Can we design “social good” in financial services?

This is just one of the questions Brian Smith (my fellow graduate peer, now supervisor and friend) anticipates to answer in his SxSW Future15 presentation – No Smoking Jacket Required: Redesigning Investing.

“By borrowing ideas from innovation born out of hardship and using behavioral finance techniques and mobile technology, there is opportunity for designers to remove the financial, behavioral, and emotional barriers to investing.”

Brian is set to present his thesis work from The University of Kansas graduate program that covered this topic (the ground work for an incubated project I’m a part of).

Please register and vote for it.

And if you’re interested in the mobile app / design solution we’re working on, sign up (super early) over at for updates.

What do you do?

what do you do

I get this question all the time. I usually rotate through a variety of responses or share what I’m currently working on for a real-world example. I use to make beautiful images using photos, graphics and typography (or as my grandfather says, ‘graphics designs’). I still practice visual design from time to time. I’ve also been known to build World Wide Web sites.

The team I’m with today is working to show and communicate what we do. Not only for ourselves, but also to the world. And it’s kind of a tough task articulating what (as an experience design group) we do. And at the same what I (as an interaction design professional / consultant) do.

I read a couple things lately (Simon Rucker’s How good designers think, Nussbaum’s Beach Reading — Design and Innovation, Norman’s Filling Much Needed Holes), mashed some of their thoughts together with my own activities as of late. And came up with a set of qualities (5) and abilities (5) that I believe designers must possess to do what they do (of course, if you know me this is a given, I also critically analyzed what I must possess to do what I do).

1. Have child-like curiosity – enjoy observing the world around you
2. Be ‘T’ shaped – have broad experience, but deep knowledge/experience/passion/skill in something
3. Live in the future – think beyond the present conditions, technology or reality
4. Share knowledge – don’t hoard what you know, sharing encourages others to share too
5. Be good – have pure intentions in research, knowledge, and what you do

1. Research – understand the unmet needs and desires of people
2. Synthesis – articulate findings into a plan of action, strategy, or opportunity space for design
3. Rapid Prototype – make tangible things fast (by making something, even a crumby post-it note paper prototype, you open up a different part of your mind)
4. Evaluate – is this experience desirable (to the user), feasible (technology sake), and viable (for business sake)?
5. Validate – take prototypes or ideas back to those you’re serving – does it work for them?

You’re probably still asking, “wait, what do you do?“.

Truth is, the result of my (our) work really does vary. Design solutions may emerge as a new business process, service, user interface, mobile app, office layout, or job family. To simplify my contribution, I’d say, “I communicate experiences and possibility through prototypes and stories“. And overall I believe much of what I do everyday hinges on validation – does this experience help the people we intend to serve? And although validation may be more of a process than an ability, it takes a little different mindset to say, “I’m not making this for myself”.

Mobile Utility


Here’s another piece I recently wrote for The Brand Show, repurposed here because I’ve been so slow to update.

We see it every day:
Retail brands pushing promotions to shoppers through mobile devices in the name of ‘engagement’.

The retailer’s goal is to demonstrate the value of its brand through emotion and experience using mobile. The problem with this push approach is that it’s shortsighted and sometimes annoying to the shopper. In fact, people pay money to remove ads and opt out of messages (or ‘engagement’) just to get them off their device.

Why do people download apps?
Shoppers download and use mobile apps for utility – to help them find something cheaper, to help them find their car, to entertain their kids while waiting in line.

So there’s a disconnect between what retail brands want and what shoppers do (or desire). And there’s a need to help connect or engage shoppers, to meet them where they are. Retail brands need to see mobile more as a utility and less as a place to push a message.

Here are a couple examples of what true mobile utility might look like:

Movie theaters spend thousands to produce spots prompting you to turn off your phone in their theaters. A mobile utility could easily turn off your ringer at theater locations using location services. And maybe, just maybe, the theater rewards you for installing its app. Here’s a free bag of popcorn.

iPhone and Android developers observed people using their mobile device as a flashlight. So they built apps that use the camera flash or screen as a light source. What a simple, purposeful innovation. Now, what if the flashlight app was branded? Or maybe even the LED flash itself? It would raise awareness of the brand, keep it top of mind and build loyalty. How many impressions is that? How valuable is that? Maglite, are you listening?

