens, but replace dynamically with  assets specific to each resolution.
  • Image sources: NEVER upload assets directly to your CMS that have been procured by a third party. First of all, as designers, we have to ensure that we are free from liability in case a proper image license has not been provided, and second, we cannot assume that third party representatives know exactly how the image will be used, so they may not be able to determine which file format and size would be most appropriate, and they also may not be sufficiently diligent in optimizing assets. ALWAYS run image assets by your Creative Team before using them.
  • Invalid image types: EPS, TIFF, BMP, PCT, AI, PDF, INDD (GIF may be permissible).
  • Glossary: 
    • Load time: the time required for a web browser to load an asset, given the Internet connection speed, data transfer latency and processor power.
      • 1 Mb of data takes approximately a second to load on a typical 5 Mbps connection
      • The same amount of data would take roughly the same amount of time to load on an average 4G LTE wireless connection
      • File size is not the only thing that determines load times however: there is also the consideration of external server calls, such as tracking pixels for instance, that require time to resolve.
    • Resolution: The pixel density of bitmap images, commonly expressed as dots-per-inch, or DPI. Screen images should always be 72dpi. Pixel density affects file size (see below).
    • File size: The file size of an image file is proportionately related to the data required to describe the image:
      • its pixel proportions (the number of pixels required to render the image)
      • its color depth (the number of colors any pixel can take)
      • the vector points (the number of vector reference points required to draw the bézier curves that make up a vector image)
      • the compression format (either non-lossy LZW, or lossy JPG compression)
    • Optimal file size: As a rule of thumb, images should ideally not exceed 500 Kb in size. On mobile devices, that size should be even smaller.
    • Pixel: the smallest visual rendering component on a computer screen; a rectangular block of one solid color. Pixel based images appear jagged when scaled up, since the pixel ratio and proportions are locked into the image file based on how it was created. They may also appear jagged when scaled down, depending on how many colors are used to render the image, and whether anti-aliasing is applied or not.
    • Vector: An image encoding technique which defines images as a series of (bézier) vector outlines, with or without fills, lines and colors. Vector images can scale freely without quality loss or file size gain, since the vector shapes are rendered in the browser as pixels based on the final, displayed proportions, not the proportions in which the image was created.
    • Anti-aliasing: a smoothing technique to make pixel-based images appear less jagged, and to render vector or polygon images into a pixel-based grid.
    • JPG: Joint Photographer’s Expert Group – a pixel based photo image format with lossy compression (meaning: if a JPG image is being repeatedly compressed, image quality will continuously become worse).
    • PNG: Portable Network Graphics – an image format which allows for the addition of alpha channel transparency. Compression is non-lossy, but color depth can be (irreversably) reduced with the attachment of a color palette specific to the image (fixed, partially adaptive, or fully adaptive).
    • SVG: Scalable Vector Graphics – a web-friendly vector based image format. SVGs are ideal for simple, flat color or simple gradient shapes, such as logotypes or stylized graphics.
    • EPS: Encapsulated Post Script – typically a vector image format, but pixel based images CAN be saved as EPS files.
    • TIFF: Tagged Image File Format – a pixel based image format not renderable in web browsers, but they can be converted to PNGs or JPGs.
    • BMP: Bitmap  – a pixel based image format not renderable in web browsers, but they can be converted to PNGs or JPGs.
    • PCT: Picture – a Mac based pixel image format not renderable in web browsers, but they can be converted to PNGs or JPGs.
    • AI: Adobe Illustrator – the file format native to the Adobe Illustrator app. AI files cannot be rendered as-is in a web browser, but they can be converted to SVGs, or rasterized and rendered as pixel-based images.
    • PDF: Portable Document Format – the document format native to Adobe Acrobat. PDF is not an image format per se, but images can be “printed” to a PDF document, and can be rendered in Photoshop.
    • INDD: InDesign Document – the document format native to Adobe Acrobat. INDD is not an image format and cannot be used in a web browser, and images included in INDD files are typically linked external assets.
    • GIF: Graphics Interchange Format – an older pixel based image format which is limited to 8 bit color rendering, but in return can be used to render simple animations in a web browser, the creation of which requires specific software. GIFs can be rendered with one color as transparent, which means transparent GIFs often look jagged (due to the lack of anti-aliasing).
    • 8-bit, 16-bit, 24-bit, 32-bit: this indicates the color depth of an image, meaning, how many colors are used to define the image. 8-bit means the image consists of 256 colors. 16-bit means the image consists of in excess of 16,000 colors, and 24- and 32-bit means an excess of 16M colors.

Your Brand Personalized

Dynamic Creative In User Experience Design

All design is inherently subjective.

