#44 Competitive analysis – how to approach it effectively

An illustration with a person examining the result of competitive analysis on a board

Competitive analysis — I am not talking about competitive market analysis such as market share, revenue, value proposition and number of customers, which are typically done by PM, a product manager. I am talking about a competitive analysis of a user experience of competitor products as a UX designer.

If you do it with the right approach, you can learn a lot of things, which will greatly benefit your UX work.

In this article, I would like to share one of effective approaches to conduct a competitive analysis in a UX project.

1. See a big picture first

An illustration of a person seeing a forest, a big picture first.
The key is to see a big picture first, rather than getting caught up in details.

Many people might be tempted to jump right in to a competitor’s product, and start analyzing every single element of its interface right away.

But this is not a good idea, as it makes you get caught up on all the interface details without understanding a bigger picture.

The purpose of competitive analysis, or competitive benchmark is to learn from other products so that you can create something better.

The key is to see a big picture first, rather than getting caught up in details.

2. See things in context

A conceptual diagram showing a user, a product and its context as components that make up a user experience.
A user experience consists of a product, a user, and a context.

A user experience happens when there are:

  • Product
  • User
  • Context

This means that it’s important to always see things in context, put yourself in user’s shoes, and focus on a user experience from a user’s point of viewNOT from a UX expert’s point of view from a distance.

Because we as UX designers are UX experts, we tend to take experts’ point of views almost instantly by default without realizing it unless we pay a close attention not to do so.

3. Define a focus area, then experience products as a user

It’s usually better to define a focus area that I want to compare across competitors, depending on the focus and scope of a project.

If I don’t have any particular focus area, it’s generally best to look into a primary task a product offers, what the product is meant to do.

For example, if I am trying to create a user experience for a new travel booking service, I would want to do a competitive analysis on competitors’ travel booking sites.

When I think about travel booking sites, the primary goal for users are to book flight+hotel+car in the best deal possible.

Logically, I would try all the competitor sites such as Expedia, Hotwire, Kayak and so on to actually do a booking as a user, and document every step of my experience by taking screenshots, notes, and screen recordings.

A conceptual diagram of capturing every single step when experiencing a competitor product as a user.
Capture every single step of your experience as a user.

I may want to do this in both PC web and mobile (iOS, Android).

4. Create a customer journey map

Above #3 will result in creating a customer journey map of the primary task flow of all the competitors.

A conceptual diagram showing that documenting every step will result in creating customer journey maps of the competitors.
Customer journey maps are created as a result.

At this point, I typically would have accumulated ton of findings and insights, such as strengths, weaknesses, uniquenesses of each competitor, documented along the way.

5. Expand to surrounding areas if needed

Going through primary tasks across multiple competitors will open up surrounding and relevant new questions.

A conceptual diagram showing that going through a primary task will open up questions in surrounding areas.
Questions will come up in surrounding areas.

For example, I might want to find out how a user discovers these travel booking services in the first place, whether via Facebook ads, Google ads, direct email marketing, or simply search in Google.

  • How do competitors appear in a search result?
  • How do competitors do their SEO — search engine optimization?
  • How do competitors do follow-ups once a booking is completed?
  • What are the confirmation emails that they send out?

Among these, I can decide on which area to further conduct competitive analysis depending on my project goals and my resource constrains (man power, timeline/etc).

Competitive analysis could be a powerful tool

Competitive analysis, or competitive benchmark might sound tedious or overwhelming, but it’s not.

As long as you understand the core principles and set a clear focus and goals, it becomes a powerful and valuable tool to strengthen your design output.

Competitive analysis is also not something rigid that you have to follow one particular way. You should feel free to adapt to your own needs.

For example, if you are working on an additional specific feature for a particular product, you can just look into that specific feature.

Look beyond direct competitors

You don’t necessarily need to limit yourself to only looking into direct competitors of your product either.

Look beyond direct competitors.

This is not a competitive market analysis, the focus is user experience.

For example, if I am working on a travel booking product and looking for some reference and inspirations for a wizard, I can look into healthcare products or financial products too. Or if I’m looking for an efficient way to apply an advanced filter, I may look into online retail stores.

Often times, I find better examples of what I am looking for from totally different, unexpected industry or field.

Every single product is different. When you look into a reference from a different field or even from the same industry, you need to understand the specific context that each product has, because those might be quite different from your product.

The reason for doing competitive analysis is not to copy competitors blindly, but to gain insights through learning from others, to shed light to your project from a different perspective, then to help improve your design.

As long as you do it with this in mind, your competitive analysis will be beneficial to your project.

In this world, so many people have tried so many things already. It’s literary impossible to learn every single relevant thing that was ever created by everyone. And it is possible that this cool new interaction design concept that I just came up with might be something that a dozen other people have already tried a few years ago.

However, just spending some time on researching competitor products or relevant features and interactions of other products will give you a lot of learning opportunities and insights that you may not have thought of.

I always get a huge benefit from doing a competitive analysis whenever I work on a UX project.

You’ll be surprised how much you can learn from competitive analysis, how much it inspires you.

Check out YouTube version.

This article was also published on Medium in UX Collective.

To learn more details about competitive analysis, check out my video course!

Competitive analysis (or competitive benchmark) is part of a 5 step UX process. TO learn more about how to work on your own UX project, check this article.

#37 UX/PM/engineer collaboration — a critical factor for a product’s success

A conceptual diagram showing UX/PM/engineering collaboration

Many UX educations tend to put UX in isolation, and disregard the importance of UX/PM/engineer collaboration. But in reality, a success of a project/product from a UX perspective is more affected by how well a collaboration among these three disciplines is executed, rather than what a UX team or a UX designer alone can do.

When I was younger, I used to think that a UX designer has a tremendous power and influence on a user experience of a product, and thus it’s the quality of UX designer’s design output that ultimately impacts the quality of the final product’s user experience the most.

This still holds true, but only if other critical condition is met successfully.

And that critical condition is, UX/PM/engineer collaboration.

I learned this the hard way through various failures, which I would like to share with you.

Collaboration with PM (product manager)

UX is not the only product value

A product value consists of outcome and experience. Outcome is a functional aspect of a product or a service, what it does. Experience is more about emotional quality, how you feel when using/experiencing a product or a service. UX obviously covers the experience part in full, but it also covers decent part of outcome, the functional aspect of a product. Altogether, UX covers a significant part of a product value.

PM owns a product

While UX plays a very important role in a product team, a UX designer never owns a product. PM owns a product definition, requirements and a roadmap. Naturally, MVP (Minimum Viable Product) — is typically defined by PM. MVP is a set of product requirements that are minimum in order to launch as a product and still provides value to a customer. It’s a bare minimum.

A conceptual diagram of MVP-Minimum Viable Product, showing that it only includes critical features.
MVP-Minimum Viable Product

Because it’s minimum, it typically does not take the experience part of a product much into consideration, and primarily focuses on achieving functional outcome of a product value as shown above.

There’s a similar concept called MLP (Minimum Lovable Product). MLP is a set of product requirements that are minimum to make the product not only functional but also something that a customer would love.

This “love” certainly addresses experience — the emotional aspect of a product to go beyond just the function.

A conceptual diagram showing MLP — Minimum Lovable Product, which covers critical features and some UX features.
MLP — Minimum Lovable Product

From a pure UX perspective, you want to make the product value, both outcome and experience as good as possible.

Unfortunately in many cases, the experience part is considered outside of MVP by PM, as shown below.

A conceptual diagram showing that UX features are typically outside of MVP.
UX is typically outside of MVP

Outcome is always part of MVP, especially for critical features. Without a function, a product is useless. But many of user experience enhancements tend to be labeled as lower priority by PM.

In most cases, available resources are limited, especially engineering resources to build a product. When PM is confronted with a hardship where he needs all the remaining resources to complete critical features so that the MVP can ship on time, UX enhancement features are typically among the ones to be cut. Or an overall user experience of a product gets watered down to the most stripped-off version.

