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It’s 2018. You’re making software. That means you’re making user experiences. And that means you’re dealing with UI designers. Even if you’re used to dealing with creatives in general, user experience design is still a more complex and nuanced engagement due to how directly involved the user is with that end experience, as well as the technology backing that experience. The UI team you hire is bringing creative, problem solving, design, interaction, and technology expertise to your project. And you need to manage that team and those skillsets while incorporating your own subject matter and product strategy expertise in a way that yields the best possible experience for your users. Basically, you don’t want your design feedback blowing the product up.

But your input will be required at many different points in the software-making process. Some of those points involve looking at designed mockups of what your website or app might look like. That can be an overwhelming or an underestimated task. We’re talking colors, fonts, organization of elements, page flows, interactive states, branding, imagery, and more. Even one seemingly innocuous piece of feedback can cascade into a less than ideal experience. Here are some tips for how to avoid that issue and get the most from your UI team.

Strategy vs. Tactics

As a stakeholder, you know your business and the specific business goals for this experience better than anyone in the room. That makes you invaluable to the end product. But that also makes you invaluable in a very specific way.

Giving strategic feedback instead of tactical feedback to a creative team helps them understand where a design might not be aligning with the business. If we only discuss feedback in terms of changing colors or fonts we’re not getting at the why a color or font should change. How does that color support our business goals? Is this font appropriate for our audience? How do the interactions on our site fit into a user’s workflow? Asking these types of questions of your creative team can go a long way to getting your app designed in a way that maximizes their expertise for compelling experiences and combines it seamlessly with your business goals.

Hierarchy vs. Size

The cliché design criticism is “make the logo bigger.” Which, of course, can be valid feedback. But instead of thinking about how big the logo should be right away, consider if the logo is the most important element on the screen.

That’s design hierarchy. Are the elements that are most important to your business and most important to your customers getting the right amount of attention in the right order?

Sharing what information is the most important to your message with the UI team can help them design a screen to draw the viewer’s eyes to the most important element in your message and then on to the next most important element, and so on, guiding them through the experience and the story. Sometimes this is done by making a logo bigger, but more often it is achieved by adjusting elements according to common Gestalt principals like proximity—adjusting the space between elements—continuation—visually connecting elements together—or similarity—grouping like elements.

Advertising Branding vs. Interface Branding

Most companies have thorough brand guidelines for print and advertising. However, most companies do not extend those guidelines to branding their digital applications. Often, this means the creative team needs to make assumptions and judgment calls as to how the brand should translate to a digital design.

We see this happen all the time. The UI team comes up with an innovative design that wields the brand in new ways, and the stakeholders are forced to kibosh it, not because they don’t like it or think that it’s innovative, but because they have no context for judging it. They feel it’s not in brand because there’s nowhere in the brand for it to be. It’s a tragedy.

The answer to that, obviously, is to extend your brand guidelines to user experiences, but in lieu of that, here are some general guidelines to consider with your UI team when translating a brand:

Color

One of the easiest ways to bring a brand to a digital platform is by implementing the colors of the existing brand. However, often, in digital applications, more colors are needed than exist in the brand. Digital applications may require more colors for error feedback, warnings, colors for alerting the user to changes, or large sets of colors to display data in visualizations. In that case, you should ask your UI team about the new colors and how they keep the brand’s essence intact, as opposed to judging the colors themselves based on vague personal aesthetics.

Typography

Years ago, you couldn’t use any font on the web except Arial. Today, more and more type designers license web versions of their fonts to be used in software and websites. Talk to your UI team about using the same fonts you use in other branded materials and securing the proper license. It’s worth the investment. However, if that isn’t a possibility, engage with your team and give them the freedom to put some thought behind what fonts will work best on a screen and fit with your existing brand.

Imagery

If your company already has a strategy for creating branded images across your existing materials, your UI team should be considering how to bring that over to your digital applications. When looking at design mockups, consider how imagery is being used, how it’s unique compared to the competition, and—just like every other design decision—how it supports your brand and your business strategy.