How people perceive and are affected by design depends on who they are, what their circumstances look like and what their expectations are. Subjectivity applies not only to media and graphic design, but to art, fashion, architecture or any other form of visual expression.

We judge with our eyes. 

This is especially problematic in the world of user experience, which to a large extent revolves around functionality and usability. The usefulness of browser- and app-based experiences depends on how well they enable users to accomplish what they’re trying to do.

Accomplishing goals, on the other hand, also depends on how motivated users are. This adds an emotional dimension to this otherwise highly rational discipline. Structuring a website (or an app) so that the user merely understands how to use it is simply not sufficient. If the user does not want to use a website, the empirical knowledge of how to use it is largely inconsequential.

Therefore, content must be packaged in a way that the user is emotionally motivated to partake of it and here, design has an important role to play.

A survey conducted by Carleton University in Ottawa, published in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, determined that users form their impressions of a website and its visual appeal within the first 1/20th of a second of visiting it. Even more surprisingly, these first impressions colored the entire experience of the site, whether or not the whole site actually turned out to match that initial perception. The conclusion of the survey was that this first impression was “unlikely to involve cognition” – meaning it is largely an emotional response.

However, presenting a differentiated audience with a unified, undifferentiated design – however well optimized – will not account for the variances in people’s preferences and goals. Such a design will never be entirely effective. Given that users are different and have different preferences and expectations, effective UX design has to be personalize-able. This is quickly becoming an expectation, if not the norm.

A recent study published by Salesforce found that 80% of users expect online experiences to be personalized and tailored to their needs. This means that brands simply cannot afford to broadcast the same uniform message to a single, undifferentiated audience. Marketers need to find ways of communicating to individuals, not audiences.

This posits a problem of scale.

Very few marketers or publishers of content can afford to employ armies of designers and content producers to tailor experiences to each individual user. More importantly, they cannot do so in real time.

Enter dynamic personalization.

By devising smartly constructed, modular design systems based on creative componentry that can be freely interchanged, it is possible to compose entire user experiences based on incoming media signals. These signals can reveal behavioral-, demographic- and psychographic details about each individual user, allowing the experience to programmatically flex and adjust to some of those factors.

This ensures a successful, results-oriented communicative solution that scales. In addition, it may even be able to predict favorable outcomes through the application of AI-technology such as machine learning. Done right, it will allow marketers to dial in the most effective combination of content and design with increasing accuracy. Testing naturally becomes a central element in such solutions, where a multitude of creative options can be fed into the learning engine. The ideal mix can thus be determined, assembled and verified as users arrive on site.

In Leapfrog’s own testing, we regularly demonstrate incremental conversion gains through dynamic, personalized experiences. Our knowledge of such marketing solutions affords us the ability to progressively segment our creative so as to truly achieve effectiveness at scale. This capability is enabled and enhanced by our proprietary LFX Platform, which continues to deliver exponential value for our clients.

The marriage between intelligent technology and insightful creative strategy opens up exciting possibilities for improved marketing performance – performance that has thus far largely been untapped. However, fully capitalizing on this opportunity requires a shift in how brands look at design and how brands go to market.

The era of the static, monolithic brand is over. Modern brands need to understand their audiences, find ways of communicating on a personal level, and truly become interactive.

Four Flavors of Estimation

As UX practitioners, we all get roped into estimation meetings from time to time. But not all estimation efforts are the same. There are basically four different kinds of estimation, they all have different purposes, and they require different responses from us:

