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User Feedback – why is it important?

There is something that I noticed while designing web apps and user experiences. The client sometimes has particular requests about what font to use, what images and colors, and how the interactions should happen.

And if I probe why do they want things to be done like that, I most of the time get the answer that this is how they like it.

In a way, it makes sense. It is your site, your brand, and it should represent what you stand for and show your brand’s personality.

But when you are offering a service, and you want to help your visitors achieve something, you need to put their needs above your desire to have the website a specific way.

Your visitors expect to read your site easily. They expect a button to look like a button. And a clickable link to obviously be a clickable link. It would help if you found a balance between being familiar and being unique. If you go all the way on the “unique” side, your visitors will be very confused by your offer and wander someplace else. So this very distinct design is not really serving your customers, is it?

What is a better way to go about this?

You can ask your visitors for feedback and listen to what they have to say. If they find it challenging to make use of your offer, you need to change that, even if it’s something you like a lot about your web site.

You also need to ask more people, not just one. How many more? It depends on the size of your business, but the more you can ask, the more reliable the data becomes. And then, you can build a design that both showcases your brand and what is unique about it but also serves your customers in a way that they expect and understand.

I know this is not always easy. I’ve been guilty of this approach myself, many, many times in the past. I was blinded by how “elegant” I thought my solution was that I disregarded the feedback that showed it was not working for my potential customers.

If your web presence is just a way to express yourself, your art, your ideas, then it’s OK to break the rules and do something “crazy.” Just know that serves your need to express and bee seen. But if you want to provide a service, the marketplace will quickly teach you a lesson, when very few people engage with your content, because it is too hard, or too different.

In today’s world, it is easy to create a website where you can have both worlds: customer-centered and another that is “self-expression” centered. And they can both work together and support each other. But now your audience has a choice. Do they want to explore the new, edgy thing, or they want to benefit from the offer that will serve them quickly?

In conclusion: ask for feedback from your user! And be grateful for the feedback you get, especially if it’s “not good,” because it points you to things you can change that may lead to dramatic improvement of engagement with your offerings.  

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face

The quote in the title belongs to Mike Tyson. And while I don’t condone violence of any kind, there is a lot of truth to that quote!

I read his quote in a business book a few days ago, and it was one of those things that have an after kick. Only after I got to the next page, I started to laugh at the very graphic explanation of an unexpected big surprise, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. 

Why was this so funny to me? 

It is funny because I am a big fan of plans and lists and thinking ahead and having a strategy. 

But more often than not, something happened along the way (the so-called “punch in the face”) that threw my plan out the window. It does not look funny in the moment, but looking back, it is pretty amusing. 

So what is the connection with web applications? 

To understand, let us look at another useful quote, the Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will!

This quote is a more pessimistic view of something that is statistically true: “If anything can happen, it will happen.” It does not matter if it’s good or bad, but since the bad one hurts, that’s what got captured in Murphy’s law. 

When you build a web application, you do your best to plan, to foresee potential problems, and avoid the common pitfalls. The more experience you have, the better your plan is, and the more future problems you can avoid. 

But here is the kicker: no matter your expertise, if something can happen, it will. And since there is no such thing as a perfect product, the inevitable will happen sooner or later. A surprise that does not fit into your carefully crafted plan. 

This idea is not an excuse to stop caring and stop delivering excellence. It is just a word of caution that humbling experiences await you/me in the future :).

The reason I enjoy Tyson’s quote more is because of the visceral feel to it. I rely heavily on planning and my past experience, so when the rug is swept from under my feet, that scares me. I have always managed to recover, eventually, but still, I am not looking forward to the unpleasant experience of free falling. 

However, I am told there is another way. And that is “falling with grace.” Accept that you cannot foresee everything and that the unexpected will hit you, and you will fall. But you can learn to fall with style, to fall forward, and to bounce back. 

My plan to deal with the unexpected is to have backups, a cash reserve that can come to the rescue of the project, and always keep in mind that: if something can happen, it will! I should add to that more practice in falling :D.

New Normal – Collaboration Tools – Asana

As I wrote in a previous post, the remote collaboration will become the “new normal,” so you might as well get comfortable with the tools. 

I bring up again the resistance to change. Know it is there, say “hello” to it, and then persist anyway. There are gems and diamonds on the other side! (And cookies if you like sweets).