It’s 2018. You want to make intuitive, branded, and visually engaging software, and your UI team can get you there. But the process requires everyone involved to contribute according to their expertise. Ultimately, though, it’s your input around the business’s goals that will help your UI team make a great software experience for you and your customers.

Alex Carr is the Director of Creative Services at Maark, where he leads a team of illustrators and designers focused on marketing, branding, and product design for our clients.

Posted by Michael Dowd

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It’s 2018, and there are hundreds of millions of people in the US who still aren’t using virtual reality (VR) every day. What happened, and does it spell the end of VR as a marketing platform?

I was among the guilty several years back, projecting out the consumer adoption of VR using faulty assumptions. Based on some sloppy interpretation of Moore’s Law, virtual reality should be in the hands of tens of millions of consumers today and reach market saturation in a few more years. But we aren’t close to that.

Before we explore why that might be the case, let’s clarify VR in this context, because the term is used to describe several things and is often conflated with other technologies, such as augmented reality.

  • 360° Video is the most consumer-friendly interpretation of VR, but it lacks the depth and presence of true VR. Interaction is lacking or minimal, and headsets are doing little other than rendering a video separately for each eye. This is why I don’t consider Google Cardboard – compelling as it is – to be a VR platform.

  • Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony Playstation VR are the consumer entry points into proper, Tethered VR. They allow for physical interaction with a virtual environment and provide a true level of depth to the environment.

  • Finally, Location-based VR is a dedicated installation that typically includes a greater freedom of motion and whose scripted experiences and powerful equipment allow for a higher fidelity experience than your average at-home VR games.

Tethered VR is an experience that takes some dedication. You need a strong computer and a bit of technical savvy to get it running. Even several years in to the newest wave of VR, these restrictions are still prohibitive. Costs have arguably increased over the last couple years because of heightened demand for the RAM and graphics cards required to create an acceptable VR experience. Without those components, the choppy graphics and poor frame rates lead to disillusionment and nausea.

And even with greater access to computing power, tethered VR is an experience that requires some level of production by the consumer. So it’s reasonable to think that the interested audience will be a technical audience that is closer to the number of PC gamers than the number of, say, smartphone owners, and the demographics are likely to fit a similar profile.

Help is on the way in the form of more consumer-friendly hardware that allows for fully wireless experiences at home without a degree in electrical engineering. This means that marketers who are already engaging with consumers through eSports, Twitch, on in-game advertising are likely to find an audience here soon. But modular, expandable game consoles have never fared well, and asking consumers to spend hundreds more dollars just to uncomplicate their setup is not a short-term solution.

It will be another several years before self-contained, wireless VR headsets are both readily available and affordable in a way that should merit any marketer’s attention. That’s why, for most of us, Location-based VR is likely a better option for the foreseeable future.

Location-based VR hit the mainstream this year when Disney installed its Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire experience at its theme parks. The 15-minute adventure casts visitors as rebels posing as Stormtroopers to infiltrate an Imperial base. It is a fully mobile experience that allows the user to walk around and even see the other players rendered within their virtual world. This will give its 30 million plus visitors each year a chance to get a proper introduction to high-end VR by delivering a relevant experience directly to its target audience.

Several years out, Marriott’s Teleporter is a testament to its innovation and remains a standard for marketing in VR. This semi-portable experience traveled around the world, allowing users to step inside a tube and be transported to an exotic Marriott location in immersive VR, complete with smells and tactile sensations. They understood that the unique functions of VR – the sense of place, physical scale, and tangibility – are able to communicate things about their product that cannot be replicated in any other medium.

Brands and marketers need to think critically about how those same elements of VR can be used to deliver previously impossible experiences to their own consumers. Real estate trusts can provide interactive tours of remote properties from the convenience of its corporate office. Industrial machinery too big to transport can now have a physical presence at trade shows. Entertainment properties can set up promotional events in theaters to transport fans completely into fantasy worlds.