  1. True Estimation:
    • What’s the ask? “Here’s exactly what we’re doing; how long does this take?”
    • What’s most important? Giving an accurate account of the work involved.
    • What’s really being estimated? Effort and resources.
    • What you should ask: What’s the scope? What are the tasks? What’s the timeline?
    • Recommendation: Ensure that scope and tasks are clearly defined before estimation begins. If scope is only broadly defined, go to #2. Estimate task by task and resource by resource. Pad each estimate to allow for meetings, reviews and edits, or estimate those activities separately, or delimitate the estimate by excluding those activities entirely.
  2. Scoping + Estimation:
    • What’s the ask? “What can we do for this client, and how long does that take?”
    • What’s most important? Making appropriate recommendations, and making the business case for them.
    • What’s really being estimated? A list of recommended activities, and typical estimates per activity and resource.
    • What you should ask: What’s the goal of this project? How do we deliver ROI?
    • Recommendation: Ask to do scoping separately and get Account Management to commit to a fixed set of activities, and then add up the typical hours per activity. Give each activity an estimate in a range of hours, based on a high level complexity assessment. If scoping is not in the cards, go to #3.
  3. Guesstimation:
    • What’s the ask? “Here’s roughly what we think we should do; how long does this take?” (a k a “How long is a piece of string?”)
    • What’s most important? Cost.
    • What’s really being estimated? Resources required, number of hours that can be allocated per day per resource, and the approximate calendar time required to get it done.
    • What you should ask: How specific does the guesstimate need to be? (If very specific, go to #1 or #2).
    • Recommendation: Ensure that the person asking for the guesstimate is aware that it will be very rough. Scope the effort in broad categories, and do not define specific deliverables. Put your estimate in a range, never a fixed set of hours. The less defined the categories are, the greater the range. Do not accept being challenged on the guesstimate – if the requester wants you to be more precise, they need to provide more detail, either by going to #1 or #2.
  4. Adjustimation:
    • What’s the ask? “Here’s how long we have; what can you do in that timeframe?”
    • What’s most important? Speed to market.
    • What’s really being estimated? The priority of the project, how many resources can be freed up, and the time available.
    • What you should ask: How important is this? What is the client expecting? What’s the MVP?
    • Recommendation: Judge, based on prioritization, the percentage of hours available per resource within the allotted timeframe, and sum up how many hours can be spent on the specific project.Then ask each resource to define what they can accomplish in that amount of time. Be clear about the timeframe – if the due date is pushed out, the adjustimate has to be bumped up, since team members will continue working. Do not accept being challenged on the adjustimate – if the requester wants you to be more precise about what can be accomplished, they need to allow more time, either by going to #1 or #2.

Also, see: The Project Calculator™ (requires Flash)


Users First!

“Mobile first” sound the tendentious battle cries of UX designers worldwide, suggesting that User Experience design now supposedly needs to begin with mobile experiences, and build outwards from there.

I can think of at least three succinct reasons why that dictate is wrong:

First, it puts the device before the user, which is not meaningful. As designers, we are not engaging with devices, but with human beings. Do we really know that all users consistently favor small, mobile, high-resolution viewports over large, widescreen ones? I submit that the answer is no, because any such knowledge is contingent on not just awareness of user preferences (which vary greatly), but user needs and user behaviors (which require research), and environmental circumstances (which are never consistently the same). Besides, even when factoring in these many shifting and complex parameters, we also have to consider the needs and intentions of our clients, for whom we are trying to make this interaction happen. We cannot assume that ”mobile first” always makes sense in that context either.

We are currently seeing not only a convergence of web based experiences displayed on increasingly smaller devices, but a simultaneous divergence, where screens are also becoming larger, and more numerous – virtually all of them wired, and sometimes even interconnected. Screens are multiplying, and people are using multiple screens in varying sequences, in various circumstances.

We cannot assume anything about users until we know who they are, and what they are trying to do. This, in turn, will dictate which devices they will be using, and that should be what guides our designs -–not dogmatic assumptions based on device classifications that are pre-destined to lose relevance.

Second, the statement ”Mobile first” makes an implicit assumption about just what ”mobile” means. The device landscape is changing so rapidly that the term itself is quickly becoming obsolete. In an age of ultralight laptops, netbooks, ”phablets” and smartwatches, just what is a ”mobile device”, really?

There are mobile phones that are straddling the divide between handheld and tablet devices, both in terms of size and resolution, and there are miniature, wearable devices whose resolutions we can assume will become higher and higher in order for those devices to display more information. At the same time, there are medium sized, often lower-resolution wireless touchscreens built into appliances and cars, where display characteristics may sometimes resemble mobile devices, even though they are often fixed, and usage is entirely different from that associated with smartphones. And there are both lower and higher resolution large screen devices and projection screens that blur the boundaries even further.

This means that we cannot, and should not, lock down User Experience design to one type of screen or size. We need to design for flexibility, but even more, we need to understand how users will be accessing our experiences, and what is most important to them. Since this is very much a moving target, the combination of mobility and compact screen size will not always top the list, of that we can be certain.

Third, we must realize that, not only are device classifications increasingly arbitrary and meaningless, but that the aspects of screen size and resolution – indeed, the very concept of human-computer interaction – are equally elusive, and forever evolving. User Experience cannot be locked down to a fixed pixel density, or a certain set of screen proportions. We are even seeing the merger of digital projections and physical reality; a fusion of the two- and the three-dimensional.

User Experience, especially as it relates to screen projection, is relative, and depends not only on the physical properties of the screen in question – whether a pair of eye glass lenses, or a large projection screen – but also on the user’s distance to the screen, how the user is interacting with what is displayed there (mouse, track pad, touch, voice, gestures, etc), and the various environmental circumstances at play.

This is why we need to change the mantra, from ”Mobile first” to ”Users first”.