A conceptual diagram showing that limited engineering resources can only cover critical features to build.
Engineering resources are always limited

PM owns feature prioritization

Feature prioritization is one of PM’s most important tasks. As a result, what typically happens is the first version of a product launches with MVP, then the next version or the next next version start looking into MLP and beyond.

A conceptual diagram showing Version 1 of a product ships with MVP, followed by version 2, 3 which could cover MLP.
Version 1 of a product typically ships with MVP, followed by version 2, 3 which could cover MLP

There’s a well-known theory called Kano Model for product development and customer satisfaction. It was developed in 1980s by a Japanese professor Noriaki Kano, which classifies customer preferences into 5 categories:

  1. Must-be quality
  2. One-dimensional quality
  3. Attractive quality
  4. Indifferent quality
  5. Reverse quality
A diagram showing Kano Model’s customer preferences classified into 5 categories.
Kano Model (Source: wikipedia)

As in Kano Model, it’s important to understand how each feature is positioned from customer’s perspective, when prioritizing features for a product.

A UX designer should work together with PM and help them prioritize features so that the experience part is not ignored. This is something that may not be typically considered as a UX designer’s job, but it’s important as the feature prioritization hugely impacts the user experience of a product, and PM may not realize all the UX impacts when prioritizing features.

Understanding a larger business context

A UX designer needs to understand a larger business context in order to function effectively as part of a product team.

I experienced many times where a disconnection between a UX team and a PM resulted in the UX team working hard on features and UX enhancements that never implemented in a real product.

Even if a UX designer collaborates closely with PM, this will probably still happen to certain extent. Over the course of time, priorities might change due to various reasons such as competitive landscape changes and resource fluctuation. Whenever that happens, PM needs to adjust the plan, which may result in pushing some features out of scope.

While it’s easy to blame PM, typically there’s always reasons at a higher level. Understanding those reasons behind business decisions helps UX designers do their work better. As a result, UX designers can make a better contribution to the product by focusing on areas that have higher impacts.

A UX designer should always be in the loop of these constant changes around product development such as priority shifting, so that you are always aware of those changes, and ready to respond accordingly if needed.

Instead of waiting for PM to inform you, a UX designer should proactively engage with PM on a regular basis. PM is always busy with so many things to worry about. Updating a UX designer with changes could easily get lost in their never-ending to-do list.

This is why a collaboration with PM becomes critical for a UX designer. Actually, not only a collaboration but a strong partnership with PM becomes so important in order to stay in the loop of a larger product context and development status.

A conceptual diagram showing the criticality of UX + PM partnership.
UX + PM partnership is critical

Collaboration with engineers

A product needs to be built by engineers in order to launch to the world. An ideal UX that cannot be built is meaningless. An ideal UX that costs too much to build is impractical and worthless.

Even if your design provides a better UX than the current version of a product, it does not make sense for engineers to move forward with it if it’s too expensive to build, or if an assigned engineering team does not have a skillset to implement it correctly.

At the end of the day, bunch of wireframes or design prototypes cannot launch a product. It needs to be built by engineers, period.

This is why a collaboration with engineers becomes critical.

A conceptual diagram showing a criticality of UX / engineer collaboration.
UX / engineer collaboration is critical

Design handoff is not the end

What a UX designer does is basically creating a detailed specification on how a product experience should be. This specification is typically created in form of prototypes, design specifications, wireframes, design guidelines/etc., and then delivered to engineers, which is often referred to as a handoff.

A diagram showing examples of typical UX design deliverables.
Design deliverables

Many people think that once these deliverables are completed and shared with engineers (handoff), this is the end of the UX process, and a UX designer’s job is done.

But in reality, that is not true at all. In fact, another phase starts from here. This is where a collaboration with engineers becomes a central part of a UX designer’s work.

A diagram showing that implementation phase starts after a design handoff.
Implementation phase after a handoff

Even though you have included engineers during your UX process, through requirement gathering, journey mapping, concept development, user research, design iteration and so on, engineers will not be able to point out all the problems and challenges in advance.

Because when the UX process is taking place, it’s most likely that engineers are busy with other things.

Engineers are always very busy, and under a constant pressure of tight deadlines. The top priority for them is to work on functional parts of a product, to make things function stably. Engineers also need to fix all the critical bugs. Naturally, the user experience part falls low on their priority, and taken care of in the last minute.

Engineers will only start taking a closer look at the delivered UX design and specifications once they start implementing those in code. I experienced this so many times with disappointments to find out that what I delivered on time was never reviewed by engineers for a month. But this is reality that you don’t have a control over as a UX designer.

And that’s when engineers find out bunch of problems, and come back to a UX designer saying “you cannot do this, because the platform does not support this” or “this data is not available because we don’t have an API for that”. Or a problem might simply be the result of a priority change that pushed back the development of the needed API out of scope.

If a UX designer does not do a follow-through work with engineers after sending deliverables, there’s a possibility that the final product may look like a total crap, completely different from the design delivered by a UX designer in the first place.

And if that’s the case, all of a UX designer’s hard work is wasted.

Good, experienced UX designers know this, so they work hard and spend good amount of time working with engineers to make sure that they implement the design correctly, and make adjustments if needed.

What matters at the end is how the actual final product user experience is going to be, ideally as close as possible to your original design that you worked so hard on and tested with users.

A beautiful prototype created by a UX designer does not provide any value to customers if it’s not implemented at all as a real product.

Therefore, design handoff is not the end, it’s the beginning of the implementation phase, which directly impacts the quality of the final product more than the design phase does.

UX/PM/engineer collaboration

When engineers find out issues implementing the design, or PM needs to shuffle feature priority that affects UX works, a UX designer needs to have a deeper discussion with PM and engineers to sort out what can be achieved under given timeline and resources. Based on that, the design or the schedule and the focus of UX works may need to be revised.

This is where things need to be balanced from a holistic view in order to make a successful launch of a product under those changes.

A diagram conceptually showing a criticality of UX/PM/engineer collaboration.
UX/PM/engineer collaboration is critical for success

At the end of the day, PM is the one who can make a call, as PM owns a product roadmap.

  • If you don’t change the design, how much more resources are needed to launch the product on time?
  • If you cannot add more resources, how much delay do you get to launch the product?
  • If you delay the launch, what is the business impact?
  • Is the delay worth?
  • Is keeping the original design critical part of product’s value proposition?
  • If you change the design to accommodate engineering request, can you still launch the product on time? Or how much delay?
  • If you change the design, how much impact would that make to the user experience?
  • Is that a show-stopper, or acceptable?
  • Is it possible to have a 2-step approach, to launch with the modified design, and improve on it later?

All of these need to be accessed by PM based on inputs from a UX designer and engineers.

A conceptual diagram showing various factors assessed by PM as a change happens in product development.
Various factors assessed by PM

In product development, changes happen all the time.

A UX designer should advocate users as much as possible, but in order to do so, a product needs to exist and launch in the first place. A UX designer is responsible for supporting PM and engineers to make that happen. UX is part of business after all.

A final product will be built by engineers based on PM’s decision on which features to build by when.

As a UX designer, I learned that you need to be nimble and flexible to be able to quickly make adjustments to your design when needed. To do so effectively and efficiently, you also need to know higher-level changes early so that you can adjust your plan and take action without wasting time.

Therefore, it is critical for a UX designer to have a strong partnership with PM throughout the product development process, and work very closely with engineers before and after the design handoff, in order to actually realize the design in the final product implementation.

Now that I look back, there are many products/projects that I wish I could have done better by understanding all these earlier.

Still, it was an invaluable lesson for me to realize as a UX designer that UX cannot exist on its own. UX is part of a larger product team, part of business.

UX designers rely on PM and engineers to realize their design in a product.

UX needs PM and engineers to make that happen.