Most marketers who invested in consumer VR experiences years ago based on assumed reach were sold a bill of goods by their agency. VR was, and remains today, a platform for innovation and depth, not scale. Fortunately, for marketers who are looking to create rich, unique experiences, all of the components exist, and all that remains is finding a creative and development partner to bring it to life.

Want more? Hear Michael debate the current state of mixed reality in the latest episode of Maark’s Agency on Record podcast.

Michael Dowd is the Executive Director of Digital Strategy at Maark, where he coordinates new product development and execution for our clients. Mike brings with him eleven years of experience in agency-side digital marketing, during which he provided guidance on marketing technologies, platforms, and strategies for more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies across the B2B, retail, and automotive industries.

Photo credit: NeONBRAND

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As a “wine geek,” I am always on the hunt for an innovative wine – one that redefines my understanding of what a wine category like California Chardonnay or Italian Barolo can be. Some winemakers, such as Matthiasson and Gaja, have reputations that are built on innovation and quality. But many others travel down a different path. Some cutting-edge brands go too far and produce a wine that is more interesting than actually good. Still others play it safe and deliver an acceptable, but uncompelling wine.

I see the same dilemmas constantly being played out in the domain of software development as well. Engineering teams face this tension between innovation, quality, and dependability throughout the course of a software project. Innovate and deliver on brand execution. Or take a more expedient route to deliver a serviceable solution, but one that does not fully execute on the brand.

Four Conspirators

Delivering innovation in a services business is daunting because so many forces seem to conspire against it. Regardless of the industry, type of app/website, or parties involved, we encounter four common challenges on most any engagement.

1. Requirements with Strings Attached. The realpolitik of the services industry is that business requirements will almost inevitably trump technology considerations. Experience will teach engineers: that’s to be expected. But the snag is when these conditions push technical decisions in ways that become a stumbling block to brand execution. Sometimes the constraint is being forced to build upon legacy infrastructure that isn’t up to snuff. Other times it’s having technology choices handed down to engineering based on concerns not directly related to the project itself. Perhaps it is the comfort level of the stakeholder or maybe an entrenched partnership with an inferior service provider.

2. Fluidity. I have been around software development projects long enough to know that project requirements are probably best described by a play on a familiar line from Pirates of the Caribbean: “Requirements are more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” In other words, requirements are set in stone – that is, until they change and change again. From a business perspective, this fluidity is certainly understandable. In the length of time it can take to deliver a software product, internal priorities and external environmental factors can shift radically. So too, schedules can so easily shift in an attempt to accommodate a key press event or the unexpected meeting with C-level execs.

While volatility may be business reality, the more requirements shift and change, the greater the challenge that engineers face to deliver innovation. Well-crafted architectural and implementation decisions made at the start of a project can become instantly compromised by timeline surges or last-minute feature requests, pressuring the development team to implement a rushed, tacked-on solution that becomes technical debt to deal with for years to come.

3. Pace of Others. Innovation can also be challenging as we collaborate with and are frequently reliant upon tech partners that can operate at a much more languid pace than we are accustomed to. We think in days or weeks, but it is not unusual for other organizations to think in months by comparison. The culture clash can be jarring – much like trying to pair up Usain Bolt with a group of marathoners for a relay race. In such a scenario, Bolt would have a fundamentally different way of executing on the race than would the more conservative, slower paced long-distance runners.

4. Tension Between Quality & Speed. Undoubtedly, the greatest challenge that engineering teams grapple with in delivering innovation is the inherent tension between quality of delivery and speed to market. Innovation, by definition, demands both: a quality product that is slow to market is a could-have-been while a hurried, immature product is a should-have-been. Engineers can become distracted from executing on the brand and simply deliver to the deadline. The mastery comes, not in balancing the two, but delivering on both quality and timing.