What matters first and foremost to users is content, not the device on which this content is displayed. And how that content is structured, hierarchically as well as visually, also matters more to them than the technology used to display it. Even the visual presentation of the content matters more than the device, since the presentation is to some extent intrinsic to the content itself, and how it is intended to be perceived and experienced. The device is merely a facilitator in this perspective.

Therefore, the due process we need to observe as User Experience Designers is the following:

  • Content


  • Structure


  • Style

Defining the content is the designer’s number one priority. Without content, there is nothing to design, and without content to guide the design, it simply becomes meaningless fluff, regardless of the device used to deliver the experience. Once we have determined the content that will best serve users’ needs, aggregating the entirety of our content, and judging the value of it by virtue of Occam’s proverbial razor, we can proceed to shape it, and adapt it to the different rendering formats.

Realizing that design is first and foremost a process of reduction, the designer always sculpts the specific, smaller shape from the larger, unspecific whole; always crops and trims the desired view from the bigger picture. This is, ultimately, why user experience design can never truly be ”mobile first”. Mobile, whatever we mean by that, may possibly be the desired end state of a given design, the terminus of our design journey, but it should never be the starting point, for that would be like painting a mural based on the view through a keyhole.

We need to see the whole to define its most granular pieces, and determine their respective proportions, placements and relationships. We must outline an overall composition before we can craft the pieces that comprise it. We cannot build blindly outward by accumulating and assembling fragments; an artist does not create an image by cloning and repeating small sections, but rather composes a holistic experience by sketching in the most prominent components first, and filling in the details later. We must identify the smaller building blocks within the context of the bigger construct, and define the different ways in which they fit together. If we don’t, we are essentially improvising buildings by piecing bricks together, rather than first drawing up blueprints on which to base our constructions.

Hence, starting from a site-wide perspective, the designer should always first seek to define the content as a whole, distilling it into the total number of unique views necessary to contain the experience, classifying shared, global, re-useable content blocks as well as individual pieces of content; then whittling down experiences until able to look at individual pages, and components of pages. It is in this larger context that the mobile experience can be found. Eventually, the designer will arrive at the most purposeful, granular visual structure – or layout – as part of a holistic system of design elements, first and foremost tailored to the user’s needs, scalable up or down, as needed.

Not until we have shaped our content in this reductive fashion, and structured it both hierarchically and spatially, can we begin to apply style, or “look-and-feel”, to our design, down to the individual graphic elements. Only then can we start moving from defining content, and making content accessible and digestible, to also making it palatable and persuasive.

At this point, the devices used to render our experiences should pretty much be inconsequential; a natural selection produced by a deliberate, result-oriented process. Whether our user experiences are best suited for a smartwatch, smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer, or a TV screen, should really be determined primarily by user and content considerations, ideally allowing the intentions of the sender and the needs of the recipient to meet in a mutually beneficial, equally purposeful harmonious whole.


Getting the Concept

Harnessing the power of divergent thinking

“People who refer to out-of-the-box see the box … People who don’t know the box even exists are the innovative thinkers.”
― Lisa Goldenberg

Ideation is about tolerating ambiguity; accepting that the ideation process is divergent by nature, and that you may not immediately be able to identify the best solution with absolute certainty.

Rejecting the notion of the single, simple answer, and continuing to search for potentially better ideas that might still be hiding around the corner, is what determines the success of any ideation process.

For some people, this ambiguity is difficult to accept, and represents a loss of control that they fear will be unproductive and result in a waste of time; that you will be making things too complicated simply because uncertainty is an inherent part of the ideation process.

These people are typically either analysis-driven strategists, or process-driven producers. They quantify success either by the clarity and singularity of the purpose, or by the efficiency and flawlessness of the execution. What they typically fail to account for is, that inbetween insightful strategy and flawless execution comes tactical ideation, where a clearly stated strategic goal gets connected to a purposeful plan of execution through a divergent set of conceptual solutions, each which may represent a viable path forward, possibly for different reasons, and all of which should at least be considered and evaluated with an open mind.


Ideation requires big picture thinking before you get into the details; before you can afford to get too specific. Without context, determining the appropriateness of an idea is mere guesswork. Sometimes, you need to think big and think broad in order to define even one single isolated detail, even if that one detail ultimately ends up being all that gets produced. However, jumping straight to that deceptively simple-looking detail is not meaningful – no solution exists in a vacuum.

The scale of the thought is not necessarily proportionate to the scope of the work. Just because the ideation process hints at a more complex whole, doesn’t mean that the solution has to be complex as well, or that it necessarily needs to be holistic in nature.

Even an umbrella needs complex weather systems to be useful. Before you know what the weather systems are like, you should not conclude that the umbrella is the answer to the problem – even if it may initially look like an appealingly simple solution.

Don’t get lost in the single-minded hunt for what’s executable, before you consider what is actually worth executing, and why.