Bribing aside, you can find dozens of tutorials on how to use Asana, so let’s instead dive into this question: “why bother?”

The challenges of “self-management”

School, and the first jobs I had, taught me to be obedient and to follow orders. This habit meant that someone else had to do the planning, issue the requests, and track the progress. 

When I broke off, on my own, choosing my projects and collaborators did not mean that I instantly knew how to self manage! Quite the opposite!

I was anxious that nobody was telling me what to do and when to do it. I perceived this responsibility as a burden. (spoiler alert – it is, in fact, great freedom, but it took me a while to wake up to that).

I began by writing my thoughts and things to do on pieces of paper. That worked so well for the first few days until I realized I was losing the pieces of paper, or some of the messages were no longer making sense because they had no context. (I had on a piece of paper this note in big, bold letters: “Very Important: 5“. To this day, I don’t know what was so important about that five.)

Next, I moved my notes to the computer. Each project had a “TO-DO.txt” file where I would write my tasks, and log my progress. This file worked well for many years. And I still use it today for small projects. With larger projects, it was getting more and more difficult to scan the file to see what is “done” what “needs to be done” and what is the deadline for each item. 

And there was another problem. I was continually checking that I did not miss anything from what I promised I would do and that I would deliver on time. This monitoring would crowd my attention by keeping mental track of dates and features and promises. Not much room left for creative thinking. 

I looked for a solution. I knew from the start that it had to be online. Why? Because I did not want to carry my computer with me to check on things. Ideally, I would log into a website and have everything there, accessible from wherever I have an internet connection.

The right tool for the job

I tested a couple of things, and the tool I like the most was Asana.

First of all, it has a free tier that has everything that I need. 

Second, it has an excellent design that makes sense. Think of it as an advanced “TO DO” list manager. That means you can easily add items; you can check them off as done; you can immediately see what still needs your attention.

These reasons were great, but what sold it to me was the feature to add “comments” for each item. I did not even know that I was missing this feature. Comments became essential for complex tasks, where I had to do research and keep track of my findings and have all that information connected with the relevant “to-do item.” A long text file with notes would become so hart to read that it would be useless. But items with their own set of comments, now that is very easy to digest at any time. 

The second thing was the reminders! When you set a deadline for a specific item, you will be emailed a few days in advance that you need to take care of that item. Now, I could relax and free my memory from all the dates and deadlines and allow the software to do that for me, knowing that I will not miss anything. 

The final reason is why I put this into the “collaborative tools” section. You can add more people into a project, share your list of items, add comments, and complete tasks. You no longer have to write emails working out with collaborators what needs to be done. Instead, you can assign a task to someone with two clicks, and they will get notified about it. A follow up to the email problem is that you can keep all the discussion next to the task, so you don’t have to search for an old email.

For a team (and even a solo project), this tool adds clarity! I have discovered that when you are clear on what needs to be done, it is much easier to build the confidence and the motivation to actually do it. 

In Conclusion: choose a small project and give Asana a go. Don’t just read this post and decide, but actually test it out and then decide if this can improve your workflow by freeing your mind to focus on the creative things and not project tracking. Look at this as an investment in yourself and your team.

Automation with Zapier

What do you value most? I hope that your answer is: “TIME.” 

Time is our most valuable resource because it is non-renewable. Wasted time is lost forever. And it could be argued that the reason we work so hard is to have enough resources. Resources that will allow us to spend more time doing the activities that we enjoy: activities like following your dreams, working on your business, spending more time with friends and family. 

I don’t know of any better time-saver in the online environment than automation.

Automation means to identify and formalize processes for the flows that make your business work and then use various tools to set them on “automatic.” This way, they can work even when you are not paying attention. It is like having an employee that is almost free and never sleeps or rests. 

In today’s world, the leading tool for automation online is Zapier

The idea behind Zapier is quite simple and yet profound because of the market they are speaking to. 

What happens is that in the online world of business, you have your website, your store, your payment gateway, customer engagement, webinar, emails, and so on. All these components need to talk to each other. What used to happen before, is that you, as the business owner would have to create and manually maintain this communication, usually based on email notifications you would get from various systems. 