Making Innovation Happen

As a technology leader, I need to do everything possible to lesson and mitigate these tensions for my development team. But our ability to execute on the brand is not going to be realized by trying to change the realpolitik of the business landscape. Instead, it is done by responding to those tensions in ways that overcome them.

First and foremost, being able to successfully deliver innovation is done through the assembly of the right engineering team. Individuals need to be smart, savvy, and creative, but they also need to be highly adaptable problem-solvers – a quality that can be surprisingly rare to find among even skilled developers.

Beyond individual developer qualities, however, you also need to assemble the right composition of skills across the full team. A temptation that I see many companies falling into is lumping engineers into the same category. You would never charge a UI developer to build out your cloud infrastructure. But, in the same way, you shouldn’t assign your backend engineers to build a compelling, nuanced user experience that your brand ultimately hinges upon. That’s a different skillset, even if the engineer knows how to put things together. And yet we see that happening all of the time around us.

Being able to successfully execute on the brand is also achieved by the engineering team working closely alongside the design team. The stone-age practice of “throwing over the wall” between these two groups just will not cut it. Instead, organizations need to foster a collaborative environment for iterative development and cross-pollination. At MAARK, we have been working to fuse the groups together in new ways – with the clear objective of being better positioned to deliver a compelling user experience.

At the end of the day, engineers want to create cool things that last. We see ourselves as craftsmen and artisans skillfully creating value in the world of UX and software architecture every bit as much as our pre-digital forefathers did with their hands. However, when our deliveries are almost invariably under duress and innovation is compromised, this can inevitably have an impact on the engineering team’s moral. Some can develop an almost PTSD-like mentality, while others can become too jaded to even try to deliver innovation under such conditions. Still others flee to less demanding pastures. The ultimatum for technology leaders thus becomes cultivating a team of engineers that can rise above these tensions and, in fact, relish these challenges.

Baring Your Brand

In the end, whether the stakeholders or engineers realize it or not, the “innovation vs. serviceability” dilemma is bare for all the world to see. Frankly, every visitor to your website or user of your app can see it. I can look at a host of apps on my iPhone with household names attached to them and know with certainty that, for whatever behind-the-scenes reasons, their engineers took an acceptable, but ultimately uncompelling path. Conversely, I can look at a well-designed, intuitive, fast-performing app in the App Store and tell exactly the innovative manner in which it was crafted. At the end of the day, that is successful brand execution.

Rich Wagner is the Managing Director of Engineering of Maark where he leads the development team and spearheads the technology strategy of the agency. He has led the development of multiple enterprise apps, mobile apps, and websites for Fortune 500 companies. Rich has also authored over 20 books on software development and other subjects.

Photo credit: 35mm

Here’s the issue: We can find 127,453,000 awesome podcasts about the most obscure of our hobbies. 373,435,000 great podcasts on current events that keep us informed. 6,734,000 strong entertainment podcasts to dull the pain. But we can’t find a single solid podcast about what we do every single day for a living at a digital agency. So we decided to make one.

What would that podcast be about? Creativity? Certainly. We have to invent and execute ideas every day. Technology? Definitely. Ain’t no getting around that. Marketing? Of course. We live in a commercial world.

So we wanted a podcast that discusses creativity, technology, and marketing in a real, unvarnished way. A human way.

We’re calling it Agency on Record, and the first episode is live right now. It’s low key. A couple of guys with a mic in a basement studio in Boston, but let me tell you about those guys.

Michael Colombo is the CEO of Maark. Jason Ocker is the VP of creative strategy at Maark. They’ve been friends for a quarter of a century, and in the industry for decades. And they’ve got a lot of baggage. They’ve seen a lot. They talk about it all a lot. So somebody stuck a mic between them.

Ideally, Agency on Record comes off like every conversation we have around the office here at Maark or at The Tavern at The End of the World down the street. It’s honest, it’s raw, and it wrestles with its topics as opposed to declaiming on them. The first few episodes deal with storytelling in marketing, mixed reality, digital transformation, boutique agencies, corporate decision-making, social media. Topics that are extremely relevant to anybody trying to tell a story or create collaboratively or impact a business or deal with the technology that inevitably underlies and transforms all of that.