It’s Time for Photoshop to Go Away

Photoshop-designed mock-ups remain a staple design output still, in 2017. I scratch my head and wonder why. I myself have not used Photoshop for web design purposes in 20 years.

  • Web development is increasingly agile. Crafting mock-ups is a slow and inflexible process.
  • Web design needs to account for virtually endless device variability. Photoshop does not facilitate this.
  • The defining characteristic of digital media is interactivity. Photoshop’s focus is on visual appearance. There is no functionality in Photoshop that allows you to account for interactivity. Even if you export a PDF and make it clickable, it is an afterthought, and you can only emulate interactivity with hotspots or links, which is a very limited way to design for a truly interactive medium.
  • Websites revolve around content. Photoshop has no concept of pages, or navigation between those pages. In fact, it does not account for user experience on any level except for the strictly aesthetic.
  • Web pages employ spatial layout to segment content visually, with scrolling accommodating overflow. Photoshop works in layers. While you can certainly still map out visual elements and content across your Photoshop canvas, the tool itself does not aid you in determining how best to visually segment your real estate – vertically or horizontally.
  • Photoshop is a pixel-rendered approximation of the final result; like a sculptor’s pencil sketch compared to the final sculpture. It is not accurate enough, and its usefulness is therefore limited. Designers need to sketch in something that is closer to the final product, in a medium that reflects reality better.
  • Photoshop is not a browser-native format. Just because something is pixel perfect in Photoshop does not mean it will make it into the final browser-rendered product.
  • Hand-offs from Designers to Developers using Photoshop is an inexact eye-balling process. Photoshop only provides a bare minimum of translation help when developers try to turn PSDs into working web pages.
  • Maintaining multiple Photoshop documents means revisions are costly. You will need one document per page, one document per breakpoint, and one document per version in your revision history. Add to this regional, seasonal or demographic segmentation, and the number of Photoshop files will very quickly become unmanageable, and each round of edits will be progressively more costly.
  • As soon as you hand off a Photoshop mock-up, it is instantly out-of-date. Any changes you apply to your design from then on will require the export of another version.
  • With each document, each file and each version shared with the client, the risk of discrepancies increases, which means you will need to spend an incremental amount of time on QA, and on updating files.

Most forward-looking designers have been prototyping for years now, rather than creating static visual mock-ups and iterating on them until the client is happy with the result. Problem is, what the client sees in their PDF viewer is not the result that matters: what the page looks like in the browser is what ultimately matters.

So, for designers working in the digital space, it’s about time that we retired Photoshop. It may still have its uses, but web design isn’t one of them.

Here’s my recommendation:

In Defense of Modern Art

Let me start with a statement: the rejection of art, in any shape or form, is not something I take lightly. Fundamentally though, I find skepticism towards historic art and towards modern art to be different – I think the former can be healthy, progressive and analytical, whereas the latter is often prematurely judgmental and restrictive.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, art is my life’s blood, my religion if you will. I make a living off of creativity, ideas and concepts, and art feeds into that on every level: it’s literally what nurtures me and gives my life meaning. Furthermore, I see creativity in a moral context, as one of few human instincts that are fundamentally good and meaningful in a broader perspective. I also see it in a political context, in that I tend to perceive political conservatism as an enemy, because a “liberal” (open minded) interpretation of art is impossible in a conservative world. Conservatism is, at its heart, very judgmental. It seeks to at the very least slow down progress, or possibly even reverse it, and return us to a world where everything is known and defined, and that is the direct antithesis of open-mindedness – which makes it an enemy of art, at least as I know it.

I need art to be open, to be full of possibilities, to be open to interpretation. The more we limit it, it becomes a restriction on creativity, which is what I live and breathe. I hold this to be especially true for modern art, because I see that as the first artistic movement that truly transcended the physical properties of art; where the visuals exist merely as a trigger for concepts and ideas, and (possibly) provocation. You’re not supposed to admire the image of a Campbell’s soup can, that is not the purpose. Modern art is not idolatry or fetishism, but it attempts to shine a light on it. In that sense, I see modern art as something that can become anything, that reflects back at us, whereas traditional art is already a (mostly) defined, known quantity that is dependent on a historical context. I have no desire to whitewash it and I do see great value in it, but I don’t want to see it used to limit the future potential of art. Saying modern art has no value, or that it has somehow become unmoored from it’s true purpose is, to me, basically denying the promise of art.

If you think about it, we can’t base new art on old values and traditions, that’s just not meaningful. It becomes pastiche and deliberate recreation of concepts and artistic principles that aren’t fully relevant anymore, or at least not understood in the same context. It actually turns self-referential, whittling down its own scope, and art then becomes a game of Pictionary instead of a Rorschach test. The former has one definite answer, whereas the latter can point to any answer.