This article was published on Medium in UX Collective.

Check out related article and a video:

Collaboration with PM and engineer is critical for a UX designer

YouTube video

#36 The importance of process documentation of a UX project

A conceptual diagram showing that a process documentation is in progress as the author work on a UX project.

When I am working on a UX project, things can easily get messy with bunch of sketches, flows, wireframes, user research data, notes, prototypes and so on. While I feel a strong temptation to just focus on the current UX work, I learned overtime that it’s actually really important that I always keep up with my UX process documentation as I go. I’d like to share my learning with you.

Why document your process?

Here are the reasons why I think it’s important to keep up with process documentation based on my experience:

1. It helped me see a bigger picture of a project.

While I am deep in a UX process, I focus on my current task in front of me, and I tend to lose sight of where I am from a larger context. Documenting my process allowed me not to lose a high-level perspective of a project because glancing at the documented version of my work always gave me a slightly more objective view of my project.

2. It helped me keep track of what changes I made based on what reason.

When I made design changes, I experienced many times that I couldn’t remember exactly how that happened. Things got lost in transition, and it was always hard to pinpoint later whether a change was made based on a user research feedback, or a comment from a stakeholder meeting/etc. Keeping up with a process documentation really helped me stay organized, so that I didn’t lose sight of all these cause and effect relationships that occurred over the course of the design process.

3. It made a project almost portfolio-ready.

A process documentation to me is a critical artifact and a record of a project. This was extremely useful when I wanted to put together an in-depth case study of my project for an in-person job interview type of occasions. Of course I had to create a more simplified version to be used effectively for any particular interviews that I had, but the foundational information was already there in my process documentation, which made it super easy to do so. No need for further digging or trying to remember what happened when I was actually working on that specific project a few years ago.

Which format?

From my experience, it worked better to put together a process documentation in a presentation format such as Microsoft Powerpoint or Apple Keynote, rather than a document format such as Microsoft Word, or a web-based platform such as Confluence.

Microsoft Word does not work well for an on-screen presentation as presentation screens are typically landscape, and it works better when each slide does not require scrolling.

Some companies use Confluence for project communication and documentation purposes, but the problem with Confluence is that :

  • Things can easily get out of control
  • It makes it harder to archive when you leave a company

A presentation format also helped me organize and summarize key points so that it all fits in one screen.

How to organize

When I work on a UX project, I typically follow a UX process.

Naturally, a process documentation that I create roughly follow this process in a chronological order, so that I can easily follow the progression of a project.

Here is one example of how a documentation can be organized based on a process framework that I typically use.

An example of a process documentation organized based on a UX process.
An example of how a process documentation can be organized

1. Problem statement

  • I define what problem I tackled clearly at the beginning.
  • Additionally, I often create different slides for things such as: project background, goal, a team structure including my role and responsibility, timeline, project type (launched product, future concept proposal/etc).

2. Competitive analysis

  • I typically find it very useful and informative to do a competitive analysis of some sort for any project.
  • When I do, the learnings could impact my design decision and output. Thus it’s good to document how I researched the competition, or how I learned certain things and took queues from other products relevant to my project.

3. Concept development

  • This is where IA diagrams, task flows, wireframes and prototypes go in.
  • If I did brainstorming or workshop type of activities to come up with and expand ideas and concepts, I document those too with images and output summary.

4. User test / user research

  • Summary of findings is typically the most important outcome of use research.
  • Each findings should have concrete actions to take.
  • Other things to include are: user research framework (what and how I or my team tested), research overview (when, how many participants, how long, research format), brief summary of each participant’s profile.
  • It’s always good to include photos of user research sessions to give the audience some visual cue to help their understanding on how research sessions were held.
  • Insightful user quotes are always great to include and highlight, which could be put as part of summary of findings.
  • No need to put every single details, but including all above usually gives a very clear overview of the learnings from the user research and how actions were defined based on those.

5. Design iteration

  • This is where I show how I iterated the design by incorporating learnings from the user research.
  • It’s important to highlight which part of the design is modified/improved based on which user feedback from which user research round if there are a few rounds.

Depending on a project, I may have a few rounds of user research and design iteration.

6. Next steps

  • Depending on a project, I may also add “Next steps” to describe what should be done after the step 5.

7. What worked, what did not work

  • It’s also helpful to spend some time and write down what worked and what didn’t work throughout a project.
  • Sometimes a project team does postmortem sessions. I’ve experienced several of those, and it was always very helpful. If that’s the case, discussion points from those sessions should be included here.
  • Acknowledging what did not work is an important part of being a UX designer. In reality, every project has things that did not work well. Understanding this is a great learning opportunity to do something better in the future.
  • In order to clarify and highlight a success (or a failure) of a project, it’s also effective to include user test participant’s and stakeholder’s quotes.

I also find it important to include key design decisions made throughout the process, so that it becomes clear how I or a team made certain decisions based on what kind of reasonings along the way.

A diagram showing an example of various key design decisions highlighted in the process.
It’s important to include key design decisions made in the process

The key is not to include every single detail, but include enough details to be able to track key learnings, insights, changes that impacted the overall design.

From a practical point of view, it’s also helpful to insert various links from the documentation back to more detailed assets such as prototypes or user research raw data, so that I can easily bring those up when needed.

You might feel that all these are too much extra work on top of what you already have on your to-do list.

But over time, you will feel grateful that you did. At least I did.

Because, I can easily forget many of the details and nuance of a project once it’s completed, and if I leave it for a while, a few months, a few years, then I won’t be able to accurately recollect and capture those details in my documentation. As long as I do this while I’m still working on a project and my full attention is on it, I can document it in the most accurate way possible with enough important details to help telling my story later on.

Process documentation became an invaluable asset and record of my work. That’s what I went through and found out.

This article was published on Medium in UX Collective.

Check out YouTube version too!

As for UX process and how to start your own UX project, check out this article.

#35 How do you know if UX is the right fit for you?

Is UX the right fit for me?

The field of UX is getting popular than ever.

Many people are not sure if UX is the right fit for them, especially when they want to switch their career path or a field of study.

Because the field of UX is broad and constantly evolving, everyone sees UX differently.

The only way for you to find out if it’s the right fit for you is to actually experience what its like to be a user experience designer.

So what does that mean?

This means, you have to try working on your own UX project.

Some of you might wonder, 

“What? How can I work on a UX project if I haven’t learned anything yet?”

That’s very true to be fair.

But at the same time though, the best way to learn is to actually try it by yourself.

If you are already interested in UX at this point, something in UX must have attracted you in the first place, right?

That means you know something about UX.

You might have already done quite a bit of research, reading books and articles, watching videos and so on.

If that’s the case, it’s all good.

You can start your own UX project.

To do so, you need to go through the followings:

  1. Define a problem
  2. Research similar products that solve similar problem you are trying to solve.
  3. Develop a concept to solve the problem
  4. Test with users
  5. Iterate your design based on what you learned from users

It’s OK that you don’t know.

The important thing is that you look for a UX problem that you came across in a product or a service that you use on a regular basis, and start defining that problem clearly.

Once the problem is clearly defined, go through the 5 step UX process that I described.

For more details on how to work on your own UX project, check out my other article.

There’s another thing that you should look into.

This is more about your mindset and traits, whether it fits for a UX designer or not.

I put together 12 traits that are required for a UX designer as follows:

  1. Continuous learner
  2. Humble
  3. Great at collaboration
  4. Problem solver
  5. Less ego
  6. Do-er mentality
  7. Eager to experiment
  8. Curious observer
  9. Empathetic
  10. Good listener
  11. Understand how UX impacts business
  12. Good story teller
A diagram of 12 traits required for a UX designer, with links to show its inter-connectedness.
12 traits required for a UX designer

A UX designer solves a user’s problem. You need to be a problem solver, as well as a problem spotter, and a problem definer.