The alternative was to hire someone to do it for you or hire a developer to write a custom program that would automate these processes. Both options could get pretty expensive.

There has been a shift in the past few years. Each of these services exposes an API. This API allows them to talk to each other in a clear and standardized way. With this option available, you would need somebody to integrate these APIs. To connect them in ways that make sense for your business. 

Here in comes Zapier! The beauty of it is that they have put together a platform that allows non-developers to visually express their processes and to connect all these components in a way that makes sense. This flow is testable (which is very important, you want to make sure that your automation works as intended), and you have analytics and an overview of what is happening.

There is a free tier for Zapier, but I want to get into the paid one because I think that is where the power is. You may shy away from paying them the monthly fee. So let’s explore that a bit. 

The way to think about choosing a paid plan is to make a business decision. Would paying Zapier a monthly free enough time and generate enough sales to cover for the costs and then some?

If you get their $20/mo plan, you need to only generate an extra $20/mo in sales for this option to make sense to you. But not only that. Also, consider the free time you now have to do something else, and how much you value that. Consider the money you would spend on a developer to set this up for you and then have it maintained. (By the way, I am not an affiliate for Zapier, I am just using them as an example to talk about automation)

In conclusion, we live in exciting times, where with a bit of patience and thinking through your processes, you can build your website and connect the required components with no need for a developer if you use a tool like Zapier. And this excites me because it enables even more people to express their creativity cost-effectively!

If you are reading this and you are a developer, then seriously consider exposing and API for your services and products and have them seamlessly integrate with Zapier. 

Conversions versus Beauty

As a designer, or even as a client, you are thinking of starting a new project, and you need to begin your UI design. 

And you’re thinking: it has to be modern, it has to be beautiful, it has to be exciting, it has to evoke these feelings and then from the infinite number of possibilities you need to choose something that will be your design. 

This can be daunting, and it may not actually serve you. And I confess I had made this mistake in the past a lot! I would learn new fancy ways to do something, and then I would use it everywhere because, drum rolls, I knew how! That is an excellent way to learn and practice your craft, but it is a terrible way to think about design. 

When I began working in projects that had a real business behind them, it became evident that once the design was done, other questions would come to the fore:

– how many visitors do we have

– out of those, how many became leads (subscribers)?

– out of those, how many purchased a product? 

– and out of those, how many become huge fans or joined the mastermind groups? 

These questions have something in common. They are not about esthetics, they are about numbers, and specifically about conversion rates: how much of X turned into Y? 

Now I start all the projects with these questions before even considering the design!

Who is supposed to use this website, and what for? And once I have an answer, what kind of action do I want my audience to take when they interact with my site? How will I measure that? And how do I maximize that? 

The answers to these questions will limit my design choices. And that is a good thing because fewer choices increase the chance of making the “right choice!”. If you go too crazy with your design, users will not be able to relate to it. If you are the same, then why should a client choose you? You need to find the sweet spot! Something that the potential customers can relate to, but that is also customized to serve their needs. 

This means you will need to choose specific fonts, certain colors, and image themes that will be dictated by your target audience and not by what you think “is beautiful.” 

If you are a designer and you need to make a choice, ask yourself: will this bring me closer to my conversion goals or not (pretty comes second).

And if you are a client, be very careful when you ask for a change because your brother does not like the colors, or you don’t like green. If you build something to serve an audience, then their preferences matter over yours. 

Of course, every decision you make can be wrong. You can make informed assumptions about your audience, read the studies about how color influences people and how the font face can make you look serious or playful, but you can still be wrong and not meet the conversion rates you were aiming for. This does not mean you have failed, it means you need to adapt.

An excellent way to adapt is to use A/B testing. I am still studying this concept myself, and it looks like a powerful way to reach “DDD” which is Data-Driven Design, versus “Beauty Driven Design” (which is a polite way to say “Guess Driven Design”). 

My challenge with A/B testing so far is that you need to have a broad test audience to be able to safely conclude that one variant of the test is definitely better than the other and by how much. If you’re into statistics, you’ll love this, and you can do the math yourself! If you are not, choose your testing tool wisely to avoid running meaningless tests with results that are not actually relevant. 

