Before you begin reading her “conversational” interview, let us introduce Anna briefly: Anna runs 2LCH, a design services firm, based out of the Washington D.C area in America. With a background in marketing and graphic design, she has helped a variety of clients build brands, design and improve marketing materials, develop and refine websites, and strengthen their positioning.
In her own words, Anna helps “people create change through clarification”. She is currently working on a new business model for providing design services through customer experience tests. The objective of her services is “to help customers find problems quickly and build and renew brands in a continuous, incremental way”. (A Kaizen approach, we wonder!?)
Following are excerpts of Anna’s interview for us (and for you):
Younomy: How do you look at a web site? As a product of layout design? Or a product of coding?
Anna: It’s very important to identify the purpose of a particular website and whether it serves this purpose well. This “service to the purpose” is achieved through design—for this reason I think it’s more acceptable to have poorly-written code (that works) than to have a poorly-designed layout. A poorly-designed layout will keep the site’s visitors from receiving value and subsequently decreases the overall ROI of a particular site.
Younomy: How do you define "information architecture" in the web design/web content development context? How important it is? And what purpose does it serve?
Anna: “Information architecture” seeks to optimally organize content and answer a few key questions: Which content gets priority? How do different pieces of content connect? How do different users efficiently find the content they most care about? Does the content enable people to do what they need to do? What formats are best for specific types of content?
Answering these questions is crucial, and it’s important to answer them before any design work gets done. Without knowing the answers, you risk building something that doesn’t serve its purpose and diminishes the value the audience receives.
Even if the scope of a particular project is too small for you to do a “full-blown information architecture” process, you could still try to find answers for these five questions—your audience will thank you.
Younomy: When it comes to delivering your work, do you follow a particular project management technique? How do you provide opportunities for customers to chip in their ideas?
Anna: My process is something I’m continuously iterating on, but in general, the structure stays the same: there’s a discovery phase, a “quick sketches to explore concepts” phase, a development phase, and a follow-up phase. I ask for feedback in some form in every phase.
I used to be terrified of feedback, because it often felt like a personal attack on my work. With more experience, however, I realized that it’s not about me at all—it’s just that people fundamentally want to be heard. It’s not about control. And it’s a great learning experience for both parties.
One of the key things I found is that asking for feedback significantly improves customers’ satisfaction, even if the feedback isn’t implemented. Another thing I learned is that the way you ask for feedback is perhaps more important than the type of feedback you ask for. Customers are typically never experts in your field, so when you ask open-ended questions, they tend to get stuck. Make questions as concrete as possible (“Do you like x or y?” versus “What do you like?”) and keep them focused on their own area of expertise (“Does your business do x or y?” versus “Is this design good for your business?”).
Younomy: What are your favorite tools (online or otherwise) for designing wire frames?
Anna: I only use Adobe Illustrator to design wireframes. It’s the tool I use most, so I’m very fast, and I know how to make it do everything I need to do. I find that it’s a better return on both my time and my clients’ time.
There are, however, tons of great tools out there—I suggest trying a few and sticking to the one that helps you do work as fast as possible. Wireframes are meant to be quick and iterative.
Younomy: What is your advice for SMEs who want to go online? Typically, they may not have the time or skill (or both) to create content (for web and social media)?
Anna: If time and/or skill are not available, the best thing to do is to hire help—you’ll get results faster. For SMEs, getting content out there is a very powerful way to generate leads over time, and it’s a worthy investment once you find someone you can trust over a long-term relationship.
If, however, hiring help is not an option, I suggest finding ways to repurpose what you’re already doing. Do you read blogs to keep up in your field? Tweet out links to what you’re reading with one-sentence summaries or opinions. Do you give talks? Next time you do, tape the talk and upload the video to YouTube. Do you create stuff for clients? See if you can abstract your work into a general template for other people to follow. And so on. Don’t start with something that requires you to learn new skills—highlight what you already do well and share it on the networks that already exist.
Younomy: You have multiple interests—writing, designing, coding. How do you strike the right balance (so that you don't end up becoming just a programmer or a writer)?
Anna: I’ve always been torn between different ways of describing myself—I have two academic degrees, I’m a designer and a developer, I’m into soft/people skills and data, and so on. I’m told that I must choose one or the other (e.g., one cultural affiliation or one profession), but I think there’s a lot of value in being in-between. It enables you to connect the dots and constantly challenges you—and at the end of the day, this is what allows you to help more people in more powerful ways.
However, to give my customers a concrete idea of how I can help them, I try to explain what I do as a big-picture mission—I communicate an umbrella concept for the kinds of solutions I offer, instead of a list of specific interests or skills. (This is similar to what Emilie Wapnick says about “multipotentialites” on Puttylike).
Right now I say that my work is all about “iterative change through clarification.” All of us have something to clarify and change. This could include designing a brand, developing a website, visualizing some data, anything. Once I know someone is engaged—say, they begin to ask questions—I clarify what I mean by “iterative change through clarification” and provide examples of how I can help, using my actual interests and skills.
I tailor my response to touch on something the person really cares about. For example, entrepreneurs tend to care about building brands, teams tend to care about communication between disciplines, and so on.
If you’re also in-between interests and skill sets, I suggest you simply ask yourself why you do what you do. On a very fundamental level, why do you love doing all the different things you’re drawn to? Once you have an answer, tell everyone.
Younomy: What are your favorite quotes on design? Whose work has influenced you a lot? (or which books have taught you about web/layout design well)?
Anna: I’m a huge fan of two quotes. Peter Drucker’s “what gets measured gets managed” and W. Edwards Deming’s “in God we trust; all others must bring data.” The emphasis here is that in order to improve, you need to selectively pay attention to, and track, the things that matter.
When it comes to observing design, an invaluable resource for me has been Dribbble—I believe that the mere act of regularly observing other designers’ work has significantly improved my own skills.