To do so, you need to talk to various people including users and stakeholders. You need to be a good listener when listening to PM and engineers to understand product requirements. Same thing when you listen to what users have to say during user research. Especially when you listen to users describing their pain points when using a product or a service, you need to be empathetic so that you can put user’s shoes to really understand their frustrations.

During usability test, you need to shut your mouth, and be a curious observer trying to carefully observe how users interact with your prototype.

UX designers often function as a facilitator of various different teams. When working as part of larger team, you need to be great at collaboration, with less ego with a humble mind to be open for other people’s comments and critiques.

And when you take all the stakeholders’ feedback and user research insights, UX designers should have do-er mentality and be eager to experiment with various ideas and concepts hands-on to explore and achieve the best solution for a given problem.

At the same time, UX designers should have a good understanding of how UX impacts the business, so that they don’t propose unrealistic concepts.

When presenting UX concepts or user research findings to a larger product team, UX designers need to become a good story teller without getting egoistic. At the end of the day, UX designers create user experience for users, not for themselves.

As you can see, all these traits are deeply inter-connected with each other.

Many of these can be learned/acquired, especially #11, but some people have some of these more “naturally” than others.

To summarize, you should be able to discover many things around whether UX is the right fit for you by 

  1. Working on your own UX project.
  2. Going through 12 traits required for a UX designer to see how many fits you.

Check out YouTube version too.

#34 Not so fancy (but meaningful) enterprise UX work

AppAssist UI on iPhone 8.

Aspiring to-be-UX designers tend to focus their attention on fancy, shiny user interfaces of popular products and services from Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, or amazing futuristic cutting-edge technology opportunities such as A.I., virtual reality, and so on.

While many UX designers are involved in such high-profile products and services for sure, the reality is that far more UX designers deal with not-so-fancy (but meaningful) works. I wanted to talk about one of such products called AppAssist. Hopefully this gives a glimpse of how UX designers work in some of those non-fancy projects and what that means.

AppAssist was a mobile app that Veritas Technologies released in 2016. I had an opportunity to work on it as a lead UX designer of the team.

Veritas offers data backup and management solutions for enterprise customers, through a mix of hardwares, softwares and services. These hardwares are called data storage appliances, which are primarily used by customers to store their computer data in on-site or off-site data centers.

Because these appliances are bulky server computers with peta-bytes of storage capacity, it required specially-trained hardware service engineers to do installations and repairs. Veritas partners with a third-party company to handle appliance installations and repairs. To assist the third-party company’s hardware service engineers with the installation and repairs, Veritas created AppAssist.

Installing an appliance hardware at a data center was a pain-in-the-ass work

Appliance hardware installation typically happens in a harsh data center environment, where customers or third-party service engineers just want to know what they need right away to get their jobs done as quickly as possible. 

Data center
A data center ( American English), or data centre ( British English), is a building, dedicated space within a building…en.wikipedia.org

What do I mean by “harsh”? These data centers are filled with rows and rows of computer server racks, with each rack filled with numbers of server boxes. Because these are enterprise monster servers with hundreds of hardware disk drives for storage spaces, it gets very noisy with the sound of spinning disks and cooling fans. For this reason, a data center’s room air temperature is kept very low like a giant refrigerator. Altogether, it creates an environment where you don’t want to spend too much time in it.

Appliance journey map, highlighting Install section.
Appliance journey map

Appliance hardware installation was identified by the responsible UX team as one of the biggest challenges in the appliance journey map. It was a fairly complicated procedure that must be done correctly by service engineers at a harsh environment under a tight time constraint. If something was done incorrectly, that meant scheduling another service engineer visit to a data center, which was an additional cost. If a service engineer kept calling Veritas support phone line during the installation procedure, that was another additional cost. It all adds up. At the end of the day, it were the customers who suffered the most because all these delays forced them to delay their server deployments, which could be a huge impact for their businesses.

Enterprise world is slow to adapt technology trends

Before AppAssist was created in 2016, the company already had bunch of supporting documents to help service engineers install appliance hardwares. But these were traditional PDF documents meant for printouts, and videos produced for internal training sessions. Some service engineers went through these materials at their offices prior to arriving at a data center, or brought a PDF printouts with them. It was never fully optimized to fit the actual use cases with real contexts in mind. 

Photographs of Veritas Flip card.
Veritas Flip card

In 2015, the internal UX team initially created an interim solution, in the form of a set of flip cards. This was a neat idea, a lot more visual and portable compared to traditional PDF so that you could flip through to find what you needed visually. It also had a convenient keychain clip so that you could clip it to your cloth during the work for easier access. While this was quite an improvement compared to a PDF, it was not perfect.

Meantime, the whole world was moving ahead with everything becoming accessible via mobile phones. When everyone already had a mobile phone by default, not taking advantage of that seemed a missed opportunity.

This was where the internal UX team proactively took an initiative to bring in mobile as part of appliance hardware installation experience. This initial effort was lead by then-director, Jane Bungum working closely with Loren Horsager and Catherine Gillis from a SAAS startup company called Mobile Composer. After they successfully convinced Veritas top management, I joined the team.

How can a mobile app improve appliance hardware installation UX?

Just enough. Just-in-time. Hardware help in your pocket. 

This was AppAssist tagline. Let me deep-dive into what this means.

Many data centers have very strict security rules, and don’t allow internet connection to protect servers from potential computer virus attacks and data breaches. So service engineers were forced to figure things out either by reading through static print documents, or calling Veritas support phone line for a help. These data centers are called “dark sites”.

Having all the necessary information in form of video in a mobile app could potentially improve service engineers’ appliance hardware installation experiences. But because of no internet connection at a data center, video streaming was not an option. So AppAssist went with a download model. 

In today’s streaming-centric world, content download model sounds so outdated, but that was exactly needed to fulfill this specific user need in such a restricted environment. Welcome to the enterprise world.

Leveraging existing content through forming a multi-disciplinary team

The company already had several internal teams who were in charge of producing supportive contents including appliance hardware installation guides in form of PDF and videos.

Technically, no new content was created for AppAssist. Instead, AppAssist leveraged existing content already produced by internal teams, and focused on optimizing those content to fit best to this specific UX problem for specific users (customers and third-party service engineers) under a specific context (install appliance hardware at a data center). 

In order to make this work efficiently and effectively, a multi-disciplinary team was formed. 

AppAssist multi-disciplinary team diagram.
AppAssist multi-disciplinary team

It consisted of a UX director, a product owner , a visual designer, a UX researcher, a technical writer, engineers from Mobile Composer, and myself as a lead UX designer. 

Important thing to highlight here is that AppAssist team respected the existing functions that the company already had, and invited those people to join the team, instead of creating a new fancy position such as a “UX writer” and try to take things over.

For example, a technical writer who joined the team was the one who had always been in charge of producing technical guide documents. A videographer that I collaborated was the one who had always been in charge of producing instructional videos for educational purposes. The videographer was not exactly a member of the team, but I collaborated closely with him, and participated in his video shooting sessions so that the video was shot with mobile usage in mind. Kavita Bhalerao, a visual designer, even supported their video production by creating an animation that showed how to position server boxes into a data center rack.

What AppAssist team essentially did was simply utilized what already existed, and optimized those content into a mobile-friendly experience through content analysis, content reorganization, and user-centered design practice, through a tight collaboration among people from various different disciplines.

Mobile Composer’s content management system explained in a diagram.
Mobile Composer’s content management system

Because Loren Horsager from Mobile Composer was one of key members of this multi-disciplinary team, AppAssist was able to take full advantage of Mobile Composer’s SAAS platform, and plugged in all the content into its content management system (CMS), and utilized its analytics engine to learn usage patterns.

Mobile Composer’s analytics engine explained in a diagram.
Mobile Composer’s analytics engine

Mobile Composer’s CMS enabled content update on the app super-easy. This worked beautifully, so that Chad Busch, a technical writer was able to update pretty much any text within the app from a web-based CMS UI without having to publish a newer version of the app at app stores.