So give it a listen. Visit our Anchor profile at www.anchor.fm/aor to find links to your favorite podcasting services. Send us some feedback at aor@maark.com. And, most importantly, stick with us while we find our podcast legs. And better mics. And a sound engineer. Some of those sound-absorbing panels you hang on the wall. A marketing plan.

Wait…why are we going live today?

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The usual big plans and big vendors mean big delays and big expenses for the content management initiatives of today’s big businesses.

To cross an ocean, you must lose sight of the shore. For a business to change, it must embrace the unfamiliar. Many of the rollouts for large enterprise content management systems, like Adobe’s Experience Manager (AEM), don’t meet their potential because those rollouts are rooted in the familiar: Massive planning with massive partners and not enough focus on pragmatic approaches to deliver value quickly. It’s the exact opposite of digital business. And if you are a large marketer with multiple brands and businesses in your portfolio, that means literally hundreds of web sites to manage and a range of content to disseminate across many digital channels and platforms.

On its face, AEM represents all the value of next generation content and digital asset management. It can give enterprises the foundation they need to act nimbly and in real-time by integrating enterprise content marketing with analytics, audience segmentation, and personalization at scale. However, for many customers who have acquired and implemented it in some form, change has still been slow and disaster feels like it’s lurking behind each code deployment or content update. Even with all this new potential; the problem, the proposed solution, the lack of results…it’s all too familiar. Your transformation journey hasn’t really left port.

Taking advantage of the opportunities that AEM provides requires making some unfamiliar choices. For instance, harnessing the technology requires experts with deep experience in the specific platform as opposed to technology generalists learning AEM for the first time. The ability to configure, control, and manage complex AEM environments comes out of front-line experience from server-side teams that have created their own tools and hardened processes for automating operational tasks. Properly configured automation reduces deployment errors and downtime. And that takes focused, nimble innovators, which are hard to find in monolithic vendor organizations.

The teams you rely on - whether internal or external - to help you deliver transformation cannot themselves require transformation. Many legacy vendors suffer from the same need to overhaul their cultures as the clients they are attempting to serve. That’s why smaller SWAT teams, coming more often from startups than from the Fortune 500, often represent the enterprise’s best chance for change. You are trying to cross an ocean, not boil one, and to do that, you’ll need the small, swift guide boats that can help you navigate AEM’s tricky waters.

Smaller partners also help you focus more squarely on time-to-market over everything else. When industry dynamics and customer behavior were stable, over-planned corporatist initiatives made more sense. Now, they almost never do. Company-wide AEM solutions, while academically appealing to many consultants, lack the pragmatism that should be the first principle of any project that hopes to result in greater business agility. Fostering individual business-unit creativity should be the goal, not the obstacle. Platforms like AEM can support those individual business units looking to get to market more quickly with innovative ideas, but doing so requires lean development models, and an approach to code and component sharing that doesn’t rely on overwrought development.

Embracing the unfamiliar is the only path to transformation. It’s in that unfamiliar space that you will find the innovative tools and processes that really untie the platforms in which the company has invested so much. Choosing smaller, less familiar partners to work on them is going to bring the new thinking, the energy, and the technical wherewithal to help you achieve the change you want. And by focusing on the speed of individual business units, the journey toward transformation becomes an achievable one, mile-by-mile, with value delivered at each leg of the voyage, meaning you can say bon voyage to the old shore, and hello to the new one.

Michael Colombo is the founder and CEO of Maark where he oversees the overall direction and development of the agency as it continues to build its brand as a leading marketing and innovation engine for its customers. He has served as the executive lead in programs including corporate rebranding, solution marketing, sales enablement, digital transformation, and new product design for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Ready to embrace the unfamiliar and transform your business? See how Maark can help you get more value from your AEM investment faster.

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Photo credit: Cooper Smith