Iterative Design

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  • 9/19/2016
    Stop the madness of build/bust design with sensible, incremental, strategy-driven Improvements
     
    When businesses think about iterative design—if they think about it at all—they generally consider quick cosmetic changes they can make to their website, such as colors, fonts and photography, but iterative design is as much a philosophy as it is tactic.
     
    We dug deeper into the topic in one of our recent podcasts. Assembling our President, Jason Therrien, our Senior Director of Development, Bruce Williams, and our Creative Director, Craig Israel, we recorded an open conversation about iterative design and how it impacts the industry and our clients.

    CRAIG ISRAEL: [Bruce and Jason] are here because they are super knowledgeable about today’s topic and, if I may be so bold, are also very handsome men.
     
    JASON THERRIEN: Thank you, Craig, extra points.
     
    CRAIG: Before we jump into it, let’s define iterative design. At its heart, iterative design is just taking a product or a service, making it slightly better with each iteration, collecting feedback, and doing that again and again until you have a perfect, functioning, beautiful product. Does that sound fair?
     
    JASON: Absolutely.
     
    CRAIG: So the idea of iterative design is as old as people making stuff. Now, of course, what we’re interested in today is how this applies to a lot of what our clientele does and how that lives in the digital world. So Bruce, how does iterative design come to play in the digital world?
     
    BRUCE WILLIAMS: So when you think digital, you immediately think, what? Websites, microsites, campaign pages—
     
    JASON: Email.
     
    BRUCE: Email templates, email design, anything that takes a function and form together in its interface for the customer. So we should back up and talk about the traditional method of web design.
     
    So it’s: we need a web redesign. Let’s get everyone in a room. Let’s talk through it. Let’s hit each other over the head. Let’s get a design together and launch it. And then—
     
    CRAIG: And as part of that, we’ll throw away everything we’ve done before.
     
    BRUCE: Right. We’ll go through a lot of critical thinking. We’ll have a lot of thought put into it, and then we launch it. We check the box.
     
    And it’s business as usual until either a change of guard, be at the executive level or a chief marketing officer comes aboard and says, let’s shake it up and let’s do it again. So at that point, we go through the process again.
     
    JASON: Right, a build-bust cycle. That’s usually what we had seen for more than a decade; build up, let it rust, tear it down. That about right?
     
    CRAIG: That seems to be. The part that really made it inefficient is that it just sat there forever until there was a critical need, right? There wasn’t any proactive efforts to address it before it. But essentially, you drove your car until the wheels fell off and then you had to buy a new car.
     
    JASON: Right, absolutely. That’s where we’ve been hearing from a lot of clients the last couple of years on how do we get more out of this investment? As years have gone on, digital in general has become more important to every brand, some critically important, that their businesses are built on it.
     
    And literally many, many brands would go away if it were not for a functioning site, whether it’s e-commerce or some sort of operational aspect handled through their site. And they are asking, how do we get out of this boom-bust cycle with website launches?
     
    And ta-da, we have web iteration, the idea being: how do we take a little bit more care and feeding of our site over time, allow the data to drive us, et cetera, et cetera? And all of this sounds great. And most of the feedback, especially a couple years ago, was how this was only for big companies.
     
    I think, Bruce, you can talk about this. We’ve worked with plenty of enterprise brands. They’ve been doing this. They wouldn’t build their business on something so significant and then not touch it. It’s more on the middle-market size companies and smaller ones that see this as a newer approach.
     
    BRUCE: Yeah. And I think it may be the folks that are at the bigger corporations. There’s a perception that they’ve seen more, they’ve been through more of the process. They understand what you need to be looking at on a continual basis. And they have, I think, more staff to help them stay disciplined to do so. Where mid-market, you could be literally a staff of one.
     
    But the mid-market is especially interesting because there’s so much opportunity there. Business opportunity is speeding up and the first one to market has the advantage. I think the first one to make a splash with any kind of experience or gain in customer service experience journey, buyer journey, et cetera, has a distinct advantage. And those advantages eventually melt away as others catch up.
     
    CRAIG: It seems like the clientele is accelerating, too. Or I should say their attention span is decreasing, that there was a time where you could build a website and if it was functional and provided enough information, that was enough. Customers could come and find what they want. But now, it seems like with a lot of online shoppers, they want to be entertained. And so that requires constant, frequent updates if not to the content itself, then to the visual design.
     
    JASON: Yeah. I think a lot of it has to do with the consumerization of things, that for many years, especially the business-to-business clients or industrial types would say, “Yeah, we’re not a consumer brand. So we don’t need to do these types of things.”
     
    So today, saying my site doesn’t need to be mobile is almost ridiculous for any company because of the amount of traffic that just comes through our phones, it’s quite incredible. So from a continuum perspective, there’s a lot of options here.
     
    We’ve been talking more philosophically right now. But walk me through how I just built a site and launched it. What are my options next?
     
    CRAIG: It starts well before the actual launch phase, that you look at a site and you figure out how you build a foundation that can be iterated upon.
     
    BRUCE: You’re absolutely right. What we find with our small and mid-market clients is that sometimes they’ll come and say, I heard you talk about iteration. I just want to iterate this home page or I just want to do this or that.
     
    But you need some good scaffolding. You need some good bones to your stuff to begin with, like you said, Craig. So
    you need a good foundation. You can’t avoid that.
     