Mobile Composer’s platform was also capable of capturing detailed analytics data such as in-depth workflows of its users. 

One user’s 62 minute workflows on AppAssist, created by Jennifer Teves in form of a branching tree diagram.
One user’s 62 minute workflows on AppAssist, created by Jennifer Teves

Jennifer Teves, a UX researcher created an intriguing workflow map above, which was a visualization of a 62-minute-long journey of one of AppAssist users. Through these analytics, Jennifer was able to further study how users were interacting with the app during their hardware installation works at data centers.

Concept development: Static flip card to video-centric experience

Static, physical flip card to video-centric experience, showing images of Flip card and a hardware installation video running on a mobile phone.
Static, physical flip card to video-centric experience

The physical nature of the original flip card made it a nice-to-have goodies. But at the same time, it had quite a few problems, such as pages easily got torn off and dropped from the ring, it was hard to update, you couldn’t see things in action/motion. Also a physical format felt a bit outdated in today’s world where everyone had a smartphone.

Mobile app introduced motion (video, animation), dynamic interactivity, and hyperlinks. Step-by-step procedures captured in video greatly helped a user’s cognitive understanding of how each step actually worked. In order to maximize this advantage, I had to design a mobile app with “video-centric experience” in mind.

Images of traditional TV remote controller and a video progress bar on a mobile app.
Traditional remote controller and a video progress bar

Traditional video transport controls such as fast forward, rewind, previous and next originated from mechanical controls for physical tapes, which only allowed mechanically-even incremental jumps forward and backward. This didn’t provide any meaningful + intelligent control as it didn’t consider content breakpoints. Modern mobile video players introduced an interactive progress bar that you can scrub through along the timeline, but this didn’t necessarily work well to find an exact scene that you wanted to go to either.

A screenshot of Kahn Academy mobile app.
Kahn Academy mobile app UI

During the research phase, I came across Khan Academy mobile app, which had an interesting UI where it listed all the subtitles underneath the video like a playlist. A user could tap on any of those to actually jump to that point in the video. It allowed a user to scan through key moments within a video quickly, and jump right in to that scene. Everyone in the team really liked this content-oriented approach, and I took a cue from this reference.

Deep dive into content structure

In order to create the best experience for a user, it’s critical to have a deep understanding of the content itself. As part of that effort, I created a structure breakdown of 88 pages of existing flip card. Magenta-colored pages indicated that those had QR codes that linked to relevant videos. 

Content structure mapping of 88 pages of Flip cards.
Flip card content structure mapping

Breaking down videos into micro-scenes for better scan-ability and find-ability

Video is a powerful media. It can show things in action, things in motion. It works great for instructional purposes. One of problems with video as a media format is find-ability of a specific scene within a video. To solve this, the team came up with a concept of “micro-scene”, which was a smaller component breakdown of a video, taking a cue from Kahn Academy app.

Below shows how each video was broken down into micro-scenes so that each micro-scene was labeled exactly with what it was showing.

This was a lot of work, and required a thorough understanding of the content. Fortunately, I was able to get a help from an expert in the team. Chad Busch, a technical writer, took on this task and did a great job breaking down videos into micro-scenes, recorded all the time stamps, and added every micro-scene a unique, easy-to-understand name.

Example of how each video was broken down into micro-scenes.
Each video was broken down into micro-scenes
Information architecture diagram for AppAssist.
Information architecture, driven from the content structure

The overall information architecture of AppAssist was driven from a deep understanding of the content itself. Naturally, content was organized based on different appliance models, with each model having primary steps/categories such as storage, compute node, cabling, verifying, access, with each category broken down into a number of micro-scenes.

How to effectively navigate micro-scenes

Flat model explained.
a) flat model

Once the content analysis was completed which informed the overall information architecture, the next step was to define an interaction model. Since how to find a specific scene within a video quickly was the core focus, I came up with two interaction models: a) flat model and b) hierarchical model. 

Hierarchical model explained.
b) hierarchical model

The flat model basically stitched all the micro-scenes across all 5 categories into one long list. The hierarchical model added a category page to pick a category first before getting to a micro-scene list.

When Jennifer Teves, a UX researcher conducted user research sessions, most participants preferred the hierarchical model over flat model, because this model was simpler to understand, and made it clear to them which category they were currently looking at.

Screenshots and callouts explaining speed-scroll. Left: Portrait speed-scroll, Right: Landscape carousel view.
Left: Portrait speed-scroll, Right: Landscape carousel view

I also explored a few different ways to help navigate micro-scenes faster, including speed-scroll feature. The portrait speed scroll never implemented, but the horizontal carousel view was implemented. Because AppAssist adopted hierarchical model, the speed-scroll became less relevant as the micro-scene list ended up shorter.

A diagram explaining landscape normal scroll and speed scroll via progress bar.
Landscape normal scroll and speed scroll via progress bar

The version 1 launch

Screenshots of AppAssist UI: micro-scenes in portrait / landscape view.
AppAssist UI: micro-scenes in portrait / landscape view

AppAssist version 1 launched in 2016. Essentially, it was a super-optimized hardware installation video for hardware service engineers, so that they can immediately find specific scene by scrolling through micro-scenes, and playback that part right away. It may sound underwhelming on paper, but it served the purpose, and was received very well by service engineers. You can see the app in action below.

AppAssist in action (portrait)
AppAssist in action (landscape carousel view)

Compared to a PDF or a flip card, AppAssist added substantial key values to both its users and Veritas internal teams.

  1. AppAssist provided an always-current, accurate hardware information that was easy to scan through and find what you needed. 
  2. A web-based CMS made it super-easy for the internal team to update the content without having to publish a newer version of the app.
  3. AppAssist was able to track every interaction of its user to better understand both product needs and training, communication gaps.
  4. AppAssist reduced customer service calls by making information universally accessible. Support calls were expensive, so this was a big deal for the company.

The version 2 launch

AppAssist version 2 launched in 2017. The version 2 added support for parts replacement guides. Just like hardware installation videos in version 1, AppAssist version 2 optimized already existing PDF guides to fit better to a mobile viewing experience in form of an accordion-structured format. These documents also adopted the content download model for the same reason as videos in version 1. It was nothing more than that. But it served the purpose well, and received very well by its users again.

AppAssist version 2: parts replacement guide in an accordion format
AppAssist version 2: parts replacement guide in an accordion format

Since launched in 2016, AppAssist had helped hardware service engineers install Veritas appliances, and replace hardware parts by having hardware installation videos and parts replacement guides in the palm of their hands.

Unfortunately, AppAssist discontinued in 2019 due to financial reason.

A rewarding experience

Even though it may not necessarily look like a fancy project, it gave me a very rewarding experience. I truly enjoyed the entire journey of launching version 1 and 2 of AppAssist. I felt very lucky to have had a chance to work as a lead UX designer for the project with such a talented, highly-motivated group of people, including Jane Bungum (director), Siddharth Mankad (product owner), Jennifer Teves (UX researcher), Kavita Bhalerao (visual designer), Chad Busch (technical writer), Loren Horsager (CEO and founder, Mobile Composer), Catherine Gillis (CMO and founder, Mobile Composer), and in a later phase of the project, Raj Rath (UX researcher), Mark Harris (technical writer), and Stephanie Kuo (UX/visual designer). 

Everyone in the team contributed from different perspective and expertise, and formulated excitement and synergy throughout the project, which fueled fast-paced iterative design and development process.

In a nutshell, having an experience working for an enterprise product/project could give you a very rewarding experience, if you have a right expectation and a right mindset, and have an opportunity to work with highly motivated group of people.

It may look boring on the surface. But a true value lies beneath the surface. And that’s the beauty of being a UX designer, to be able to get down to reveal what’s behind the surface through deeper understanding of a user, content, a problem space, and an overall context. 