But let me be clear: I’m not threatening to take away anybody’s art – historic art is still there, in all it’s glory. So please don’t threaten to take away mine. Because “my” art is the promise of art yet to come, and I see modern art as a springboard for that. Something that departs from the old and tries to redefine the broader concept of art. An art that is freed from the unnecessary restrictons of paint, canvas or marble, where creativity and ideas are allowed to fly in complete freedom, and can take on any form.

Perhaps I feel this way simply because art, while not technically what I do per se, at least informs it on a very intimate level, on a daily basis. I have no wish to invalidate anyone’s perspective on art, but recognize that they are, by definition, very personal and can be vastly different. Therefore, words and attitudes towards art do matter, in a very real and tangible sense. Consider if a lawyer was forced to sit through a procession of legal trials where due process was ignored and the outcomes distorted, to the point where it eventually started whittling down his or her belief in the law and the legal system’s capability to deliver justice. That is similar to how the dismissal of art, and the potential of art, affects me.

So, once again, I have no desire to reject any art of any kind, and I have no understanding of such rejection. I love art. All sorts of art. But the art of the past is already in the bank. We cannot erase it, nor should we, and it will always be there for us to enjoy, even if we look at it judgingly, or with skepticism. The principles of artistic creation and artistic discovery, however, require that you as an artist separate yourself from what has gone before, and actually try to become more childlike. Otherwise, your output becomes a play with styles and predefined concepts, and you’re stuck in pastiche territory. Of course, one cannot completely disown the traditions of one’s craft, and nobody really does, but the point is that you have to try; try to set yourself free. And that also goes for commercial expectations, which impose financial yardsticks and artificial limitations on the potential validity of art.

I derive a very deep sense of stimulus from looking at period art, but also find that it is much harder to disassociate from its contextual framework and significance. I look at it and get hit by a truckload of connotations that really have nothing to do with the art itself. And that makes it carry very little value to me in a strictly professional sense. I simply cannot be inspired by it, or it will own me as opposed to the other way around. And I then become an artistic derivative.

So, I really am not trying to reject historic art, because I couldn’t. It’s there already. But I have to try to at least filter it out as it relates to the art yet to come, because in the sense that I’m looking at art, I want to keep an open mind. In the sense that my work is in any way informed by art, I want there to be only possibilities, because limitations affect my creativity, which can honestly be a very delicate and fragile thing. That is why words matter; why the rejection of modern art matters. I meet with clients on a daily basis whose general perceptions of art, design and creativity are, as always, very personal and often quite restrictive. This continues to whittle away my sense of creative freedom, little by little, and make me more jaded and disillusioned with what I can hope to achieve from a creative standpoint. I’ve seen this thousands of times; aging creatives who lose their spark and cave in under a constantly growing mountain of artistic prejudice. It’s (at best) a tyranny of tradition, or (at worst) a tyranny of mediocrity. I think maybe it’s a little like a songwriter who is always expected to play only his or her biggest hits, and who eventually fails to preserve integrity and therefore becomes a walking nostalgia machine.

I never try to interpret art in the moment. I focus very hard to keep an open mind and let the art plant seeds that I may be able to harvest later. But I find that art exhibits differ greatly in that sense: in a modern art exhibit I feel more like a participant, whereas in a historic art exhibit, I am reduced to a spectator.

In many ways, art is my religion, but it is not my God. I don’t worship it, I practice it. Intolerance for that practice does affect me, and it does take away from what I feel my religion can accomplish. It sets limits for what I want to believe is boundless, what I need to believe is without restrictions. I feel it can accomplish so much, but only as long as people are willing to suspend judgment – because my religion is non-judgmental, unlike theist religions such as Christianity for instance, which aims to judge us all and condemning nonbelievers to an eternity in Hell. Being reminded of that kind of intolerance, judgment and restrictive thinking really does affect me, and it sometimes even makes me want to give up. Given every individual’s own personal relationship with art, you don’t need to agree with my beliefs, but if you say what I believe has no value, it saps the creative energy out of me and makes me feel I’m on a fools errand. Kills my mojo.

Put plainly, there’s an abyss between saying you don’t like something, and to suggest that society has no need for it. The former sparks debate, which is healthy. The latter threatens to restrict creative freedom.

The bottom line is, I don’t want to take art away from anyone, nor do I want others to simply keep their art, or their definition of art, to themselves – I would like to share it with them. And my hope is that they would be open minded enough to share “my” art in return. Unfortunately, rejecting the promise of modern art makes that impossible. On the other hand, suspending judgment on behalf of someone you might be able to respect, trying to see and accept that point-of-view as valid (even if it’s not for you personally), that is a beautiful thing.

