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What We Learned from Over 100 Projects in 2017


The calendar stops for no one, and we are already busy working on new projects with our clients in 2018. But it’s always instructive to pause and take stock of all that happened in the prior year before the dust settles. We are a learning organization, and who better to learn from than our clients? So we asked everyone at Fresh Tilled Soil (yes, everyone) one question:

Tell me one thing you learned from a client, project, experience, or the market this year.

The challenge for most ended up being limiting it to just one response. One of the more humorous observations:

“French user testing subjects do not want to elaborate on why they think, behave, or feel the way they do. Just accept it and move on.”

Following is just a sample of some of the many things we learned from and/or reinforced with our clients in a very productive and exciting year.

User Experience

User Journey Map
  • Getting your user to their “A-ha moment” as quickly as possible is more important now than ever before. Your users’ expectations about how quickly it takes them to identify value in your product/service have increased dramatically. Social media, chatbots, and similar technologies have conditioned users to expect now over later.
  • Even when you account for a first-time state or an error state, there are always more states that are worth considering. For example: What if a connected service/API is unavailable, what if the user is inactive for 10+ minutes, what if the user doesn’t have the type of account that supports a mobile workflow? How much data are developers comfortable calling/loading for the fastest performance?

User Research (idea validation and usability testing)

Annotated wireframes based on learnings from user testing
  • Sometimes it’s not the interface that challenges the user. Often their main challenge is connecting the value of an app/product to their business or life (see A-ha moment above). Sometimes it isn’t about having a killer feature or optimal UX or UI. Sometimes the problem really is product-market fit.
  • Prototyping and user testing can successfully inform a client that their needs are different from their users’ needs to the point that it changes what is included in a V1 product. This may seem obvious, but it is an eternal truth that is consistently proven over and over again.
  • Initial ideas (from us or the client) are only hypotheses until validated, even if mutually agreed upon. The power of user research is in unveiling the truth and the unknown.
  • User interviews are not only beneficial to our UX/UI activities, they also help our project champions sell value inside their organization. Some of our clients actually used the recorded videos from our user interviews to show the evolution of a product and how improvements were being made based on real user feedback.
  • Quick and dirty user testing within your own organization can be incredibly helpful with very little overhead and/or time involved. You can validate patterns and ideas in just an hour or two.
  • Never go into a project thinking you have the answer. After a thorough kickoff with a new client team, we were all getting excited by one particular idea. We were fairly convinced that this one feature was going to be the WOW moment for users. In the process of conducting user testing we had users rate a long list of features. While they liked the supposed “WOW” feature, every single one of them rated it lower than some of the less-sexy counterpart features. This also serves as a reminder to elevate the voice of the  customer and not your own design hypotheses.

UX/UI Design

Brainshark screen

  • Visually, what the client finds appealing and what the end user finds appealing are different. Knowing the end user by doing user research is key.
  • The technology that most of us take for granted still hasn’t reached everyone and all industries. There are still many sectors that are either struggling to catch up or haven’t felt enough of a motivation to change their current way of solving problems. The lesson here is that sometimes paper and pen are better than spreadsheets or mobile apps for capturing information or delivering the ideal experience. Don’t assume that technology makes everything easier.
  • Simple is better. The best solution is often discovered through simplification. Fewer screens, fewer features, fewer words. Less is more. Sometimes the best UI is no UI.

Project Management

Rat hole sign

  • One client taught us all something about meetings. They had a “going down the rat hole” sign that anyone can hold up when they think someone is going on a dangerous tangent. It’s funny, but it also is a great tactic to keep meetings on track.
  • Referring back to your strategy work (project research, plans, testing results etc) during each stage of design work keeps projects on track. We do a lot of the strategy work for a reason. Projects that consistently verify that what we are building is consistent with and supports the strategy are more successful.
  • Understand your client’s needs at every phase of the project, and learn from their past behaviors (see this blog post!). Even if they say one thing and you believe they value a particular phase of work, be sure to talk about the activities, the outputs, and timing of each phase, and share your progress along the way. Clients like to feel like they are working with us instead of waiting days for a big reveal.
  • Building a long-standing, mutually-trusting relationship with clients serves us well when we’re busy. Clients give us grace, and we give them great service when capacity opens up again.
  • Be frank! Ask the client the “why” of their requests. Press until you get what is fueling their requirements and goals.
  • In projects where there are multiple decision makers, streamline the communication process as much as possible. Even if every team involved uses different tools and communication platforms, find one tool that provides common ground. If information is disseminated in too many places, no one will ever be on the same page.

Design Strategy

UI Kit

  • The content and the strategy behind a design is critical for success. Determining the “what” and “why” should always come before the “how.”
  • You won’t get the best experience possible when you go shopping for content later. The content is the design.
  • We are often the ones asking for more data, but there is such a thing as too much data. Too much data and your team may not read any of it. As a result, we now recommend that our Design Sprint clients distil pre-sprint research down to two pages of critical takeaways. After all, Design Sprints are all about active learning.
  • Content really is king! It’s not impossible to build a great UX/UI strategy or design without it, but when you don’t have it you’ll find you’re asking a lot of questions that are hard to answer and slow the process down.


Product Management and Leadership

Product Roadmap
Product Roadmap Excerpt – Now, Next, and Later prioritization
  • Prioritizing features without a product strategy is like mapping a route without a destination.
  • The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.
  • Great leaders make great products. And with no formal product curriculum, degree, or training, the product community has taken it upon itself to make great leaders. From formal organizations like Smarter in the City and Boston Women in Product to communities like ProductTank and many others, the product community is hyper-focused on mentorship, learning, and a growth mindset. We are all learning from one another, and that’s what makes stronger product leaders.

It’s been a busy year of learning from and working with our clients to craft amazing products and experiences. We look forward to discovering and deliver more in 2018!

Author Heath Umbach

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