For the CFO this may begin to sound like a money pit of development (or acquisition) costs and promotional costs. The point is to look past the immediate balance sheet and numbers. To look at ways that don’t just appease the shopper, but ways that boost loyalty and value.

Mobile utility can easily become the best approach to win the hearts and minds of your shoppers. Engage with them on their terms. Why do it? Because happy shoppers are worth more.

Social Commerce (on The Brand Show)


I’m a guest blogger on The Brand Show this week – The Brand Show is a weekly podcast (and blog) produced by Two West (The company I work for). The post is titled, “Why Social Commerce makes dollars and sense.” The premise of the article is to help businesses and brands understand how social features can provide immediate measurable value. Below is a copy.

Why Social Commerce makes dollars and sense.

A friend walks up and asks, “Are those new shoes?” “Where did you get those, how much were they?” Casual conversations regarding retail purchases happen all the time, between friends at the local coffee shop or with a stranger on the street. Yet, with sites like TOMS Shoes or Nike ID people can share their shoe purchase with the entire world, instantly. But how do you translate social interactions into sales?

The answer is social commerce. Social commerce is the term used to describe collective sharing and buying of products and services. It’s an approach that allows companies to more effectively measure social media’s ROI – which, up until now, was a major roadblock for implementing a social media strategy. Not anymore.

A great example of using social commerce and instantly reaping the benefits (monetarily and promotionally) was the recent nationwide Gap deal on Groupon. Gap sold 441,000 deals with their nationwide Groupon, bringing in $11 million in revenue. The offer brought subsequent in-store visits and millions of mentions and impressions.

Groupon is a social commerce service that continues to provide a source of conversation AND conversion for businesses. Did you catch that? Conversation and conversion. Both are equally important, yet those hesitant to implement a social media strategy often focus too much on conversion. The benefits from social commerce strategy are two-fold. The idea is paying off, and the proof is in the repeat business – 97 percent of featured businesses on Groupon want to be featured on the site again.

Many brands understand that social promotion of their product is worth a lot – and in some cases worth everything – specifically when we look at Pay with a Tweet. Pay with a Tweet allows you to virtually purchase an item by talking about it (online of course). The approach reverses the ideal of sharing your purchase after the fact.

Uniqulo (an e-commerce site in the UK) recently featured 10 products on their site that were progressively discounted as more people talked about them. They assigned a certain limit to the discounts, but understood that the social capital of sharing was worth the cut in immediate revenue.

What do these examples and the overall concept of social commerce demonstrate?

  • It’s evidence that social features influence sales.
  • It’s proof that results of a social commerce strategy are measurable and the benefits can be directly translated into ROI.

How can you use social commerce to your advantage?

  • Assign a value you’re willing to spend to market your product or service.
  • Plan either a promotion strategy or a discount strategy.
  • Utilize a service or build incentives into your commerce offering that provide valuable value or savings.

Social is currency.

New agency models, co-creation and collaboration


There’s a shake-up in the ad agency world. Several prominent articles have shared that creative leaders (specifically at an executive level) are leaving large shops. These individuals are not only looking for greater opportunity, but freedom from economic pressures and traditional agency business models.

And ironically, many of these individuals are starting the very agency-concepts responsible for pressurizing their creative leadership roles. So, is this a case of, ‘If you can’t beat’em join’em’, inspired innovation or forced innovation?

I’m going to take a positive angle and say it’s an evolution of the tools and creative solving process. A shift where virtual collaboration is becoming easier. And a realization that co-creation with multidisciplinary teams shapes a better solution.

co: is a flexible network of partners. They assemble multidisciplinary teams to execute projects with only the necessary parts for that project.

“WE DEVELOP business strategy, brand story, product innovation and new ventures, using a new model: flexible collaboration with a network of expert partners.”

Victors & Spoils is a creative (ad) agency based on crowdsourcing. V&S recently claimed 1,800 strong in their (virtual) creative department:

“Victors & Spoils is revolutionizing the ad game by leveraging crowdsourcing to deliver innovative creative for less dough and less time.”