Which, in closing, is why I think modern art is so important not just to me as an individual, but for society as a whole. We need to allow the yet unborn child of art to form its own identity, as much as it is possible, and suspend judgment enough to believe the child will grow into an individual who will be able to contribute to society in its own way. Not expect the baby to instantly compare favorably to previous generations who might have passed away, but who will always be cherished in memory.

If historic art is for you, then you already have it. I can’t take it away from you, nor would I want to. Modern art, on the other hand, is to a large extent the art that is yet to come. Its existence and its value is yet to be determined. Which is why I ask that you hold off on your judgment, and let it at least try to prove itself to you.

The UX / Account Dynamic

Who are you?

When someone promises to do great work for you, you want to know who that person is. But to clients, a UX team is often completely anonymous.

Successful UX work for clients depends on two things:

  • Understanding: You have to be able to engage with the client1-on-1, to truly understand their needs.
  • TrustClients have to feel that they can trust you, and rely on you to do great work for them.


For UX to truly understand the client, you can’t rely solely on second- or third-hand information. You have to ask questions, and allow the client to explain things to you. Many times, solutions are defined in direct conversations with clients, and vice versa: mistakes often occur through misunderstandings due to a lack of communication.


For the client to trust you, they have to know who you are, get a sense that you understand them, and be able to interact with you directly in order to feel confident that you know what you’re doing. There is little reason for a client to trust the UX abilities of an agency based only on interactions with Account- or Project Management.

The UX Engagement – opening or closing?

When you can demonstrate that you understand the client’s needs, it expands the client engagement.

When the client feels you don’t understand them, it reduces their trust in you, and the engagement starts to shrink.

When the engagement is wide, you have a productive, direct and collaborative relationship that fosters more trust, and yields stronger results, possibly leading to more business opportunities.

When the engagement is narrow, the communication suffers and more mistakes are made, causing more distrust, which puts the entire client relationship at risk, possibly leading to a loss of business.

How can you improve?

If you are noticing signs that the client engagement is shrinking, you need to act quickly and decisively, analyze you we think this is happening, and take action to improve the situation.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. POSSIBLE CAUSE: Your work is inadequate. Depending on the amount of disagreement you’re getting from a client, you have to consider the possibility that the work you’re producing is simply not good enough. If this is indeed the case, you need to be honest about that, and talk about what can be done to get better. If you never talk about it, you cannot improve!

    LIKELIHOOD: low 

    SOLUTION: Reassign people internally to optimize your staffing on the account, and note where you need to improve through future hires. You can also consider bringing in contractors if you have enough lead time, and can identify specifically which skillsets are lacking. However, it should be understood that there is often an inertia inherent in this approach, if there are financial barriers to hiring, and/or a lack of visibility into upcoming projects. Also, UX resources are very much in demand at the moment, so securing premium talent can be very costly.

    What UX can do: Engage with you to identify the competences that are missing (or lacking), and determine whether reassignment or hiring would be the most appropriate action.

  2. POSSIBLE CAUSE: You fail to ”sell” the client on your solutions. You may not be engaging with the client in a sufficiently convincing manner when you are presenting, and in trying to explain why you have chosen a certain solution.

    LIKELIHOOD: high

    SOLUTION: Agencies often tend to either send over deliverables via email, or present via screen-share and conference phone. This is far from ideal when you need to win the client over for a specific solution. Where you need to assert confidence, instill trust and convey enthusiasm about what you have to present, you should be there in person. If you can’t be, then you need to at least ensure that our presentations are solid, and not rushed through in 30-minute phone calls (which is the industry rule rather than the exception).

    What UX can do: Help you develop a convincing presentation, and present to the client.

  3. POSSIBLE CAUSE: You fail to properly explain the solutions you’re proposing. It is possible that you are devoting an insufficient amount of attention to explaining how you intend for your solutions to work.  (Also, see #4 below)

    LIKELIHOOD: medium

    SOLUTION: (see #4 below)

    What UX can do: Help you produce write-ups that document our proposals better, and supply visual presentation materials to better clarify the solution. We can also assist you in presenting directly to the client as needed.

  4. POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client simply does not understand. It is also possible that the client, due to issues on their own side, simply cannot relate to what you’re trying to present. This could be a lack of prior experience with these solutions, or a lack of focus on what you’re trying to solve for, or possibly a lack of buy-in.