A case study is the website PenguinMagic. When I first looked at it, my design eye judged it as ugly and imaged someone lost their money paying for that. But I have learned that this “ugly design” converts for the people it is addressed to. Believe it or not, this is a multi-million dollar business. They made the clear choice of conversions over beauty!

How about your web project? Do you have goals for it? Are they conversion goals or “being pretty” goals? 

And finally, if you can recommend a useful A/B testing resource, I’d love to read more about it. 

The Importance of the Value Conversation

All too often, when a person contacts you for a job, you’re eager to say yes and get started! 

I now know that this is backward. 

Instead of being eager to get started, the first step should be to determine if you and the potential new client are a good fit. 

They have money to spend, and you need the work, so you are a perfect match, right? Well, not so fast! 

Here is what is going to happen if you and your client are not a good fit:

– communication will not be clear

– because of communication issues, the scope of the project will not be clear

– because the scope will not be clear what you will deliver will be all over the place

– customer will not be happy, will ask for endless changes

– you realize that what you get paid does not even cover the costs to have this project delivered

– you will be resentful and being to doubt your career choice

Sounds familiar?

At the beginning of a transaction, the only power you have is to say “NO,” so don’t give that up with a quick “YES.” 

Instead, try to dissuade this person from working with you. This way, you get out all of the objections from the start. 

Why did they call you specifically? Why didn’t they go to our competitors? Do they realize that you are likely the most expensive option they have? 

These questions will uncover some fascinating information that you wish you knew before you started the project. 

If they are still talking to you, they clearly value your expertise over your competitors, and they understand that you will not do cheap work. If they are not talking to you anymore, realize you were not a good fit, and you were able to determine this in minutes instead of months.

Now it is time to determine what kind of value you can create for your customer. 

The vital thing to notice here that I said “determine value,” and not “solution.” We are not thinking of solutions yet. And for me, this was a big aha moment. 

Unless you know what is valuable for your potential client, you will end up creating stuff that is mediocre in their eyes, or “OK” at best.

Another distinction to be made here is to understand that sometimes you will be talking with someone who will spend not their money, but their bosses money. And in that case, the question if their mind is: “will my boss approve of this and like me more or not?

Ask a lot of questions, take notes, and reflect back to them what you understood they value about what they want to achieve. 

Example: creating a website is not a “value goal.” Asking more profound questions, you may learn they have a product they want to promote and eventually sell. And today, there are ways to get into that without having to have a website. The solution you will end up offering will be very different than what they asked before. And you only know this because you asked about value first and only then you thought of solutions. 

But there is another less obvious benefit for having the value conversation. You will take notes, and you will agree to deliver on the value points discussed. So when you ship your project, they will be delighted with the result, or you will have to show them how the solution meets all the agreed-upon value points. And even if they “don’t like it” for whatever reason, if it delivers the value you agreed on, then you kept your promise, and now it’s time for them to keep theirs.

And a trustworthy business or one that delights gets referrals. Everybody wins! 

Credit where credit is due: These ideas are a shameless steal from Blair Enns – Win With Pitching. I sincerely believe that the more businesses adopt the value discussion midset, we will all be better off. We will charge more for our services, but the client will be happy to pay because they get the value they were looking for, and now that is crystal clear to them. 

I am ending with a quote from Seth Godin: 

“Yes, you will pay more, but you’ll get more than you paid for.”

Get to know your tools

I think we can agree that time is a non-renewable resource. You cannot make back lost time. 

So it would make sense to maximize doing what inspires you and minimize tasks that feel like chores. One way to do that is to delegate, but in today’s world, there is another option: automation and better tools. 

The availability of better tools is not always easy to see or even to put in practice, because there is an emotional cost of trying something new, of letting go of how things used to work. 

Children seem very comfortable living in this space of not knowing and being curious. Still, most adults find the same space very uncomfortable, maybe because we associate it with feelings of incompetence. 

But once you become aware of this, you can choose to ask yourself: “Is the way I’ve always done this, the best way forward? Or is time to change?”

Let’s take WordPress as an example. It is trendy for its ease of use. There is a plethora of themes and plugins that allow non-technical people to create beautiful and sophisticated websites. But this does not mean that you will install WordPress and a theme, and in 10 minutes, you will be an expert in building websites. Yes, it is easy to use, but a different kind of easy. It means you don’t have to learn to code or to think like a programmer or do deal with complicated network protocols and fallback mechanisms. But it still means you need to learn to play with your toys. Those cubes won’t stack themselves into something interesting. You have to play. 