    CRAIG: We’ve seen this blow up for clients too that have an old, nonresponsive website, and they ask us just to make the ordering page responsive or one part of it responsive. They end up investing more money and resources to kind of cobble this thing together than if they were to do it right from the start.
     
    BRUCE: Right, right. So it depends on the step you want to take. If it’s gone from desktop to responsive, it’s a pretty big step. If it’s an iteration, if I’m responsive but this page is not performing, hell, this whole section of my site is not performing, what should we do? Then that’s a better case for an iteration with a quicker turn, with more deliberate intention than the big jump that typically a move to responsive requires.
     
    CRAIG: I feel compelled to mention that iterative design isn’t just the structural back-end, technical aspect of a site. You can iterate on the visual design of a site, too.
     
    In [the 2016 Trends Summer Reader] I’ve written an article about brand evolution. I’m going to touch upon a couple of those points. The idea of taking your brand and instead of throwing away all the brand equity you’ve developed over years and launching a completely new brand, sometimes a better approach is to tweak it, evolve it a little bit, make it a little more contemporary.
     
    This isn’t just about websites, right? This is about a holistic brand, where you can apply it to your website, to your collateral, your TV commercials, whatever. This can be part of your iterative approach where you take an old-fashioned website, and maybe you don’t change the bones of it all, that you just change the visual design of it a bit to make it resonate better with a more contemporary audience.
     
    JASON: Absolutely. That’s an easy first step. I’d love to hear your guys’ thoughts from both creative and a user experience standpoint on how more attention to the metrics can really lead to a plethora of iterative changes that are going to have great return on that time and money invested.
     
    BRUCE: Yeah. So you’re pulling on the metrics, right? Let them make the decisions for you. That’s where A/B testing, multivariate testing, heat mapping, those all roll into it.
     
    Those are all the things that we look at and refer our clients to in order to establish a regular cadence and discipline to look at those things, and then let those draw the conclusions for you.
     
    JASON: Right. That’s the stuff that I hear about, how is it driving more leads back to the business? Or it might be e-commerce. So how are we optimizing the experience? How are we getting people to fill up that basket and finish with a transaction?
     
    For other businesses, it might just be that we need to drive subscriptions. We need to drive subscribers into email or social media or other channels that they want to collect information from.
     
    Again, Craig, to your point, it’s how do you push people towards that? How do you incrementally improve that over time and not take it for granted that, well, it’s a nice big button, so it must be clear to click on it, to become a subscriber, or to call us.
     
    CRAIG: I think that’s a critical point. When we’re talking about iterative design, it is incremental in general. It’s small changes that have small effects.
     
    JASON: Absolutely. The key to iterative is that we get out of the boom-bust cycle of these sites and we move the needle slightly. And that depends on the company. Maybe you guys can talk about this. How often should we be doing iterative changes to a site?
     
    CRAIG: To Bruce’s point earlier, a lot of it is driven by data, that having a regular schedule that’s arbitrary isn’t going to help, either. If you change the visual design of your site every month, every quarter, that’s probably going to work against you because then you’re going to introduce confusion and you’re going to make it an uncomfortable experience for users.
     
    But you need to monitor that data. And when you start to get the dip, maybe that’s the point where you introduce some changes or maybe there’s not a dip, but it’s not rising the way you want it. So then you proactively say, well, what can we do to tweak this, either foundationally or visually or content wise or through some other mechanism to try to bolster the goals a little bit?
     
    BRUCE: Listen. Listen to your customers. Listen to your channels, your distributors. If there’s opportunities, let them dictate how soon you go after iterating an experience.
     
    CRAIG: So we haven’t talked about what this costs. But maybe, Jason, you have some war stories about how we’ve been able to be creative and clever with clients’ budget to make it work.
     
    JASON: Yeah. That’s a great point, Craig, because, again, a lot of companies will go back to, well, this is just for big enterprises. It can’t possibly be for my brand. This is the key difference that’s going to separate them from a lot of their competition that Bruce was talking about before—that first-mover advantage.
     
    It’s across the spectrum from a budgetary question. It’s really just philosophically more important to have the discipline, to put it in there, and then the cadence to execute on it.
     
    CRAIG: And even though you traditionally think of something like a website coming out of a marketing budget, we have clients that are so invested in it or the site’s so important that it comes out of a capital budget.
     
    JASON: Absolutely. That’s the really interesting thing that got us thinking about this iterative philosophy a couple of years ago, when we started sitting in front of capital expenditure committees. After several of these meetings, we got to the core of it.
     
    It was that these committees were used to investing in plants and equipment. I’m going to build a building. I’m going to invest in a fleet of trucks, whatever it is.
     
    And we said, you wouldn’t stop putting oil in your fleet of trucks when it ran out. You wouldn’t ignore roof repairs on this building ten years after you opened it up.
     
    The same thing is true with your website, and other digital means, too. But especially the site that is that hub of your marketing communications and, many times, your operations. So how do we budget to take care of this initial investment and make it last longer so we don’t tear it down, because you never tear down a building you just built a few years ago.
     
    CRAIG: At the end of the day, the message is to invest in your website and your digital platforms, with the same care that you would invest into any other aspect of your business that’s client-facing and critical to your business.



    Iterative Design is an article featured in our 2016 Trends Summer Reader Magazine. Download your free copy of the magazine here. 

    If you are interested in learning more, listen to our corresponding thunder::cast episode that takes an even closer, more detailed look at reinventing your brands creative wheel through iterative design.
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