    LIKELIHOOD: medium

    SOLUTION: You may need to educate the client better on what you’re doing. For specific purposes, where you need the client’s buy-in on a more complicated solution, you may need to prototype functionality, or provide the client with a reference URL to a similar solution. At the very least, you need to have a solid write-up of how you intend for the solution to work, and Account would be well within their rights to request that UX produce such a write-up. It is a mistake for Account to undertake this task themselves, not just because UX is better suited for it, but because UX’s absence in the rationalization of our solutions may actually make the client extra skeptical (see #5 below).

    What UX can do: Produce more detailed write-ups. Research similar solutions and supply more background materials, to make the solution clearer, and put your recommendations in context.

  5. POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client does not trust you as subject matter experts. The client may compare you unfavorably to other agencies they have worked with, or they may simply be untrusting: their internal dynamics may cause them to not want to trust external partners in general.

    LIKELIHOOD: high

    SOLUTION: First of all, you need to continuously iterate how well your programs are performing, if there is no reason to suspect that your UX solutions are leaving a lot of conversions on the table. Second, you need to affirm that you see your role as being strategic, and consultative: it is your job to offer recommendations. In particular, to ensure that the client doesn’t feel like you’re just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, you should strive to support our solutions with reference examples from other projects, and also share insights outside of the cadence of regular projects. It is also important to leverage the expertise you have in-house when you present. The person who develops a solution is usually the best one to present it, or at least speak to it. An “outsider” cannot always adequately speak to the rationale behind a solution, or imbue the presentation with the same belief in the solution as one who actually worked on it. Building respect for your abilities with the client has to start with internally respecting the professionals behind those abilities.

    What UX can do: Help connect the dots between the goals and the results, and remove some of the subjectivity.

  6. POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client likes to micromanage their agencies. Not all clients are collaborative by nature, and some may simply feel more comfortable directing what you’re doing to a greater extent than other clients. This is not necessarily a problem, if the required direction actually materializes, and is clear and intelligible. If it’s not, you’re basically stuck with a client who knows what they want, but is not very good at articulating what that is, which may cause you to go back and forth an excessive number of times to get things right.

    LIKELIHOOD: high

    SOLUTION: This requires some coaching, to get the client to commit to what it is they want – preferably in writing, by requiring more formalized creative briefs, but also by requiring consolidated feedback, in a pre-defined number of rounds (see #7 below).

    What UX can do: Provide tools and deliverables with which to manage the review and approval processes, and ensure the fidelity in what is presented in the early stages, so that it is also reflected in what is delivered (example: prototypes). For this reason, I recommend not relying on mock-ups, since they will inevitably be less accurate and cause discrepancies which may further cause doubt and uncertainty.

  7. POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client changes their minds a lot. It is possible that the client is not thinking through their responses prior to delivering them, or that they are not all on the same page, or that they simply have a hard time making consistent decisions, for whatever reason.

    LIKELIHOOD: medium

    SOLUTION: This problem requires a more formalized approach to reviews, possibly using formal approval documents that require the client’s signature, and you also need to express clearly how many times the client is allowed to ask for edits, and what the costs are for edits that go beyond that limit. If there are no costs, or if those costs are not clearly communicated, the client is not properly incentivized to keep rounds of revisions down, and may continue to revise indefinitely.

    What UX can do: Provide more structure in how you manage feedback and rounds of revisions, with the aid of a task management and issue tracking system. Push back when feedback is incomplete or inconsistent, and point out where you need more details, or have questions.

  8. POSSIBLE CAUSE: You don’t always present to the right people. In many cases, clients may bring in other people to weigh in on what you have presented after the fact. Such is usually the case with client brand- or compliance teams, for instance. In other cases, you may only get to present to a few of the people who should have been present for the presentation.

    LIKELIHOOD: high

    SOLUTION: You should be more deliberate about who you need to present to, and not allow presentations to happen when there are notable absentees on the client’s side. You have to be able to hold them accountable for feedback when you, in return, are spending time producing things to review. You’re well within your rights to ask that presentations be rescheduled when the right people can’t be present. You also need to ask that you be allowed to interface directly with brand- or compliance teams, because they often get to have a disproportionate say over what goes on, especially when they’re involved by proxy. These are people with a mandate to demand changes if things are not aligned with their standards, but they are also the very people who can assent to a compromises when that is appropriate.

    What UX can do: Engage with client brand and marketing teams to ensure you’re speaking the same language.

How can UX help?

UX teams typically have a broad menu of services and activities that can be used to address many of the challenges you might face with a client. It is for you to inform yourself of and review those activities, and decide which initiatives would be beneficial to the relationship with the client, both in a strategic and in a tactical perspective.

What can you do?

As an Account Manager, build bridges – don’t create silos. Partner with UX and project management, to engage in a more open dialogue, and facilitate a mutual exchange of understanding and trust. Don’t restrict client access. Champion your internal capabilities. Celebrate your successes. Everyone wins as a team.