A few challenges and opportunities with these example models.
1) These ‘agencies’ were founded by big names from large agency networks. These entrepreneurs have existing client relationships, solid resumes and powerful reputations. Could a ‘no-name’ creative solver come-up in this kind of virtual environment? Could ‘just about anyone’ develop a virtual agency model?
2) Many of these ‘employee’ ties are virtual, How do these collaborative platforms develop and foster a loyalty to ‘the employer’?
3) Companies are tired of ‘over paying’ for creative services. Creative solvers are tired of being ‘under valued’ (there are always two stories). A virtual team has nearly zero overhead costs. A hand picked per-project-team would significantly increase utilization. Will these operational efficiencies drive down cost? Will expert multidisciplinary teams generate a better solutions? The combination looks like a win-win for the buyer, but will certainly add financial and performance pressures to the agency market.
4) There’s kind of a 3rd wheel in co-creation. And that’s the people the solutions are being designed for, or the clients who commission the work. Is there an opportunity to open up the model to them, is that the next evolution? Sites like openIdeo are gathering insights and research – could an agency model use this kind of collaborative innovation?

The saying for several years has been ‘we live in interesting times’ – a cliche saying that won’t go away for some time. Especially as we continue to come to grasps with (a) the economic pressures businesses are facing (b) the social innovations and marketing accountability the web has created and (c) the simple fact that buyers are demanding higher quality (and results) for less money.

Overall, the agency world is being forced to re-invent itself to remain relevant to the market they serve. And the harsh reality is that those who don’t change under these circumstances could easily be left out of work.

The 2 Ways I Use Twitter


I’ve never officially shared a Tweet. And my resistance to participate maybe just stubbornness at this point. I see value in joining in, although I don’t feel I time to dedicate to it (just look at the lack of updates on this blog). Additionally, I don’t believe there’s room to share a complete thought. (Feel free to share how I’m mistaken in the comments)

Even though I don’t officially ‘tweet’, I use Twitter in 2 ways.
1) Twitter as a point of ‘Content Curation’
Credit this term to Rohit Bhargava :

A Content Curator is someone who continually finds, groups, organizes and shares the best and most relevant content on a specific issue online.

So, instead of trying to follow a complete stream of updates, articles, links and photos in real-time. I visit a hand full of go-to curators twitter feeds – A group of individuals that I scan 3-4 times a month (probably something easily done via lists in twitter?). I believe this approach takes much less time AND I seem to find greater value (quicker) than if I followed a large group of people day-by-day, hour-by-hour.

2) Twitter as real-time feedback of a live event (or topic)
A World Cup match, a NCAA final, or a Presidential speech are perfect opportunities to look at a Twitter search feed for realtime feedback. Most, if not all, updates are posted before the participant has really had adequate time to process a complete thought. This realtime-stream-of-consciousness is probably a more accurate view of how people really feel. I look at these gut feelings and reactions help see different points of view and shape an informed opinion.

How do you use Twitter? Do you think I’m missing out on greater value? Am I being selfish by just stopping by and listening in?

When advertising hurts a good burger


Kansas City locals know that Blanc serves up a good burger – possibly one of the best in the nation. That being said, this is not a commentary on their product or service. In fact, I hope to write in defense of that product despite the message soon-to-be advertised on the food network.

Blanc has a great reputation as people share positive stories and experiences word-of-mouth. And so there isn’t much need to broadcast traditional advertising. In fact, below are two TV spots that I believe are actually hurting their reputation more than building it.

spot 1 – soccer game

Blanc Burgers and Bottles

spot 2 – picnic

Blanc Burgers and Bottles 2

The shots are beautiful, well done, and communicate the Blanc experience as an emotional family event after a game and as a romantic picnic. But, those of who’ve eaten at Blanc surely know this isn’t true to the experience. Right?

I’ve eaten Blanc with friends and its good. With family and its good. The inside-out burger can be a little messy. The menu maybe a little pricey (in exchange for quality ingredients). The interior is clean, simple and modern with a bottle-filled bar. And ultimately, the Blanc message is simple: Go to Blanc to enjoy one of the best burgers around. Made with local ingredients.

The attempt to show the experience as a romantic picnic or a way to pick up a ‘convenient’ meal after the game (in the car) is false. The reality is that glass bottles, a fairly greasy burger, and fries aren’t fast food for kids in the car. And a romantic picnic in the park with truffle fries exchanged lovingly with a greasy kiss isn’t accurate either!

Overall, there’s a really interesting balancing act of product and marketing. Some products need advertising to boost their value. While other products actually market themselves. In this case, the brand should be the burger and the experience – marketing should have sat this one out.

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