It is surprising to me how many people install a “drag-and-drop” builder on their site and then just create a massive text block with some colors in it that makes no use of the power of the new builder. 

Here is how I think about a new tool:

1. I decide based on recommendations from others and what I can glean from their marketing if this is a tool that may help me speed things along.

2. Once I’ve made up my mind that I will use this tool, I want to get close to mastering it. The reason is that a tool you don’t know will not speed things along; it will slow you down. So yes, in the beginning, you will “waste time,” creating silly pages, breaking them, and maybe pulling your hair out, but give it a few tries, and a light bulb goes off in your head. You now understand how your tool works, and you begin constructing instead of stumbling around.

3. To speed up the road to mastery, I have a simple strategy. I do specific Google searches that will help with deep learning. Those searches are:

– “the best features of [your tool]” – get to know why this tool is powerful and how it can help you

– “[your tool] vs [some other tool]” – side by side comparison helps your brain organize and remember the information better. Especially if you know one of the tools. “Oh, this is like my old online store… but better in this specific way! Got it!

– “top ten mistakes when using [your tool]” – let’s be honest; if they are top 10 mistakes, it is likely I am going to make them. So, I try to make different mistakes and learn from the common ones. This approach is good with learning because understanding why common mistakes are common helps you understand how to think about using your tool correctly. We make most mistakes because we don’t use a tool in the way it was designed to be used. (You can fry an egg with a hammer, and it may taste delicious… but that will be a long and frustrating experience. Blaming the hammer for being broken won’t help). 

– “master [your tool]” – this is the last search I do, because what you find assumes you are a pro, and you’re ready to look into more advanced use cases.

This kind of research can take from one hour to a couple of days, but then you can build your pages with blazing fast accuracy, and if something gets broken, you know why and how to fix it. 

Tip: When doing these searches, you will stumble on new terminology. Don’t skip over it. Make sure you understand what they mean. It is a process of discovery that will uncover many gems that you did not even know you were looking for.

4. Subscribe to your tool’s newsletter – this is just to keep up to date with the development of it. There is a caveat here, too many emails to read will not do you good. If you don’t get fantastic value from their newsletter, drop it.

In the end, I challenge you to question “common wisdom and practices” and come up with something better:

– build for desktop first and fix it on mobile – instead of building for mobile and then add layout for the desktop

– we need meetings to move forward and sync up – instead of using an async tool like Slack to share updates, ideas, and track progress 

– I don’t have time to learn new things – instead of learning new things will save me time in the long run

– I am too old/tired/young for this – instead of I am curious about this

Go build something interesting!

Can I get some time back, please?

I am bored, and I want to kill some time! Let’s binge watch Netflix or YouTube!

I used to think like that in the past. But in the last few years, I don’t remember a time when I could get bored! 

There are so many things I would like to do, to explore, to learn, to create! So many things… and so little time. How can you get bored?

When I look at where does boredom come from, for me, it had to do with something that I did not care for: like learning in school about a subject that was not interesting to me or having to do chores around the home. Then I would get bored. 

How does this apply to web apps?

Sooner or later, you will have this realization. No matter how much money you make, you cannot buy more time or lost time. You can lose money, and you can make more money. But lost time remains lost.

Once I had this understanding paying for coaching and mentors and specialists made much more sense. I was living with the illusion that I have an infinite amount of time. That I can do it all by myself, that I don’t need help, that I can eventually learn! But that is so very slow! 

If you do enjoy learning, then, by all means, do that in some areas of your life. But when it comes to realizing your goals, it is much more efficient to pay for help. You cannot buy more time, that is true, but you can use the money to save some of the time you got.

Get a coach, find a mentor, hire a specialist. And if you can, outsource the tasks that are boring for you. 

A note about outsourcing 

It was challenging for me to imagine that someone else might want to do the thing that I am bored with. But I have discovered two things:

– some people still prefer to trade their time for money, even if they don’t like the job (and if you need to keep the lights on, I understand, do what you need to do)

– and, more interestingly, some people find boring the things that I do with excitement and gusto (like dealing with complex online systems) 

I am glad we are all different; we each enjoy different things. This diversity means we can collaborate in projects where we do what inspires us, so we don’t feel like we are wasting our time, but we are fully living our lives instead.