Enterprise companies are more likely to have better, intimate relationships with their customers because of the nature of their businesses, which actually could provide a great UX research opportunities. So if you never thought of working for enterprise companies/projects that you’ve never heard of, consider those, as it might potentially reward you more than what may seem fancier.

Mobile Composer is a software startup company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, specializing in mobile app development based on a SAAS platform. AppAssist was featured as one of their case studies on their website.

This article was also published on Medium in UX Collective.

As for content analysis, check out these articles too.

#33 Comparison of stylus on trackpad vs. pen on paper

The author holding a stylus and Sharpie pen with a digital illustration on a laptop screen.

So previously I wrote an article called “Can a 6 dollar stylus and a trackpad replace expensive stylus?”, and showed how you can actually use a cheap capacitive stylus on a laptop computer’s trackpad to draw.

Today, I wanted to give you a bit more in-depth workflow comparison between these two:

  1. Draw with a capacitive stylus on a trackpad
  2. Draw with a pen on paper then scan

OK, let’s start with a stylus on a trackpad. I draw these simple line art illustrations for my YouTube videos.

Let me show you how I do that.

Photoshop file open with 1920px by 1080px.

I open a Photoshop file with a dimension of 1920px by 1080px to fit a full HD video. I already have my Photoshop file set up with a blue background. In Photoshop, I choose a pencil, and set a size to be 12px.

Then I choose white color then start drawing with a stylus on a trackpad.

Drawing with stylus

As I mentioned in my previous article, one of slightly annoying things with a capacitive stylus on a trackpad is that you have to do the registration every time you start a new stroke.

Stylus needs to register its position on the screen.

This means that you have to move around the stylus to make sure where the cursor is before start drawing. Once you start drawing, it works fine as long as you draw a continuous line.

But once you finish a line, then you need to register the stylus position again.

Now this time, unlike the very first time, it’s easier because you just finished your first stroke, so the cursor still remains at where you left off for the most part, so that you can pick it up from there.

When you are drawing with a stylus on a trackpad, basically you have to maintain the clicked status of the trackpad.

You need to maintain a clicked status of a trackpad to continue drawing.

But sometimes, you accidentally exit from this clicked status.

When this happens, you have to apply pressure to get back to the clicked status so that you can draw again.

If you want to change the size of your pen, you just have to adjust the size in Photoshop or whichever software that you use.

Since my illustration style is kind of casual and loose, I worry less about precision. Having some looseness actually adds some nuance and taste to the illustration style, so it’s better not to be super precise.

Once I’m done with basic line drawings, I do the coloring. I use 2-3 colors for coloring. To fill a closed area, it’s a lot easier to use Photoshop’s magic wand tool to make selection. Once coloring is done, that completes the illustration.

My drawing example

Because I drew everything directly on computer with a capacitive stylus on a MacBook trackpad, this is it and I don’t need any back and forth process, which is the beauty of using stylus to draw directly on a computer.

Now, drawing with a capacitive stylus on a trackpad is definitely not as natural as a pen and a paper.

You lose some ability to have detailed, fine-tuned, precise controls.

And it’s a bit annoying that sometimes you accidentally exit from a clicked status of the trackpad.

Also, for the most part I keep my drawing hand off the trackpad while drawing, so that the side of my palm doesn’t get recognized by my trackpad, which sometimes happens.

Keep hand off of a trackpad while drawing.

Overall, you need to be more careful and paying attention continuously on how you hold your hand, how you maintain the clicked status by applying just the right pressure to the trackpad as you draw. 

But for the most part, it works fine for this type of rough illustrations.

Now, let me show you how I draw the same illustration using a traditional pen and paper.

Here I have a Sharpie, and I’m drawing on my sketchbook.

Drawing with a pen on a paper.

The feeling of drawing with Sharpie on a paper definitely feels much better.

You feel like you are actually drawing in a conventional sense.

The strokes are a bit more fluid, and I can draw a bit faster compared to stylus on a trackpad.

I can have a bit more subtle nuance to my illustration.

Once I’m done with my drawing, I scan it using a mobile app called Genius Scan.

Genius Scan logo and a screenshot.

It works pretty well.

Again because my illustration style is casual and rough, I don’t need any flatbed scanner for this.

Genius Scan has a few different filters.

For my purpose, I choose black and white so that I can capture my line drawing in a crisp black & white lines.

Once my drawing is captured in black and white using Genius Scan, I airdrop it from my phone to my MacBook.

I open the file in Photoshop, and do the followings:

  • increase the contrast 
  • Select black part, then select “similar” to select all the line drawing parts.
  • Fill the selection with white
  • Copy & paste selection into the Photoshop file that I already created in 1920px by 1080px with a blue background.
  • Scale the illustration down to appropriate size

Finally I have my pen-based line drawing sketch in white on top of a blue background in my Photoshop file.

Coloring part is pretty much the same as I showed you in stylus version.

Now which works better?

A stylus on a trackpad, or a pen on a paper?

The author holding a pen and a stylus.

It kind of depends on your goals and purposes.

In my case, either one works fine.

Personally speaking, I still prefer a pen on a paper to draw, because you get a better control in your subtle touch, and you feel better when holding and running a pen on a paper.

An image of a pen and a sketchbook with a line drawing.

But it’s also true that the process of getting my pen drawing into a Photoshop file is cumbersome, that I have to go through:

  • Scan
  • adjust a contrast
  • Select and color
  • Copy and paste

If I have to do this process over and over again, I get frustrated.

So finally, it depends on various factors:

  1. Illustration style that you want to achieve
  2. Number of illustrations that you need to draw
  3. Subtlety and nuance of your illustration touch
  4. Complexity of your illustration
  5. Your own preference
  6. A Goal and a purpose of making illustrations

Check out YouTube version too.

Also, check out my previous article on a capacitive stylus on a trackpad.

#32 How to create a low-fidelity prototype in Google Sheets

A conceptual diagram of Google Sheets prototype

Google Sheets is a spreadsheet, just like Microsoft Excel.

Most people associate it with calculating numbers. But Google Sheets is actually great for organizing your ideas, making lists, even creating a low-fidelity prototype.

When I come up with an idea for a product or a design concept, I want to capture that initial vision in my head by writing it down in text, or visualizing it in sketches.

Once my vision is written down as a statement, a sketch, or a description of some sort, I need to further break it down into a set of high-level features in order to turn that vision into an actionable product requirement or a design brief to formulate a project.

An image of Macbook showing Google Sheets open, with an overlaid formula “=SUM(A1:A10)”.
Google Sheets is primarily used for calculating numbers

I found that this whole initial process, from a vision to a high-level feature set, then to a low-fidelity prototype can be done fairly efficiently in Google Sheets.

In this article, I’d like to share this process in Google Sheets with you, taking a portfolio website as an example.

1. Vision and user story

  • First I write down my vision in Google Sheets document. Since I’m taking a portfolio website as an example, I start describing what kind of portfolio site that I want to create.
  • Because my portfolio website’s users are recruiters and hiring managers, it’s a good idea to put myself in their shoes, and write down a user story from their perspective.
A screenshot of Google Sheets with a vision and a user story typed in.
Vision and user story

2. Vision to feature set

  • As soon as I write down my vision and a user story from a user’s perspective, I start generating a feature set — all the things that I need to have in my portfolio website. A spreadsheet structure makes it super-easy to create and edit such a list.
  • Once I write down all the features/content that I can think of, I prioritize those in an order.
A screenshot of Google Sheets with a vision, a user story, and feature set typed in.
Feature set

3. Feature set to pages

  • As soon as I have a list of features and content, I start thinking how these should be distributed across multiple pages of my portfolio website.
  • I create a new column called Pages, and assign an appropriate page for each feature and content that I listed.
A screenshot of Google Sheets showing pages column is added which shows corresponding page for each feature set item.
Corresponding pages for each feature set

4. Pages to main menu

  • These pages become main menu items.
  • I create another column called Main menu, and put pages in an order that I want to have in the main menu of my site.
A screenshot of Google Sheets showing main menu column is added which shows main menu items.
Main menu

At this point I have an overall information architecture of my portfolio website, in forms of a main menu, and a list of features and content with assigned pages for each.