Spend your time wisely!

Working from Home – Choose to embrace it

I didn’t plan to write about current events, but maybe this will help. 

I have made the transition to work from home a long time ago. The fact that I decided to do that and was not forced to do it, I am sure helped, but here are some things that I have learned that I would like to share with you.

I am also going to assert that you care about your work, and you want to continue, instead of merely taking time off now that “nobody is watching.” 

Your working Space

You need to have your distraction-free working space. It helps you with the discipline of “going to your office” every day. 

Your working Mode

Now that you work from home, you may be tempted to binge-eat while you work, to stay in your PJs, browse the YouTube, and latest news. Don’t do that. It will mess up with your focus and with your ability to do something productive for the day. 

As time passes and you get more disciplined, your working mode may include PJs and peanuts, but don’t start with that. Continue to “dress for success.” All of this is more of a “mind game” than anything.

Do not overwhelm yourself

The home office is a big change. Most humans don’t generally like change. The outside world is also going crazy. Be honest with yourself. Your energy and your ability to focus is not the same as it was before this change. Don’t overcrowd your workday. You are only setting yourself up for disappointment and burnout. 

There are many ways to do time management, but that I would suggest for this time is “the promise for today.” This way, you promise to do one important thing that can be done in a day and you do it. Yes, I said “ONE” (not ten). But I also said “important.” Trust me, drip by drip, you will make steady progress instead of burnout after burnout. 

Take care of your body.

It’s common sense, but let’s make it common practice. Drink water, take some pauses to stretch and walk around, look in the distance to relax your eyes, or better yet close them for a few minutes. This time is not an excuse to get out of working mode and binge on distractions. 

There is a tech solution for almost everything.

I don’t know what your work involves, but there is likely an app, a service, a new way of using technology to help you work from home. From remote access to files, to voice over IP, to Zoom calls and screen sharing, find your tools that can help. It can be done. If you don’t know how to do it, ask for help. Asking for help does not make you an idiot; it makes you efficient. 

We are all in this together.

It can get lonely when you work from home. Setup video calls with your team, even if only for 5 minutes after lunch. Call a friend for a “one on one – how are you doing conversation.”

But most of all, be compassionate and patient. The person at the other end of the line, computer, phone, service is in the same situation as you. They also are going through a big change, they also have family members to worry about, they are also concerned about the unknown future. Humanity first, business second. 

Keep positive

I am a strong believer in keeping your immune system in high gear. Stress can affect it dramatically, so stay positive as best as you can. Take things one day at a time. Make room for humor and play in your work. And when you are done working, I invite you to help another. You may have skills that are needed, knowledge than can be shared, but also a smile, a warm hug, or a deep “I see you” connection can go a very long way. 

“Live long and prosper!”

The Importance of Architecture and following best practices

As a young programmer, I was eager to dive in and get my fingers dirty as quickly as possible—no need for a plan or a direction. I knew I could figure it out as I went.

Fast forward some years, add higher project complexity over a more extended period, and the lesson became clear: sometimes if you want to run for long, you need to run slower and have a plan!

Figuring it out as I went worked fine for one-day projects or one-week prototypes. But when bigger projects came my way, I got to a point where I could not remember anymore what my initial think was, where was I headed and why, and how to present my idea to new members on the team.

Although nobody likes to write documentation, I began to make a habit out of it, and I knew it would come a day when I will thank myself! By now that day has happened many times 🙂

What would I tell my younger self?

Writing docs and making plans is not sexy, and in general, your clients do not care for them. They need working software, not documentation. But if the project is longer than six months, a few problems will begin to crop up:

– you forget why you took the decisions you made with the initial design

– if you will need to refactor your code, and if it is not well documented (and if it lacks automated testing) the job of refactoring will take a long time, and you run a high risk of breaking functionality

– by using best practices, you future proof your code – you make sure that you at least don’t make the same mistakes that others made before you. You will make new ones, for sure, but your overall code will be much more stable, easier to maintain, and upgrade.

In conclusion, there is a time to be quick and messy (when you are prototyping), but then you need to slow down and think things through.