A screenshot of Google Sheets showing main menu and feature set for each page, color-coded.
Information architecture shown with color-coded main menu item and its corresponding feature and content

5. Creating each page

  • Now it’s time to create each page of my site using a tab feature. Tabs are perfect for creating separate pages of my prototype still within the same Google Sheets document.
  • I copy and paste corresponding elements for each page from feature/content list, which I already created and organized in the first tab of Google Sheets document. Below screenshots shows a sequence of creating new pages in new tabs.
A screenshot showing a home page being added as a new tab.
Create Home page in a new tab, then paste corresponding elements from feature/content list
A screenshot showing about me page being added as a new tab.
Create About me page in a new tab, then paste corresponding elements from feature/content list
A screenshot showing projects page being added as a new tab.
Create Projects page in a new tab, then paste corresponding elements from feature/content list
A screenshot showing a project detail page being added as a new tab.
Create Project detail page in a new tab, then paste corresponding elements from feature/content list

6. Linking pages

  • Once all the pages are created as separate tabs within the Google Sheets document, I copy and paste the main menu to the home page.
  • I insert a link to each main menu item by grabbing a URL of each page, which is a different tab in the same document.
  • I copy and paste the main menu with all the inserted links to other pages.
  • I add a highlight to a corresponding main menu item in each page to represent the selected status.
A screenshot showing a popup for “insert link” on one of main menu items.
Inserting links to each main menu item

Now I have a clickable low-fidelity prototype so that I can test and evaluate the overall structure of my portfolio website, before moving forward with creating a high-fidelity design or building the actual portfolio site on a website-building platform such as WordPress.

A diagram showing an overall structure of a portfolio site low-fidelity prototype with pages, main menu, and tabs.
Overall structure of a portfolio site low-fidelity prototype created in Google Sheets

The beauty of this prototype is that it’s fast, and I can stay razor-focused on my very vision without being distracted by all the visual treatments.

Before jumping into UX design/prototyping tools or a site-building platform to start building a website, it’s probably a better idea to focus on my vision and high-level idea first to see if it makes sense overall.

Because, as soon as I start diving deep into a UX design tool, my attention could easily be taken away by all the user interface details that I can play around with, such as colors, sizes, typography, white spaces, iconography, images, videos and so on.

The fact that it’s a spreadsheet meant for numbers somehow seems to offload my desire and obligation to make it look good as I would when using any design/prototyping tools. It’s an interesting psychological effect.

This approach works great even for non-designers too, such as product managers, product owners, business owners, entrepreneurs, and engineers.

Because Google Sheets is a simple spreadsheet, most people know how to use it. And it’s free.

Google Sheets allows anyone to freely mock up their ideas into a simple low-fidelity prototype without visual distractions and having to worry about learning how to use fancier UX prototyping tools. I found it quite useful.

This article was also published on Medium in UX Collective.

Check out YouTube version too!

For prototype related articles, check out these too:

#31 Macbook damaged keyboard – what happened later (2020)

Simplified illustration of Macbook Pro keyboard with damaged key silkscreening

In one of my previous articles, I talked about my disappointment with my MacBook Pro damaged keyboard. I have a follow-up story on this.

Damaged keys on my Macbook Pro.

Previously I was assuming that I would probably have to pay if I were to replace damaged keys because the initial 1 year warranty period has passed.

This was not only based only my assumption but actually one of Apple store person that I talked to before confirmed at  the time.

The other day, I had a chance to go to Apple store for a Genius Bar appointment for some other reasons. I casually asked about my MacBook keyboard problem.

To my surprise, the Apple store staff said that they can replace damaged keys up to 5 keys!

So I made another Genius Bar appointment few days later.

When I showed my MacBook Pro to a Genius Bar staff and mentioned that I was previously told by another staff that they could replace damaged keys up to 5 keys without charging.

he said “OK, let me replace all the damaged keys.” after examining my MacBook.

20 minutes later, he came back with my MacBook, with the keyboard looking good! He said, “OK, so I replaced all the 14 keys that were damaged.”

Wow, what a surprise!

And I asked, “So this is all free of charge?”

He said, “yes”

Me: so as I mentioned, this never happened to my older 17 inch MacBook. Why is this happening to this newer MacBook?

Here are what he mentioned:

15″ MacBook has thinner keys compared to 17″ MacBook.

So this newer MacBook has a lot thinner keys compared to older ones.

Layered structure of MacBook keys

Each key is fully transparent when not painted so that the backlit LED shines through. 

Then you put a white layer on it. 

Finally on top of that, you put another layer with silkscreening of black with letter shape cutout so that the letter shows up in white.

Because of this 3 layer structure,  when the keyboard is heavily used, it wears off the top black layer, exposing the 2nd layer which is white.

His assumption is that because now that the entire key is thinner, each 3 layer might be also thinner, which might be the reason why this is happening more often compared to the older MacBook which had thicker keys, probably with thicker layers too.

He said that he has a 10 years of experience at Apple Store.

His explanation made sense, and I was very satisfied with how he replaced all the damaged keys of my MacBook.

I didn’t expect this to happen, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Which is why I wanted to make another video to give a clear statement and a shoutout to how Apple Store treated me with good care.

Now the question still remains.

I know that my 15 inch MacBook is definitely a lot  thinner and slicker compared to my older 17 inch MacBook.

It’s definitely a lot lighter,  so its easy to carry around so that I can take it with me to anywhere. It’s great.

But if this slickness, thinness and portability is realized at the expense of “easier to wear off keyboards” that is constantly at the risk of getting messy, I wonder if that’s worth or not.

Maybe my typing or way of handling the keyboard applied more pressure than needed which might have caused the keyboard to wear off faster.

I don’t know.

But I’m curious if Apple collected this kind of information from customers.

This type of issues require longer time period to fully observe and evaluate.

Maybe we already live in such a high-paced consumerism that companies and customers don’t care much about using one particular tech product for a long period of time because a newer product always comes out with faster performance, cheaper price, and better features so you just upgrade anyway?

It reminds me of things like mobile phone battery that dies immediately after the warranty expires, or a major car components start to break after  the 3 year warranty.

It also reminded me of Apple a few years ago that admitted that certain iPhone models had their batteries performance went down significantly after a certain period of time.

They ended up launching a special program to replace such iPhones’ batteries for free.

In a way, we are all trapped in this industry cycle, that we have to upgrade our devices to the latest ones in order to be on top of the technology trend, or in order to keep up with the highest productivity level to stay competitive as professionals?

One thousand dollar mobile phone must have sounded ridiculous in late 90s. But somehow it became a norm.

I still use iPhone 8 in the year 2020, and yes, it works perfectly fine! Because I’m a UX designer, so I feel like I always have to upgrade my phone to the latest.

But at the same time, I question this whole “have to upgrade” mentality and trend that we all have somehow blindly adopted without having a deeper thinking whether we really need it or not.

Check out YouTube version too!

#29 Delightful OOBE from a boring home product

Bunkie board by Zinus, a photo of the product vs. assembly instruction manual.
A product image of Zinus Gulzar Easy Assembly Quick Lock 1.6 Inch Bunkie Board / Bed Slat Replacement
Zinus Gulzar Easy Assembly Quick Lock 1.6 Inch Bunkie Board / Bed Slat Replacement (Source: Zinus)

I bought a 47 dollar bunkie board made by Zinus.  Bunkie Board is a frame you put under a mattress of your bed to prevent the mattress to sag in the middle for a better, healthier sleep. It’s nothing special, just a boring home product, right? Which is why it caught me with a nice unexpected surprise when I unpacked the product and went through its Out-Of-Box-Experience (OOBE).

Besides the actual product which comes in pieces to be assembled, below are OOBE components that greeted me when I opened a box.

An overview of OOBE components of Zinus Bunkie Board
OOBE components of Zinus Bunkie Board

1. An envelope with a thank you message 

A photo of thank you message on a slip-off band and an envelope
Thank you message appears on a slip-off band when you open an envelope

When you open a dark green envelope, a thank you message comes out. Interesting thing is that it is printed on a slip-off band that wraps around three cards. The message has a nice casual touch. The message explains that because they don’t want to waste materials including their thank you card, they printed their message on a slip-off band rather than on a card itself, so that the actual cards (three of them) can be used as regular cards by a customer to send to friends and family for whatever later occasion.

A photo of three blank cards
Three blank cards you can use for later occasions

2. Hardware Kits

A photo of a hardware kits
Hardware kits: easy to see and count

All the screws are packaged in pairs so that it’s easy to see and count how many. It’s also nice that the spare parts are clearly labeled as spare. An Allen wrench is included too.

A photo of an another hex wrench included in a package
Another hex wrench included in a package

The OOBE package also includes this tool, which is a hex wrench of some sort, in addition to a typical Allen wrench mentioned above. I used the Allen wrench during the assembly, and did not use this tool. But it’s a nice gesture.

3. Instruction manual — overview and components

The instruction manual was the best part. While thank you message and cards are definitely a nice touch, the core user experience of the product OOBE is assembling Bunkie Board itself. Therefore, this is the most important thing.

A photo of an instruction manual: overview and components
Instruction manual: overview and components

The instruction manual starts with an overview diagram above. It clearly shows how to place frames in which orientation, and in which particular order to assemble. This is actually quite useful so that you can absolutely make sure to place all the parts in right orientations in right positions relative to each other so that you don’t end up assembling parts the wrong way or the wrong orientation. It seems so simple and straightforward, but there are many hardware products that don’t have as clear instruction as this.

Right underneath the overview diagram, you see Components, which describes all the components needed to assemble the product. Illustrations of components are fairly accurate, both in terms of the shapes and relative size with each other (except the Allen wrench and the screw of course!),which is helpful. 

Again, you come across quite a few hardware products with inaccurate technical illustrations on their instruction manuals. When you come across such inaccuracy, sometimes you can immediately tell that it was done purely from production efficiency purposes such as slightly different models with different shapes sharing exactly the same instruction manuals with generic illustrations that may not look like the product you purchased.

Assembly instruction

When I started assembling with the step 1, it was super-clear because the numbering system on the assembly instruction was consistently carried through to the actual components too. As you can see in the assembly instruction and pictures below, the actual components had numbering stickers, so that you can make sure to match the same numbers to screw those together.

A photo of an assembly instruction: step 1–4
Assembly instruction: step 1–4
Photos showing numbering stickers on components: step 1 and 2
Numbering stickers on components: step 1 and 2
A photo of an assembly instruction: step 5–10.
Assembly instruction: step 5–10
Left: a photo of the numbering on components — step 5, Right: a photo of how parts D fit into the slits of part B (Source: Zinus)
Left: numbering on components — step 5, Right: How parts D fit into the slits of part B (Source: Zinus)

It’s kind of similar to IKEA furnitures in terms of its instruction manual that shows you how to assemble products. But from my perspective, this was done much better, a lot easier and clearer to understand so that you don’t make mistakes. From my past experience, IKEA instruction manuals are sometimes a bit confusing especially when you have similar parts not accurately drawn in illustrations. Also, IKEA instruction manuals have almost no instruction texts, so you have to reply on illustrations only. On the other hand, Zinus Bunkie Board has a better, clearer instruction diagrams, and more accurate illustrations overall with text descriptions if needed.

Another thing that I liked about this product is that it was very well built when considering the price tag ($47). I felt this especially when I inserted all the thirteen “D” parts into slits of “B” parts. (see picture on above-right). Every parts fit perfectly into the slits.

Sure, this is a simple product. How can it go wrong? 

But because it’s a simple product, its assembly should be super-clear and super-simple. What I documented here may not seem anything spectacular or magical. Yes, everything is very straightforward. It may seem that it’s a no brainer to make something like this. That’s the beauty, when something is very well thought-out and manufactured, so that everything feels right. 

But the fact and reality that there are so many products out there that don’t have its OOBE as simple and clear as this tell me that it is actually quite hard to do what it seems so easy to achieve on paper.

And this type of experience — the one that seems so simple and gives you a pleasant experience without anything too fancy — is what we as UX designers should aim for in whichever products or services we design.

Check out another article on Starbucks free reusable cup, which was also about an unexpected delight from a boring product.

#27 How do you overcome being seen as “not enough experience” when applying for a UX position?

Job posting for an entry-level UX designer says you are required to have 2-3 year work experience.

Many UX beginners struggle that a lot of entry-level UX positions already require 2-3 year work experience.

How do you overcome applying for entry-level job positions that require 2-3 year of work experience when you just graduated from college, or if you don’t have such work experience?

So the field of UX has been attracting so many people from all the different fields. 

As soon as you start applying for a job, you will confront this.

Hiring managers and recruiters ask you:

“What kind of work experience do you have?”

And lot of times, you will hear them telling you that,

“You don’t have enough experience”.

And you wonder, how can I possibly already have work experience when I just graduated from a college?

Hiring managers and recruiters are looking to fill in open positions in their companies with someone who can directly function from day 1. Lot of the time, the hiring side is in a desperate business need to fill in an open position to get their business going. This means that they have no time to hire someone with no experience, because that means they need to train and educate that new person. This is a significant investment, that they want to avoid.

Which is why, hiring managers and recruiters will focus on candidates’ work experiences and portfolios as concrete proofs.

So what do all these mean to you?

This means you need to understand this reality, and plan ahead.

While you are still in college, you should do the followings:

1. Try to do internships as much as possible.

Most colleges offer internship opportunities. This is a great way to get an early exposure to the real world, and get a chance to work on real world projects while you are still in college, so that you can put those projects in your portfolio.

If the internship goes really well, you might even get an offer for a full-time position once you graduate.

2. Try to set your school project in a real world context

Instead of working on pure, imaginary project, try to find a real client such as a local non-profit organization that you can work with for your school project. 

This works great because…

  • It turns your school project into a real world project, solving a real user’s problem
  • The whole process of you finding an organization, making a pitch to them, and working through problems with them will be a great experience for you, which could make a great case study to be put in your portfolio. 

3. Continuously work on your own UX projects

If you cannot find an organization to work with as described in #2, you can still work on your own UX projects. Even if you are able to do #2, I would still suggest you work on your own UX projects to continuously build up your experience.

Instead of working on a generic “redesign of existing popular website or app”, try to find a specific problem, and focus on solving that specific problem.

When you work on your own UX project, treat it as if it’s a real project.

Go through a whole cycle of: 

  1. Define a problem
  2. Research on competitive products that solve similar problems
  3. Develop concepts
  4. Test your concepts with users
  5. Iterate your design based on learnings from the user test

For more details on how to work on your own UX project, check out my other article.

Also, check out my another article on why you need two portfolios.

If you start working on these three from early on when you are still in college, you will be in a much better position once you graduate and are ready to apply for jobs.

Being a UX designer is a journey of continuous learning.

In order to gain experience, you need to keep working on UX projects. That’s the only way, and the best way to learn and grow as a UX designer.

If you can do all these three, and put these in form of a case study, or an in-depth process walkthrough as part of your portfolio, your portfolio becomes a concrete proof that you have experience, and you can deliver concrete results.

The only way to overcome being seen as “not enough experience” is to prove yourself that you can actually deliver by showing them your tangible output in form of a portfolio.

Keep working hard, enjoy the whole process. Good luck!

Check out YouTube version too.